Self as fictional abstractum/s

Dennett, in The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity (1986), on the problem of interpreting the complexities of human beings and other animals:

The hermeneuticist or phenomenologist – or anthropologist – sees some rather more complicated things moving about in the world – human beings and animals – and is faced with a similar problem of interpretation. It turns out to be theoretically perspicuous to organize the interpretation around a central abstraction: each person has a self …

It is interesting to try to imagine an interpretation where this self is somehow removed, or bracketed – not only of a cohort or the self in relation to other selves, but to one’s relation to one’s self, and particularly in the context of auto-ethnography.

It is “possible for a person to engage in auto-hermeneutics, interpetation of one’s self, and in particular to go back and think about one’s past, and one’s memories, and to rethink them and rewrite them. This process does change the “fictional” character, the character that you are …”

Why are we all such inveterate and inventive autobiographical novelists? As Umberto Maturana has (uncontroversially) observed: “Everything said is said by a speaker to another speaker that may be himself.” But why should one talk to oneself? Why isn’t that an utterly idle activity, as systematically futile as trying to pick oneself up by one’s own bootstraps?

Dennett here is discussing the notion of multiple personalities, “split-brain subjects” communicating between themselves. This becomes interesting when thinking of the notion of the daimōn, the ‘spirit’ element of eudaimonia, and the self’s relationship with this apparent resident other. It is interesting to try to think of this intra-self communication outside the normative, Aristotelian sense. Outside too of conscience, in the sense ascribed to Heraclitus where “character is for man his daimon”.

According to Gazzaniga, the normal mind is not beautifully unified, but rather a problematically yoked-together bundle of partly autonomous systems. All parts of the mind are not equally accessible to each other at all times. These modules or systems sometimes have internal communication problems which they solve by various ingenious and devious routes.

Dennett is now discussing, speculatively, the evolutionary aspects of the compartmentalised reasoning: asking questions with one autonomous system, only to find others as potentially delivering answers. That is, talking to yourself.

By way of Ryle (1979): “… there is no conscious self that is unproblematically in command of the mind’s resources. Rather, we are somewhat disunified. Our component modules have to act in opportunistic but amazingly resourceful ways to produce a modicum of behavioral unity, which is then enhanced by an illusion of greater unity.”

‘… it can turn out that the best hermeneutical story we can tell about that individual says that there is more than one character “inhabiting” that body.’

I was expecting Dennett to go on to discuss this simultaneity of the compartmentalised mind as the basis for the problematised self. He didn’t. He used “psychological disorders, or surgically created disunities” to put his point about “two centers of gravity, two selves”, more than one abstraction. Which kind of confused me – is he arguing a single, multi-modal mind-self or more than one of these, a second or third multi-modal mind-self? Fictional abstractum or abstracta?



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