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  • The Limits of Self-Constitution
  • James Phillips, MD (bio)

I am in general agreement with the authors that a psychoanalytic or psychodynamic approach is a good response to simple pruning procedures. That said, however, I do have questions about how they develop their argument.

I was surprised at the very notion of pruning, and quite surprised that it is as popular as the authors suggest. The idea that Pete should deal with his inappropriate outbursts by erasing or pruning that aspect of his personality seems so ridiculous that it beggars belief. It leaves one wondering whether Pete, or anyone agreeing with this argument, is credulous enough to think you can just prune away an undesirable part of yourself.

The authors write:

Importantly, this expulsion is often thought to be a good thing not simply because the undesirable elements are morally wanting but because in some important sense, they are not really a part of the agent proper. This point many seem extravagantly wishful, but is intuitively plausible.

Really, “intuitively plausible” that personality traits are not part of the agent? I can understand that the agent may not grasp his or her involvement in the undesirable trait, but to argue that the trait is in reality not part of agent is a very odd claim on the part of the authors.

When the authors write that “It would be difficult to exaggerate the prominence of the pruning view of agential self-constitution in philosophy,” they are strongly connecting the notions of pruning and self-constitution. I am aware that self-constitution is a major theme for philosophers like Korsgaard. The authors strongly embrace this principle in drawing out their arguments.

In a footnote to their article the authors claim that various notions of a “true self” imply a pruned self. For Winnicott, an originator of the “true self,” this note of pruning does not hold. Winnicott contrasts the true self, a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience and a feeling of being alive, with a false self, a defensive veneer without the vivacity of the true self. The notion of pruning simply does not belong in this discussion.

What the authors and their supporting philosophers leave out are two limitations to self-constitution. For the first, let me invoke another philosopher, Martin Heidegger, and his notion of “thrownness”—Geworfenheit. We are “thrown” into the world in the particular circumstances of our birth. We do not self-constitute our beginnings; we are plunged into them. The question then becomes what we make of these beginnings. [End Page 209] If they are undesirable, we can brood over them, or we can attempt to overcome them. And as we all know, if the beginnings are bad enough, we may not be able to overcome them.

The second limitation to self-constitution resides in the “self.” Does the individual constitute him or her self, or is it more a matter of the self developing out of dialogic relationship of self and other? Here I invoke another philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, who has addressed this issue from a number of perspectives. At a deictic level, the “I” or the self is a shifter that takes on a different meaning depending on its context. At the level of pragmatics, the individual is engaged in illocutionary speech that is addressed to another person, implying, in simple terms, that we live in dialogue. Still more pertinent to this discussion, Ricoeur notes that self-knowledge is not straightforward: “the self does not immediately know itself, but only knows itself indirectly by way of the detour through the cultural signs of all sorts that make us say that action is symbolically mediated” (Ricoeur, 2016, p. 240). And finally, Ricoeur argues for the priority of alterity over reflexivity. “Pushing further yet the primacy of alterity over reflexivity, some will emphasize the dependence of personal identities on identifications with . . . heroes, emblematic characters, models and teachers” (p. 248). To clarify this statement, Ricoeur is contrasting self-constitution through reflection with a self-other relationship in which the self needs the other to constitute itself—and, of course, he is making a case for the latter.

Although I am questioning the authors’ concepts of...

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