Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Irreducibility of the Ontological Self

He Was He, I Was I

by Mark Signorelli,

June 8th 2012

In his essay “On Friendship,” Michel de Montaigne, attempting to explain why he loved his friend Etienne de La Boetie, by then deceased, tells us that he cannot express the reason for his affection except by saying, “because he was he, and I was I.” Only a knowledge of the particularities of each man’s character, and of the history of their friendship, would begin to reveal an adequate explanation for their bond: “It is not one special consideration, nor two, nor three, nor four, nor a thousand: it is I know not what quintessence of all this mixture, which, having seized my whole will, led it to plunge and lose itself in his.”

Montaigne mentions some of these particularities, how, for instance, Etienne had written some Latin verses celebrating the spontaneity of their mutual regard, and how, having met in advanced adulthood, the two men felt a kind of urgency to relish one another’s companionship before death overtook them. Nonetheless, it is finally obvious that Montaigne could never convey to us any complete, or perhaps even adequate, understanding of what that friendship was like, because it was an experience, one that depended on certain conscious perspectives, each formed through a history and growth that are not ours.

Whatever understanding we are able to achieve concerning the bond between Etienne and Montaigne will necessarily rely on our own experiences of friendship in our own lives. There is no “objective” method of understanding in this case, no way to know absent an acquaintance with the subjective aspects of the phenomena, because the reality we wish to know about in this case is a subjective reality, an experience. “Our friendship has no other model than itself,” wrote Montaigne, “and can be compared only with itself.”

This passage from the Essays is, I think, uniquely emblematic of the form of knowledge offered to us by a study of the humanities. For what literature and the arts, history and moral philosophy, assume in their inquiries is that human nature is a thing properly understood in its specificity, that personhood is grasped only through a study of persons. As persons are inescapably conscious beings, such an understanding will entail a deep acquaintance with the furniture of consciousness—with desires and principles and anxieties and memories, and their infinitely various permutations; thus, poetry, biography, and the novel examine these things with the finest scrutiny, taking them as the very substance of their project.

There is no “model” for the humanist, no way of understanding human experience by prescinding from all the details of particular human experiences. For the humanist, to abstract away from the particularities of human life toward general statements is not necessarily to advance towards a more indubitable truth; in doing so, one risks losing sight of the thing to be explained in the first place. Even in the case of moral philosophy, the most abstract of the traditionally humanist disciplines, the concepts it employs in its general conclusions—concepts like happiness or justice—have reference finally to the contingencies of individual experience, if they are to have any meaning at all; happiness per se is what is experienced as happiness by this man, and this one, and this one, or it is not happiness at all. And when his last word has been said, the moral philosopher, like the poet and like the historian, recognizes that a complete account of his subject has not been offered—cannot ever be offered—and that something must remain inexplicable about human nature and human actions

In recent years, the Western world has witnessed a remarkable surgeof confidence among scientists in their ability to render satisfactory explanations of human life, especially among the proponents of evolutionary science. Particularly noteworthy in this development is the crucial role played by various neo-Darwinian models in the new theorizing; models of purported biological behavior, such as the theory of inclusive fitness, underlie evolutionary explanations of human life in fundamental ways. What should be evident is that a resort to such models as explanations of human life necessarily implies the rejection of every one of the assumptions I have noted as being intrinsic to humanism. To say that we will discover the causes of Smith’s actions in the model is to affirm, in no ambiguous fashion, that we approach the truth insofar as we move away from the specific—i.e., Smith—and towar the general and abstract—i.e., the model.

To appeal to a model in order to explain a man’s actions is to assume that an explanation of human behavior can be found that is as conclusive and as complete as the mathematics underlying the model. And of course, resort to a model necessarily presupposes that conscious experience plays no part in the final explanation. “Our friendship had no model other than itself,” wrote Montaigne, and each of us can claim the same thing of our relationships. There are no models of friendship, just as there are no models of longing or frustration or nostalgia. There are no models of human experience, period. Models are always models of a wholly physical reality, and so an appeal to models in the case of human behavior must presume that non-physical, conscious mentality has no place among the true causes of that behavior.

In the case of non-human animals, the resort to models as a form of explanation has a kind of superficial plausibility to it. When we observe the motions of a spider or a robin, we find it perfectly impossible to imagine what form of subjective life must guide those motions. The experience of being such an animal in motion is as opaque to us as is the experience of being a falling rock or a rolling ball. So it hardly seems implausible to suggest that the same kind of theory that explains the falling of the rock or the rolling of the ball will similarly explain the weaving of the spider or the nest-building of the robin. At any rate, we have no satisfactory alternative to the physicalist model, precisely because such an alternative would have to refer to the conscious life of these animals, and we have no real access to that.

With us, things are different. Not only do we possess “privileged” first-person knowledge of ourselves, but thanks to the wonder of language, we have at least some form of approximate knowledge of the subjective motives of other persons. What this means is that with each and every example of human action, we will always have an alternative explanation available to us besides what is provided to us by the physicalist model. We will always have an explanation in terms of the conscious beliefs, desires, and anxieties of the actor. We will always have a humanist explanation at hand.

To anyone familiar with the prominent evolutionary literature, it is clear that the authors of this material have no arguments to offer as to why their physicalist models should be preferable, in each and every case, to the humanist explanation. They simply assume this, as a matter of dogmatic prejudice, because without such an assumption, their whole project could never get off the ground. And the reason why they are able make this assumption with so much ease of mind is because—to put the point bluntly—they are so obviously ignorant of the whole tradition of Western humanism. Read any notable Darwinian, and you will find in his work abundant references to game theory, and recent neurological research, and tons of ethological data; you will find nary a reference to Homer or Burke. Because they know little of poetry, or history, or most moral philosophy, nor the unique modes of understanding inherent to each one of these disciplines, they imagine that no rival stands in the field over against their mechanistic, evolutionary theories.

Yet there can really be no doubt that the humanist explanation is, prima facie, the more sensible kind of explanation in nearly every instance of human behavior conceivable. We read the following lines in Wordsworth:

When the fretful stir

Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,

Have hung upon the beatings of my heart –

How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,

O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer thro’ the woods,

How often has my spirit turned to thee!

We have here the description of a common human experience, in terms of the concepts of conscious life—memories and affections, specifically—which is complete without any reference to a general model. Most readers will have experienced the therapeutic effect that the memory of a serene landscape is capable of exerting over a harried mind, and few will suspect that the experience requires much in the way of theoretical elucidation. At this point, the evolutionist chimes in and assures us that the poet’s attraction towards the Wye stems from his early hominid ancestors’ preferen

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