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It is often asserted that the concept of the self emerges only in early modern times in connection with the concern for subjectivity that is taken to be characteristic of modernity. While it is true that the term ‘self’ as a noun, describing that which in a person is really and intrinsically this person, comes into use only from the seventeenth century onwards, what can be called the question of selfhood was not unfamiliar to earlier thinkers. This is, in its core, the question whether there is—and if so, what is—some unity, or at least continuity and coherence, of a human being over the life-course beyond their bodily constitution, beyond the unity of the body.
In the history of human thought, this question has been answered in a great variety of diﬀerent ways. Broadly, empirical traditions tended to doubt the existence of such unity. They could observe changes, even radical transformations, in the human mind and had thus no ground to postulate any a priori unity. Transcendental traditions, in contrast, tended to argue that there had to be a unity of apperception, or of consciousness. Otherwise, not even the question of the self could be asked.
In the intellectual space between these two positions, so to say, the issue could be addressed in ways that are more speciﬁc to the social and psychological sciences. Then, the faculty of memory, for instance, could be seen as enabling a sense of continuous self to emerge. Human subjects have the ability to narrate their lives. Or, selves could be seen as formed in the interaction with others, that is, in the mirroring of an image of oneself through the responses to one’s own words and actions by others. In moral philosophy, the existence of a continuous self was seen as a precondition for holding human beings accountable for their past deeds. Selfhood was thus linked to moral and political responsibility.
1. Selfhood In The Social Sciences
In these forms, the question of the self was already posed at the historical moment when the social sciences, by and large in the contemporary understanding of the term, arose towards the end of the eighteenth century. It is noteworthy, then, that the emerging social sciences rather reduced the range of ways of exploring selfhood across the nineteenth century. In some of their ﬁelds, like liberal political philosophy and political economy economics, they postulated a rational self, able to make choices and to be responsible for her, or rather: his deeds. In other ﬁelds, in particular in the sociological way of reasoning, the orientations and behaviors of human beings were seen as determined by their social position. This opposition has become known as the one between an underand an oversocialized conception of the human being (Wrong 1961). More cautiously, the empirical and behavioral strands of social research restricted themselves to observing human behavior and refrained from making any assumptions about selfhood at all. Regularities emerged here only through the aggregation of observations.
All these approaches had in common, though, was that they aimed at regularizing and stabilizing human orientations and behavior. Whether human beings were under or oversocialized or just happened to behave according to patterns, the broader question of selfhood, namely whether and how a sense of continuity and coherence in a human being forms, was rather neglected or answered a priori by theoretical postulate.
In this light, it seems appropriate to say that the social sciences have developed a serious interest in questions of human selfhood only late, systematically only in the early twentieth century. Furthermore, they have largely ignored ways of representing the human self that were proposed in other areas, in philosophy for instance, but maybe even more importantly in literature. Thus, issues such as individuality and subjectivity, the possible idiosyncrasy of a life-course and life-project, have long remained outside the focus of the social sciences, which have tended to look at the question from the perspective of a fully developed, stable, personal identity, rather than making the continuity and coherence of the self an issue open to investigation.
This focus can hardly be understood otherwise than through the perceived need to expect a political stability of the world on the basis of a presupposed coherence of human orientations and actions.
The ground for an interest in such broader issues was prepared outside of what is conventionally recognized as social science, namely by Friedrich Nietzsche, and later by Sigmund Freud. Nietzsche radically rejected the problems of moral and political philosophy and thus liberated the self from the impositions of the rules of the collective life. Freud located the drives toward a fuller realization of one’s self in the human psyche and connected the history of civilization with the repression of such drives. Against such a ‘Nietzschean-Freudian’ background (Rorty 1989), Georg Simmel and George Herbert Mead could observe the ways in which identities are formed in social interaction and conceptualize variations of self-formation in diﬀerent social contexts. From then on, a sociology and social psychology of selfhood and identity has developed which no longer relies on presuppositions about some essence of human nature and is able to connect its ﬁndings to both child psychology and phenomenology. It emphasizes the socially constructed nature of selfhood, but remains capable, at least in principle, to analyze the speciﬁc social contexts of self-formation thus working towards a comparative-historical sociology of selfhood. This broadened debate on selfhood has created a semantic space in which aspects of the self are emphasized in various ways (Friese 2001). This space can be described by connecting the concept of self to notions of modernity, of meaning, and of diﬀerence.
2. Selfhood And Modernity
The idea of human beings as autonomous subjects is often taken to be characteristic of modernity as an era, or at least for the self-understanding of modernity as an ethos. Such a view entails a conception of the self as rather continuous and coherent, since only on such a basis is the choice of a path of action and a way of life as well as the acceptance of the responsibility for one’s deeds conceivable. The concept of selfhood is here conditioned by the need to maintain a notion of human autonomy and agentiality as a basic tenet of what modernity is about, namely the possibility to shape the world by conscious human action. Such modernism, however, is not necessarily tied to the atomist and rationalist individualism of some versions of economic and political thought, most notably neoclassical economics and rational choice theory.
In the light of the twentieth century developments in sociology and (social) psychology, as mentioned above, the view that connects selfhood to modernity mostly—in all its more sophisticated forms—starts out from an assumption of constitutive sociality of the human being. Not absolute autonomy, but rather the conviction that human beings have to construct their self-identities can then be seen as characteristically modern (Hollis 1985). Unlike the concept of the rational, autonomous self, this concept is open towards important qualiﬁcations in terms of the corporeality, situatedness, and possible nonteleological character of human action (Joas 1996). Without having to presuppose the self-sustained individual of modernity, the aim is to demonstrate how autonomous selves develop through social interactions over certain phases of the life-course (Joas 1998, Straub 2001).
The commitment to autonomy and agentiality, characteristic of modernity, becomes visible rather in the fact that formation of self (or, of self-identity) is here understood as the forming and determining of the durably signiﬁcant orientations in a life. It is related to the formation of a consciousness of one’s own existence and thus biographically predominantly to the period of adolescence. Crises of identity occur accordingly during growing up; more precisely one should speak of life crises during the formation of one’s identity. Self-identity once constituted is seen as basically stable further on. No necessary connection is presupposed between self-formation and individuality; theoretically, human beings may well form highly similar identities in great numbers. Since the very concept of identity is connected to continuity and coherence of self, however, stability is turned into a conceptual assumption.
Objections against such a conceptualization go in two diﬀerent directions. On the one hand, this discourse, which often has its roots in (social) psychology, stands in a basic tension to any culturalist concept of identity, which emphasizes meaning. On the other hand, doubts about the presupposition of continuity and coherence of selfhood employ notions of diﬀerence and alterity that are not reducible to the idea that selves are formed by relating to others, by intersubjectivity.
3. Selfhood And Meaning
Some critics of the close connection between self-formation and modernity argue that every form of selfhood is dependent on the cultural resources that are at hand to the particular human being when giving shape to their important orientations in life. Human beings give meaning to their lives by interpreting their situations with the help of moral-cultural languages that precede their own existence and surround them. Cultural determinism is the strong version of such theorizing, mostly out of use nowadays, but many current social theories adopt a weaker version of this reasoning which indeed sustains the notion of the continuity and coherence of the self but sees this self as strongly embedded in cultural contexts.
Such a view of the self has its modern source in romanticism. Philosophically, it emerged as a response to the rationalist leanings of the Enlightenment, and politically, against the conceptions of abstract freedom in individualist liberalism. Unlike cultural determinism, however, which has a strongly oversocialized conception of the human being and thus hardly any concept of self at all, romanticism emphasizes agency and creativity in the process of self-formation and self-realization. Human beings are seen in their singularity, but the relation to others is an essential and inescapable part of their understanding of their own selves.
Charles Taylor’s inquiry into The Sources of the Self is a most recent and forceful restatement of this conception. Taylor starts out from the familiar argument that the advent of modernity indicates that common frameworks for moral evaluation can no longer be presumed to exist. The key subsequent contention is then that the ability and inclination to question any existing such framework of meaning does not lead into a sustainable position that would hold that no such frameworks are needed at all, a view he calls the ‘naturalist supposition’ (Taylor 1989, p. 30). If such frameworks of meaning are what gives human beings identity, allows them to orient themselves in social and moral space, then they are not ‘things we invent’ and may as well not invent. They need to be seen as ‘answers to questions which inescapably pre-exist for us,’ or, in other words, ‘they are contestable answers to inescapable questions’ (Taylor 1989, pp. 38, 40). Taylor develops here the contours of a concept of inescapability as part of a moral-social philosophy of selfhood under conditions of modernity. Meaning-centered conceptions of selfhood have recently been underlined as a basis of communitarian positions in moral and political philosophy, such as Sandel’s concept (1982) of the ‘encumbered self.’
4. Selfhood And Otherness
Arguably, these two concepts of selfhood remain within the frame of a debate in which the under-and the oversocialized views of the human being occupy the extreme points. The introduction of interaction and intersubjectivity in self-formation has created intermediate theoretical positions, and, possibly more importantly, they have allowed diﬀerent accentuations of selfhood without making positions mutually incompatible. Nevertheless, the modernity-oriented view still emphasizes a self that acts upon the world, whereas the meaning-oriented view underlines the fact that the self is provided the sense of their actions by the world of which they are a part. Since the mid-1970s, in contrast, theoretical and empirical developments have tended to break up the existing two-dimensional mode of conceptualization.
On the one hand, the notion of a ‘decentering of the subject’ has been proposed mainly from poststructuralist discussions. On the other hand, the observation of both multiple and changing basic orientations in human beings has led to the proliferation of the—infelicitously coined—term ‘postmodern identity’ as a new form of selfhood. In both cases, a strong concept of self has been abandoned, in the one case on the basis of philosophical reﬂection, in the other, grounded on empirical observation. Both the ideas of a ‘decentring’ and of a ‘postmodern self’ question some major implications of the more standard sociological view of selfhood, namely the existence of the human self as a unit and its persistence as the ‘same’ self over time.
In the former perspective, the philosophical maxim of thinking identity and diﬀerence as one double concept, rather than as one concept opposed to another, is translated into sociological thinking as the need to think self and other as a relation, rather than as a subject and a context or object. Such notions rather underline the nonidentitarian character of being by pointing to the issue of ‘the other in me’ (Emmanuel Levinas) as a question of co-constitution rather than of interaction. While emphasized in recent poststructuralist thought, similar ideas can be found, for instance, in Arendt’s (1978, pp. 183–7) insistence on the ‘two-in-one,’ on the relation to oneself as another, as the very precondition for thought. In a broad sense, they go back to the ancient view of the friend as an ‘other self.’ And Theunissen (1977 1965) had already conceptualized self-other relations on the basis of an understanding of ‘the Other’ as referring to all ‘concepts through which philosophy interprets the presence and present of the fellow co-human being (Mitmensch) or of the transcendental original form of this human being.’
In one particular formulation, Cavell’s reﬂections provide an example for a thinking about selfhood that does not presuppose an idea of identity, coherence, or consistency (Cavell 1989, 1990). He cautions against ‘any ﬁxed, metaphysical interpretation of the idea of a self’ and against the idea of ‘a noumenal self as one’s ‘‘true self’’ and of this entity as having desires and requiring expression.’ In contrast, Cavell suggests that the ‘idea of the self must be such that it can contain, let us say, an intuition of partial compliance with its idea of itself, hence of distance from itself’ or, in other words, he advocates the idea of ‘the unattained but attainable self’ (Cavell, 1990, pp. 31, 34). Cavell proposes here a relation of the unattained and the attainable as constitutive for the self, that is, he makes the very question of attainability a central feature of a theory of selfhood.
5. Selfhood And Sociohistorical Transformations
The development of this threefold semantic space has considerably enriched the conceptualization and analysis of selfhood in the social sciences during the twentieth century. If one considers the three ﬁelds of inquiry as explorations of the various dimensions of selfhood, rather than as mutually exclusive perspectives, the question of the constitution of the human self emerges as a problematique that concerns all human beings and for which there may be a variety of processes which can be determined generally only in their forms but not in their results. As a consequence, however, it becomes much more diﬃcult to conclude from the prevailing character of selfhood on social structure and political order. This has often been seen as a ‘weakness’ of symbolic interactionism, for instance, which Mead’s view of the self is said to have inaugurated, as a social theory that allegedly cannot address issues of societal constitution. But by the same move Mead allows for and recognizes a plurality of selves that has returned to the center of discussion today—after the renewal of a regressive synthesis of identity and society in Talcott Parsons’s work (to which—what is often overlooked—Erik Erikson contributed as well). The question of the relation between selfhood and society and politics thus needs to be rephrased as a question of comparative-historical sociology rather than merely of social theory.
Some indications as to how this relation should be understood can be found when reading the historical sociology of twentieth century societies in this light. The social upheaval during the second half of the nineteenth century with industrialization, urbanization and the phrasing of ‘the social question’ is often seen as a ﬁrst ‘modern’ uprooting of established forms of selfhood, as a ﬁrst massive process of ‘disembedding’ (Giddens 1990). The development towards so-called mass societies during the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century lets the question of the relation between individuation and growth of the self emerge. Totalitarianism has been analyzed in terms of an imbalance between imposed individuation and delayed self-formation, the result having been the tendency towards ‘escape from freedom’ and into stable collective identities (Fromm 1941, Arendt 1958). The ﬁrst three decades after the Second World War are then considered as a form of re-embedding of selves into the institutional frames of democratic welfare societies. Most recently, the indications of dissolution and dismantling of the rather comprehensive set of social institutions of the interventionist welfare state are one of the reasons to focus sociological debate again on questions of selfhood and identity. During this period, as some contributions argue, no longer continuity and coherence but transience, instability, and inclination to change are said to be marks of the important life orientations of contemporary human beings (see Shotter and Gergen 1989, Lash and Friedman 1992, Kellner 1995). However, many of these analyses are challenged on grounds of the limited representativity of the empirical sample or on conceptual grounds.
Given the theoretical insights described above as the emergence of the threefold semantic space of selfhood, any attempt to oﬀer a full-scale reformulation of the issue of the varieties of selfhood in diﬀerent sociohistorical conﬁgurations would be adventurous. Forms of self-constitution and substantive orientations of human selves are just likely to be highly variable across large populations with varieties of experiences and sociocultural positions. However, the notion of recurring crises of modernity and the identiﬁcation of historically distinct processes of disembedding and re-embedding could be the basis for a socially more speciﬁc analysis of the formation and stability of social selves (Wagner 1994).
The social existence of the ‘modern’ idea that human beings construct their selves is what many societies have in common throughout the 1800s and 1900s. As such, it does not give any guidance in deﬁning diﬀerent conﬁgurations. Therefore, three qualifying criteria have been introduced. First, the existence of the idea of construction of selfhood still leaves open the question whether all human beings living in a given social context share it and are aﬀected by it. The social permeation of the idea may be limited. Second, human beings in the process of constructing their selves may consider this as a matter of choice, as a truly modernist perspective would have it. In many circumstances, however, though a knowledge and a sense of the fact of social construction prevails, it may appear to human beings as almost natural, as in some sense pre-given or ascribed, which social self they are going to have. Third, the stability of any self one has chosen may vary. Such a construction of selfhood may be considered a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, but may also be regarded as less committing and, for instance, open to reconsideration and change at a later age. These criteria widen the scope of constructability of selfhood. All conditions of construction have existed for some individuals or groups at any time during the past two centuries in the West. But the widening of the scope of construction may mark the transitions from one to another social conﬁguration of modernity. These transitions entail social processes of disembedding and provoke transformations of social selves, in the course of which not only other selves are acquired but the possibility of construction is also more widely perceived.
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