“Know thyself”; Immediate self-intuition

At a most basic level, a young child’s tugging against the resistance of another for its favourite toy or morsel of food is ‘self’ disclosing, a thwarting of personal intentionality which reveals one to oneself. For Husserl however, the founding father of phenomenology, the ‘self’ needs no mediating jolt to disclose self-consciousness and he rejected the role of the symbol in the ‘self’s’ orientation to the world. Husserl’s dismissal of the communicative usefulness of signs in solitary mental life led him to declare that ‘One’s conscious acts in silent soliloquy do not indicate anything to oneself with signs’.[1]  Notable philosophers such as Derrida conversely take issue with this, positing ‘différence’ as the ‘movement’ which presages otherness and non-presence in actual presence, promising more. Derrida concluded that Husserl failed to see the internal ‘dialectic’ which opens up living to difference, and constitutes in the immediacy of experience, the divergence present in indicative communication and signification in general and this was because he ‘not only intends to exclude indication from ‘solitary mental life’, his position holds that ‘… expressive language itself would be something supervenient upon the absolute silence of self-relationship’. [2]

Enquire within; but what kind of language is employed?

Enquire within; but what kind of language is employed?

But some scholars protest that one does signify meaning in words spoken to oneself in private soliloquy. Here the ‘I’ that seemingly only reports your past commits you to it. ‘The next time you utter ‘I’ this subsequent ‘I’ corre­sponds to and answers for the prior one.[3] When I rehearse a defence of past actions, whether for a police statement or a domestic dispute, when I review the way that I managed colleagues at work or consider how to phrase acceptance of an award, or articulate a romantic proposal, ‘I’ is ‘hardwired’ to my identity-sense and expressive of that accretion of meaning my life has acquired intersubjectively. It is not a hollow term of convenience even in inner speech.

Husserl cites the presence of signification in the brand imposed upon a slave; it is he argues, a present sign of the absent master and the reality of his power. Signification of this kind functions as an index of some reality because of a relationship established by association. The sign indicates, without divulging the workings of that which signifies; ‘the empirical association is without insight into eidetic necessity’. [4] Nevertheless for Husserl a sign can be expressive and have a meaning too. It points to an ideality rather than a reality. A sign’s expression therefore points to its meaning; a relationship not dependent on natural juxtaposition or conventional association but use. It is not just this branded slave that is indicated, the barbaric ownership of one human by another is also expressed as legitimized.

Similarly, a nod of the head may mean agreement or recognition and not exclusively a gesture towards something. Facial ‘expressions’, bodily poise and posture, may parade on the outside, attitudes, moods and states of mind, but not convey the meanings of objects. Words, issued as expressions, can also function as indices. As expressions, the words I hear someone speak refer to meanings the speaker intended them to mean, and additionally they indicate the speaker’s real acts and emotions.

What is it that the word 'here' signifies?

What is it that the word ‘here’ signifies?

Consider the word ‘here’, which has a univocal and ideal meaning: a speaker’s indeterminate spatial environment. Change the speaker however and the referent environment changes. The word ‘here’ functions in another way too: it points to where the word is pronounced. The word, as a real signatory event pronounced somewhere, indicates the position of the speaker who spoke it.

The personal pronoun ‘I’ functions like this. It is not pure index alone associated with a real individual. It can be associated with anyone; ‘I’ means: whatever speaker is self-designating by using it. Its pronouncement may be loaned out and thus serve to indicate whatever speaker is physically associated with it. Such indication is not exterior to the meaning however, so that ‘I am happy’ does not equate to ‘Whatever speaker is designating himself is happy’.

But are there any pure expressions, any words, whose meaning would be independent of the situated speaker or their contextual provenance? This is unlikely; similarly it seems that ‘self’-consciousness really is attended by consciousness of the world. Immanent intuitions seem intertwined with transcendent intuitions. This suggests that expressions, by which a consciousness refers to objects, are indivisible from indications which intimate the actual acts and states of the speaker.[5]

For the listener, expressions are indicative: sounds or inscriptions mean something because they are also construed as signs indicating the actual or past reality of some real person’s expressive intention. Even metaphors, though they do not indicate literal reality nevertheless express something originally derived from or dependent upon reality. Perhaps the speaker likewise recognises their own intentions, attitudes, and moods because expressions authenticate them. If this is so, those intentions, attitudes, and moods would be exterior, disconnected by the ideal materiality of the signs, similar to the manner in which real things themselves lie beyond any hyletic materiality given in sensibility.[6]


What kind of language is one using when one talks to oneself?

Though language functions expressively and indicatively, whoever speaks can withdraw from interaction with others.  For Husserl, the resultant solitary monologue no longer has the same kind of referent, though expressions retain their original meaning; he negates the indicative function of signs leaving the expressive function intact. Signs articulated inwardly keep consciousness in contact with objects and the world, but do not mediate its relationship with itself.[7]

However, in solitary monologue one is in fact talking to oneself; one is issuing signs in which thoughts, doubts and deliberations are formulated. One’s identity-sense audits these varying possibilities expressed, reading the signs for their implications regarding one’s purpose and significance in the world. These expressive signs, with which one intentionally refers oneself to an object through its meaning, also indicate to oneself that selfsame intentional orientation and the reason that Husserl is wrong in rejecting their indicative capacity is because the entity they indicate is never sufficiently verified. Imagine for example in preparation for  interview  I am asked routine questions such as why I chose teaching as a profession; the reason I spent some time out of the country; why I applied for this particular job and whether after a day’s familiarisation with this school, I still want employment there. As I speedily mould my reasons for my past behaviour to another’s questioning of it, I must update both my sense of ownership for those things I accept responsibility for and my sense of the meaning I wish to be regarded as accruing to my life as a consequence. This for a number of reasons involves inner speech that is new in its signification to me and is updated in interaction with others.

According to Husserl, in a monologue, words are not required to indicate ‘existence of mental acts’, this would be purposeless; the mental act has an ‘immediate immanent intuition of itself’, and  he concludes that ‘One merely conceives of oneself as speaking and communicating’.[8] But this is not persuasive and I reject Husserl’s view that a sign becomes superfluous because what the sign refers to is given. It is never fully given. Husserl is mistaken precisely because speech when directed to an inner referent serves the purpose of returning surety for the significance and purposiveness of the mental act with regards to its relationship to the identity we desire, an identity that can never be completed. As I speak, even internally, I speak myself, that is my identity, into being.

Consider again the occasional expression ‘I’. Husserl contends that in solitary speech the meaning of the ‘I’ is fully encapsulated in the immediacy of one’s own personality and conveyed to others in speech. Immediate intuition of both the speaker’s presence and of ‘one’s own personality’ renders superfluous the endorsement of a sign, inasmuch as the sign motivates belief in the reality of what it indicates and this job is done. However, to what extent is my identity ever ring-fenced and isolated from my inner vocalised reflection. In contradistinction I frequently ‘asks myself’, ‘Am I really like that?’, How would I have responded in such a situation?’ and so on. Whether face to face with the Nazi atrocities of the past, witness to the panicked frenzy of hungry refugees, or rioting looters, or whether the recipient of altruistic human kindnesses, I can meaningfully ask myself internally, ‘Where would I have stood in all of it?’. My identity-sense is not so much an immediate intuition of what is, so much as an audit of what might be.

The 'I' is a container whose contents are hard to label.

The ‘I’ is a container whose contents are hard to label.

Clearly the ‘I’ is not simply an index associated with one’s own personality; it also communicates ‘the speaker who designates himself’. Indicative function is a component of the meaning and therefore not superfluous, even in the context of immediate intuition. To use a designating word, one needs to know both its general meaning and the certain one that is meant on each designating occasion. When I refer to myself internally, I may designate my ideal ‘self’, my three-year old ‘self’ or some ‘self’ posited by another, nevertheless in a subjective sense whether or not I authorize the distinction, it is there.

One understands the meaning of ‘I think, therefore I am’ even when its speaker is out of sight, no longer alive, unknown or fictitious. The term ‘I’ designates the actual state of my personality and also conveys a meaning regardless of that state. It can be argued therefore that occasional expressions, continue to function meaningfully, with meanings specified by an indicative element, when speech is reduced to solitary monologue. The child that turns to its mother and says ‘Do I like broccoli?’ knows what it means by ‘I’, but is encountering the indeterminate I that we all find ourselves to be. So too if this question is internalized and made more momentous, let’s say ‘Would I die for my country?’, the question still designates a sense of actual state of my personality and yet also a meaning regardless of that state. Solitary speech is therefore one of the auditing processes, here at a conscious level, whereby one signifies to oneself the extent of one’s harmony with the world.

It is possible to proceed beyond Derrida, and affirm that ‘the linguistic articulation of thought includes signs functioning as indices of, and for, the linguistically articulating subject itself’.[9] The subject’s relationship to itself is not intuitive, but mediated through signs. Difference can be recognised in oneself furthermore; there are times when I might say without irony ‘I am not myself today’. These are not merely expressive but indices too, whose sign-functioning is determined by cultural usage.

Consider again the proposition that words, whether external or internal, are indices and signifiers both. The word ‘Rabbi’ is both index and sign. It is an index for all Jewish teachers trained in religious commentary on the Torah; it also signifies respect. I would not apply the term to myself, even in silent soliloquy, for I am neither entitled by Jewish descent nor by rigorous training. Nevertheless the term ‘Rabbi’ has both an indicative and expressive potency in my inner speech because it was applied to me insultingly in bitter exchanges at school.

Ask not what a word means but how it is used.

Ask not what a word means but how it is used.

The word ‘Rabbi’, an indicator of function and a signifier of respect, is for me, a sign of the tormenting intentionality of others. Though born in India, I suffered ridicule at school in England because I was considered different. This use of the term disconnected it from any indicative legitimacy; my peers were not accusing me of being Jewish. It made little sense to say, ‘It’s just a term of respect’. The purposiveness of the term ‘Rabbi’ was misapplied; I am not a trained Jewish exegete or pedagogue. The significance of the term furthermore is disharmonious with my life for it was never deployed by my peers at school as an expression of respect. In internal soliloquy the term Rabbi is a constant misalignment between the background and foreground of my world and therefore if the sign must motivate belief in the reality of what it indicates this job is still to be done. As a young student internalization of this term unleashed a battle between the following warring elements; belief that I deserve respect even though I am disrespected; the belief that Rabbis such Abraham ibn Ezra, Lord Sacks, or Jesus for that matter must have detected respect in this address; the belief that were I to use the term appropriately it would be honourable; the belief that its misapplication to me is indicative of the user’s ignorance or cruel intent. These conflicting factors cannot render the internal mental  act ‘They called me Rabbi’ an act bereft of signifying force

In the vocalizing and in the recollection of troubled soliloquy the word ‘Rabbi’ was a sign that emphasized alterity and the cruelty of others. Speech and gesture are signs of co-existence. Wittgenstein has rendered indubitable the observation that we have inner speech but we do not have a private language. The shared range of meanings we attempt to appropriate internally require expression in speech and our identity-sense is indebted to its retention of indicative and expressive force.

[1] Husserl, Logical Investigations, in Moran and Mooney, 2002, 544

[2] Derrida, ‘Signs and the blink of an eye’, chapter 5, Speech and Phenomena, 1967, in Moran and Mooney, 2002, 553

[3] Lingis, Contact, in Janus Head, Vol. 8, No. 2 Winter 2005, 442

[4] Lingis, 1984, 4

[5] Lingis, 1984, 6

[6] Ibid, 7

[7] Lingis, 1984, 7

[8] Husserl, Logical Investigations, 1970. in Lingis, 1984, 8

[9] Lingis, ibid, 13


The seductive promise of security: memory as a foundation for identity.

“Life without memory is no life at all… “
Oliver Sacks. The man who mistook his wife for a hat

A person’s singular identity is often construed as an interior narrative which chronicles life’s sensibility of continued ownness. But how can this inner chronicle thread together life’s episodes, particularly those we don’t experience such as birth and death, without the witness of others? Our loved ones’ recollections ‘fine tune’ our memories; similarly, our episodic memory relies upon the critical co-witness of others to appropriated events.

This dependence upon intersubjectivity, which I have explored in a number of ways so far, is further complicated because not all non-pathological humans naturally align themselves with a personal story which narrates the continuance of their lives.[1]

The memories our lives rely on are part autobiography and part biographical.

The memories our lives rely on are part autobiography and part biographical.

Some lives, described as episodic, are predisposed to recognise possession of a past ‘from the inside’, but display no sense of life as a narrative.[2] An accompanying minimal interest in their past or concern for their future serves to dilute any sensibility of a ‘self’ accordingly. Of course my argument is that one’s identity-sense may not be dependent upon conscious interest but nevertheless find equilibrium in a recognisable habituation of engagement with the world through unthought preferences, posture and participation in the world.

The narrative role of memory as a guarantor of human identity is first explored systematically[3] in Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.[4] According to Locke, continuity of identity is safeguarded, by way of an ironically Cartesian ’straightjacket’, in consciousness, delineated practically as memory. Consciousness, says Locke, perpetually accompanies thinking, enabling one to distinguishing oneself from all other thinking things; ‘in this alone consists personal identity…  and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person…’[5]

I have made the case for a significantly broader classification of personal identity and the critical factor which enables singular distinctiveness to accrue to each one. Personal identity is holistically felt and presented in the living body, not merely in conscious thought.

The identity of each human person is found in an essentially embodied intersubjective intentionality embedded in the world. In this existential space identity is won, individuated and lost precisely in the project of appropriating the world; the background empirical world and equally the historiocultural gender-specific concrete reality of one’s Lifeworld.

This appropriation is driven, uniquely for each identity, in the particularised manner in which a desire for significance is fulfilled and a capacity for purpose is expressed and furthermore, the manner and means by which an equilibrium is achieved between these two primordial traits. One’s sense of identity I have argued is that ongoing audit of this requisite equilibrium, undertaken holistically and the meaning one acknowledges has accrued to one’s life as a result. Locke’s diffidence towards consciousness is insufficient given the fragility of human memory.

It is a central argument of this thesis that the identity of a person consists in their activation of an intentional arc through which the world is appropriated and that this is by means of an intentionality that has the capacity to be both operatively subconscious and rationally conscious. It is not however safeguarded by memory and consequently must be repeatedly reaffirmed and renewed through a sampling of that intentionality.

For Locke there is recognition that human physical identity is individuated and maintained through retention of a person’s functional organization at an atomic level. A human most significantly however, is an intelligent thinking being aware of itself, as itself; the same thinking thing in different times and places, and so unsurprisingly it is consciousness that constitutes the  ‘person’ as distinct from ‘humanness’, and continuity of personhood is found in their unique individuated consciousness retained throughout existence. Consciousness of participation in past actions equates to owning them and identification with that person who instigated and perpetrated them. This even extends to things done whilst asleep or otherwise unconscious. In terms of personal identity then, for Locke, memory is all.

To what extent are the formative events of our lives, scrumping say, part of us to the end.

To what extent are the formative events of our lives, scrumping say, part of us to the end.

Fifty years after Locke, Hume acknowledged the import of memory as a criterion for identity, but disputed that any distinct human impression supported the notion. Hume argued that repeated remembrances build up the semblance of identity.[6] Memory creates rather than validates identity. For Hume the idea of continuity of being, is the by-product of imagination rather than memory, and this lends empirical weight to Hegel’s rationalistic conjecture that self-consciousness is essentially desire, desire for selfhood. My view is not that Hume and Hegel are entirely wrong, but that they miss the significance of that colossal investment each human person nevertheless makes in the maintenance of selfhood, and the urgency with which one’s identity-sense monitors this endeavour. My human identity is a construct, imaginatively built upon the embodied intersubjective intentionality embedded in the world which this questioning being harmonises as mine. Nevertheless it is not the exclusive domain of consciousness and it is not rendered indubitable by it.

Whilst there is something compelling in Hume’s skepticism regarding a tangible core human ‘self’, his radical empiricism goes too far. Though there may not be a permanent central ‘I’ that governs my life, this does not mean that there is no primordial drive which desires permanence and to which an accretion of meaning attaches as a result of one’s appropriation of the world in expression of a primordial purposive capacity and an equiprimordial desire for significance. Memory is a poor safeguard for the integrity of that centeredness but a rich resource for its construction.  Indeed Reid also criticised Locke’s position highlighting the circularity caused by memory’s fragility. He questioned the implications for identity when our several selves contemplate each other’s existence and asserted that memory is neither necessary nor sufficient for personal identity metaphysically speaking.[7]

Locke’s theory implies that a breakdown of memory entails discontinuity of identity. Of course this criticism in turn hinges on the assumption that there can be such a thing as a discrete private identity. In my view one can have personal identity to the extent that one’s identity-sense can successfully sustain an experience of ownness. Were personal identity not an intersubjective accomplishment however, memorial fragmentation would herald the cessation or dissolution of identity.

Suppose a gallant officer to have been flogged for robbing an orchard when a schoolboy, to have captured a standard from the enemy in his first military campaign, and to have been promoted to the rank of a general at the end of his career. Suppose also, suggests Reid, the admissible possibility that on capturing the standard, he was conscious of having been flogged at school, and when made a general he was conscious of having captured the standard, but that he had by then completely forgotten his flogging. Reid concludes that if the man flogged at school is the same person who took the standard, and he who took the standard is the same person who was made a general, this should entail that the general is the same person as the boy flogged at school. However, ‘the general’s consciousness does not reach so far back as his flogging’, therefore, ‘according to Locke’s doctrine’, he is not the person who was flogged. Problematically ‘The general is, and at the same time is not, the same person as him who was flogged at school’.[8]

Was the mature General  only comprised of the formative events of his life that he was able to recall?

Was the mature General only comprised of the formative events of his life that he was able to recall?

Thus, if memory plays the vital role Locke posited, the general who remembers his exploits as an officer but not his misdemeanours as a boy cannot be the same person as the latter, even though he is the same person as the officer whose recollection of childhood is intact.[9] Even if memory were infallible, it cannot constitute proof of identity when the concept of memory depends conceptually on the presence of identity. It becomes clear that my identity unifies the memory impressions I have, encrypting them as ‘my’ memories. It is furthermore the mechanism with which I filter these memory impressions for my purposes and for significance to me.

This last aspect is relevant to the almost universal phenomenon of ‘childhood amnesia’[10] which entails that few people remember anything prior to three years of age with subsequent years barely memorable either. Certainly one can identify physiological reasons for this, such as the insufficient brain maturation before the age four or five which means that the ‘dentate gyrus’, a small part of the hippocampus, fails to facilitate the flow of signals to areas around it that retain them. Even so children retain some memories from experience before maturation is complete.

Scholars have gone on to suggest that the erosion of childhood amnesia coincides with development of the ‘cognitive self’;[11] the ability discerned in the youngster between eighteen and twenty four months to distinguish themselves from others. Some have argued from extensive tests over the course of ten years that our identity-sense helps us to organise our memories thus aiding recall. Considered phenomenologically, it is not surprising that memory can begin to accrue to the young only when there is an identity-sense it can adhere to. In fact what can one select to retain as of memorial import for one’s life if one has not yet begun to unify one’s sensory experience? Such a cognitive unity can only then begin to express a desire for being and identify at least tacitly those experiences for retention that are useful to oneself and significant for oneself. Thus an emergent identity-sense would seem to play a significant role in enabling memory but even so ‘memories continue to be sparse long after the point at which a toddler can recognise his or her reflection’;[12] further explanatory factors must apply.

Researchers argue that in addition to brain development and the advent of a ‘cognitive self’ the development of language is also vital. One study confirms in part, the sentiments of Merleau-Ponty regarding language acquisition years before when he argued that ‘The spoken word is a gesture, and its meaning, a world’,[13] in concluding that ‘You have to have a word in your vocabulary before you’re able to set down memories for that concept’.[14] Merleau-Ponty is arguing that in addition to conscious memory the body retains a gestural pre-conscious memory of meaning. The compelling idea follows that one’s identity-sense provides a structure to which memories can accrue and language serves to extend this construct with some kind of ‘memory scaffold, anchoring the details in a format we can call up years later’.[15] This consciousness-dependent notion is that much more convincing when supplemented with the idea that one’s body-subject retains this memory holistically and through revisited explorative narratives, language is enabled to reclaimed it. Indeed the research goes on to affirm that in a recursive manner language does not just appropriate the past memorially, ‘talking about the past… also fosters development of a sense of self’. To argue that one’s harmonising of the world is sensed holistically is to affirm the creative role, but not the validatory role, of one’s unifying desire to be, one’s memorial narrative of experience and one’s narration regarding one’s own identity. What ensues is autobiographical memory, though not as a validatory guarantor.

Words and meanings, like memories are the creative elements with which we shape our lives.

Words and meanings, like memories are the creative elements with which we shape our lives.

Sartre’s twentieth century critique marginalises the role of memory further in that he argues that memory cannot be possessed at all. As I have shown, he argues that a conscious person is free, a fluid self-determining centre of distinctness and memories, like preferences, merely reveal a person’s primary existential project. Having judged that consciousness is a nihilation, Sartre asserts that one must conclude that ‘to be conscious of ourselves and to choose ourselves are one and the same’.[16] To some extent I agree but it is not in fact necessary to assume that one only chooses oneself consciously. In fact memory may be said in retrospect to supply the conscious narrative for a prior-to-conscious choosing that has already taken place.

Our lives, are malleable and stylised, like the memories that underpin them.

Our lives, are malleable and stylised, like the memories that underpin them.

According to Sartre, we may through conscious choice live in bad faith, rejecting correction of wrongly constructed reminiscences because we cannot embrace what we once were. Memory is a matter of our truth which has validity on a personal plane rather than objectively.[17] Remembrances are lived and legitimated when they represent adequately the performance of my project which takes up, in my view, the tension between being what I am not yet and interrogating what I am.

Here then, in Sartre’s objection, is disclosed  the role of memory. The ‘self’-actualising human being, an identity-sense desirous of harmony, attempts to incorporate the disjunctive stimulus of each given moment and to encompass time through projecting Being from itself upon time.[18] Memory is a creative tool employed by one’s identity-sense to stem the fragmenting tide of time and etch in the sands anew the outline of its fragile harmonisation of significance and purpose in appropriation of the world.

Memory is neither the criterion nor guarantor of continued identity over time,[19]  though a primordial human desire for such harmony persists. Human identity, incessantly, re-opens time to reclaim its ‘what it is to be’, a singular embodied intentionality embedded in the world. Though memory cannot safeguard identity, this most creative tool sculpts identity.[20]


Memory, rich in texture as it undoubtedly is, enables us to sculpt our identity-sense.

Memory, rich in texture as it undoubtedly is, enables us to sculpt our identity-sense.

[1] Galen Strawson, Against Narrativity, Ratio (new Series), XVII 4 December 2004 0034-0006, 428-433. In fact, each of us are positioned somewhere on a spectrum between a ‘Episodic’ and’ Diachronic’ experience of the ‘self’, Ibid, 430-45-, Strawson explores this issue advising us in the final word not to conclude that Diachronicity is a necessary condition of a properly moral existence, nor of a proper sense of responsibility. How he asks do Episodicity and Diachronicity relate to Narrativity? In response he advises us to suppose that being Diachronic is at least necessary for being Narrative,  since its true by definition that if you’re Diachronic you’re not Episodic and conversely, it follows that if you’re Episodic you’re not Narrative.

[2] Strawson, 2004, ibid

[3] Henry, E. Allison, Locke’s Theory of Personal Identity: A Re-Examination Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 27, No. 1. (Jan. – Mar., 1966), 41

[4] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London, Fontana Library 1964), 212

[5] Ibid, 449

[6] David Hume, Treatise of human nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, Oxford, OUP, 1951, 259

[7] Rebecca Copenhaver, Reid on Memory and Personal Identity First published Wed Mar 18, 2009, The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/cite.html, accessed 18:13, 14th November 2010

[8] Essays 276, Ibid

[9] Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, in Works of Thomas Reid, ed. Sir William Hamilton, 8th edition (Edinburgh, 1895), 11, 351

[10] Weir, K. Our forgotten Years , in New Scientist, 43

[11] Mark Howe, in Weir, ibid, 44

[12] Howe, in Weir, ibid

[13] Merleau-Ponty, M. PP, 2006, 214

[14] Morrison, in Weir, ibid

[15] Weir, ibid

[16] Sartre, 2005, 484

[17] Ibid, 647

[18] Luchte, 2008, 115

[19] For an interesting discussion of an argument for abandoning criterialism and the implications that ensue from this see ‘There Are No Criteria of Identity Over Time’ Trenton Merricks, Noûs, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Mar., 1998), pp. 106-124

[20] This term is explored in Abraham. H. Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, London, Penguin Arkana, 1993 as indicative of a strategic and therapeutic choice to choose, see pages 40-50. I borrow it here to depict instead the default intentionality of human identity.

Identity-sense: sensing oneself in the world

In this blog I wish to consider the way that one realises one’s unique ‘way to be’ in the given world; put simply I wish to describe the way that the questioning being interrogates the world recognising that this is not merely a conscious and therefore rationalised interaction. This is a significantly human aspect of that being but there is much more interaction to describe. Indeed relevant to this claim is the fact that my phenomenological evaluation of human identity has found untenable the intuition of a unified Ego. I have however gained from Husserl’s later work the insight that identity is essentially intentional and intersubjective. Merleau-Ponty moreover, contends convincingly that ‘being incarnately’ is an essential ‘way to be’, supporting my view that human identity is essentially embodied intersubjective intentionality. It has, through the course of this thesis, become clear in addition that that the intentional lived body grounds human identity, and this speaking being spans subjectivity and objectivity.

Precisely because the lived body grounds human identity, one’s identity-sense is not reliant upon mental ‘self’-reflection alone but is, as an experience of one’s singularly embodied intentional presence, experienced holistically  in every aspect of one’s embodiment. I feel what it is to be me, and audit the success of my harmonising ambitions in all of my being. My identity-sense is also, as a result of indebtedness to the lived body, recursively acquired through my conscious, and my habitual, interaction with others and the world; though I may rationalise its perceptions mentally, my identity-sense is not merely a mental phenomenon nor is it only registered as such.

As with plant-like creatures such as the sea anemone, the questioning being assimilates the worlds  meaning sensitively in ways not necessarily reliant upon conscious thought.

As with plant-like creatures such as the sea anemone, the questioning being assimilates the worlds meaning sensitively in ways not necessarily reliant upon conscious thought. Sea Anemone, Image from image from http://deepbluehome.blogspot.dk/2011/09/sea-anemones.html Other dramatic images are to be found here.

In the posts that follow I will explore in detail the way that one’s identity-sense comprises an existential measurement of success. An audit, often tacit, which is constantly monitoring the explicit and implicit harmonising one inevitably attempts between one’s primordial desire for significance – capacity for purpose and the Lifeworld. That which is monitored is my appropriation of the world that forms my identity, an appropriation that occurs through the following mechanism. My capacity for purpose motivates me to take up and employ as useful the background of the world; in addition to this my desire for significance prompts me to confer to selected aspects of that world, value for me, in the hope that they in turn confer value upon me. By such an appropriation I bring the background of the world into my foreground and by this mechanism an accretion of meaning accrues to my life. As I have noted already, the auditing work that constitutes one’s identity-sense is not solely undertaken though conscious reflection. It is however, often assumed that memory is both the gatekeeper and the guarantor of my identity-sense. It is to evaluate this assumption that I turn now to the role of memory.

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

The winds of change: history and human identity

“History has meaning, but there is no pure development of ideas. Its meaning arises in contact with contingency, at the moment when initiative founds a system of life taking up anew scattered givens.”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in Les Aventures de la Dialectique


So far in this thesis I have traced all human motivation and accomplishment back to the primordial trait of the questioning being, a binary trait which fuels its questioning tendency. This is not to suggest a simplistic kernel to human life but to identify the fundamental ubiquity of the human desire for significance and capacity for purpose whose harmonisation is vital for sustainable human identity. At the heart of the notion and practise of history this primordial trait is at work.

History is the human record of change, a recognition of time passing which either selects out the significant as landmarks, or chronicles the passing of life to accomplish a purposive agenda. To illustrate the former one might cite urban development, gender emancipation or territorial annexation as key significant thematics. In terms of the latter one might curate historical accounts in order to eulogise a king, to sanitise the past, to write an apologetic for divine actions or to legitimise a victor’s demands over the vanquished. I do not deny that matters of fact comprise the background of our shared lives but only acknowledge the partisan nature of histories that bring it into the foreground through selective accounts.

The historical matters of fact which comprise the background of our shared lives are brought into the foreground through selective human accounts.

The historical matters of fact which comprise the background of our shared lives are brought into the foreground through selective human accounts.

Merleau-Ponty, introducing a lecture series on Husserl, presents the Heideggerian notion of inhabitation as akin to the late Husserl’s notion of history as ideation. Essentially one could argue that partisan accounts can nevertheless resonate with each other and contain furthermore, timeless truths or historical essences in which others can participate. In my view, key to both is the appropriation of meaning which makes another’s history also one’s own, just as, for all his revisionism, Merleau-Ponty finds a road to travel by in his historical reading of Husserl.

Consider Merleau-Ponty’s use of the Husserlian example of the geometer. Euclid’s development of geometry opened up a region in which future geometers can operate and laid down a formal conceptual route one must travel by each time one engages in geometry. To this extent then, one participates in Euclid’s thought, in fact in Euclid’s history, in doing geometry. Represented by Merleau-Ponty, Husserl’s  ideation makes its ‘lateral repetition’ redundant, and instead serves ‘to launch culture toward a future… to outline a futural, geometrical horizon, and to circumscribe a coherent domain.’[1]When we participate in history we do so as travellers climbing higher. As with inhabitation one might speak of repetition, but also the possibility of a future which travels the road laid down in order to discover the new. Euclid’s historical geometric endeavours do not consign mathematicians to the occupation of a space repeated endlessly, but enable an occupation which is the very harbinger of new discoveries Illustrating the congruence between my key phenomenological thinkers, one scholar has noted, Merleau-Ponty has given us a Husserlian account that is ‘markedly Heideggerian’.[2]

History is a map of significances.

History is a map of significances.

To my mind, even with the syncretist gloss Merleau-Ponty applies, Husserlian history becomes a map of significances. For Husserl everything historical becomes ‘understandable’ in the ‘being’ peculiar to it, ‘a unity of a self-questioning interior and intelligible structuration that develops as a result of that inner motivation.’[3] Husserl admires the way most historians address this ‘spiritual’ aspect of the human, they include spiritual being, and prioritise ‘the history of ideas’ above ‘the history of events’,[4] nevertheless they mistakenly attempt to study the psychical with methods appropriate to the physical. Historians cannot penetrate true reality; simply put, the philosopher deals with the truth of essence, while natural and humanistic scientists, limited by the natural attitude, deal with facts which are necessarily relativistic.

For Husserl, phenomenology discovers the real meanings of things through a process of ideating abstraction. This is a mental act, applicable to history, in which the thinker grasps the essence of something. The abstractive act may be a generalisation whereby an approximate morphological essence is grasped, or it may be an idealisation which grasps an exact essence.[5] Thus in reviewing the meaning of history one might accomplish via an empty ideating abstraction, concepts that govern history, I have called these significances. It is readily apparent however, that I cannot submit unforeseeable historical events to ideating abstraction until they occur. Also I cannot grasp the direct presence of events through eidetic intuition, unless I have appropriated that essence for myself and the presencing fulfils that intention. Thus once again as the Danish prophet warned us so simply, ‘life must be lived forward and understood  backwards’.

Husserl’s notion of ideation, applied to history as the historically defining idea that a nation or community of people embodies, initially arose out of his dismissal of the historically contextual embeddedness of perception which forfeited timeless truth and relegated historical insights to relativity. It has been argued since that this is a false phenomenological dichotomy.[6] The historically defining idea for Husserl was, in Europe, epitomised supremely in the rationalistic questing resolve, or theoria[7], threading through European humanity to the present day. The ‘Inner history’ of Europe therefore underlies and supersedes all personal and historical events. Here is history distilled into its essential significance.

History pertinent to the phenomenologist Husserl concludes, is that ‘culture of truth’ which discloses founding intuitions and meaning-giving acts.[8] Not the diverse experiences of actual people at various times, but the ‘primal wellsprings’ from which current tradition was originally drawn.[9] For Husserl, historical reflection becomes all of a piece with the phenomenological search for the things themselves and ‘historical, backward reflection… is thus actually the deepest kind of self-reflection aimed at a self-understanding in terms of what we are authentically seeking as the historical beings we are’[10].

Heidegger in contrast held that history is an element of the ‘factical’ thrownness to which we are tethered, and by implication as concernful beings, to the purposive lives we appropriate for ourselves. Fundamental to Being and Time is his portrayal of the worldhood of the world, an ‘all-pervasive background of meaningful relations’ wherein we find ourselves already thrown. As being-in-the-world, Dasein is inextricably bound up with a background of inherited significance and relevance relationships it must appropriate purposively.

For Heidegger this shared world is accessible only through the interpretations and practices of a linguistic community, a theme echoed in Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. The linguistic community however represents for Heidegger the indeterminate perspective of ‘anyone’. Dasein is bombarded by this dominant ‘interpretedness’ which disseminates ‘the possibilities of average understanding and of the state of mind belonging to it’[11]. Socialisation necessitates imbibing this everyday standardisation of language and practices. Thus again we no longer encounter the things themselves spoken about, but instead a superficial linguistic commonality in the form of I-said-because-she-said-because-he-said.

History is an element of the ‘factical’ thrownness to which we are tethered.

History is an element of the ‘factical’ thrownness to which we are tethered.

Dasein is that concernful being, directed towards the future in undertaking projects fuelled by the past, and ‘making present’ that which it attempts. This temporality is the very condition enabling history. ‘It is because Dasein is a ‘movement’ or ‘happening’ with a distinctive structure that historical unfolding and ‘world history’ is possible’.[12] History takes the form of a ‘tradition’, the ‘calcified set of uprooted and groundless presuppositions’ that constrain the parameters of judgments and behaviour. Too often this ‘tradition’ overwhelms and obscures those originating ‘primordial wellsprings’ Husserl spoke about. Historical investigation has legitimacy in drawing us back to the sources.

Here Heidegger diverges from Husserl. If one can find and maintain personal integrity in the public commonality of the linguistic community one can be authentic; in appropriating it for oneself, ‘tradition’ becomes ‘heritage’. The importance of history for both Husserl and Heidegger lies in the ‘authentic happening of human existence’ arising out of the future meaning-conferring projects one adopts.[13] Being authentic in one’s historical context means for Husserl the identification of ‘one overarching project’, the significant inner history of one’s community, and for Heidegger ‘experiencing oneself as a participant in a range of purposive undertakings defined by one’s heritage’.[14] For the lives we lead the world is ready-to-hand as are its inherited significances, for Heidegger it is the appropriation for oneself of contextualised history as purposeful in one’s Being-towards-death that history is authenticated, as ‘heritage’.[15] For Husserl history is distilled into a significance that transcends lives, for Heidegger history is that personally appropriated purposive  existential meaning. Either way, one must make history one’s own if it is to enrich one’s identity.

In my view Merleau-Ponty, with his reinstatement of embodiment as essential to the subject offers a link between Husserl’s history as the sedimentation of significance and Heidegger’s history as purposive. Merleau-Ponty like Heidegger, argued that the philosopher must not be construed as a detached ‘spectator’, but as a ‘situated’ participant in a shared world. Intersubjectivity, raising inevitably questions concerning the relationship of the self with ‘the other’, is consequently a matter of ‘history’, for history is the negotiated human record of change and of time passing; indeed, the theme of history is fundamentally the same as the theme of the other.[16] As I have noted already, the question of ‘the other’ arises essentially because ‘the other’ is always my potential negation, the place in which conflict arises. Though I am indebted to intersubjectivity for my identity, intersubjectivity is inevitably conflict.

The questioning being is not merely a psychical thing nor is its identity-sense merely that of a discrete reflecting consciousnesses placed alongside the world of objects. I sense my identity holistically through the body that I am and the world of things is always and necessarily present in me through my body. Though an external object certainly ‘stands before me,’ says Merleau-Ponty, ‘I am not in front of my body, I am in it, or rather I am it’.[17] Thus as I have already rehearsed, to exist is to be one’s body and to be one’s body is to be a ‘body-subject’’, a unity transcending the dichotomy of mind and body, subject and object. This concept invokes a paradoxical and ambiguous relationship, in which consciousness and materiality, subjectivity and the world of ‘things’, are co-extensive. Because of this ambiguity one’s identity requires harmonisation, between a desire for significance as subject, and one’s practical and participatory purposiveness in action as a part of the world.

That world of things is always and necessarily present in us for our bodies question the world as to its purposiveness for us. Through our bodies we have a world, and our existence is inseparable from our inherence in things; an inherence in a world that is both shared and changing. I am the history I appropriate. My sense of history, in general and also personally, relies on thought grounded in the fact of this changing world. Thus as Merleau-Ponty shows, it is through my body as a unique and ambiguous, but nevertheless really objective thing in the world of things, that I can ‘know’ that I exist from day to day and in some particular context. My body, this proof of my historical existence, lies in part beyond myself in things and verifies my existence only when grasped in action toward the external world. In significations that I find as givens I work out a purposiveness and attempt a harmonisation which can never be entirely my own exclusive possession. Thus is my identity won.

As subjectivity I encounter the world as that realm, Husserl memorably contended, in which I do not hold sway, that thing I do not pervade or control. Nevertheless I am not pure subjectivity, distinct from the world in the transcendental manner Husserl invokes, nor as in the bleak Sartrian radical bifurcation of things. The reason for this Merleau-Ponty explains, is that like a temporary ‘hollow’ or ‘fold’ made in being, I am simultaneously part of being and distinct from it. I share the historical purpose of things yet my significance transcends them. My identity is historically embedded just as my empirical being is embedded in the Lifeworld; this is not a static petrifying status but the very reason my identity evolves and the source of meaning on which it feeds.

History... initiative colliding with contingency.

History… initiative colliding with contingency.

For Merleau-Ponty the ‘body subject’ is characterised in a quite particular manner as dialectical and he notes, ‘The dialectic … is the tending of an existence towards another existence which denies it, and yet without which it is not sustained’.[18]  Just as the questioning being is a recursive or dialectical reality, so too its situation is also dialectical, it can both affirm and negate; ‘it is both the field of my freedom and a limit to my freedom, since it is ‘other’, as well as being mine’.[19] My historical situatedness is ambiguous because I grasp the unity of my bodily existence through an intentional perception of objects yet something always transcends that perception. My situation commits me, not to a transcendent grasp of things-in-themselves, but to a perspectival grasp of the objects of history seen from one adumbration which disallows others to me whilst revealing that in this shared world other perspectives are tenable; indeed I find it is so in colliding with them.

[1] http://erlebnis.wordpress.com/2007/12/04/merleau-ponty-on-history-and-meaning/. Accessed 31st May 2014, 23:47

[2] http://erlebnis.wordpress.com/2007/12/04/merleau-ponty-on-history-and-meaning/. Accessed 31st May 2014, 23:47

[3] Husserl, Philosophy as a Rigorous Science, in William Casement, Husserl and the Philosophy of History, History and Theory, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Oct., 1988), 230

[4] Casement, ibid

[5] Drummond, J. J. Historical Dictionary of Husserl’s Philosophy, Maryland, Scarecrow Press, 2007, 104-105

[6] Kaufmann, F. The Phenomenological Approach to History: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Dec., 1941), 159-172

[7] Husserl, The Vienna Lecture, Crisis, 1970, 285

[8] Guignon, C. History and Historicity, in Blackwell Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism, Malden, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, , 548

[9] Guignon, ibid, 549

[10] Husserl, 1970, in Guignon, ibid, 551, italics mine, ‘what we are authentically seeking’ echoes our sensibility of human identity as the embedded desire for significance which often is obliged to transcend that embeddedness.

[11] Heidegger, BT, ibid, 211

[12] Guignon, ibid, 552

[13] Guignon, ibid, 553. NB, ‘history has its essential importance… in that authentic happening of existence which arises from Dasein’s future’. Heidegger, 1962, 438

[14] Guignon, ibid

[15] Heidegger, BT, 435, in Guignon, Ibid

[16] Merleau-Ponty, M. (1966). La philosophie de l’existence. Dialogue 5(3): 307-322. Originally a lecture

given in Paris, 1959 in Kruks, S. Marcel and Merleau-Ponty: Incarnation, Situation and the Problem of History, in Human Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2 (1987), 225

[17] Merleau-Ponty, PP, 1962, 150, in Kruks, ibid, 236

[18] Merleau-Ponty, (1962: 167-168) in Kruks, S. Marcel and Merleau-Ponty: Incarnation, Situation and the Problem of History, in Human Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2 (1987), ibid, 238

[19] Kruks, ibid,  239

Purpose and significance in the human relationship to technology; Part III

The world is still shaking off the masculinisation of purpose.

The world is still shaking off the masculinisation of purpose.

How pervasive is this polarisation of human identity and its fundamental essence? The masculinisation of purposiveness has accompanied a normalising of purposiveness. Thus men have been able to dominate science, for it is by such procurement ‘man’s domain’ and, as such, science has been dominated by domination rather than collaboration. As Heidegger puts it, though he looks beyond science per se, ‘the revealing that rules’ throughout modern technology is characterised by a domination which is challenging forth; one might almost employ of the analogy of a Lazarus commanded to arise from the grave. This domination commands nature to release its energy, once unlocked, this energy –  nature’s bounty – becomes a procured commodity, owned, stockpiled and sold to the highest bidder.[1]

Sooner or later everything in a functionalist world is procured as part of the standing reserve.

Sooner or later everything in a functionalist world is procured as part of the standing reserve.

The purposiveness of technology commands that all remain immediately to hand, inventoried as a resource in the ‘standing-reserve’, no longer seen for what it is itself but for what purpose it may serve at a moment’s notice. No longer an autonomous object, what is procured as standing-reserve waits as an itemised extension to myself, ready to do my bidding; the airliner on the runway is my escape to the sun; the woman at the counter my means to acquire groceries; as I have described already, the disused railway line becomes my route to fitness. Though ultimately humans such as I perpetuate this revelation of things as ‘on hand to do my bidding’, I am not in ultimate control because I too am subpoenaed, summoned to my place in the standing-reserve. Thus to win my identity, dependent as it is upon a desire for significance, I must wrest it free from another’s appropriation of my capacity for purpose.

If I am to be emancipated from mere purposiveness I must acknowledge the ‘enframing’[2] that summons me to validate the standing-reserve. Alternatively, all that is actual, the background, the foreground and the Other, myself even, become something to be procured or appropriated purposively or discarded as useless, something without significance. It is through signifying that the Lifeworld comes alive, becomes a part of my life; it is through granting significance to the other as subject that I am finally not alone. Finally it is through the accretion of meaning as purpose and significance that I acquire, develop and sustain identity.

The human tendency to overemphasise purposiveness results in a loss of equilibrium. The problem facing humankind and accordingly human identity, perhaps as a result of a reactionary abhorrence in post enlightenment society towards the mythology of ancient and medieval worldviews, is the corruption of our sense of the unconcealed. What, implied the Logical Positivists, can there be, aside from those matters of fact procured by purposive thinking? Though purposive science can successfully describe the fabric of the background of our lives, ‘there is in the midst of all that is correct’ the danger that ‘the true will withdraw’.[3] The severing of significance from purposiveness brings an impoverished appropriation of the background world into the foreground of human existence and, if it brooks no questioning, humanity withdraws too.

Is man truly the measure of all things?

Is man truly the measure of all things?

Rather than a recognition that others, that nature, that creativity and beauty have intrinsic significance of their own, all must audition for anthropic usefulness. Heidegger laments the very positing of consciousness’ constituting power that phenomenology after Husserl is charged with. The enlightenment mantra, ‘man is the measure of all things’, has come to mean that everything the questioning being encounters exists only insofar as it is an extension of ‘man’; ultimately ‘man everywhere and always encounters only himself’.[4]  Problematically however, just as woman cannot mirror man back to man as he wishes to be seen, neither nature, nor the divine can reflect humankind; ironically in fact, this narcissism entails that ‘nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself’.[5]

Heidegger’s warning is that enframing prevents the appearing of what presences itself . Unquestioned purposiveness blinds us so that we no longer see significance. We can no longer get back to things themselves. Put esoterically, ‘Enframing blocks the shining-forth and holding sway of truth.’[6]

Travelling from Pune to Mumbai I passed a bewilderingly large billboard beside the highway. It dwarfed a primitive village, overshadowing its impoverished inhabitants with a vast advertisement for cutting-edge mobile phone technology. The purpose of a hoarding, indeed of mobile phones too, is ostensibly communication. In an age of instant global communication mobiles allow one to speak across the globe and beyond. But advertising has done little for communication, for communication requires that we grant the other significance in the form of a voice we will attend to. The Indian villagers clearly had the capacity to be consumers, but they were not significant as people. Standing in reserve as a future market for marketing, future networkers for networks, their present significance as persons was ignored. Human identity must be reclaimed from a purposiveness that obliterates significance for both are equiprimordial; if the questioning being is to be ‘fetched home’ into its essence, it must be allowed to question its way back to a pursuit of significance in partnership with its capacity for purpose.

Heidegger’s assurances that within enframing, somehow is to be found a mystical ‘letting be’ for man to endure, though opaque, contains the embryonic idea that within humankind itself is the solution. Whilst humankind is not the measure of all things, certainly the questioning being measures all things. It is here in questioning that significance is allowed to arise. Though ‘the frenziedness of ordering that blocks every view’,[7]  ensures that unfettered procurement obscures significance, nevertheless questioning makes a way towards harmony through the path of disquiet. In the thwarted appropriations of our lives disclosed in the uncomfortable experiences of enforced waiting and indeterminate exploration the questioning being is brought back to its essence.

As with the stock market, unfettered procurement obscures significance.

As with the stock market, unfettered procurement obscures significance.

The identity of the questioning being is fostered consequently in a harmonisation of the desire for significance and the capacity for purpose. One’s identity-sense is accordingly, a faculty for questioning, one of life’s vital signs, and this audit must be an ongoing priority for human singularity and solidarity alike.

‘All revealing’ says Heidegger, is endangered by the essential unfolding of technology and threatened with being ultimately ‘consumed in ordering’; [8] one’s identity-sense, with its questioning sensitivity ignited by disquiet, can resist the standing-reserve however, though it cannot banish it. Meaning making, whether a signifying in art or poetry, altruism or faith, or indirectly sought in politics, religion, philosophy or community, comes from a questioning that is not merely purposive; redemptive meaning-making is catalysed by the desire for significance which grants to each singular human the possibility of significant singularity in harmony with its capacity for purpose. It is for this reason, as Merleau-Ponty points out, ‘…man, as opposed to the pebble which is what it is, is defined as a place of unrest’.[9]

[1] Heidegger, QT, ibid, 224

[2] Heidegger, ibid, 227

[3] Heidegger, ibid, 231

[4] Heidegger, QT, in BW, ibid, 232

[5] Heidegger, ibid

[6] Heidegger, ibid

[7] Heidegger, QT, ibid, 236

[8] Heidegger, ibid, 236

[9] Merleau-Ponty, M. Sense and Non-sense, Northwestern University studies in phenomenology & existential philosophy, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1964, 66

Purpose and significance in the human relationship to technology; Part II

In the same way that Heidegger regarded the re-clothing of a ‘tract of land’ in the garb of a ‘coal mining district’, an imposition of definitional purposiveness, so it is my contention that the human can be  incarcerated in the purpose it is procured for. This acquisition or conquest of the other, finds affinity with further imbalances in human society and this is unsurprising for they have been linked. In the masculinised objectifying of the other, the other is rendered emasculated. Acquisitive purposiveness has aligned itself to the masculinisation of purposeful endeavour in society, marginalising purpose of other kinds. ‘Men’ this alignment proposes, ‘get the job done and you know they are really men because they take what they can use to that end’.

Just as identity is not the accomplishment of a neutral transcendental mind, so the technological subjugation of the other does not operate  through some kind of exclusively intellectual intuition. The questioning being develops its hierarchies through the exigencies of bodily existence. By this means, and not merely in philosophy but throughout history, it is apparent that ‘all theories of subjectivity have presupposed that subjects are male’.[1]  Consequently agency too has been masculinised. One deconstructivist reading of the binary logic in public discourse sees masculine power absolved from its maternal debt through the exclusion of the feminine. It avows that such a notion of reality  is ‘produced in a sensate body’ whose sense of self and world is developed when its impulses, emotion and feelings are integrated, disciplined and directed towards a self-identity. This self-identity achieves an autonomy won through separation from the mother’s body.[2] Problematically however, that liberating separation, has been remodelled in a way that mirrors the throwaway utilisation of persons at large in society; the sloughing off and negating of the no-longer-required. The other, here the feminine other, has become a neutered male, purposively obsolete. The mother, the womb, no longer a mystery, is now a sometime useful object. The masculinised notion of the subject, the actor, the agent, paves the way for the ‘masculinised’ monopoly of purpose.

Throughout history, agency has become synonymous with masculinity.

Throughout history, agency has become synonymous with masculinity.

The history of Woman is illustrative of the wider masculinised conquest of the world. However tenderly it is done, society’s treatment of woman as a ‘helpmeet for man’,[3] offers a sacralisation of an object consequently rendered mute. Woman, the ‘speculum’[4] which nevertheless refuses to mirror back obediently to a masculinised purposiveness its heroic acquisitive procurement of the world, becomes use-less. Femininity becomes an ornament. It cannot be purposeful in its own right nor is it granted authoritative voice as a suppressed desire for significance.

This regrettably describes the only currency a masculinised purposiveness recognises. That which is procured is objectified and so a thing to be used; that which has no purpose is at best a whimsical curiosity at worst a neutered thing, for there is in this currency no legitimate and equal other. Women and conquered men become things to use or the useless to despise.

Why is this relevant for a phenomenology of identity? Because, as a man or woman, I am embedded in the ‘everydayness’ of the Lifeworld, until such time as the thwarting of my intentionality, or the failure of my harmonising attempts at equilibrium, prompt an audit of my identity-sense. As a consequence I imbibe culture’s value-laden positional clues and make my way in the world according to their coordinates. In such a bias as this masculinisation engenders, I may as a man be predisposed to covet purposiveness and measure my identity-sense by its acquisition, and of course suppress my existential desire for significance, or as a woman be inhibited in the acquisition of purposiveness, regarding it as a negation of my femininity and find that any expression of my desire for significance is construed accordingly as weakness.

The ornamental, the feminine has been taken as a distraction from purpose.

The ornamental, the feminine has been taken as a distraction from purpose.

In both literal and metaphorical application then, the ‘object’ in yielding to the imbalanced purposiveness of the dominant ‘subject’ submits to the subject’s erroneous desire to appropriate ‘her’. She is not he, and he cannot possess her if she remains a ‘she’, she must become a thing. This analysis holds true beyond heterosexual intersubjectivity too; any subject reduced to purpose only, which stands as other to the masculinised acquisitive subject cannot be possessed purposively and remain a significant subject. Their subjectivity must be forfeited and it is achieved through a denial or negation of their significance.

In this thesis I contend that one’s identity is an accretion of meaning attained through appropriation of the world. The questioning being is not available for appropriation however; it ceases to exist in the obliteration of significance, even when this is the consequence of purposive affirmation. The profound implications of this process, scandalously blatant in the subjugation of women as useful, is true by extension to the emasculating subjugation of the other, even when that other is male, or the acquisitive subject is female. The one is an overspill from the other. The economy of discourse has revealed time and again, in gender, in race, in age and in class how ‘the silent allegiance of the one guarantees’, ironically, ‘the auto-sufficiency, the auto-nomy of the other’, ‘as long as no questioning of this mutism as a symptom – of historical repression – is required. But what if the ‘object’ started to speak?’, or indeed, to question?.[5]

In truth, purpose and significance are not respectively synonymous with the masculine and the feminine.

In truth, purpose and significance are not respectively synonymous with the masculine and the feminine.

I see here a consequence and further implication. Firstly, when the questioning being  abandons questioning as a way of making its way in the world, it denies itself and is dehumanised. Purposiveness is not demonic, nor is it of necessity in antipathy to questioning. Indeed it is a primordial capacity of human identity as supremely epitomised by the sciences humans have developed. Nevertheless, as J. S. Mill, who controversially in my view, regarded utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions contended, ‘The beliefs which we have most warrant for have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded…’ Certainty of the truth, including existential truth is attainable by a fallible being, in no other manner.[6] Questioning is vital to the humanising of purposiveness.

Secondly, it might be inferred from the masculinisation of purposiveness that signifying therefore is a feminised trait or need. Perhaps this is assumed where meaning-making is construed as a softer, less factual, mode of thinking and being. My response is that this is the ‘flip-side’ of a regrettable polarisation of that twofold, and necessarily complementary primordial human essence, the desire for significance and capacity for purpose. Both purposiveness and signifying are intrinsically vital to all human flourishing and within the spectra they comprise, true and distinct masculinity and femininity are found but are not respectively synonymous. Glimpsed in Irigaray’s indictment against masculine appropriation of feminine subjectivity is therefore a deeper masculinisation of purposiveness.  I do not assume that femininity and masculinity, any more than purposiveness or signification are two exclusive human ways to be. However, Purposiveness and Signifying, Masculinity and Femininity must be rescued from false dichotomising which renders the first pair synonymous with the latter.

[1] Atkins, K. Commentary on Irigaray, in (Ed) Self and Subjectivity, Malden, Blackwell Publishing, 2009, 267

[2] Atkins, Commentary on Irigaray, ibid, 268

[3] This of course is an archaic translation but it has nevertheless fuelled much debate about women’s rights in marriage. Genesis 2:18 King James version. And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.’

[4] Irigaray, L. Any theory of the ‘subject’ has always been appropriated by the ‘masculine’, in (Ed.) Kim Atkins, Self and Subjectivity, Malden, Blackwell Publishers, 2009, 272

[5] Irigaray, L. ‘Any theory of the ‘subject’ has always been appropriated by the masculine’, in  Kim Atkins, 272. I am aware that my use of this text may be criticised are a masculine appropriation of its gender specific insights thus confirming its stark indictment. My view is that if Irigaray’s judgement is warranted it is an all-pervasive tendency; such rampant machismo is not discerning.

[6] Mill, J. S. On Liberty, Oxford University Press, 2008 26

Purpose and significance in the human relationship to technology; Part I

Heidegger contends that ‘questioning builds a way’.[1] In previous posts I have identified the human being as the questioning being and, whether its interrogatory stance is an unthought embodied response to worldly existence, or articulated in conceptual and reasoned thought, this is how humans have made, and continue to make, their way in the world. In this sense I employ this descriptive term rather than to imply that all humans are conversant with the rules of logic or consciously subject experience to sustained analysis.

Building a canoe places one in a profound relationship with technology.

Building a canoe places one in a profound relationship with technology.

Every human person stands in some relationship to, or provocative juxtaposition with, technology understood in the Heideggerian sense of a functional lens through which the world is perceived. The Amazonian Indian has a place in the community defined by his purposeful contribution as much as does the German law graduate. Everywhere life is understood in the context of the human activity of positing ends and procuring and utilising the means to realise them.[2] Thus the building of a canoe or of a body of legislation are intrinsically part of what technology is. Heidegger acknowledges as correct such an instrumental and anthropological definition of technology, affirming that it is correct, but he asks, is this all?

Heidegger’s rather laborious discussion of Aristotle’s four causes concludes that a thing said to be technological owes its being present to these four causes, but something else entirely unites them all. That uniting element is poiesis, a ‘bringing-forth’[3] or the making-apparent, of something. ‘Through bringing-forth the growing things of nature as well as whatever is completed through the crafts and the arts come at any given time to their appearance’.[4] Thus the fourfold cause of a thing causes it to come into appearance in bringing-forth, in a manner which accords with them.

Is technology a revealing of what truly is? Maybe, in the sense that technology imposes upon things a mode of revealing which obscures all else. The ‘putting to use’ of the matter of facts in the world is  a consequence of purposiveness, so that as Heidegger contends, technology ‘puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such’.[5]

Building a body of legislation; what is to be prioritised, what works, or what matters?

Building a body of legislation; what is to be prioritised, what works, or what matters?

Reflection on the Kantian observation I made previously, that purposiveness is a cognitive trait of human knowing, in conjunction with the Heideggerian observation that technology champions a functional appropriation of the world, and Merleau-Ponty’s positing of a pre-conscious, whole-body, functionally recursive engagement with it, combine to reveal a dominant historiological element in the Landscape of Being whose bias is apparent today. Human identity is constrained to appropriate a world which it predominantly understands in utilitarian terms.

To break out of the unreasonable demand-making that expects the world and its people to furnish one’s purposive needs, a disruption must wean one from this profound bias in environing culture. Awakened by such a disruption, the questioning being is forced to assert its latent desire for significance, in an all too rare interrogation of technology and its functionalist tunnel-vision, in an effort to regain ontological equilibrium.


Purposiveness, procurement and the technological reduction of the person.

Purposiveness, procurement and the technological reduction of the person.

Increasingly in the twenty first century, despite its potent individualism, the development of human identity is warped towards a satisfaction of its capacity for purpose in denial of the essential desire for significance that complements it. Failure to strike a balance of some kind leads to exploitation. It leads to the procurement of the other as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself; ironically it also entails that one succumbs to the appropriation of oneself by the other as a useful thing.


[1] Editorial by David Farrell Krell, in The Question of Technology, Heidegger; Basic Writings, (Ed,) David Farrell Krell, London, Routledge, 2008, 215

[2] Heidegger, M. The Question of Technology, in Heidegger; Basic Writings, ibid, 2008, 218

[3] Heidegger, QT, in Basic Writings, ibid, 220

[4] Ibid

[5] Heidegger, QT, ibid, 223

Alignment or refinement?

It is my philosophical judgement that human identity is a conferred descriptor whereby the inherited meanings and values of the human world are applied to the life of each questioning being. This accretion of meaning however is inevitably misaligned and indeterminate, for human identity is not a fixed proposition about any fixed thing but a ‘we interpret this to be’ directed at a fluid, changing, self-defining being. Nevertheless, the accretion of meaning which the world identifies human persons with is a accoutrement which must be tried on for size and made to fit.

Perhaps one can audit identity in collaboration with others; certainly identity-sense demands that identity be audited with or without the help others offer.

Perhaps one can audit identity in collaboration with others; certainly identity-sense demands that identity be audited with or without the help others offer.

The accretion of meaning that each human life acquires is not an objective and factual description derived from some abstracted a-temporal measurement, and nor can it be. Human identity conferred is essentially a witness to the desire for significance and capacity for purpose, that the lives of others are driven by, which are directed towards that individual. Meanings, be they regarding race or nationality, gender or sexual orientation, age or maturity, are situated temporal value-judgements and so, oriental and Japanese, female and gay, 23yrs of age and independent, are inevitably meanings loaded with variable connotations. To affirm as true any of these requires some explication as to what connotations are inferred.

The gauging of success in self identification is applied according to ones balance of ones desire for significance and ones capacity for purpose.

The gauging of success in self identification is applied according to ones balance of ones desire for significance and ones capacity for purpose.

Identity sense I have argued is an holistic measurement each questioning being maintains, whether consciously, pre-consciously or both. This existential audit gauges the harmony obtained between its own aspirations in the world, fuelled by and balancing its own desire for significance and potentially conflicting capacity for purpose, and the accretion of meaning its life acquires in the intersubjective world it inhabits. One’s identity sense is therefore an audit and curation of what significance the world imparts to one’s life, and the purpose for which the world procures one’s life. This is an ongoing, never completed endeavour, and healthy self-knowledge demands that the questioning being accept its auditing efforts will never ensure that it’s life aligns to its own aspirations any more than the world’s conferred identity does.