A Ku Indeed!

One Self, Many Selves

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, Ethics, philosophy, virtue ethics by Chris on July 1, 2008

There’s a small discussion of the nature of relational selfhood in a piece (“Tradition and Community” in Confucian Ethics, 2004) written by my graduate school ethics professor (and Alexus McLeod’s current dissertation advisor, I believe), Joel Kupperman, that every so often I like to think a bit about. The notion of the relational self is an issue that intrigues me a great deal, even if I am not sure in the end what it all amounts to (the literature on the subject seems to me to be all over the place, with no real unified consensus about what the phrase means — that said, David Wong’s 1988 piece is useful I think). In this 2004 piece, Joel talks briefly about what he calls “constituent” identity, and though he doesn’t develop the notion fully (his target is different), I find the way that he talks about it intriguing.

Joel says:

In Confucius’ view, the self that a person develops will be based on a primitive layer of imitation of parents, as well as of behavior that had been encouraged by their parents. Are these things merely causes of the person one becomes? It is hard to deny that they become, generally speaking, constitutive. Often, that is, an adult will be acting, thinking, and talking much the same as his parents did, or in a manner retained and refined from childhood. It may be too much to speak of survival of some lives in other lives, or of children in adults. But much like quotations within a text, the adult self will include elements taken from outside or taken from earlier stages.

I am intrigued by Joel’s suggestion here that at some level, the result of modeling oneself on another cannot merely be discussed as a causal relation, but rather becomes constitutive. What exactly becomes constitutive? The self of the other? Joel of course caveats this by suggesting that it may be too much to talk about survival of a person in another, but his analogy with quotations from a text seem to rule out a stronger notion — the survival of a person’s personal identity. Instead, modeling here seems to imply the survival of aspects of a person in another (quotations).

On the following page, Joel uses an interesting example and description to talk about how these “pieces” or “aspects” affect us when they become a constituent part of who we are:

To speak for myself, increasingly I am aware at some moments of patterns of thought and reactive behavior that are uncannily and uncomfortably like one or the other of my parents. At other moments, I find myself thinking and acting in ways that can be identified with middle-class groups in the place where I grew up, Chicago, and with that time. In the midst of more subtle personal interactions, there is sometimes a sense of spirit possession by a style that can be associated with the college where I was a graduate student, and again with that time.

Of course, we’ve all had these moments. There are times when I catch myself, and internally say “whoa! That was mom!” or even “oh boy, it was if I saw things for a minute just as my self of 1985 saw things.”

Unfortunately, Joel just dangles these interesting notions at us (he has a different thesis in the work), but the way he talks about the self as “collage” (as he calls it, a collection of different fragments unified in a certain way) really interests me, and obviously has an impact on the way in which we might read Confucius (as well as many ethical theories reliant on character).

My wonder here is simple: how far should we take this way of talking? What does it mean to say that my mother is “in me” in the sense the Joel might suggest? Is the analogy of the quotation in text the right one? Is the relationship between my mother’s self and my own weaker, a merely causal relationship? If it is constitutive, what does it really mean, in the end? How does it cash out? What importance would it have to the way that we read Confucius?

Note: Of course, I realize that “situationalist” challenges here would highly complicate the discussion, but at this moment I’m interested in the question in abstraction from those questions. After all, first we need a working prima facie theory — then we can try to figure out how, and in what way, it might meet such empirical challenges.

Note 2: I would also like to lodge a formal complaint that Joel did not teach this interesting stuff when I was a student of his. Although, to be quite honest, if he had I wouldn’t have had the foggiest idea what the hell he was talking about at the time, so it would have been a wasted effort!

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3 Responses

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  1. Alexus McLeod said, on July 1, 2008 at 10:47 pm

    Really interesting stuff–this is actually a large part of the very chapter of my dissertation that I’m working on right now. Lots to say about these issues–I’ll post some real comments on this soon–I’m in the middle of a few-days-long trip down to DC to celebrate Siddhu’s 2nd birthday. But I’m sure I won’t be able to resist sneaking out to a Starbucks or something while I’m down here and doing some blogging…
    Kind of feel out of sorts when I don’t get a chance to do at least a little bit of philosophy for a couple of days.

  2. Adam said, on July 3, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    It’s going to be tricky to say that these things are aspects of someone else’s self, I think. The main reason is that you’re probably going to want to say that one’s self is something we can only have a kind of subjective identification with. So we’re not going to be able to imitate our parents’ or friends’ selves as much as we’re going to be able to imitate their behaviors or, perhaps at our best, our own internal representation of what we imagine their subjective experience of being themselves is.

    Also, I don’t want to say that my father or mother or brother literally constitute part of me just because I share one or more of their behaviors. Mostly I wouldn’t want to say this because I don’t think the same thing could be said of the genes I inherit from my parents or share with my siblings. Sure, we share some genes, but the environment the genes live in is entirely different in my life. Secondly, there is a filter one can apply to one’s behaviors after the “age of reason” wherein one can choose to keep certain parental influences (ideally the healthy ones) and discard others. The act of trying to filter influences seems to make them my own in a certain way. This is something that I think Kant misses, by the way.

  3. Chris said, on July 6, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    I think we first need to get clear on what we mean by “self.” I’m not sure that Confucius is talking about a metaphysical self, for instance. My intuition is that he is concerned with a social and/or moral sense. For instance, I don’t doubt that Confucius believes that we all have a unique perspective or point of view that is attributable to the subjective experience you mention, but this, while no doubt necessary for the other types of selfhood, are not sufficient for it. Selfhood of the type I think he cares about is an achievement, and one’s subjective perspective is a natural given, not to mention something shared by animals.

    Also, I don’t doubt that Confucius would agree that one has to appropriate influence in a way that “makes sense” to one’s own unique situation, say. But I think he might say (not sure) that this doesn’t mean that no aspects of the social/moral self of my parents is a part of me. Sharing a part of my mother in me, say, might constitute the fact that our ways of approaching certain situations are very similar, or share a resemblance far greater than the resemblance my behavior shares with others (and given the fact that this is explained by my mirroring her).

    In short, although I agree that thoughtlessly emulating a way of interpreting or orienting oneself towards a situation used by my mother leaves a doubt open as to how much this is reflective of “me”, I’m not sure that “filtering” such interpretative frameworks “makes it my own” in such a way that it is no longer sensible to talk about the existence of my mother “in me.”


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