Narratives of the Self and Identity
Dmitry Olshansky. Narratives of the Self and Identity // Journal of the Philosophical Society "The Philosopher", No. 2, 2003. p. 22 24

Review article on The Self After Post-modernity by Calvin O. Schrag,
Yale University Press, 1997. pp 155.

The question of the true nature of the self is one of the most important facing contemporary philosophy, as it ever has been in former traditions. And no doubt the issue will continue to be on the most pressing of philosophic agenda in future.

The two most influential contemporary doctrines of "the self" are those created by Martin Heidegger and J Lacan. Thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Jurgen Habermas, or J. Kristeva derive their theories from these two doctrines. And everyone could trace an encounter between these two theories in Calvin Schrag"s book.

The reader of the book can espy there not only the borrowings of Schrag"s system, but also important innovations. Schrag amalgamates different movements from classical philosophy, such as Plato, Aristotle and Eckhart; along with what philosophers call "modern thinkers such as Descartes, Kierkegaard, Kant, Marx, Neitzsche, and Weber) with "post-modern thinkers such as Deleuze, Bourdieu, Derrida, Kristeva, Nancy, Ricoeur. Not content with that, Schrag sprinkles in liberally the ideas of continental (Husserl, Jaspers, Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas) and analytical (Ryle, Austine, Dewey, Wittgenstein) philosophers.

In the process, we survey complex and multiform theories such as deconstruction, "narratology, phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutic, and communicative praxis. At the same time, in spite of the diversity of theories discussed, Schrag successfully synthesizes an integrated image of the human self "after post-modernity". The discussions are always pertinent and clear, and his style is accessible enough to be suitable for both researchers and the student or general reader, while still remaining profound in its analysis.

In fact, The Self After Post-modernity is the first sustained analysis of this issue as a whole. And it is enough to confirm the virtue of Schrag"s investigation. But generalisation and integrity are not the only merits of the book. Some chapters continue the topics of Schrag"s previous works: Communicative Praxis and the Space of Subjectivity (1986) and The Resources of Rationality: A Response to the Post-modern Challenge (1992). But in this book Schrag attempts to answer Jean-Luc Nancy"s question: Who comes after the subject? Therefore the question of self-identity, definition of subject, and its relation with the others are seen as the main points at issue.

Calvin Schrag begins his investigation with the following statement:

There is first the obvious truth that we are dealing not with a single, unitary, sharply defined portrait, but rather with a portrait that is itself curiously diversified

On the one hand, there is no universal theory of man. Therefore no one ideology can give us the complete portrait of the self and answer the question raised by so many but encapsulated by Kant: What is a man? On the other hand, in analysing the self we are at a crossroads of a different praxis, of different theories and images, and we should accept this plurality. That is why it is very difficult to combine several different points of view and to create any unified theory of the self. Because the self "is not a thing, a pre-given entity, a ghost of machine, or whatever.

Heidegger begins Sein und Zeit with the same idea: Being of the entity is always mine. ( Das Sein dieses Seienden ist je meines ). Schrag agrees that we deal with exertion of the self only, therefore in our analysis we should turn to everyday practice, because the self cannot leave the world of existence. Since we deal with human externals only and never with the inner world or soul, to sketch an entire portrait of the self, Schrag envisages the self from four aspects and in four manifestations: discourse, action, community and transcendence.

Discourse is an element of self-identification, it has its own resources for self-unification and self-identity, and it does so specifically in the form and dynamics of narrative. So speaking is not only the narration, but also a tool of self-identity, because human speech includes belonging to the literary tradition. The human reveals themselves in narrative performance as well as in discourse as the form of temporal and spatial identification.

The self is implicated in its discourse as a "who that, at the crossroads of speech and language, understands itself as that that has already spoken, is now speaking, and has the power yet to speak, suspended across the temporal dimension of past, present, and future.

Some researchers argue that at the end of the Twentieth Century, contemporary philosophy came to an anti-humanist viewpoint, articulated by such as Heidegger and by Lacan, who offer a primordial split in human nature and proclaim that identity is the result of cultural violence. Although Schrag does not quote Lacan, he founds his work upon the same principles and closed ideas. If Heidegger does not follow the idea of cultural violence, he agrees by implication with the authoritarian concept of language, exemplified by Lacan. There is no "I without the Other, or as Bakhtin, who disagrees with the idea of incompleteness of the self, puts it: the monologue cannot exist, because two voices are the minimum of being.

This idea is very popular amongst philosophical postmodernists, ever since Lyotard"s celebrated The Post-modern Condition (1984) in which he concludes of the self, that consensus does violence to the heterogeneity of language games. That is to leave well alone Jacques Derrida, the most important contemporary representative of deconstruction of the subject, who claims this idea immediately when he affirms the self as process of "decentration in order to adequately understand the problem of the "self after post-modernity.

Schrag takes into consideration all these points of view. He considers that questions about self-identity, the unity of consciousness, and centralised and goal-directed activity have been displaced in the aftermath of the dissolution of the subject. He offers to revive these questions in the context of his narration. And he decides to investigate the self in discourse, in action, in community and in transcendence. The self is known to be a language game, therefore we can analyse the self in the context of different communicative practices: discourse, action, community, and transcendence. Schrag"s offer is to trace the specific of the self in four main contexts and observe the difference between the self-identity narratives in these communicative practices.

Self-identity realises as a shift from one genre of discourse and one language game to another... I can claim that the self is as inconstant and incomplete as a language, which speaks through the self, and self-identity realises as a discursive movement across the multiply forms of speech.

Schrag also underlines, that narrative is neither only story-telling (as in anthropology) nor determinant of discourse (as in literary studies). Narrative is also human action, providing the context and horizon for the employment of the multiple activities of the self against the backdrop of a tradition of communicative practices That is why, according to Schrag, narratology is the general method of analysis the self.

Describing the self in action, Schrag underlines the meaning of narrative as a dynamic form of self-expression. The self realises itself in valuable activity with values: by choice, decision, and action. And all these operation in my mind are the forms of narrative. However, narrative is known to be not only a symbolic structure, but also the bodily element of human experience. The speaking and narrating subject announces its present in fully bodily attire. It is in the phenomenon of the self in action that the role of body moves into prominence, enabling a fleshing out of the portrait of the "self after post-modernity in its concrete significance.

Schrag considers that action and speaking are part of "communicative praxis, therefore by analysing the manifestations of the self, he cannot ignore social activities. He agrees with Ricoeurs idea expressed in Temps et Ecrit (1985), that there is no difference between true and false stories, because all of them can bring us the identity and the models of relation with the others.

Then Schrag turns to analysis of the story-telling self, which acts in the community, where he analyses the phenomenon of being-with-others as the source and dynamic of community. He digests Heidegger"s idea that the self could not researched detached, without an inhabited world. When we begin the analysis of the self, we find the self to be already involved into the world and the relation with the others.

According to Heidegger, the self has already comprehended its Being-in-the-World (In-der-Welt-Sein ). Schrag believes it is very important to research social relations, because, according to Levinas, every individual act defines by being-with-others, that is, by community. In the words of R. Girar, the other is the obligatory hero of the self-identity, not to mention of such effects as interest, fear, desire and purpose.

Schrag"s project is to address the issue of community as it arise from the phenomenon of being-with-others and then shows itself in a concrete "we" experience in which the "I" experience of the "who" of discourse and the "who" of action is recursively activated. He supposes "we experience to be the foundation of every other experience, including "I experience. Schrag maintains that if we cannot find a proper setting for the "we experience, then the location of the "I experience will also elude us.

The same ideas were purported by the Russian philosopher S.L. Frank in his book The Unknowable (1939). According to Frank, "we" experience is a minimum of being and initial human experience, hence self-experience is based on it. Frank considers that social life has a both spiritual and psychological foundation. Schrag did not draw such metaphysical conclusions, but his position seems to be close to Frank"s one.

Similarly, Schrag is close to Frank"s view that belonging to the "unknowable" is the basis of the self and self-identity. This belonging to the unknowable, which Frank calls faith-knowledge, is the source of all our activity and confidence of the self. Frank was a religious thinker, therefore he also names this belonging to unknowable as the union of the soul with God. Schrag did not use the term God, but the proximity of their points of view is obvious. He finishes his book with the similar passage:

Transcendence in its threefold function as a principle of protest against cultural hegemony, as a condition for a transversal unification that effects a convergence without coincidence, and as a power of giving without expectation of return, stands outside the economies of science, morality, art, and religion as culture-sphere

Transcendence seems to be inner narrative, or, in Lyotard"s words, minor narration, that is opposed to major narration of myth or ideology. The last one exists as complex of interrelated narrative institutions like economics, politics, science, religion and others. All of them yearn for dominance over the self by affirming universal values, like duty, knowledge, power, god. In my opinion, these institution impose their values and force (wo)man to describe her/himself in terms of them.

Therefore these institutions are against the idea of self as incomplete, because they have the terms like rate-payer, voter, homo sapiens , prayer, et cetera, and to put up a good show, they prefer to deal with the schemes, but not with indefinable and unknowable self. According to their project, the self should be dissolved in these institutions, that longs for total unification and disregards private peculiarities. That is why in Sein und Zeit , Heidegger admonishes us to put the question of Dasein in psychological, anthropological, and biological perspectives, because none of these branches of science deal with the self.

According to Schrag we can choose this original infinity of the self in transcendence, which is the shelter of the self. The minor narration gives an alternative that helps to avoid such totalitarian language games, like science, morality or religion. I conclude that transcendence is such inner narrative, which belongs to personal language and this is an authorship that grants the spiritual freedom to the self.

The terms like personality, individual, man is also a product of major narratives, because they are part of oppositions: personal-common; individual-divided; man-woman. Therefore, if in analysing the human being, one use these terms, one intends that human being is an integral coherent autonomous adult man.

Such an investigation will ignore children because the latter are not fully developed individuals and will ignore the mentally ill because their thinking is not coherent. It will ignore one and only human being, because not all of these terms concern the self.

Traditional philosophy considered dependent people the same as the things; for example, Aristotle and Machiavelli supposed that slaves are not people, because they are dependent on their master. Even Descartes maintains that only thinking man should be named a man. Transferring his maxim "I think therefore I am" into a negative form, we obtain "If I do not think, I do not exist".

According to Descartes, anyone, who does not think or whose way of thinking differs from the general one, is not a person. Eventually all researches, based on these traditional opposition are far from real being of the self.

Applying the unrepeatable language games to investigation of unique own being of the self, researchers must change themselves. Fortunately, language allows us to create the endless line of the games, through which we can read a riddle of the self.

So in conclusion, The Self After Post-modernity offers a powerful critique of modern conceptions of self and self-identity based on the father of modern philosophy, Descartes", metaphysical notions of the dualism of body and mind and sovereign subject. Schrag"s critical engagement with major texts of contemporary philosophy prepares the way for original investigation. To make his case, he examines the multitude of literature. But Calvin Schrag does not forecast the image of the self in future, rather he depicts its portrait after post-modernity.

He does not proclaim the prognosis, but puts timely questions and proposes original answers. The issues raised are not left undetermined at the end.

Yale University Press:


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