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Random thoughts on the self

The paradox of the self
The paradox of the self.

Phenomenological explorations of consciousness and the self have always fascinated me, and over the years I've taken reams of notes on the subject. Many of them are collected here (and also on this page). Here's a short passage on the desire for recognition, or self-confirmation, that lies at the foundation of the self.

If you deeply appreciate the meaning and the power of the desire for recognition, your life is turned upside down. That’s how you can tell whether you’ve understood the phenomenon. All great human endeavors are shot through with futility because they are directed at eternity. They are directed at a projection of the abstract Other in the self, a projection that can be either explicit and obvious, as in “God” and “posterity”, or implicit and indefinable, as when someone pursues his dream without having any particular abstract entity in mind. He just pursues it, “driven” to do so, driven by his un-self-conscious desire for objective confirmation of his self—i.e., for a suppression of self-consciousness. As I write this now I am necessarily assuming (in two senses) universality, a universal other of some sort (hidden from me) whose approval gives my life meaning, gives this moment meaning for me. Without such an other—abstract or concrete, it doesn’t matter as long as it is the measure of existence—life can have no “meaning”, because what is meaning but an absolute standard by which we can judge ourselves and by which the noble among us strive to judge ourselves? If everything is “relative” and there is only subjectivity, the quest for “greatness”, which presupposes an objective truth in the realm of value, lacks a foundation, or an endpoint. It lacks sense; it lacks meaning. But greatness, or absolute recognition, is what we “restless” ones need, the desire for which fuels us. The Other in us is tyrannical, and its confused objective projection (which is virtually indistinguishable from the Other-in-consciousness itself) determines all our projects. It determines, indeed, many daily activities for everyone. When I obsessively check my writing for spelling errors it’s because of the ‘objective’ in me, the Other, the one looking at me. And if I’m pleased with myself after writing it’s because I feel like I’ve temporarily secured the approval of this projected objective self, this universal, self-less self. I’m writing for eternity, not for my own meager and fickle little self. Who cares what he [the little self] thinks?! I don’t revolve around myself like an animal; I orient my efforts toward the Universal, as do all intellectual people (and, in a less extreme way, all people since the birth of urban civilization). This orientation is almost never an object of explicit consciousness, but it directs me all the same. It is woven through my being. It is my being.

Truth-seekers are always trying to reach the endpoint, but there is no endpoint. There is no rest on the horizon. That’s what truth is, in the end: the merging of self with other, the overcoming of subjectivity, the union with reality, perfect recognition. Theoretical analysis is a means to that end. An exquisite sublimation. There is no truth because subjectivity is ineradicable, interpretations are endless and will never be exhausted. No doubt there are better and worse interpretations, more and less defensible ones; but there is no ultimate, final interpretation, because to achieve that would be to freeze fluid subjectivity and language.

Damn you, abstract other! Source of my torturous restlessness. I wish I were a cat, or some other un-self-conscious animal.


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