The Vanished Soul and Quest for the Authentic Self in Modern Western Thought

Philosophical and Social Origins of Identity Politics and the LGBTQ Sexual Revolution. Part 1.

Due to the influence of the Bible, the majority of thinkers in Western society for centuries have acknowledged the reality of the soul which is distinct and yet intimately linked to the body. According to the Christian tradition, what we refer to as body and soul are aspects of one unitary reality and process, that is, the body and soul are viewed as a psychophysical unit, the human person. The physical body changes through time but the soul persists as the person interacts continuously with the world. It is the continuity of the soul, with its faculties of intellect and will, which ensures coherence and defines the personal identity of the person.1Due to constrains of a short article, the words “soul”, “self” and “mind” are used in this post interchangeably in the light of overlaps in their semantic domain. For example, the immortality of the soul is linked to the immateriality of the mind and the mind is a power of the soul. However, we should be sensitive to the nuances of each thinker in how he uses these words.

Knowledge of the soul is inseparable from knowledge of God.2John Calvin notes, “true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves”… Again, it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster, 1960), Book 1.1.1, 2. However, from the 17th century, many Western scholars and scientists began to reject both the idea of God and the soul. Indeed, the soul has become absent or irrelevant in contemporary intellectual discourse. How did this happen?

To answer this question, we begin with the French philosopher, Rene Descartes. Descartes is sometimes described as the “Father of modern (Western) philosophy” because he made a decisive break with traditional Scholastic-Aristotelian philosophy that has been dominant for centuries. For Descartes, the quest for certainty of knowledge should not begin with an examination of the external world but with an analysis of one’s mind. Descartes describes man as essentially res cogitans, as “thinking substance.” Hence, he bequeathed the world with his arresting slogan, cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am.). Descartes begins his quest by first isolating the mind from fleeting and unreliable sense impressions received from the world in order to reason his way to indubitable truth. Effectively, Descartes dichotomizes the mind from the concrete reality of the world. The outcome can only be a solitary soul and abstract self.

Descartes’ epistemology (rationalism) was opposed by empiricist philosophers like John Locke and David Hume who held that the mind is a blank slate and that knowledge is gained when sensory experience is impressed upon the mind. The empiricists fare no better as their concept of the mind is reduced to a tenuous product of ever-changing external stimuli. Gone is the concrete self which Barret describes as the “I that lives and breathes in intimacy with its body, enmeshed in memories, anxious about death, and possibly hoping, if it dare [sic], for some kind of salvation.”3William Barrett, Death of the Soul (OUP, 1987), p. 17.

Regardless of their differences, both the rationalists and the empiricists reject Aristotelian science which focuses on teleological explanation of nature. Instead, they relied on mathematics and mechanistic categories to ensure objective scientific rationality in their study of nature. Yet paradoxically, while the new scientific rationality vastly expanded our knowledge of nature, it also led to a diminished and fragmented view of the human self. The mind or the self becomes nothing more than a “bundle of sensations.” For modern philosophers (with the exception of Leibniz and possibly Kierkegaard), the self has become illusive and incomprehensible. Naturally, contemporary scientists and thinkers lost interest in the transcendent self (soul).

Immanuel Kant countered the empiricists with his insistence that the mind is not just a passive receptor of sense impressions from the outer world. Knowledge just cannot rest on sense impressions. As Kant famously said, “Perception without conception is blind; conception without perception is empty.” That is to say, sensations are processed by the mind, in the form of consciousness, which imposes concepts and categories to make them meaningful. The thoughts and perceptions are bound together in a unity by my mind (unity of consciousness). The mind is the dynamic entity, or activity/thought process which applies conceptual categories such as substance-accident, cause-effect, unity-plurality etc. to synthesize the contents of consciousness into an intelligible whole. I am a single subject of experience. I am even conscious of the fact that I am a single individual (apperception or self-consciousness).

Unfortunately, Kant still fails to do justice to the concrete self. Kant’s project is to answer the skepticism of knowledge created by Hume, but he continues to operate with an epistemology which posits an unbridgeable gulf between our knowledge based on sensations received from the world (empirical phenomenal knowledge) and knowledge of the actual world behind the sensations (transcendent noumenal knowledge). William Barrett explains that for Kant, “We are familiar with aspects of that self – indeed there is nothing in our experience that is closer to us than our self – but of the self as a Ding-an-sich, a thing-in-itself, we have no intellectual grasp. I have no clear-cut intellectual concept of this I who I am twenty-four hours a day. Thus at the center of the self there is a hole and a mystery. Our own soul is unknown to us.”4Barrett, Death of the Soul, p. 115.

Kant’s analysis is restricted to what is perceived in the thinking process. He does not come to grips with the ego or self-conscious subject underlying all the formal aspects of thought process since for him awareness to the self, the “I” in apperception (self-consciousness) does not reveal anything about its metaphysical nature. The result of Kant’s metaphysical agnosticism is his failure to grasp the concrete self or existential ego which makes all the thinking process as our own experienced. Perhaps Kant has held himself unnecessarily to an impossible epistemological standard in requiring a complete theory of the self before acknowledging its metaphysical reality. Following Kant’s requirement would result in skepticism of most, if not all knowledge of our everyday world and the existence of other minds.

Jean Paul Sartre challenges both 1) Descartes’ view of consciousness is substance, the ego which persists through time and 2) Kant’s view that the synthesizing activity of the subject is sufficient to constitute the unity of consciousness. The “I” is the singular transcendental subject who unites the stream of consciousness into a coherent whole. In contrast, for Sartre there is no substantial soul. What we call soul or self is just activity in process. For Descartes consciousness is always personal, that is, consciousness is always mine. For Sartre, consciousness is impersonal. The ‘ego’ is just the impersonal spontaneity of consciousness with its intentionality of directing the mind to objects of thought and perception.5Readers who are acquainted with Buddhist thought may be struck by similarities between Sartre’s view of the ego and the Buddhist view that there is no unconditioned or permanent soul (anatta), that is, the self is just an illusion. It is spontaneous and we have no power over it. At each moment it must create itself spontaneously from nothing. Sartre rephrases Descartes, “I think, therefore I am”, to “I am consciousness, therefore I am.” Total freedom is assured only if there is no fixed and enduring self. Since there is no notion of human essence or essential truths about human being, there is no limit to our freedom as long as we are alive and conscious. “I am condemned to be free.”6Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (Gramercy Books, 1956, 1994), p. 439.

Barrett’s summary of Sartre view of freedom is pertinent, “Sartre’s view of human freedom is abstract and total but has no connection with the concrete self that is to be free. Indeed, Sartre has no adequate grasp or concept of this concrete self…It floats in the void…The promise of such total freedom sounds heady and exhilarating on first hearing; but very shortly it begins to pall and we find the idea self-defeating. How are we to go about changing ourselves if there are no persisting features of the old self to provide leverage? At the center of the Sartrian self there is only a pure potentiality, which seems at first glance to be potent and overmastering but in fact floats in the void.”7Barrett, Death of the Soul, pp. 132-133, 136.

One may make and remake the one’s self as desired. But the result is a form human freedom which lacks connection with the concrete self. The ‘self’ is only constituted by formal analysis or self-reflection. Freedom becomes self-defeating when it lacks stability and direction since the self is empty of meaning and content. For both Kant and Sartre, the self is nothing more than an abstract construct that fails to allow the richness of lived experience. It seems that the road to recovery of the human soul represented by Descartes, Kant and Sartre ends up in a cul de sac. Their final glimpses of the soul-self come across as fleeting and ephemeral.

Regardless, humans cannot be satisfied with an empty and undefined self. Their desire is to attain what they lack. Hence the irrepressible urge for every human to construct a secure and coherent self to anchor one’s personal identity. Sartre even asserts that “To be man means to reach towards being God…man fundamentally is the desire to be God”8Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p, 566. as this would fulfil all his desires. But if the self both lacks a defining essence and direction, the project of reconstruction the self becomes an unfinished and endless project. Which of one’s constructed selfs should one rely on in order to be both free and authentic?

Jean Jacques Rousseau represents a novel attempt to recover and reconfigure the vanishing soul-self. The substantiality of the soul may be a moot point and remains contentious in philosophical debates, but since every one has access to one’s inner self, Rousseau wrote his autobiography, Confessions in order to demonstrate how one may (re)configured in one’s inner self to gain an authentic personal identity. “I want to show my fellow-men a man in all the truth of nature; and this man is to be myself…The particular object of my confessions is to make known my inner self, exactly as it was in every circumstance of my life. It is the history of my soul that I promised, and to relate it faithfully I require no other memorandum; all I need do, as I have done up until now, is to look inside myself.”9/ Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions. Oxford World Classics (Oxford UP, 2000), pp. 5, 270.

Rousseau’s reflection on his inner self is not an exercise of navel gazing. It is an attempt to discern one’s inner self, that is, one’s inner sentiments or “emotional instincts” which determine one’s true identity which is free from the corrupting influence of society. This inner voice is the final authority in how I understand myself. As such, I am truly authentic when I express outwardly and live in accordance to what I understand to be my true inner self. [emphasis added] Hence, the self is not defined by its network of social relations; it is a personal construction, that is, “I am what I myself choose to be.” Rousseau’s project was unprecedented, but the idea that we are living authentically only if we recover and express outwardly our true selfs (expressive individualism) has become the prevailing sentiment of contemporary society.

The forthcoming posts shall highlight how fragmented identities under the condition of Modernity and the triumph of the therapeutic (c.f. Anthony Giddens, Peter Berger, Philip Rieff and Charles Taylor) foster a culture of “expressive individualism” which has become the zeitgeist (the defining spirit or mood) of contemporary society, as evidenced by the rise of identity politics and the LGBTQ sexual revolution.

Forthcoming:
Part 2. All that is Solid Melts into the Air

Part 3. The Triumph of The Therapeutic

  • 1
    Due to constrains of a short article, the words “soul”, “self” and “mind” are used in this post interchangeably in the light of overlaps in their semantic domain. For example, the immortality of the soul is linked to the immateriality of the mind and the mind is a power of the soul. However, we should be sensitive to the nuances of each thinker in how he uses these words.
  • 2
    John Calvin notes, “true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves”… Again, it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster, 1960), Book 1.1.1, 2.
  • 3
    William Barrett, Death of the Soul (OUP, 1987), p. 17.
  • 4
    Barrett, Death of the Soul, p. 115.
  • 5
    Readers who are acquainted with Buddhist thought may be struck by similarities between Sartre’s view of the ego and the Buddhist view that there is no unconditioned or permanent soul (anatta), that is, the self is just an illusion.
  • 6
    Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (Gramercy Books, 1956, 1994), p. 439.
  • 7
    Barrett, Death of the Soul, pp. 132-133, 136.
  • 8
    Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p, 566.
  • 9
    / Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions. Oxford World Classics (Oxford UP, 2000), pp. 5, 270.

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