How much of your self-concept – who you are, what matters to you, what you think about yourself – is based on what others think about you?
We are now getting into the unexplored depths of ourselves – the hidden truths – to see that we are far more complex than we know. Many will go through life without ever knowing these deeper truths, taking the surface of life as all there is. What appears on the surface, we now know, is a complex co-creation of mind and world. It’s not a given, objective truth, but something that is always shaped by a particular perspective situated in its historical context. To really understand our world, we need to understand the complexity of our human perspective: how did it evolve and how does it shape what we see?
In the last post, we saw that, like all living beings, our minds structure the world according to our desires, making it easier for us to satisfy them. On one level, we are always looking at the world through the lens of desire – seeking pleasure and avoiding harm. On another level, however, we are aware of our desires and able to control them. We are not merely beings of desire. The smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies isn’t completely irresistible; sometimes we can resist even the strongest natural urge.
Think of the times you’ve resisted a strong desire. You’ve probably done it many times today.
We’ve developed a special capacity to reflect on our desires and then to choose what we want to do. We can look at ourselves, as if from a distance, and say, “I know I have a desire telling me to eat these delicious cookies, and perhaps I will, but I have the power to ignore it too.” How did we gain this ability to hold ourselves in awareness? How did consciousness become conscious of itself, and become self-consciousness?
To be sure, many conscious beings don’t have this complex awareness of self. Even newborn babies can’t locate their desires as theirs and reflect on them. It can take longer than a year for babies to know they are individuals, separate from their parents. We think they develop self-awareness over time through interacting with people and learning, for example, how their actions (like crying) generate responses in others.
In Phenomenology, Hegel similarly claims that self-consciousness could only develop through interactions between conscious beings. Conscious beings alone in the world may never have developed this capacity to see themselves. But if there are many, and especially if the others threaten your very existence, it becomes imperative to know when and how they see you. Do I recognize in their eyes an intention to kill me? I better be able to do that – and that feat requires stepping outside myself and seeing me from their perspective. It requires self-consciousness.
If Hegel’s account is right, then even our ability to identify ourselves as individuals at all is dependent on others. We are so fundamentally interdependent that we only come to see ourselves through how others see us. Think of all the qualities you believe you have – intelligence, charm, wit, beauty, strength, or the lack of these – and how they all, at some level, require others to recognize them in you. Our very status as human beings, Hegel argues, is itself socially conferred.
Wait a second, you might object, what gives others the right to tell me who I am? You’d be right to claim sole authorship of yourself, but human history shows it’s easier said than done. To deny the effect of other’s views is to deny the psychological impact of racism, sexism, and all the other forms of domination that we inflict on each other. Self-authorship won’t come through this denial, but rather through recognizing the power we hold over each other and wielding it in ways that empower rather than dominate, that free others to determine their own lives rather than imprisoning them within our stories of who they are.
Before we can do that, though, we need to understand why domination seems to come more naturally to us than empowerment. Why is human history, to paraphrase Herbert Marcuse, the history of the domination of humans by humans? In my next post, I’ll explain how domination develops naturally from the structure of self-consciousness and our need for mutual recognition. The paradox of self-consciousness is that we are independent and free but we only develop awareness of our independence through each other. Our independence is truly a form of dependence, but our first instinct is to deny this and prove that we are the fully free and radically independent beings that we think we are. This denial is still within each of us, and next we’ll start to explore how it shapes the full complexity of who we really are.
drawing by pigwire