Sounding the depths: human identity as a history affirmed

What is a self-consciousness, consciousness of? It is the will, not necessarily explicitly expressed, to be a ‘self’. The questioning being desires a unified coherent existence, a ‘my view’ on the world, sustainable as a singular reassurance of worldly presence despite its fleeting characteristics.

The fleeting nature of lived life entails that identity is always a history. A history or record, vulnerable to revision and negation, of change as it impacts upon this being desirous of being. This desirous being cannot quench its incessant questioning, for everything it resolves initiates further puzzles and to cease questioning is to cease being human. It can however find significance, and the desire for significance is essential to the harmony of experience, that identity-sense that offers at least a temporary assurance of ‘self’.

The questioning being is directed towards singular reassurance of worldly presence: a sure footing in the world.

The questioning being is directed towards singular reassurance of worldly presence: a sure footing in the world.

Rather than an introspective self-cognisance, self-consciousness is the questioning being’s embodied attempt to win its identity through presencing itself in an intersubjective world. In the next blog I will explore identity’s transparency which results from unchallenged being in the world. Forced waiting and exploration I argue, are however those occasions in which our intentionality is thwarted and our identity-sense is thrown into sharp relief. At such points the questioning being is provoked to audit its ‘attempt to be’ within a world that resists. It is only when our intentionality as it threads out into the world finds itself headed-off that we discover our intentions. When unchallenged by the assumption of others, or the limitations of our environment, our identity becomes enmeshed with the background world, indeed it disappears. At such times, fearing to forfeit this pleasant plateau of success, but desirous of self-cognition, we look to others for affirmation and validation.

I have noted already that identity is a work in progress and its dynamism arises from its temporality. This dynamism is compounded by an amorphousness  which arises because no life is complete until death, as Heidegger frequently reminds us, one never sees oneself as a finished product; the self, Hegel insists, is always only in the process of becoming. Self-identity is consequently best understood as desire itself. Unless I am artificially to somehow attempt self-disclosure through the intentional thwarting of my own intentions, I must rely on the recognition of other subjects, a recognition I cannot attain through purposive conquest: without this intersubjective affirmation there is no being to consciousness, only becoming. Self-identity is therefore an intersubjective accomplishment.

Like the painting of the Forth Bridge, Heidegger reminds us that a human person is never a completed work.

Like the painting of the Forth Bridge, Heidegger reminds us that a human person is never a completed work.

Hegel’s dialectic for the progressive development of human self-consciousness is more persuasive as a random configuration; taken progressively Hegel’s stages iron out the regressive and repetitious steps that typify the way human identity is won, setbacks his philosophy is reputed to have embraced. The questioning being does not always crave mastery of physical and living objects. The Aboriginal way of life, surely indicative of a primordial life-stance, attempts harmony with, rather than mastery of the land. It is not clear either that a desire for mastery of living objects results inevitably in struggle. Ancient Egypt it seems was populated by an underclass, and even a hierarchy that acquiesced to the outrageous demands made by others upon their persons. Nevertheless, history is littered with the evidence of many intersubjective struggles. Indeed, though sometimes merely metaphorical, the human struggle for mastery has often been ‘unto death’. The conditions that prompted Hobbes to invoke the idea of societal contracts suggests that this struggle is not one-to-one but one-against-all. Whether by contract or by conquest however the Master-Slave relation surfaces and resurfaces in the cut-and-thrust of political, ecclesiastical, economic and even familial relationships.

If the serfs of Medieval England were ever ‘stoical’, so too surely were the dispossessed African slaves of the colonial empires. Hegel’s developmental stages can be better understood as oscillating states-of-being uncovered in one’s often audited will to be and indicative of some people sometimes. What person alive is perpetually in conflict or immovably rational? Nevertheless something in Hegel’s assessment of the acquisitive nature of human beings holds true. History of course, is not a solipsistic but intersubjective endeavour experienced as a tension between my desires and capacities and those of myriad others; it is here that history’s dialectic takes shape. Indeed I might lose my grasp of history and together with it my identity, in the other’s negation of that history I attempt to appropriate.

The master-slave dialectic proposed by Hegel seems unconvincingly to contend that all relationships are based on conflict and competition.

The master-slave dialectic proposed by Hegel seems unconvincingly to contend that all relationships are based on conflict and competition.

All experience of the world is distinctly personal experience of a shared world. Though we may agree via negotiation, no two human beings can share an identical perception, for we each appropriate uniquely, situation, history, intentionality and the process of meaning making. Even so, it is possible to argue, as does Merleau-Ponty, for a shared intersubjective nexus which derives from a ‘primordial communication’ rooted in our common embeddedness in the world. He insists that this primordial communication is no illusion ‘…in the perception of another, I find myself in relation with another ‘myself’, who is, in principle, open to the same truths as I am, in relation to the same being that I am.’[1]

Intersubjectivity; a shared intersubjective nexus which derives from a ‘primordial communication’ rooted in our common embeddedness in the world.

Intersubjectivity; a shared intersubjective nexus which derives from a ‘primordial communication’ rooted in our common embeddedness in the world.

If my perception, uniquely situated though it is, can be confirmed in the perception of another, why not history which is after all an account of the changes that perception accommodates?  Did the war end here? Is the economic climate responsible for increased migration? Is slavery eradicated or merely targeting new victims? These historical questions pertain necessarily to a shared world in which the questioning being is embedded, as a changing thing.

Affirmation of identity gained through the other’s endorsement is fraught however, because to the extent that the subject is aware of the other as a subject, it is aware of its capacity for purpose. It must, instinctively, procure the other for its own use, or be procured as that subject’s object. In an holistic sense not confined alone to consciousness, the subject becomes aware, in the moment of recognition, of a threat the other poses. The subject becomes aware of itself as an external object to the other; it is consequently ‘vulnerable to negation by that other consciousness’. Having outlined the manner of that threatened negation above I contend that it is the desire for significance which makes the subject vulnerable to ‘a life and death struggle in the effort to establish self-certainty’[2] as a significant being. The prize of affirmed status as being-for-itself demands the mediated endorsement of the other.

Hegel’s notion of self-consciousness as ‘simple being-for-itself’, proposes exclusion from itself of everything else, an unachievable isolation. I am an embodied part of the world and the world is in me. It is however my desire for verification of the audit my identity-sense undertakes, which necessitates another witness, for both purpose and significance in human terms is intersubjectively assigned.

As an embodied intersubjective intentionality embedded in the world it is not objectivity that eludes being-for-self but significance. In mutual recognition then it is this desired attainment of significance which is possible only when ‘each is for the other what the other is for it’.[3] Ontologically speaking, we are intersubjectively intentional beings whose questioning of being desires endorsement from the other. But when the questioning being seeks this affirmation a competitive objectifying tension ensues. Each consciousness that so desires affirmation of its significance in subjectivity, must win it from the other at the other’s expense.[4] This tension-in-reciprocation is, despite its capacity for conflict, nevertheless an affirmation of the shared primordial communication I considered above. Merleau-Ponty’s reading therefore of intersubjectivity’s dialectical struggle is that it illustrates our shared common ground in the world as embodied beings.[5]

Consciousness cannot enforce its wishes without a body and so the subject must act on others by acting on their bodies.

Consciousness cannot enforce its wishes without a body and so the subject must act on others by acting on their bodies.

Considering this constitutive struggle in Humanism and Terror, Merleau-Ponty’s further argues that consciousness cannot enforce its wishes without a body and so the subject must act on others by acting on their bodies. Thus it can only reduce them to slavery through embodied action in the world and as I have intimated already, this is derivative of the imbalance arising from a projection of purposiveness in denial of another’s significance. The body-subject impresses upon the other its purposive goals, utilising the other’s capacity for purpose whilst recognising only its own desire for significance as a subject. In this integrated reading, history is truly disclosed as a struggle; the historical struggle between master and slave, between classes, between ethnicities and between genders and so on.

Human history in the life of each questioning being is a record of its delicate attempt at attaining both harmonisation and authenticity in the world. This too must be balanced, but in the changing world shifting situational parameters ensure that the requisite balance changes too. In the tension between an often tacit desire for significance and an often readily apparent capacity for purpose, the historical conflicts arise wherein human beings are individuated.

I have described human identity as a history. But what is the relationship between history as a description of change in the background of the causal world and the history each person appropriates for themselves? Is human history anything more than determinate inevitabilities or relativistic irrelevancies? Does human action initiate or represent any universal certainties?

For phenomenologists such as Husserl, general essences arise out of ideational abstraction rather than inductive abstraction, and this discloses, not the average of cumulative experience but the essential quality implied in the unity of a given experience. A historical essence is a pervasive motivational pull towards a particular future because of a particular past. But can it be true for all?

Whilst an abstraction from concrete human experience moves beyond the local and temporal milieu, this origin remains relevant as the primary source of the eidetic observations made; the background from which the intersubjective Lifeworld is appropriated. For example, one historical account of the aftermath of the Second World War in Europe, extrapolates from its specifically attributed accounts, the eidetic observation that in comparison to the haunting brutality of the battlefields of the First World War and ‘…because it involved occupation, deportation and the mass displacement of civilian populations as well as fighting, the Second World War entered far more deeply into everyday life. Constant daily violence shaped the human psyche in countless ways…’[6] Such movements  are the ‘givens’ that Merleau-Ponty speaks of in his judgement that history’s development arises in collision with the contingent. Though one can posit essences in an abstraction of history, concrete history acquires its pattern from found and appropriated personal histories which reveal common elements. The essential characteristics of Second World War experience may be understood in these terms as a crystallisation of the essential form such an experience signifies to the human disposition and finds expression in that ‘primordial communication’ which captures our common embeddedness in the world. Historical essences, such as an epoch, are temporally conditioned and outworked in a particular temporal span so expressing the attitude of a certain phase in historical life. In a recursive manner which discloses our worldly embeddedness they give to the experience of historical individuals an identifiable tenor of life.

One may understand the essence of an epoch to be the pervasiveness of a common mood that animates and directs human beings in a particular historical situation.

One may understand the essence of an epoch to be the pervasiveness of a common mood that animates and directs human beings in a particular historical situation.

One may understand the essence of an epoch to be the pervasiveness of a common mood that animates and directs human beings in a particular historical situation. I might describe the post war years in Europe therefore as turbulent because their historical essence arises from a concrete historical context constituted by a unity of feeling from which diverse manifestations of life radiate and toward which they converge. Once again matters of fact are not to be doubted in their objective validity as the background world but their particular evocative power is inseparable from the lives in which it plays out.

Phenomenological reflection therefore echoes historical analysis in ascribing an essence to swathes of human history whilst tracing every essence to its constitutive basis in contextualised experience. Universal certainties are distilled from mutually affirming collective experience. It is clear nevertheless that the history actually experienced by each questioning being in any shared epoch is its own history. Whether one lived in Germany or Poland as the Iron Curtain descended on Europe; whether one is employed, unemployed or an employer when the financial crisis bites; these inner histories, dialectically appropriate shared universal certainties just as our taste buds interact with the intrinsic properties of the foods we eat. Even so, these adumbrated historical perspectives do not negate the eidetic universal any more than the Lifeworld negates the background empirical world.

The Lifeworld is encountered in human culture, that sedimentation of the actions of past persons which is pre-existent with respect to the development of any particular person. Each questioning being stands inevitably in some relation to culture and must appropriate it. As a consequence human identity is historical, for a culture is an historical artefact interiorised in the life-history of each appropriating being. Human identity therefore is indebted not only to the constraints of one’s embodiment but to the appropriative parameters of one’s particular cultural world or worlds.

With the reinstatement of embodied intentionality the questioning being is no longer a being alienated from nature or history but an ambiguity which fuses material history that is objective and a subjectivist history that is not and in doing so discloses universal and timeless certainties.

[1] Merleau-Ponty, The primacy of perception and its philosophical consequences, 1964b: 17, in Kruks, ibid, 240

[2] Atkins, K. Commentary on Hegel, in Self and Subjectivity, Malden, Blackwell, 2009, 62

[3] Hegel, Self-Consciousness Lordship and Bondage, in Atkins, 2009, 66-67

[4]Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception. Trans. C. Smith. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. French original, 1945, 355, in Kruks, ibid, 241

[5] Kruks, ibid, 241

[6] Applebaum, A. Iron Curtain: The crushing of Eastern Europe, London, Penguin History, 2013, 13

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