The Unity of the Self

The idea that the subject of experience is a unity, not only through long periods of time but even in the moment, is unfashionable. And on closer inspection the moment of self-awareness is, as a matter of fact, spread out in time. (Bergson’s specious present). And we feel sure that the unity of a person, that person’s integrity, is imperfect in even the noblest of us, and that the imperfection reaches all the way down to the most altruistic acts. And yet in self-consciousness a unity is revealed which is not evidently derivable from something else, but is instead the origin of all derivations. This unity is the necessary presupposition for representing any plurality. For to think a plurality is to represent it to oneself as inclusively apprehended. And over time, the self-consciousness changes through experience and through memories based on that experience which is, at least potentially, cumulative and coherent. Kant called these human powers the unity of apperception and the transcendental ego. Today empiricism has largely done away with such grand metaphysical speculation and each of us is sometimes imagined as a collection of minor personalities and/or contradictory impulses. Nevertheless in ordinary discourse the notion of integrity, of a consistency running through the actions and conduct of a thoughtful and compassionate person, do suggest the possibility of a unity and simplicity in the virtuous. Indeed many feel, as I do, immense gratitude at having encountered such people. So when Walt Whitman proclaimed ‘I contain multitudes’ he was not telling us he was a mass of contradictions, but that he had the capacity to sympathise with many, out of the breadth and inclusiveness of his moral imagination.
Kant, although he credited David Hume with awaking him from his dogmatic slumbers, saw that Hume was unable to provide a satisfactory account of morality because his empiricism landed him with a scepticism about the unity of self and also a description of free will which made it compatible with determinism in the natural world. Kant regarded compatibilism with distaste, and saw that it failed to account for the human capacity to envisage states of affairs not yet existing. These are deep waters and this is not the place to explore them further. However my sympathies are overwhelmingly with Kant, and were it not for the theological overtones, I would summarise my core belief by saying I believe in the human soul.
However I do not want to commit to a belief in the preservation of the self after death, nor to the existence of a personal God, except in the limited sense of it being my potential better self. Aristotle’s term entelechy is useful but without much resonance today. The phrase “the gold thread in the pattern” is a wonderful metaphor not just for the struggles of the human race to improve itself, but for the efforts of each individual too. Just as Kant put the presence of a good will at the heart of his ethics, so T.S. Eliot ponders it in the final temptation of Thomas à Becket. ‘To do the right thing for the wrong reason is the worst sin of all’. He is referring of course to the sin of pride, that last stumbling block for those who tread the path of moral improvement.
In my next two posts I will print two poems called Leaving Eden and The Memory Theatre. They are meant to offer an alternative view to Daniel Dennett’s about the fragmented nature of consciousness, which does not at all, in my opinion, address its astonishing and bewildering integrative power.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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