Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Chapter 40 from: J.J. Ray (Ed.) "Conservatism as Heresy". Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co., 1974


John Ray

IN BOTH PSYCHOLOGY and sociology, there is an amorphous current of thought variously termed 'existentialism', 'phenomenology', 'self theory' etc. Although probably a minority view, it does represent a continuing challenge to the usual standards of scientific practice always prevalent in the social sciences and in other sciences. In fact, more than a challenge, this stream of thought represents to the scientifically inclined almost a foreign and certainly an unintelligible language. Although attacking it is rather like waging war on a mile-high cube of jelly, it is desired in this chapter to point out a possible major source of fallacy in this form of 'theory'.

From J. P. Sartre to Carl Rogers, a central theme in existentialist talk has been 'the self. An article by Bertocci (1965) summarising something of the history of this body of ideas goes back even earlier than this. Bertocci refers to the work in 1915 of the psychologist Mary Calkins in the following words: 'The self, as Calkins saw it, is self-identical, unique, related to its social and physical environment, but not "beyond or beside" the experience it has' (p. 300).

What this desperate mumbo jumbo means is anybody's guess. It creates a feeling rather than conveying any information or offering any explanation. One gets the idea that some concept of 'the self is central, but what this 'self actually is seems rather mystical. At the very least Bertocci is not so much offering an explanation as providing an oracular utterance that requires explanation and elaboration. It is very much like a verbal Rorschach inkblot -- a lineal descendant of the pronouncements of the Delphic oracle. Unfortunately the whole of Bertocci's paper and the whole of existentialist writing in general is like this. It could mean anything or nothing. Nowhere are there any plain utterances the truth of which could be tested.

An examination of the one sentence quoted from Bertocci will serve to exemplify the difficulty of finding out just what is being said in 'existentialist', 'personahstic' or 'phenomenological' writing. What, for instance, could possibly be conveyed by saying that the self is 'self-identical'? To say as much is a totally unilluminating tautology. Even primary school children realise that if you want to define a term you cannot use that term itself in the definition. The self is 'related to its social and physical environment'. What does that tell us? Practically nothing. The one totally trivial thing that we might perhaps infer is that the self is something other than its social and physical environment. This inference, however, is little more than a case of something being true by definition. Next we are told that the self is not 'beyond or beside' the experience it has. By any criterion this means that the self is the experience it has. Yet if it is experiences, how can it also have experiences? This seems to be a case of either an infinite regress or a statement that is untrue by definition. Putting 'beyond or beside' in quotes is no help except that it provides mystification. Why it was done or what it means no-one can know.

So we see how existentialist talk -- and one could multiply the above example indefinitely -- is not really discourse at all. It looks like discourse, but violates all rules of discourse. It is either totally trivial, tautologous, true by definition or false by definition. It includes no real statements, propositions or assertions at all. It is a verbal fruit salad-rather like a dictionary gone berserk. It is not even a question of being uncertain of what it means. It quite certainly and obviously can have no meaning at all. The words used do have meaning in isolation, but the use that is made of them is not meaningful. The use that is made of them contradicts what we understand to be their meaning in isolation. In isolation we are quite happy to regard an experience as something that is 'had' by someone, but when we read Bertocci we are told that this is in fact not the case. Experiences have themselves. All meaning crumbles. Words evidently are not being used according to their conventions. What is being spoken can at the best only be a private, esoteric or idiosyncratic language that just happens to look like English.

I have just used five hundred words analysing only twenty-six words of Bertocci: For this to be necessary, existentialism must at the very least be a remarkably unclear form of talk. The fact that the passage analysed came from what was supposed to be a textbook and was the nearest Bertocci came to offering a definition of his central concept is even more depressing. Even if the analysis had succeeded in discovering something that the passage meant, we would have to conclude that such writing was very, very uneconomical and poorly done indeed. Only some sort of intellectual masochism could motivate anyone with alive critical faculties to read it.

Bertocci and the existentialists are not of course the only ones who have had difficulty in defining the self. Hall & Lindzey (1957) record William James as defining the self (in his 1890 book Principles of psychology) to be 'the sum total of all that a man can call his -- his body, traits and abilities; his material possessions; his family, friends and enemies; his vocation and avocation and much else' (p. 515). The idea of my friends and even my enemies being part of myself is quite bizarre and one can only say of James' definition that why he excluded anything at all from it is difficult to work out. The definition is hopelessly overinclusive and highly idiosyncratic.

A book on the 'self' that Hall & Lindzey do recommend is The ego and the self by Symonds (1951). Symonds defines the self as 'the ways in which the individual reacts to himself'. Now the self is a way of reacting. What next will it be? The obvious question is: "Why not just say what you mean and explicitly talk about how a person reacts to himself? Why create this magical entity of the self?" The answer also is obvious. When Symonds talks about the self, he wants to talk about it as if it were something like a person or at least as if it were a definable entity. If we substituted 'how a person reacts to himself on every occasion where Symonds uses the single word 'self', it would make nonsense of what was being said.

One could go on through the excellent summary of self theories that Hall & Lindzey offer, but to do so would only be to reinforce what has been pointed out already: everybody uses the word 'self' in a different and often bizarre way.

Why is this? Why is this little word such a conceptual stumbling-block to so many people? I would suggest that it is because of an elementary philosophical mistake: Nobody has realised that the word is topic-neutral. It is a grammatical word -- not a contentful word. To wax technical it is 'syncategorematic'. It is part of the grammatical machinery used to string contentful words together -- like 'the', 'and', 'if' and so on. If anyone was foolish enough to try to define what a 'the' was, then they might have as much difficulty as do the people who try to define what the 'self' is. What a downfall it is if it can be shown that the central concept in existentialist thought has no content at all and is merely a piece of grammatical machinery --- a word that does not represent anything!

The grammatical function of the word 'self' in English (and its equivalents in other languages such as 'sich' in German), is as an indicator of reflexivity. It is used to indicate that the person or thing referred to at one point in a sentence is the same as the person or thing referred to earlier in the sentence. For instance, if we wish to amplify 'he hit him' to indicate that the 'he' and the 'him' are one and the same, we make such an indication by adding 'self' to the 'him'. To do so is so customary that it would be deceptive, and hence 'ungrammatical', if we did not add on 'self' in this context. The force of the custom is indicated by the normal English practice of spelling the two words as one (unlike 'sich' in German). Much the same is true of hyphenated compounds such as 'self-conscious'. If I use the phrase, 'A self-conscious man.' I indicate that the consciousness is reflexive (i.e. it is not of the world about, but of the man discussed). There are also some contexts where we do use the word uncompounded: as in 'his better self'. Here the word is being used to indicate that what is 'better' is still the same person as the 'his' and the entire expression could be awkwardly paraphrased as 'him being better'. It is such usages as this, however, that have given rise to the careless impression that the 'self' must have a denotation of its own. Because the expression 'his better self' falls into the identical form to 'his better suit', we tend to assume that 'self' introduces as much new content as does 'suit'. Once such an assumption has been accepted, 'hypostatisation' or 'reification' has been committed. Once we have decided that because there is a separate word for it then the 'self' must be different from 'he' or 'him' (we 'reify' it), we then may proceed to 'explain' something about the man by reference to his 'self' (hypostatisation). As Maze (1954) points out, this is a 'kind of fallacy to which psychology seems especially prone'.

Now there is of course absolutely no reason why someone cannot come along and stipulate that he is going to use the word 'self to indicate something other than reflexivity. He could use it to refer to all non-spinning flying saucers if that was his fancy. The point is that 'self' is not normally used in such a totally random way. Normally, the attraction of using the word stems from an apparent conviction that people already have some idea what it means. It is this conviction which is mistaken. People cannot know what it means for the simple reason that there is basically nothing for it to mean. It is topic-neutral. People are, however, very adaptable and when so many people use 'self as if it were topic-relevant (or "informative") they do try to construct some meaning for it. If somebody started talking about 'ands' as if everybody knew what he was talking about, we could probably make some shift at working out what he might mean there too. The revealing part is the wide variety of quite different things that various people take 'self' to mean. Because it really has no conventionally accepted substantive meaning, your guess is as good as mine as to what meaning should be attached to any particular use of the word in a substantive way.

The central concept and explanatory device in existentialist theory, then, has no meaning. It is just a noise. It could become meaningful if existentialists stipulated carefully what they intended it to mean but this, it seems, is too much to ask. Bertocci's best attempt at such a definition has been shown to be equally as meaningless as the word itself. Even a contentful stipulative definition would run the risk of not being stuck to. If 'self has to be defined by reference to other words then it should be possible to continue just using those other words and avoiding the inherent ambiguity of 'self' entirely.

It follows from the above that a theory of the self cannot be used to explain what men do. A man's self does not cause him to be or to do something for the excellent reason that he is that self. Insofar as it might mean anything at all, 'self theory' is simply a deceptive synonym for psychology.

Full citation details for all references used above can be found here.

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