Posted by: gcarkner | March 11, 2013

Freedom & Identity

Sociologist Robert Bellah in his landmark book, Habits of the Heart, exposes the myth of radical freedom. Bellah’s team of researchers interviewed hundreds of Americans in various careers on the topic; the results revealed a struggle with a number of contradictions consequent to the philosophy of radical individualism. These contradictions were both emotional and cognitive. It seems that there is something deeply problematic with radical individualism. Bellah writes:

It is a powerful cultural fiction that we not only can, but must make up our deepest beliefs in the isolation of our private selves … There are truths we do not see when we adopt the language of radical individualism…. The major problem in individualism is its disregard for the social dimension of life, and the importance of that dimension in shaping the self. According to German sociologist Emile Durkheim the group (i.e. social solidarity) is a prerequisite for the identity of the individual. George Herbert Mead, another turn of the century sociologist, notes that meaning is a relational or interpersonal matter, not a mere individual phenomenon. The self is socially produced. (R. Bellah, Habits of the Heart. 1985, pp. 65, 85 & 123)

One can often imagine that the best growth occurs on one’s own, even during one’s greatest rebellion, but in fact one can only grow as a person while in direct and significant relationships, complementary partnerships with others. A person finds one’s true and soulful being in mutual love and communion. Some intellectuals believe that love is more basic to our identity than reason, although not against reason. One can attempt to be an individual alone but will fail to become a person on one’s own.

Redeemed concepts of freedom by definition takes on a distinctively communal character; it is contextualized within a conversation, within relationships between fellow interlocutors, against the backdrop of larger narrative that makes sense of self. This is the deep structure of self. Individual freedom gives up individual sovereignty ground to community and makes space for the Other, in order to avoid some of the pitfalls and deficits of radical autonomy.

As one gains a stronger identity as a social being, one reaps the benefits. The move is towards a deeper, more complex, communal character of self, a thick self. Foucault articulates freedom as flight from one’s neighbour; the aesthetic self is part fugitive, part manipulator; its context is reduced to a life of contest with the Other (agonisme), manipulating power relations and truth games to one’s own advantage–survival tone.

There is a certain validity to these concerns, but from the perspective of Charles Taylor’s comments (and those of other key thinkers), they lack vision for relationships that are other than a manipulative contest of wills, that is, relations informed by love, compassion and cooperation–synergy. Prominent social thinker Jurgen Habermas, in response to Foucault’s ethics as aesthetics argues that the preoccupation with the autonomy or self-mastery is simply a moment in the process of social interaction, which has been artificially isolated or privileged:

Both cognitive-instrumental mastery of an objective nature (and society) and a narcissistically overinflated autonomy (in the sense of purposively rational self-assertion) are derivative moments that have been rendered independent from the communicative structures of the lifeworld, that is, from the intersubjectivity of relationships of mutual understanding and relationships of reciprocal recognition. (J. Habermas, 1987, p. 315)

In the light of this critical investigation, it is suggested that there is a need to rethink individuality, freedom and identity in terms of a reconciliation between self and the Other, self and society, to put it metaphorically, in terms of self and one’s neighbour. This is strongly affirmed by the profound humanist and intellectual Jean Vanier who has helped heal many a lost and broken soul in his L’Arche Communities as revealed in his #1 National Bestseller Becoming Human.

The direction we are proposing of reformulation is the recovery of a social horizon, including a stronger concept of the social body, and the common good; one needs the courage and determination to face the neighbour as an inherent good. A radical pursuit of private self-interest (which can be quite narcissistic), to the exclusion of the presence and the needs of the Other, is rendered untenable and dysfunctional amidst this critical dialogue.

~Gord Carkner PhD

See also: Article on Narcissism by Dr. Stuart McAllister Watch for Gordon Carkner’s new work Escape from Nihilism: rediscovering our place in late modernity. Narcissus 12

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