Feb 122015

rorty-pragmatism-3I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been getting progressively more precious about my writing here. Every word feels so consequential that I struggle to get things down — the way they were, the way they are, and the way I want them to be.

Lately, more often than not, I don’t hit ‘publish.’ I’m not ready, not (entirely) for emotional reasons, but for intellectual ones. I don’t understand things, I don’t like the way they’re still bouncing around in my head, and I’m not ready to commit them to the permanent record because they’re fragmentary, unfinished, and disorganized. But why does it matter?

In part, it’s because I’m self-centered and in possession of (perhaps possessed by) an overthinky brain. But also, what I write here is important because making sense of the thoughts in my head and putting them into language is how I understand myself — because these words are all that I am.

My words aren’t just all I am to you, but my words are all I am. Full stop.

The extended self, which is what we normally think of when we think about ourselves, is really a story. It’s the story of what’s happened to the body over time.
PAUL BROKS, Ph.D., Neuropsychologist

Sure, the story we tell others is important — it’s how we construct our identities to those around us. But more importantly, the stories we tell inside our own heads, the stories we tell ourselves are what create (and recreate) our sense of self. And it’s not a static thing — it’s happening all the time.

Language is an ongoing information processing. It’s a constant reminder: I am, this is my name, this is all the data related to me, these are my likes & dislikes, these are my beliefs, I am an individual, I’m a single, I am a solid, I’m separate from you…
JILL BOLTE TAYLOR, Ph.D. Neuroanatomist

Because language is “ongoing information processing,” my sense of self is constantly being written and rewritten in language I choose (consciously or otherwise) to create my own understanding of myself and the world around me. Committing that language to written text — writing it all down here — is important because I’m writing my story. I’m writing my reality. I’m writing myself.

V.S. Ramachandran, Ph.D. (Director of the Center for the Brain and Cognition, Distinguished Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program, University of California, San Diego) suggests “the evolution of introspective consciousness” is what separates us from other animals. Half a million years ago, humans evolved to be able to take information about the material world into our heads, divide it up into “tokens,” and turn those tokens into abstractions (separately or in combination).

We gather knowledge about the material world through the human senses, we process it through language (written, visual, symbolic, etc.), and we construct abstractions in words.

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty critiques prevailing philosophical theories that compared the human mind to a mirror that reflects reality (to varying degrees of success). Instead, Rorty argues the human mind produces reality, constructing it in language and in vocabularies that are adopted or abandoned according to their usefulness.

Rorty revisits (and expands) the idea in “The Contingency of Language” (in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity).

We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.
Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world or not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own – unaided by the describing activities of human beings – cannot. (4-5)
[If] we could ever become reconciled to the idea that most of reality is indifferent to our descriptions of it, and that the human self is created by the use of vocabulary rather than being adequately or inadequately expressed in a vocabulary, then we should at last have assimilated what was true in the Romantic idea that truth is made rather than found. What is true about this claim is just that languages are made rather than found, and that truth is the property of linguistic entities, of sentences. (7)
RICHARD RORTY, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity.

That’s why it matters… because I’m constructing reality. It matters because I’m writing the self… myself.

While I have no intentions of “getting it right” (that isn’t possible), I need to figure it all out and understand what it means in my own head… and I need to do it in a way that feels fair, in a way I can live with.

I have to get the story (my story) straight before I can find peace with bringing this particular chapter to a close.

Paul Broks, Ph.D., Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology, Plymouth University, UK; author of Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology. Interview from “Who Am I?” Radiolab. Feb. 4, 2005. WNYC Radio.
Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D., Neuroanatomist, Indiana University School of Medicine, Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center; author of My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Interview from “Words,” Radiolab, Sept. 10, 2008. WNYC Radio.
Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. 2nd Print., with Corrections. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1980.
—. The Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982).
—. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

  5 Responses to “writing the self; constructing reality”

  1. Couldn’t we argue, with RD Laing, that in order to have a degree of ontological security, we need the narrative that we tell about ourselves to be read, understood, and endorsed by others?

    And the catastrophe of losing a special other, one in whose view of oneself one has invested so much, in whose total acceptance one has felt secure and affirmed, is that this linguistic construct fragments and dissolves to the point at which the self is at risk of becoming painfully divided.

    • Couldn’t we argue, with RD Laing

      I’m not familiar with R. D. Laing, but after a quick scan of Wikipedia, I suspect your disciplinary interest in and understanding of “self” is from psychology. Since mine is philosophy (at the moment), we might be ill suited for this sort of discussion… but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. :)

      in order to have a degree of ontological security, we need the narrative that we tell about ourselves to be read, understood, and endorsed by others?

      I guess so, but that depends on what you mean by “security” and it also assumes ontological security is/should be an aspiration.

      one in whose view of oneself one has invested so much, in whose total acceptance one has felt secure and affirmed

      That’s a lot of assumptions :) They’re idealistic (thank you for that), but they’re still assumptions. But, for the sake of discussion, we’ll go with it.

      this linguistic construct fragments and dissolves to the point at which the self is at risk of becoming painfully divided.

      A divided self isn’t a risk — it’s a reality (since the Enlightenment, or thereabouts). The linguistic constructs (plural) do fragment, blur, and dissolve — they are written and rewritten in perpetuity — just like the self. And the self is often painfully divided, but that pain comes courtesy of misguided investment in a unified self.

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  2. DD, fabulous post. Well researched, insightful, thought-provoking. I actually read this at the dinner table, and it generated quite the philosophical conversation. Thank you.
    Btw, since I very very rarely comment (I’m one of your silent fans), let me take this opportunity to tell you how strong and resilient I think that you are in light of recent personal upheavals. I wish all the best for you…
    and now it’s time for me to hit the dreaded publish button! Yikes

  3. Thanks for your reply.

    My academic perspective on this is pretty eclectic. In fact my cv is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. I did spend some time in a psychology department however, where my specialism was AI/cognitive science.

    A number of quick points about Laing:

    – He’s working from the perspective of a psychiatrist with a particular interest in schizophrenia.
    – His work is not uncontroversial.
    – He frequently writes at the intersection of psychiatry and existential/phenomenological philosophy, where he’s heavily influenced by Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre, amongs others.

    His notion of ontological security is coloured by the idea that schizophrenia represents the pinnacle of ontological insecurity, when the self is so shattered that the ‘divided self’ becomes adrift in an unreality of unimaginable mental distress.

    I didn’t mean to give the impression that ontological security equals the stasis of a ‘fully unified self’. We’re all divided in some ways, but it’s possible to be divided AND ontologically secure. Also, I agree with you about constantly rewriting our internal narrative. God knows I’ve done it enough times over the last fifty years. The self is organic. It changes and grows. It doesn’t just sit there like a fly preserved in amber.

    What Laing means by ontological security is something like this:

    “A man may have a sense of his presence in the world as a real, alive, whole, and in a temporal sense, continuous person. As such he can live out into the world and meet others experienced as equally real, alive, whole, and continuous.

    Such a basically ontologically secure person will encounter all the hazards of life, social, ethical, spiritual, biological, from a centrally firm sense of his own and other people’s reality and identity.”

    (The Divided Self, ch 3).

    To illustrate this, he quotes extensively from a Lionel Trilling piece about the difference between the inner world of Shakespeare’s tragic characters, and those of, say, Kafka and Beckett.

    And yes, where the healing power of validation and acceptance by an Other is concerned, I’m still an idealist after all these years.

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