On the Competition for Recognition Part III: Jean-Jacques Rousseau – the inner authentic self

[WARNING: this philosophical blog may endanger your mental health.]

In Part I, I referred to two tensions set up in Dummitt’s review article between globalism and nationalism and between an inner authentic and an outer socially imposed self. With respect to the latter, Dummitt argued that the political left and the right both favour the authentic self over a socially imposed one, but that the left’s definition of authenticity favoured globalism. The right defined authenticity in terms of national self-realization versus universal human rights.

To clarify the debate, we first have to go back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


Dummitt, after stating that, “In all times, individuals have been at odds with their societies.” He then quoted Fukuyama as follows: “But only in modern societies has the view taken hold that the authentic inner self is intrinsically valuable, and the outer society systematically wrong and unfair in its valuation of the former.” Thus, “It is not the inner self that has to conform to society’s rules, but society itself that that needs to change.”

Note the following:

  1. At all times, individuals have not been at odds with their societies. More accurately, individuals are much more often at odds with parts of a society as they defended other parts. Isaac was at odds with Philistine society, but certainly totally obeisant to his own tribal norms. Further, he was at odds with the Philistine civil society mobs but not substantively with King Abimelech.
  2. The dichotomy between an inner self and social impositions does not begin in modernity but has earlier versions, ones that run quite contrary to Rousseau. Stoicism, for example, esteemed a self indifferent to, but not in tension with, socially prioritized values, such as wealth or status or social accolades. The esteemed self was not one that was “true to itself,” but only true to the degree it became virtuous in terms of the values of wisdom and courage, justice and self-control.
  3. Before we deal with the tensions and incongruities between the self and society, it is crucial to understand the tensions and lack of congruity between the self and the physical world that surrounds us, including our own bodies.
  4. For example, Dan Crenshaw, the rising non-Trumpite Republican star and ex-Navy SEAL who won a House of Representatives seat in Texas in the midterm elections, as a result of injuries suffered from an IUD or mine, is not only blind in one eye, but cannot judge how to coordinate a pitcher to pour water into a glass unless the two objects actually touch one another. He suffers from a visual form of agnosia, perceptive agnosia; he is unable to assess the size and shape and orientation of objects relative to one another separated in space and compensates by making the objects touch so that he can grasp one in one hand and the other in the other hand to pour water from one to the other.
  5. There are many other forms of such incongruities between the self and our physical world. For example, I have a friend with a spinal injury whom I visited yesterday. As a paraplegic, he suffers from anosognosia, where he assumes he has pain and sometimes even movement in his legs when they are totally paralyzed. He “knows” they cannot move nor feel pain, but nevertheless feels that pain and sometimes even movement. To give one other example in myself, I was blind in one eye for decades. About twenty years ago, I regained vision in the blind eye, fuzzy at first but able to make out figures on large billboards. Currently, I can now read with that eye if the print is reasonably large. Nevertheless, I find I still read almost exclusively with my other eye. It is a mild form of hemineglect which could possibly, and probably, be overcome with visual exercises.
  6. There is a much more general human incongruity between any human and the world that surrounds us. Owls, as I have written, primarily locate prey through very finely tuned hearing rather than their wide and large eyes. In a famous essay in the 1970s by the philosopher, Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?” he tried to imagine how bats “see” the world when they rely on echolocation rather than sight. Nagel’s point is that we can only see and experience the world that we are equipped to see. Put another way, are the sounds owls and bats hear objects?
  7. I have digressed and probed only slightly into these areas of epistemology and consciousness to make one point, that a self is what it experiences and a self, whether that of any human or that of an individual, can only experience that which it is equipped to experience Further, what the self experiences is dependent on the body and the state of the body may even determine if we can have experiences. A blind person or a paraplegic still has a self. But does a person suffering from severe dementia or from extreme Parkinson’s still have a self?
  8. What we experience is not only limited by our bodies, but by the mental frameworks that we overwhelmingly inherit and use to understand the world, unless we are those rare geniuses that create new frameworks for grasping the world. The external world cannot be grasped independent of the instrument by which it is understood. (Hegel Introduction, Phenomenology of Spirit) Werner Heisenberg insisted that, “what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning,” or, as Albert Einstein put it, theory “determines what we can observe.”

I want to make one last point before I return to the issue of the authentic self versus socially imposed norms.

What is the “authentic” self to which Jean-Jacques Rousseau refers? Rousseau, I believe, would accept all I have written in points 1-5 above. However, as Fukuyama stated in his volume, The End of History and the Last Man, Rousseau agreed that human “nature” had developed, was rooted in both the body and the historical framing provided by the mind and largely inherited. His contention was that the frames we have inherited and the norms thrust upon us by society have deformed humans and made them unhappy. The security we demand is largely a product of what we now call paranoia, for humans are not “naturally” out to get one another. Material demands are not part of an inherent demand to acquire goods but are socially constructed to establish status. “The wants created by modern consumerism arise, in other words, from man’s vanity, or what Rousseau calls his amour-propre.”  (83)

All these demands – for security, for wealth for status – are infinite. They lack boundaries. Even more importantly, for Rousseau, they result in greater and greater unhappiness as the gap effectively grows between our basic needs for security, material goods and minimal recognition. Abandon the treadmill. Return to nature and recover the joys of the natural life. Move to Vancouver Island, better yet, Salt Spring or Pender Island.

Two points. Rousseau’s philosophy was not the first and most fundamental attack on the project of “conquering nature.” (84) Second, even his own reply, calling for a return to nature, had many variations, many of which did not presume the pre-existence of an essential authentic self.

I offer Baruch Spinoza as an example within the modern age and the Western tradition. Like the Stoics, he valued, not the authentic self, but the virtuous one in which control of the passions lead to happiness. Second, his view of God, the world, the self and knowledge required, not a command over nature, but a reconciliation with nature. For everything was but an aspect of nature. Happiness was not acquired by becoming a slave to needs, to the quest for security and wealth or status – all these are transitory – but to the life of reason that would lead us back to a unity with nature, the opposite direction of his Jewish upbringing and the Dutch bourgeois society that surrounded him and of which he was so much a part in running his family’s business.

However, his God, the God that he had come to believe in, was not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the absolutely infinite, omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent God of the unity of Greek philosophy and the Christian religion. His was not a God who unleashed a flood that drowned the world and then said He was mistaken, for that action did nothing to improve the commonwealth of humans. Spinoza’s God was not a god for all humanity, not a god who revealed himself in and through history and, in particular, the historical narrative of a specific people, Jews. As Spinoza wrote in Proposition11 of his Ethics, “God, or a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists.” God’s essence as infinite entails God’s existence. The very conception of grasping the Infinite entails that God must exist.

Spinoza was not ex-communicated by his synagogue, the cherem imposed on him because he did not believe in God, and possibly for his ethical and political views, but because he proposed a God, not of experience and presence, but a product of abstract thought and reason. Further, everything – that which is given in nature and the artifacts made by man – are all aspects of God. God does not give form to pre-existing matter. Matter is an aspect of God. God and nature are not other; they are one and the same.

Rousseau could not agree that a reconciliation with nature could come about through reason, for reason was the source of the deformation of what was natural in man, what was universal in man. And what was natural was given, not created – by God or by humans. Rousseau, like Hobbes and Locke, tried to decipher the “state of nature” prior to human historical development.

Hume would reject such an effort and Hegel went further for he insisted that, like the ancient Israelites, the quest for status, the quest for recognition, was not an artifact of history, but a precondition of any history whatsoever. Adam wanted to be like God, to create things by giving form to the world he found through language. Cain and Abel each wanted exclusive recognition from God. Jacob and Esau each wanted their father’s recognition. The quest for recognition, not security or wealth, drove the development of humans as historically-rooted beings.

The more basic divide than the ones that separated those who defined the essence of humanity as security-seeking or wealth-seeking or getting back to one’s true nature stripped of its so-call historical and socially imposed accretions was between philosophers who insisted that humans had a universal nature and those who viewed humans as a product of their history, whether in the minor scale (Hume) or the grand one (Hegel). Rousseau, like Hobbes and Locke, and like Spinoza in his pantheism, was an essentialist.

Rousseau’s essentialism was not the given foundation of history but the way of escaping the disaster that history had wrought.

Is this the core bottom line of both the political right and the political left as claimed in the Dummitt essay? Were both sides variations of a common Rousseau theme?

Tomorrow: Part IV

The Foundation Stone of the Contemporary Political Right and Left

With the help of Alex Zisman




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