Subterranean homesick blues

I’m borrowing Dylan’s title, but this post has nothing to do with LSD, Vietnam or the American Civil Rights movement. I’m thinking more about selves, and the idea of finding one’s self buried under yourself, so to speak. There are two immediate problems here – the intrinsic one, which revolves around knowing which self is authentic, if one of them is (rather than a 3rd self, constructed from the available elements), and the extrinsic one, which is realised in the difficulties one has with how others relate to you, in that they are legitimately confused as to who they are talking to.

The intrinsic problem is perhaps the lesser of the two, but we may never really know it’s scope, because of the circularity of the evidence available to us. We compare memories of emotional states we used to have when we believed ourselves to be a certain character, and the margins of error in these reconstructions are vast. In my case, I think I can know it to be the lesser of the two, in that I’ve always seen my tendency towards analysis and detachment as a virtue, meaning that now – when I start realising how hyper-accentuation of those tendencies can be crippling – I can nevertheless present a continuous narrative that consistently recognises the character that used to be, and sees how it has become what it is. So more simply, I feel confident in my ability to recognise myself.

The extrinsic problem, however, is victim of interesting complications. Notably, the case in question involves me having expended serious and diligent effort in constructing the reactions others have to me, in the sense of self-consciously presenting certain attributes as necessary, and also virtuous – both in myself, and as accusations when others seem to lack those attributes. So now one becomes hoisted on one’s own petard, so to speak, because you now have to undermine the interpretations that you’ve spent so much time constructing. And if you were persuasive and effective in constructing them, it’s understandably difficult for people to relate to you outside of those interpretations.

There has been a recent and very strong trend in “Continental” Philosophy to re-examine the supposed virtue of detachment. As an aside: for those of you unaware of the “Continental” label, it’s in opposition to “Analytic” Philosophy, which is the Anglo paradigm. The analytic strand emphasises logic and conceptual analysis, and the continental has far more room for metaphysics and abstraction. And I don’t want to hear from any philosophers regarding this gloss – I know how simple it is. Anyway: I’ve been educated in the analytic tradition, where virtues such as objectivity, rationality, detachment and consistency have been adopted as essential to well-adjusted minds. But the recent trend mentioned above tries to argue that detachment reaches a point where one is no longer engaging with the object as it is, but rather with some laboratory construction of that object.

So people are formalised into patterns of behaviour, and one’s self is – in extreme cases – also treated as a scientific experiment. But in living this way, the information that informs your judgements has been sanitised and filtered to such an extend that it could possibly be described as bearing little relation to the object in the world. So perhaps we sometimes need to acknowledge the messiness of human psychology in a more than theoretical, abstract way, but rather find a way to allow it to inform not only our epistemology, but also our relations with ourselves and others. Most people, one feels, do this naturally, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing either, as I think most people employ their critical faculties too rarely. The challenge, of course, is finding the middle ground, and I’m enjoying that challenge immensely.

In terms of the homesickness and the blues, one can be homesick and bluesy for all of one’s characters, one imagines, as they serve different functions and manifest themselves at different times – and not necessarily the most appropriate times, unfortunately.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.