The Self#2. The Human social animal.

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

Ok, so if you've landed here you really need to go and read part one which you can find...


In this second part of an exploration of the ontological question: Is there a "self" I'll look at some outcomes of the position that whilst an un human "self" can be observed (remember Washoe - the chimpanzee who learnt sign language ?) The human "self" cannot be directly observed except through our consciousness of it, and thus every statement regarding a human "self" must be epistemological. Again, this is probably gonna be a long one, and perhaps a little technical, so it may be best to grab a cup of something nice, a comfy chair, sit back and chill as we descend further into this particular rabbit hole in search of little sparkling nuggets of understanding. The "ins" and "outs" of human consciousness

The first criticism here of an un human "self" that exists outside human consciousness but within human activity, is that this very idea is a human conception. It is based on a presupposition that our concepts of the/a "self" and its creation that I outlined in part one are correct. Which is of course a theory constructed by and explained via - yup you guessed it - the human perception. To sidestep this contradiction we would need to literally see the world through the eyes of the other, in this case Washoe.

If we cannot achieve that, then can we get close to it via talking with another "other"? Well not really since that takes us back to the "meta perception" argument of part one, and also, who are we gonna talk to? Dr Doolittle is kinda busy right now and other humans don't allow us the required insight. But perhaps what we can say is:

That it is likely Washoe was able to do what she has demonstrated without human intervention. Indeed once she had knowledge of sign language it was she who taught her adopted child to use it, not the humans in her life. Therefore, much like the tree that exists in the woods even when no one is there to see it fall, or hear the noise, the "self" that we observe in Washoe probably existed prior to our knowledge of it. (and furthermore a tree existed before we decided to call it a tree - so this once again points to existence as a prerequisite for there to be any knowledge of an idea of existence, and highlights the separation of, as Bhaskar puts it, the transitive and intransitive (A concept, and the object being conceptualised) Ok, I admit, it's an inferred conclusion to most likely outcome, given arguments of probable causation, Something Bhaskar and myself have both highlighted as epistemologically fallible, (Bhaskar, 2008, p207, Podcast episode #21) but imo it's as close as we're gonna get, sure the sign language taught to Washoe was a human construction, however communication and/or language as an indicator to the presence of recognition of the "not self" is observable in other species, and in those cases it has not been via methodologies taught by us. Whales, dolphins, cats, (I have two) & Dogs etc. They all acknowledge the presence of an "other" via a process of communication that may be vocal or ritualistic, and in the case of Whales/Dolphins that may even contain components of what we might recognise as audible "language". Dog's and cats use both smells and sounds to navigate their communicative worlds. Remember, after all, "there is no outside text" (Derrida)

By seeing humanity as included in this ecological collection of species, we invite the comparison of those observed un-human selves with our human ones. Indeed one might also reverse engineer this, and theorise that without our evolutionary ancestors observing these un human "selves" in others species, they wouldn't have been able to conceptualise themselves. We therefore could approach these arguments as an evolutionary model that explains the creation of our own species' consciousness.

As a result I believe we have sound observational and experiential premises from which to infer existence of an ontologically defined, but epistemologically conceived "self" via an anthropological and ecologically contiguous view of "humanity". (remember also, Darwinian evolution is never complete, we merely exist at one point within it, so don't fall into the trap of assuming that we are as evolved now as we will ever be, cos we aint - what Dan Gilbert calls our end of history delusion in his ted talk here)

Interesting side note, Hegel lived between 1770 - 1831 and Darwins "the origin of species" wasn't written until 1859... So whilst comparisons between the two might seem obvious to us, it puts Hegel's writings into something of a different context.

Ok, let's decide to call this idea the "ecological self" in order to denote it as one that exists as an observable component of the natural sciences, of which we have knowledge via the activity of humans sciences, but crucially: the "Ecological self"* can exist independently of our knowledge, and thus understanding, of it, which means that even today there may still be bits of it that remain hidden to us.

*As ever this term has been used before so a note of clarity is needed here. I am using the term in a different way to that of Philosopher Arne Ness, who suggested as part of his Deep ecology theories that an ecological self is the process of self-actualisation, whereby one transcends the notions of the individuated "egoic" self and arrives at a position of an ecological self, an idea rooted in environmentally responsible behaviour as a form of self-interest. My own use of "ecological self" is simply a product of darwinian evolutionary arguments for an ontological position about existence of the/a "self"

However there are some parallels between my arguments and those of Deep Ecology. A view of humans as part of, rather than separate from, the natural sciences is inherently an ecological one. John Seed has suggested that "Deep ecology critiques the idea that we are the crown of creation, the measure of all being: that the world is a pyramid with humanity rightly on top, merely a resource, and that nature has instrumental value only" and as such I would agree with this over all premise of Deep ecology, although in other areas it becomes problematic since it does tend to slip into a "natural law - esque" view of ethical questions, which may actually be an example of Bhaskars epistemological fallacy. Still with me? Good.. onwards then. Complex realism David Byrne

You may remember the Andy Blunden article in part one, and the idea that "activity" should be kept separate from that which is being studied, particularly in relation to what he called "Natural science" (from which he exclude's human activity) Given everything I've written thus far it would not be at all surprising for me to say that In my view human science is akin to a branch of natural science, but of course you cannot remove human activity from the study of humans by humans, so t'would seem here is another contradiction. Unsurprisingly I am not the first to hit this distinction. David Byrne took Bhaskars ideas a step or three further and created "complex realism" which addresses this issue. Before we get into this however, it is worth noting a term: "Positivism" is the philosophical theory stating that certain ("positive") knowledge is based on natural phenomena and their properties and relations. Positive in this case meaning ideas being put forward or "posited". Thus, information derived from our sensory experience, interpreted through reason and logic, forms the exclusive source of all certain knowledge. (Locke, Berkeley, Hume) Seems ok doesn't it? But consider the outcomes of this way of thinking, one of which is that positivism may be used to describe an approach to the study of society that relies specifically on Empiricism: scientific evidence, such as experiments and statistics, to "reveal" a true picture of how society operates. If we drill down into this we can see that in positivism we actually start from a basis of "assumption of" both knowledge & understanding, so in fact we don't reveal anything, we create "a concept" of it. This inferred knowledge and understanding is something that in actuality we may not have, thus Positivism can lead us to inferred mechanistic outcomes, that themselves are based upon initial inferred premises that may in fact be incorrect.

One of the often complex conundrums in social study that can illustrate this is arguments of "correlation verses causality". Quite often we can prove a correlation, via statistical evidentiary research, but we "infer" causation, which according to Bhaskar and Byrne is always epistemologically routed.

Critical realism and its derivative, complex realism, stand apart from this initial premise of "Positivistic knowing", since they presuppose a "lack of knowledge" about the world. This is in my view a much better starting point, since it's always wiser to not presume we definitively know that which we may not. (That good ole' athenian beggar again!) So what is Complex realism then? In a word, complicated. What Byrne is attempting do is reconcile Bhaskar's three conceptualised versions of our world, "real", "actual" and "Empirical/subjective"** with an understanding of the use of qualitative data. In essence what Byrne has noted is that the "variable" measured and qualified via social research is in fact an effect of other causative structures and thus reification of inferred conclusions from statistical data can lead one to discount wider systemic changes that exist outside the scope of the data. Changes that may none the less effect the result of any analysis.

**where "real" is the causative mechanisms and objects existing independent from - and outside of - our knowledge of them, "actual" is the same systems and objects when known, and "empirical" is our subjective knowledge of them Wow thats alot of words, so what it all mean>? In short, what I believe Bhaskar and Byrne are doing is adressing the realisation that cause and effect will affect its own causation, thus resulting in further effects, whether indirectly or directly. Applying the principle of "first cause" and acknowledging limitations to our empirical (and therefore subjective epistemological) understanding of the interconnectedness and workings of "effect" will allow us to create better more insightful and "informed" critique of human social structures, and inherent complexity. It's a conceptualised multi disciplinary model that attempts to explain the interconnectedness of non linear evolutionary mechanisms that are embedded within sociological structures and study, whilst acknowledging we also somewhat create what we study by virtue of the social act of studying it.

BUT.... Ironically the complexity of humans and the social systems stands in the way of this because of something Byrne himself points out. Vested interest and existing "power structures', who's main efforts usually tend towards self perpetuation. Foucault - "sovereign power is that form expressed in recognisable ways through particular and identifiable individuals (and systems) Power is everywhere and comes from everywhere".

Micheal Taylor: Power = "the ability to alter the range of someone's available actions. To expand, or to limit somebodies options". The social sum of our parts?

Humans eh? Always limiting our options, or those of others. Go figure. But, facetiousness aside, this a long way from the "self", so let's reorient ourselves. In his critique of the philosophy of complex realism Dominc Holland examined the work of Byrne, and one particular passage stands out .. "....if our case is an individual person – and Byrne does use a person as an example of a case in his explication of ‘polythetic classification’ – we will be dealing with a highly complex, concrete entity – a ‘laminated system’ (Collier) Yet, it is because people constitute complex physical, chemical and biological systems that we cannot acquire knowledge of these systems directly through measurement; we can measure only the effects of these systems. Equally, in social research what we are measuring or recording when we talk to people and observe their behaviour are the effects of social systems – not the systems in themselves." Remember the reification issue from part one? "Reification is the making of something material, bringing it into being, or as in the case of Gestalt Psychology* the perception of an object as having more spatial information than is present. (for example, seeing a "car" as a discrete object before considering it as a sum of it's parts) *Gestalt psychology is a school of thought that believes all objects and scenes can be observed in their simplest forms. Sometimes referred to as the 'Law of Simplicity,' the theory proposes that the whole of an object or scene is more important than its individual parts In asking questions like "why humans do what they do" and "what is the self" the issue here is determining what it is we are attempting to address and if that be cause or effect. Plus, cause and effect of what exactly? It's rather like attempting to identify characters in a play via observing their shadows on a wall. To envisage "The human" via a Gestalt-esque mindset as a type of reified entity is to omit their complexity and the reality of Bhaskars three levels of realism as it pertains to "Humans". The "self" can and (in my view) does exist in all three of the levels of critical reality, Real, (ecological self) Actual (recognition of the not self) and Empirical. (recognition of the internal self, and observation of it in others) since it is part of the complex system of components that make a human, in the same way that component make up a car. (if one was to continue the car analogy a little further perhaps one might suggest that electrical current from a an automotive Engine Control Unit is analogous with neurological activity - and as I have done myself on occasion draw parallels between the diagnostic process of the mechanic and the physician)

The "self" when viewed as such becomes this independent form, an ethereal "iceberg" floating, waiting. In "reality" waiting to be "actually" seen and "empirically qualified". And much like it's metaphorical namesake a substantial portion of it exists beneath the surface of other stuff, that shares a similar composition, but succeeds in masking it from enquiry. Perhaps we might go further and place "identity" as the product of "identity work" that is required to unveil this iceberg and carve it into recognisable form, but I'll return to "identity" later.

In summary of all points so far I have attempted to show that in qualifying and placing the "self" one cannot limit oneself to merely sociological, psychological or philosophical arguments. Excluding the physiological, evolutionary, anthropological and ecological, would result in an incomplete view of an incomplete view, that would nonetheless be assumed complete. I hope I have shown that a "concept of self" is not the same as "existence of self" and that these two selves at any given point in time may either align or be in opposition, dependent upon the epistemological context. Throughout the course of this article we have shifted focus from individual, to species, to social system, and back again. It's a bit of a rollercoaster perhaps, but if you've a "mind" to carry on, let's follow it, and see where it might lead by looking at another challenge...

The "Ecological self" and the Mind/Body problem.

Long term readers of my scribbles or readers of philosophy in general will be aware of the issue of physicalist/dualist points of view, otherwise known as the mind/body problem. A "Physicalist" might suggests that thought & thus "mind" is merely an outcome of our physicality and that they therefore cannot be said to exist outside of that context.

A "Dualist" might suggest the opposite, that thought, mind and body are separate entities, and exist in their own right. In essence thought has "physical" ontological properties.

Theres a great chapter on this in Neil Warburton's book Philosophy the basics, which I'd really recommend. As Nigel himself says "there's alot at stake here" because these two approaches to understanding consciousness lead to very different conclusion when placed within or alongside critical realism. Given my medical/scientific methodological backgrounds it's unsurprising I myself fit into something of a physicalist approach. However I'm not going to go into this too much here, because I'll cover much more of that in my ongoing serialisation of Nigel's book. Suffice to say from my POV, thought, mind and thus consciousness are results of the "complex physical, chemical and biological systems" that Dominic Holland described above. But there is risk of contradiction here that needs clarification. Back in part one I separated the "awareness" from the "self" and "existence" In a physicalist explanation of these three concepts, we would have to place "awareness" as an outcome of Biological Physical process, and also accept that ontologically "thought" and "mind" don't "exist" which might present us with a problem.

Does that conflict with Bhaskar and Byrnes Critical and Complex realisms? Because on first pass, thought can affect the body, and for something to be the cause of an effect it must first exist right? Indeed one of the central tenets of Critical Realism is that causative mechanisms are "real"

Perhaps we can fall back on the causation of "thought". A concept of "mind" that is an outcome of "language", as I've said in part one we "think" in conversational tone with ourselves via the creation of an internal other, (the ideal self) so thoughts can exist in the sense that they are manifestations of a physical process. This works in the same way that "words" don't exist separately to the letters which they are both made of and contain. We might contrast this with the "none linguistical mind", of the ecological self, that of a baby for example who grasps "concepts" with what we might envisage as a very literal interpretation. Touch, colour, taste etc. (it might help to get your head around this non linguistic mind by a simple experiment. Go touch a wall. it's hard, solid.. Now if you touch it a second time you "know" its gonna be hard. Imagine touching it for the very first time... the information your'e given in that first encounter is the communication between your internal world and the external, yet it requires no spoken language to perform, you dont know it "as a wall", you merely know it as hard and something that exists as either hazardous or helpful)

Language can be seen as an outcome of the existence of the ecological self, and it's increasing cognitive function. arising from the ecological self's conceptualisation of "the other" and the "not other", giving rise to both "me" and "I" as explained by Hegel's dialectic. Thus what we think of as the "mind" is an evolutionary outcome of our cognitive ability and the development of language. It is our conceptualisation of our conceptualisation of the world. This interplay between mind, language and the (in)transitive object is revealed when looking at "colour" A lecture given by Dr Robert Sapolsky back in 2010 suggests that people will identify colours more readily if the colour in question is in the middle of a boundary between two other known colours. Interestingly the position and number of these boundaries changes as function of language, and so too does the colour recognition. Thus cognition creates language which affects mind and mind affects the persons perception of the external world..... which given enough time creates language...

Cause and effect endlessly effecting is own causation. So, no I don't believe that a physicalist viewpoint of causation of thought is at odds with Critical Realism. Why? because the "ecological self" self is not a thoughtless one.

Me, my shadow, myself and I.

I usually end up adding in a video by Oliver Thorn somewhere in these essays and today is no exception. Here's Olly's piece on split mind and the work of Simon Critchley that highlights were I'm going with this....

In the video Olly talks about his ideal self as being "Mr not good enough" The eternally critiquing and judgmental view of self via expectations of action, or thought. My own Ideal self is kinda like an Imp, like Gollum, from lord of the rings, but smaller, meaner, kinda blueish, and with a wicked sense of humour. Cheeky, annoying and fiendishly clever, often suggesting that I'm not good enough, asking if I'm doing the "right thing", suggesting that other's don't really like me, or that yup you guessed it.. I'm a fraud on many levels. I've explained, or would like to think I have, how this Imp comes to exist, via cognition, via language, but as Olly says.. "If your Ideal self isn't being nice to you today, maybe somebody else has been feeding it the script"

This then is the "external" The linguistic, social, ethical. The scientific, the cultural, professional, legal and many many other influences being brought into our own sense of self. It is the process of the "me" and the "I"... bringing the external socially created world into the internal sense of self via what Andrew brown calls "identity work"

But here's the tricky bit.

If "me" is the externally viewable

and "I" is the internally knowable.

what happens when "I" is not the "me" that others perceive?

and which comes first the "I" or the "me"?

The decisions we make, the actions or inactions that result from them and their consequences through the course of a life are all(?) based upon internal extrapolations of the "external". Or to put it another way our internalised sense of the "me" that others create continually suggests stuff that the "I" should, or shouldn't, do.

And that, that is a whole other box of frogs. all of them madly jumping in multiple directions. So it's time to wrap up this second part of "the self" and save the frog herding for part three,

"The self, Identity jenga and cultivation of identity"


Dominic Holland - Complex Realism, Applied Social Science and Postdisciplinarity: A Critical Assessment of the Work of David Byrne

Dr Robert Sapolsky lecture

Identity work Andrew brown

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 the things you look at change.


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