Friday, May 13, 2011

The Articulated Self

In philosophy, there is a long tradition of construing the self as a featureless entity. As Blackwell Reference Online puts it:

The Cartesian self and related versions of the "philosophical ‘I’," [is] classically a separate, simple thinking substance, tracing a subjective path through the world and capable of surviving bodily death.

But there is also a long tradition of rejecting this view. Hume, for example, unable to discover his self by introspection (i.e., "looking inside"), proposed that the self was merely a "bundle of perceptions". (I distinctly remember my philosophy professor getting us to try to find ourselves by introspection in a class one day. As he expected, we failed.) The problem with the "bundle theory", though, is that it's unclear what is finally doing the "bundling". It's a bundle of perceptions, it must have some sort of "twine" (as in inter-twine).

I'm feeling very philosophical this morning, as you can tell. There's a report coming out of the Carnegie Foundation soon, called Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education, which a number of us around the department are very interested in. My own approach to the question of "liberal learning" (or a "liberal arts model for business education") is to see it primarily as a process of self-fashioning. I get this from Jonathan Mayhew's reading of Stephen Greenblatt. If business schools adopt a liberal learning model they will need to take an explicit interest in the self-formation of their students as "business people" (administrators, organizers, managers, leaders), and part of this identity will include "scholarly" competence: a facility with words, an ability to read and write, an understanding of language, literature, and culture. But what does it mean to "shape" a self?

My provisional answer is that we are trying to make ourselves and our students more "articulate", which gives a special sense to teaching them how to "express themselves" (a term that generally leaves the wrong impression, if you ask me). What does it mean to be articulate? Well, many years ago in a seminar, a scholar (I forget who) used an image that has stuck with me, that of the British call an "articulated lorry":

"An articulated vehicle is a vehicle which has a permanent or semi-permanent pivoting joint in its construction, allowing the vehicle to turn more sharply. There are many kinds of articulated vehicles, from heavy equipment to buses, trams and . Steam locomotives were sometimes articulated in that the driving wheels could pivot around turns." (Wikipedia)

In making students more articulate, we are trying to put some "joints" or "pivots" into their thinking and to strengthen them. And I've come to realize that this means exercising the joints in their selves. There is a strong "Cartesian" presumption in everyday culture, i.e., people generally think their self is "one and indivisible", that it is simple and, as Blackwell puts it, merely "tracing a subjective path" through life. But this construes the self either as a hard little shiny thing inside us, or as some sort of malleable putty on which a form can be imposed. Something to be put in a box and treasured, or something to be moulded into shape. I prefer a different model.

"The articulation of the human hand is more complex and delicate than that of comparable organs in any other animal. Without this extra articulation, we would not be able to operate a wide variety of tools and devices, nor achieve the wide variety of possible hand gestures." (Wikipedia)

The self isn't like a stone (no matter how precious) dropped into a lake. It is like a high diver jumping off the platform. Because it is jointed it can make the most beautiful movements (gestures) even in the air.

The self is not "bound" together by something. It is articulated. But it is more "complex and delicate" even than the hand. So complex and delicate, indeed, that we ought really call it “subtle” (Ezra Pound talks of the “subtle joints of the craft” of poetry); it is as much "joint" as it is "bone". It must shaped by training, by practice, and it must be “kept in shape”, by exercise. It must not be overworked (wearing down the cartilage) and it must not languish in inactivity. The self, that is, has parts. Working parts. It is to that sense of self that I address myself.

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