Issue #3: happiness

The quest for the “I”

by Diego Bubbio on April 10, 2014

Living with a child who is learning to talk is always an amazing experience. A very special moment is when the child stops referring to himself/herself in the third person (“Harry”/“Anna”), and starts using the first person – the pronoun “I”. It is, in fact, an indexical utterance: it is a word that refers to whomever is speaking. If I say “I”, I refer to “Diego”, but when, say, Anna says “I”, she refers to herself. There is something special about this word. What is an “I”?

In a superficial sense, everybody knows what it means to be an “I”, in the sense that everybody has a basic practical knowledge underlying the use of the word. But does the immediate or common-sense grasping of this idea provide us with an exhaustive account of what it means to be an “I”? Also, although we don’t usually think of it, the way we think of the “I” has practical consequences, such as the relationship with others and the integration into a community. And these consequences might or might not be desirable in social and political terms.

One of the tasks of philosophy is to put such immediate or commonsense ideas under scrutiny, to provide a richer understanding of the subject matter, and possibly to develop an alternative account.

Throughout the history of philosophy, the development of the concept of the “I” has been a constant concern. Importantly, Descartes developed the idea of the “I” as the thinking subject, an idea that gave modern philosophy its peculiar subjectivistic twist. Do you remember Descartes’ famous claim “I think, therefore I am”? Well, this is it. The “I” is a thing that thinks, Descartes says. And what about the world? The world is something “outside there”, that the “I” encounters later on. First there is the “I”, and then the “I” knows the world, which is regarded as separate from the “I”.

This seems like a reasonable explanation. Still today, much contemporary debate over the concept of the self, carried out within both philosophy and the public realm, is characterised by such opposition between the “I” and the world – subject and object. However – surprise, surprise – not all philosophers agree with Descartes. In particular, the nineteenth-century philosopher Hegel was critical of subjectivism. But here things become complicated because, let’s face it, Hegel wasn’t always an example of clarity. Some interpreters think that Hegel wanted to identify those features or structures of the world that are there anyway, independently of the “I”. Other interpreters, however, have recently suggested that Hegel’s critique might effectively go in the opposite direction – that is, suggesting that it is wrong to assume that the “I” and “the world” exist prior to their encounter. If the latter interpretation is correct, Hegel can be regarded as asking: Can an object really be distinguished from what that object is to us – that is, from the object as it is thought by us?

At the level of our everyday experience everything is, to some extent, experienced as given: empirical things (a table, a mountain), but also institutional facts (I am married, I am a citizen). Hegel calls these states of affairs “representations”. But as soon as one starts to rationally analyse a specific state of affair and its connections, one realises that it cannot be thought without considering it in relation to the “I” and to other objects and states of affair (to refer to a mountain, I use a certain word, “mountain”, which is different from another word, “hill”, and the distinction is based on the quantity of the object – its height; I am married because certain words were pronounced by someone who was given the authority to pronounce people married; and so on and so forth). Put another way, the “I” is not conceivable without the world and world is not conceivable without the “I”.

In the twentieth century another philosopher, from a different philosophical school, came to surprisingly similar conclusions about the conception of the “I”: Martin Heidegger. Heidegger too thinks that it is wrong to think of the “I” in isolation, as distinct from the world. He coined a new word, the “they-self ”, to refer to the identity of the “I” in what it is perceived as a natural relation with the world. In fact, we are born in a world which is already made up of pre-existing objects, functions, and relations: “I” don’t decide what a bed is for, nor the nature of my relationship to my mother; these states of affair are already there – they seem to be there “anyway”, independently of my “I”. It is, therefore, natural to develop an “I” which is modelled on other “I”s: the “They-self ”. The problem is that, precisely insofar as it is modelled on others, the “They-self ” is not an authentic self; but I can, Heidegger claims, become an authentic self. Initially Heidegger thought that to become an authentic self it was essential to take seriously one’s own mortality (the fact that, sadly, sooner or later I will die). Later on, however, Heidegger became concerned that even this idea was still subjectivistic, and tried to argue that the authentic self is to be found not in the “I” but in the “We” – a notion similar to that of Hegel.

Hegel and Heidegger’s reflections on the “I” can complement each other, and may point us to a different way of thinking of the “I”. This is not a mere philosophical exercise. Ideas and conceptions always underlie social and cultural life and inevitably shape social and political institutions: therefore, conceptions of the “I” based on the opposition between the “I” and the world are behind all aspects of our life. Is that model of the “I” adequate to respond to contemporary challenges, such as multiculturalism, globalisation, environmental changes, and the emerging of a virtual dimension of one’s identity?

Consider multiculturalism, for example. Each one of us has multiple cultural roles in society, belongs to different groups, and is subject to competing demands to define one’s self. For instance, if one chooses to let one’s self be defined by one’s ethnicity, the fact that that ethnic group is the majority or the minority in the society will significantly influence one’s chances for social, political, and economic mobility. This is just one of the many instances of the extent to which our sense of the self is constructed by others and cannot be thought of in isolation from others and from the world.

And yet, the notion of the “I” advanced by contemporary society, marked with individualism and philosophical subjectivism, is not as responsive as it should be in the face of contemporary challenges. A richer grasping of the notion of the “I” in its intersubjective dimension emerges as a need. Hegel and Heidegger can help us in this quest.

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