Negative Theology and the “True Self”

It is a commonplace of modern culture to refer to the notion of the “true self.” We often claim that we must be true to ourselves and that we need to work to express our true inner self, rather than trying to repress it. But while we talk in this way often, if we look at the notion of having a true self, it seems odd and quite implausible as the notion of the “true self” seems to suggest that there is a fundamental unified essence waiting to be fully expressed within each human being, and this seems to very out of step with the conception of what a human being is that we get from an understanding of modern biology. Modern biology tells us that humans are not true selves trying to express themselves through a bodily vessel, but beings whose core identity can be identified in the arrangement of matter that constitutes them; or put more simply our true nature is that we are bodies made up of constituent parts like brains, lungs and bones. So, there seems to be an incompatibility between the way we talk about ourselves and how we must live authentic lives, and the way we understand our identity as physical biological beings. I think we can explain this tension between our vision of the “true self” and a biological conception of humanity if we stop thinking of the self as a static object of empirical enquiry and instead think of it as Negative Theology thinks of God, and I will explain why in the argument that follows.

If I look deep within, it is hard for me to seriously suggest that I see a clear being, a “true self” waiting to be expressed. But what I can see is that I would like to develop this quality, and that quality, and that I do not want to develop other qualities. However, none of these qualities I long to have, taken independently, or in combination with the others, seems to exhaust the nature of my “true self”. My “true self” somehow seems to be indescribable in the categories of ordinary speech. In this sense, we might say that our approach should be analogous to the approach to God known as Negative Theology. Negative Theology posits awe towards God, but refuses to claim that God has specific qualities like benovelence. According to this approach we can understand what God is not, but not what God is. God can be seen to transcend any categories that can be applied to him.

Likewise we might say that the “true self” within us is not a physical object or even a collection of qualities and desires that we can point to and describe, but rather something that is beyond all linguistic description. This seems to be plausible as the notion of a “true self” is always aspirational in that when we speak of our “true self” we do not refer to an accurate description of the current state of our identity, but a sense of something admirable that we can develop into. Furthermore, this admirable thing we can develop into that is somehow “inside of us” is not something that can be grasped as a collection of properties or a single unifying property. Whenever, we develop our “true self” and think we have fully developed our self we realize that there is something that is missed in our development and our description of that development. I may have developed my capacity for courage, but something about the mode of action, is not simply courage or any other category, but something beyond, unspeakable, that I am drawn towards. We do not stand at the ready with a perfect image and description of our “true self” ready to replicate that self in life as if we were a craftsmen building a replica of an existing model. Rather the “true self” calls us to express it while at the same time all of our categories fail to fully account for what this “true self” is.

Consequently, while there seems to be cognitive dissonance between the image of ourselves as at our core biological creatures with the notion of the “true self”, a Negative Theology of the self, like the one I have loosely sketched above tends to show that this tension is not so irreconcilable. There is a sense in which human beings are physical beings with particular biological characteristics, but what applying the model of Negative Theology to the self, shows us is that any categorization of humanity, whether it is biological like that of science or normative like the categories that I have pointed to in my discussion of the self, fails to fully capture what we mean when we talk about the “true self”. In this sense the “true self” like the God of Negative Theology is something that cannot be fully grasped at once through a set of categories. Furthermore, the “true self”, in particular, is something that comes from within us and demands expression, but eludes full understanding.

I am not sure if Negative Theology is the right approach to thinking about the self, and while I am attracted to certain elements of it, I also am drawn towards the notion that a system of categories can exhaust and fully disclose the reality of something. I find a part of me whispers if we can never fully capture reality through language in some meaningful sense what is the point of thought? But one thing that is certain is that a mode of thought modeled on Negative Theology provides us with an interesting way of thinking about the self that gets at the intuition that while it may be true in some sense to say human beings are matter in motion or social, amicable being, or whatever description we find compelling, none of these descriptions fully uncovers what we are. Further, this mode of though helps us capture how at ease we are at accepting two seemingly contradictory descriptions of humanity, because if all description fail to fully describe the “true self” then there is no reason why two seemingly contradictory modes of thought could not both reveal an aspect of the truth. If this is the case we have no reason to be uneasy that two descriptions of humanity we adhere to seem incompatible or opposed.

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On Attachment: Cognitive? Or Noncognitive?

The things that humans care about range from abstract concepts to concrete persons and things, but why do we care about the particular things that we care about? Is caring a response to the value of something, or is something else responsible for our caring about particular things? For the sake of simplicity I will refer to the question of what we care about, as the question of attachment, as caring signifies that one has some attachment to that thing. I will outline two different ways of thinking about the question of what grounds our attachments. Furthermore, it seems to me that both approaches are flawed, but there is a way of thinking about this issue that better understands the issue of what grounds our attachments.

The first approach to the question of attachment sees attachment as a brute fact. On this interpretation what we care about is just a matter of chance and does not represent anything about the value of the object of our attachments. For example, according to this approach the fact that I have come to be friends with Lilith, and value romantic literature is not an indication of the value of Lilith as a friend, or the value of romantic literature. Rather it is simply a fact about me at this point in my time that I am attached to these things. Of course there are causal reasons for why I have come to have these attachments, but these causal factors do not imply anything about the nature of the object of attachment. In this sense attachment is not a signification of the value of particular objects.

What gives this approach a certain intuitive plausibility is that often we find that we are attached to persons or things, but cannot explain why in terms of any particular attribute of the thing. I may deeply care for my friend Lillith while not being able to explain my attachment to myself in terms of the value of Lillith as a friend. Lillith may be kind, considerate, and funny, but so are many people I know so why I am attached to Lillith and not those others? Likewise my commitment to becoming a musician may not be explicable in terms of the value of the activities typical of a musician, rather it may seem that this attachment is just a part of me like the colour of my hair, rather than a response to the value of these activities.

The second approach posits that attachment is a response to value in the world. We become attached to persons, things and ideas when we see recognize that they are valuable. Contrarily to approach one, approach two sees my attachment to romantic literature as a response to the beauty and literary excellence displayed in this genre. What give this approach its plausibility is that when we reflect we will often try to revise our attachments, in light of consideration about the value of persons, objects and ideas. We say to ourselves I should not care so much about what strangers think because it is really of very little importance, which implies that our attachments are, in some sense, responses to what is valuable in the world. So this approach has the virtue of fitting with certain experiences we have involving reflection on value and attachment.

The problem with approach one is that it has to say that our experience of revising our attachments does not really represent making our attachments correspond better with the valuable elements of the world, but rather merely signifies that certain causal factors have led to a change in one’s attachments. This is problematic because it means saying that an important element of ethical consciousness, reflection and revision of attachments, is not what it seems to be, and this seems quite hard to swallow, and implausible. This is of course not a knock-out punch for approach one, but it does make it seem that this approach is not able to capture certain elements of our intuitions.

Approach two also has a significant flaw. The trouble is that we sometimes find ourselves attached to people or things that do not seem to have value. A person who is trying to quit smoking, might still have a strong attachment to smoking even if he or she sees the activity as without value. Similarly, we may find ourselves in a friendship or romantic relationship with someone who we see as deeply contemptible, but yet nonetheless we may find ourselves deeply drawn and attached to them. So, it seems that even our experience of attachment attests to the fact that we can find ourselves attached to things or persons that do not seem to be valuable, consequently attachment cannot simply be seen as a response to value in the world. Thus, approach two seems to have a significant flaw.

The simplest way to overcome the flaws in both approaches is to recognize that attachment may not be a single thing, with a single underlying rationale. There may be attachments that we have that are just brute facts that do not signify a response to value in the world, while there may be attachments that we have that are responses to value in the world. The most obvious candidate for attachments that are brute facts are attachments that seem, to the person who has them, to be unchangeable facts about ourselves, rather than response to value in the world. In this case the person who has these attachments cannot explain why they have these attachments; they just happen to have these attachments. For example, the person who needs their house to be immaculate is attached to the idea of an immaculately clean house, but this person may not be able to explain why it is valuable to have an immaculately clean house, nor may they have some background understanding of value that requires them to keep their home immaculately clean. In such a case the person’s attachment does not seem to be a rational response to fact, it just seems to be a brute fact about that person, at that time in their lives. On the other hand, there seem to be attachments that we have that signify a response to a particular value in the world. An activist’s commitment to a particular cause is not seen by them as merely a brute fact about themselves, but rather as a response to a call to pursue some valuable cause that will improve the lives of others. In such a case the agent can either explain why their attachment is a response to value, or they have a background conception of the good which, while inarticulate, makes it plausible to see their activity as a response to value in the world. Thus, the commitment seems to be a response to value in the world. Consequently, there seem to be at least two forms of attachment. One is a noncognitive form of attachment in which our attachment is inexplicable in terms of the value of particular things, persons or activities, and the other is a cognitive form of attachment in which the attachment is best understood as a response to value in the world. We do not have to choose whether we want to be noncognitivist or cognitivists about attachments, because there are numerous varieties of attachments and some of them are cognitive while others are noncognitive. This may lead to a more complex picture than either approach elucidated above spells out, but while simplicity may be desirable in principle, in any explanation, complexity is sometimes necessary to do justice to the diversity of phenomena under consideration, and in this case the complexity seems to be necessary.