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Susan M. Purviance. Philosopher, College Professor and Humanist

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Self as a practice: Shaftesbury, Hume, Reid

 

                        Susan M. Purviance

                  

 

          In this paper I want to discuss what happens when philosophers move from a practice conception of self to a theory problematic of self.  We see this shift in early modern British philosophy, and although many more figures could be discussed in relation to this shift, I will feature Anthony Ashley Cooper  Third Earl of Shaftesbury, David Hume, and Thomas Reid.[1]  This examination implicates larger questions as well, questions about what it means to philosophize and of whether epistemological and metaphysical theories help us to understand ourselves better.  In this round I give the edge to Shaftesbury while allowing that his philosophical project is nevertheless the least ambitious of the three.  We may have reason to regret the ascendency of theories of personal identity and their continuing prominence in contemporary thought, for some philosophical problems are more practical than theoretical.  Where that is so theory should defer to practice.  This is not to say that practice conceptions of moral experience and self-reflection do not have philosophical and conceptual roots or that they do not have philosophical implications; they do. That is why Shaftesbury is philosophically important and interesting.  However,  practical solutions based upon a possibly sound but alarmingly anti-metaphysical stance have sometimes been abandoned in favor of philosophical theories of why such practical solutions are not necessary. 

          For the purpose of this inquiry Descartes, Locke, and later Hume represent the main sources of theories of personal identity, with Shaftesbury and Reid taking different reactive stances on how to address the problem of a continuing self.  Shaftesbury offers the philosophically practical,  yet anti-theoretical stance, while Reid dissolves the problem of knowing ourselves as agents through a theoretical move.  In order to clarify the difference  between the positions on self taken by Reid and Shaftesbury I shall make use of Deleuze’s distinction between the generality which lies at the heart of identity and the singularity or difference which is enacted through repetition.[2]   Reid’s identity claims negate the very spontaneity of self he hopes to assert, while Shaftesbury’s attempts at continual reintegration enact the self as repetition.

          Shaftesbury boldly criticizes the bad philosophy of his day: of metaphysics he states

Nor shall we scruple to declare our opinion that it is in a manner necessary for one who would usefully philosophize, to have a knowledge in this part of philosophy  sufficient to satisfy him that there is no knowledge or wisdom to be learnt from it. (Characteristics  Miscellany IV Chapter 2: 427)

Useful philosophizing  follows the Delphic/Socratic injunction: know thyself.  He stands for personal reflection as a practice of self-knowledge, but not for philosophical systems as a ground for self-knowledge.  I shall argue that Reid’s simple apprehension of self as the being suggested in all thought, although as minimalist and anti-inferentialist a theory as one might find, is still too much of a theory.  Worse, from a practice standpoint it is a theory of the wrong sort, since it undermines the very practices that would serve to reintegrate the continually unraveling self uninterested in its own integrity.  I will start with Reid’s objection to Hume’s bundle theory of self to show how modern philosophy entrenches metaphysical problems through its representation of Being.  Then I will explain how Hume’s account of self-referring passions, though an improvement over the bundle theory, still does not settle the question that Reid raises.  Next I will discuss how Reid’s theory, since it presupposes that epistemology can discover the self, begs the question of a persisting self and undermines that self’s proper activity. Finally I will consider how Shaftesbury’s methods of self-interrogation and self moral challenge suggest a way that the self can be reintegrated progressively and diachronically as a life project of self-creation.

                             The persisting self

          Although Locke, Hume, and Reid (and later Kant, if we were to expand the focus) take up the problems of the cogito, no one states the problem better than Reid.

         

...and it is found out, that there may be treason without a traitor, and love without a lover, laws without a legislator, and punishment without a sufferer...; or if, in these cases, ideas are the lover, the sufferer, the traitor, it were to be wished that the author of this discovery had farther condescended to acquaint us whether ideas can converse together, and be under obligations of duty or gratitude to each other; whether they can make promises and enter into leagues and covenants, and fulfil or break them, and be punished for the breach. 

                                                                                      [An Inquiry 2.6: 21]

Reid takes up the implications of the cogito for the life of the self in social relations, the world of social exchange and of standing in one’s social role over time.  Is it possible to account for social life with only a interplay of ideas?  If those ideas themselves taken all together as mental occurrences make up the idea of the self as experienced over time, then the problem of the cogito becomes the problem of the bundle theory of the self in Hume’s Treatise.   And how is a bundle an agent?  An agent must have acted so as to incur obligation, that is, with some self-awareness but more importantly, with some self-intent.   The awareness of self and awareness of others as agents cannot be explained on a bundle theory, unless that self-intent can be explained.

          This is Reid’s objection. But since it is fairly well established that Hume had more than a bundle theory of self, one might conclude that Reid misses his mark.  Reid did not follow Hume’s argumentation into Book II’s account of the indirect passions of pride and humility as offering a passion-focused constitution of self, but fortunately we can. The indirect passions, being essentially self-directed, even self-obsessed, are said to give us a feeling of a self as subject of pride and shame (Treatise 2.1.2).[3]  The question then becomes: does Hume’s revised account entirely evade Reid’s objections? 

          To consider the matter from the perspective of repetition, each passion of pride or shame re-presents a self as subject, a generality to which all these representations are referred.  At the same time, each self-presentation is essentially social and mechanical: it is an external view of itself.  The mechanism of self-constitution Hume identifies requires something external to the self which prompts its activity of self-reflection.   Look for example at two comments in Treatise 2.2.2, “Experiments to Confirm this System”.  Hume notes both that

‘Tis evident, that as we are at all times intimately conscious of ourselves, our sentiments and passions, their ideas must strike upon us with greater vivacity than the ideas of the sentiments and passions of any other person. (T 2.2.2:339]

and that

...in sympathy our own person is not the object of any passion, nor is there any thing, that fixes our attention on ourselves; as in the present case, where we are supposed to be actuated with pride or humility.  Ourself, independent of the perception of every other object, is in reality nothing: For which reason we must turn our view to external objects; and ‘tis natural for us to consider with most attention such as lie contiguous to us, or resemble us. (T 2.2.2: 340-341)

Taken together these passages suggest something at least paradoxical.  They assert that we are at all times capable of intimate, that is unmediated, awareness of any motives, or emotions which we might be proud or ashamed as indicative of our characters.  It is this identical self that we know at all times.  Yet none of these passions would arise in us were there no external objects that we perceived, craved, or acted to obtain.  Ourself is in reality nothing, here in Book II as in the bundle theory of Book I.

          How then does Reid’s criticism now fare?  Who is it that can converse together and be under obligations of duty or gratitude to each other and make promises?   Essentially Hume sees the self as a theoretical construct, a process rather than as a center of spontaneity, which is held together as a retroactively and prospectively perceived agent, made sensible to itself by the indirect passions. If so, then there is still no reason for a Reid to withdraw the criticism.  If the person is nothing to be perceived unless other perceptions, other external things, provide the fuel for self-awareness, and if such a person is nothing more than the total of such occurrent states, what do we make of social interactions?  This self also faces the challenge of continual reintegration. 

          Reid would have an objection to what we might call the post-bundle indirect passions theory of the self.   The theory still fails to correct two mistakes.  First, Hume’s theory mistakenly defines self-awareness as the perception of self that is given in relation to other perceptions.  Without those perceptions of extrinsic mental states and external objects there is no self to perceive, thus making the self derivative from objects of perception and their perceptual marks.  Secondly, Hume continues to beg the question of how an agent is constituted out of the passions and sentiments he describes. [4]   To Reid’s way of thinking,  the social and political interactions of persons still require an old-fashioned metaphysical solution to a problem posed metaphysically.  Could such persons  do anything more than take an oath that they will fulfil our bonds as the self-same selves when called upon to do so?  And what would such an oath mean?  How can anyone ensure that the subject of the approval or disapproval has not shifted radically?  Of course he can offer no such assurance, because multiplicity defines the empirical subject.  Social life is founded upon a myth of permanence, not a fact.  Even if we think Hume has given us the correct deflationary account of self, the point is that Reid can still press an objection against the indirect passions theory of self.

          We can also make a related objection by invoking the distinction between the identical and the repeatable: repetition is “the displacement of difference and not the reappearance of the identical; it is the internal animation of the singular that prevents it from being equivalent to any other.”[5]  Only in repetition, not in representation, do we find the real difference in being a self that is not assimilated to a conceptualization of self.  And it is in the repetition of attending to ourselves, not as an object, but as a project, that we make ourselves.

          Here Reid and Shaftesbury must agree on one point: placing the knowledge of self into question and then immediately rescuing it, constructing a problem of  personal identity and then devising a theory to account for it, is dangerous to moral agency.  Consider Reid’s own account of knowledge of the self.  Every person  

believes himself to be something distinct from his ideas and impressions–something which continues the same identical self when all his ideas and impressions are changed.  (An Inquiry 2.7: 23)

Self-being is supposed or suggested everywhere, available in every experience, but not particularly experienced distinctly.  This follows from Reid’s view that mind is suggested by thoughts, and individual thoughts suggest (but do not prove the existence of) individual minds.  Suggestion in perception replaces proof in philosophical argument.  So a self is suggested,  just as the past existence of a thing is suggested (but not proved) by the memory of that thing (An Inquiry 2.7: 24-25). 

          The belief is basic: “from thought or sensation, all mankind, constantly and invariably, from the first dawning of reflection, do infer a power or faculty of thinking, and a permanent being or mind to which that faculty belongs” (An Inquiry 2.7: 23).  But does this tendency to believe in a permanent self do anything to assure its permanence?  That the opinion that cannot be shaken off is good enough for Reid.  But he simply lets the universal belief stand for truth.   Here we have a metaphysics of permanence connected to a epistemology of direct cognition via suggestion.  It is theory through and through, a theory designed to stave off skepticism.   But what of a practice conception of self?  It is time we saw Shaftesbury’s way around the problem of permanence.

                        Self as continuous reintegration

          For Shaftesbury it is the drive toward integrity that provides the continuity of a life.  Although such an attempt to instantiate one’s values in one’s actions is a practice born of a particular social context of honor or integrity that is definitely class-based and -derived, Shaftesbury fashions it into a common epicureanism in which selves work toward an integrity by character formation.  It is a self-seeking that realizes the self, but it is a self for a world of social and aesthetic purposes.  Let’s  briefly compare the strategies of Reid and Shaftesbury, then see Shaftesbury’s in more detail.  Reid rebukes skepticism about the self and asserts that everywhere, in every perception, the self is suggested rather than known.   This is the answer to the “Pyrrhonean antagonist”.   Shaftesbury argues that this sociable animal has a hedonistic drive to avoid the pains of moral disapproval in order to keep a constant pleasant hum of harmoniousness and self-ease.  We are at ease when we feel ourselves whole.  This wholeness is a consistency between our values and our actions, an ease only won through an effort called soliloquy.  By setting up an internal dialogue we can get a good view of ourselves through a kind of self-cell division, as recommended by the ancients.  Multiplying the points of view and highlighting differences in perspective paradoxically lets a center of wholeness emerge, an insight he credits to the ancients:

For if the division were rightly made, all within would, of course, they thought, be rightly understood and prudently managed.

                                                                    (Characteristics “Soliloquy” 1.2: 77 )

The problem of self is thus dialogic and moral, not metaphysical.  By rectifying our moral character that we progress ourselves into the future.   There is a kind of proving of self, but it is self-testing, not the proof of philosophers, which comes out in his characters’ self-interrogations:

          ‘Tell me now, my honest heart, am I really honest and of some worth, or do I only make a fair show and am intrinsically no better than a rascal?...’

                   ...’Am I not then, at the bottom, the same as he?’

          ‘The same: an arrant villain, though perhaps more a coward and not so perfect in my kind’.        (Characteristics “Soliloquy” 1.2:78 )

          Shaftesbury sets up a method of personal reflection that works to create coherence of thought and act.  It is through this interrogation, this effort to see oneself as nakedly as possible that a self emerges.  This is not to say that self-existence in the moment is in doubt,

But the question is, “What constitutes the “we” or “I”, and “Whether the ‘I’ of this instant be the same with that of any instant proceeding or to come?” (Characteristics “Miscellany IV”: 420)

          In Miscellany IV Shaftesbury takes up a philosophical position on such “dark matters” as whether the “I” of the cogito can be known to be the same from instant to instant.  Supposing that knowledge of the identity of the self depends upon consciousness, still “we have only memory to warrant us, and memory may be false”.  So whether I persist over time must remain metaphysically undecided.

To the force of this reasoning I confess I must so far submit as to declare that, for my own part, I take my being upon trust.  Let others philosophise as they are able:  I shall admire strength when, upon this topic, they have refuted what able metaphysicians object and Pyrrhonists plead in their own behalf.   (Characteristics  Miscellany IV. I:421)

That is, having pointed out the limitations of the cogito and summarized the metaphysical difficulties of progressing to a persisting self, he speaks on behalf of only his own disposition to take his own persistence on trust, writing

          If it be certain that I  am, 'tis certain and demonstrable who and what I ought to be, even on my own account, and for the sake of my own private happiness and success. For thus I take the liberty to proceed.  (Ibid.)

 Though it may seem to philosophers that he simply misses the point of Cartesian meditation and Lockean epistemology, he makes a decision not to risk founding a project of self-development on any rectified philosophical system. 

          By contrast, Reid’s self waits inertly upon the accountability presupposed for it.  As a permanent self, one just is the indicted standing before the court, the spouse, the son or daughter of filial piety, the party to the contract.  This is where I must fault Reid and endorse Shaftesbury.  Having prepared for practical philosophy, Reid fails to enact it.  Both take the social life of selves to be central to the question of their persistence over time, but Reid reduces social life to standing in rigid social roles.  Reid’s own legalism, his own objectification of the subject as the subject of law and social institutions, mislays the subject for us.  A better notion of the self as self-constituting can be discovered in the acts of continued self-origination, for which there may never be any final accounting.  Shaftesbury’s individualistic, self-assertive praxis of self is preferable to Reid’s social conformism in that it offers a reflexive act of approving which is creatively self-constituting.  In it we author ourselves rather than inscribe ourselves on legal documents.  In philosophical terms that I hope Shaftesbury would not object to , we can say that the unity of self exists only insofar as it is gained by moral effort with an aspiration towards self-approval.  Rather than being natural and automatic (as for Hume), the self requires deliberate self-examination and a rejection of social conventionalism.   Whether one will chose to integrate oneself by satisfying a social role, or by challenging that role is always yet to be decided.  As Deleuze says, “repetition as a conduct and as a point of view concerns non-exchangeable and non-substitutable singularities.”[6] Shaftesbury stands as a critic not just of the metaphysics of philosophy in his time, but also as a perennial alternative to all philosophical theories of the self where the self is reduced to mere spectator.  This, I think, makes him a good friend of philosophy after all.

 

 


                                                                       

1.  Quotations are referenced to the following sources:

          Characteristics: Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, edited by Lawrence E. Klein, Cambridge, 1999.

          An Inquiry: Thomas Reid, Reid’s Inquiry and Essays, edited by Ronald E. Beanblossom and Keith Lehrer, Hackett, 1983.

          Treatise: David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Nidditch, Oxford University Press, 1978.

 

2.     See Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, translated by Paul Patton, Columbia, 1994. 

Even as I draw from some of his work, I realize that Deleuze is no supporter of a Shaftesburian project of self-integration resulting in harmony.  Though he is writing of Kant, the comment applies more generally:

“ A Cogito for a dissolved Self: the self of the ‘I think’ includes in its essence a receptivity of intuition in relation to which I  is already another.  It matters little the the synthetic indentity—and, following that, the morality of practical reason—restore the integrity of the self, of the world and of God, thereby preparing the way for post-Kantian syntheses: for a brief moment we enter into that schizophrenia in principle which characterizes the highest power of thought, and opens Being directly onto difference, despite all the mediations, all the reconciliations, of the concept.” (p.58)

Yet I believe that Shaftesbury, in setting aside the finality of the cogito, would distance himself equally well from any metaphysical solution to the “problem” of self which involves synthesis.  Therefore, the integrity of self as a practice he asserts must be different from the synthetic integration of representations of self in a comtemplative moment that Deleuze has in mind.

 

3.     See also Susan M. Purviance, “ The Moral Self and the Indirect Passions”, Hume Studies XXIII:2 (1997).

 

4.  This is a criticism from Reid’s point of view, but of course Kant also says that the transcendental subject implicates the existence of an object and vice versa.  So from a Kantian point of view, it is a strength of Hume that he sees the mutual dependence of objects of perception and a perceiving subject.  However, this would still leave Hume and Kant with the problem of how to derive agency from the standpoint of a transcendental (Kant) or empirical (Hume) subject.

 

5.      Patrick Hayden, Multiplicity and Becoming: the Pluralist Empiricism of Gilles Deleuze, Studies in Europenan Thought  v. 15, Peter Lang, 1998, p.8.

6.  Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p.1.

 



[1]1.  Quotations are referenced to the following sources:

                                Characteristics: Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, edited by Lawrence E. Klein, Cambridge, 1999.

An Inquiry: Thomas Reid, Thomas Reid’s Inquiry and Essays, edited by Ronald E. Beanblossom and Keith Lehrer, Hackett, 1983.

Treatise: David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Nidditch, Oxford University Press, 1978

               

[2]  See Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, translated by Paul Patton, Columbia, 1994. 

                Even as I draw from some of his work, I realize that Deleuze is no supporter of a Shaftesburian project of self-integration resulting in harmony.  Though he is writing of Kant, the comment applies more generally:

“A Cogito for a dissolved Self: the self of ‘I think’ includes in its essence a receptivity of intuition in relation to which I is already another.  It matters little that synthetic identity–and, following that, the morality of practical reason--restore the integrity of the self, of the world and of God, thereby preparing the way for post-Kantian syntheses: for a brief moment we enter into that schizophrenia in principle which characterises the highest power of thought, and opens Being directly onto difference, despite all the mediations, all the reconciliations, of the concept.”(p.58)

Yet I believe that Shaftesbury, in setting aside the finality of the cogito, would distance himself equally well from any metaphysical solution to the “problem” of self which involves synthesis.  Therefore, the integrity of self as a practice he asserts must be different from the synthetic integration of representations of self in a contemplative moment that Deleuze has in mind.

               

 

[3]3.  See also Susan M. Purviance, “The Moral Self and the Indirect Passions”, Hume Studies XXIII:2 (1997).

 

[4]4.  This is a criticism from Reid’s point of view, but of course Kant also says that the transcendental subject implicates the existence of an object and vice versa.  So from a Kantian point of view, it is a strength of Hume that he sees the mutual dependence of objects of perception and a perceiving subject.  However, this would still leave Hume and Kant with the problem of how to derive agency from the standpoint of a transcendental (Kant)  or empirical (Hume) subject.

 

5.   Patrick Hayden, Multiplicity and Becoming: the Pluralist Empiricism of Gilles Deleuze, Studies in European Thought v.15, Peter Lang, 1998, p.8.

 

6. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p.1.

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Read "Richard Price's Contextualist Rationalism"

Here's a link to the University of Toledo:

Read "Hutcheson's Aesthetic Realism and Moral Qualities"

Read "The Moral Self and the Indirect Passions"

Susan M. Purviance