Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Self-Knowledge and the self


By: David A. Jopling      
                  
Dialogical Encounter

Mere acknowledgment of the descriptions under which I am identified by others is not sufficient for the acquisition of self-knowledge; nor is mere participation in a community of like-minded others; nor is the mere satisfaction of the conditions of intersubjective cognitive agreement. The further condition that must be satisfied is dialogic encounter: that is, actively engaging another person in a dialogue that is directed to exploring the question "Who am I?" This, as Buber and Levinas argue, is not an activity pursued exclusively by the self and for the self; it is pursued with others and for others, and in a moral context in which the self's responsiveness to others, and its epistemic and moral responsibility for others, reaches an equilibrium with the self's concern for itself. What I learn about myself, and how I integrate it into my conduct, is an acknowledgment of the responsibility that I have to others in my self-investigative practices, because it is others who can be hurt by the inaccurate or self-deceived self-understandings that inform my actions and interpersonal attitudes. One of the primary functions of self-knowledge, in other words, is social and interpersonal, rather than intrapersonal. If the acquisition of self-knowledge is part of a dialogical project, then to be self-knowledgeable is to be an interlocutively and interpersonally responsive agent.

Dialogues, however, come in many different forms, some superficial or motivated by extrinsic considerations (e.g., controlling the other's opinions, or prolonging the conversation for its own sake), and some leading to misunderstanding or alienation. What then are the appropriate conditions for "reflective dialogue"- that is, dialogue that is conducive to reflective self-inquiry and reflective self-evaluation? A reflective dialogue can be characterized as an open-textured process based on the response and address of self and other, through which both interlocutors are united by the desire to achieve mutual and truth-tracking understanding while respecting the moral differences separating them. In raising the question "Who am I?" the self issues a call to the other, and addresses the other as a person who stands in the role of moral witness. The act of addressing and responding to another person in these circumstances is constitutive of the self knowing itself. But how is it constitutive? What is it about the concepts of address and response that secure their central place in self-inquiry?

The philosophy of dialogue begins with the idea that to be a person is to stand in a unique set of relations to other persons. What makes these relations unique is their asymmetry with respect to all other forms of relations, particularly relations to things and events. We do not first establish as objective fact that some creature is a person because it satisfies (for instance) certain determinate conditions of rationality, intentionality, or self-consciousness -and then, at a logically subsequent stage, relate to it in an appropriate way because it has satisfied these conditions. Rather, our treating a creature and responding to it in certain ways is somehow constitutive of its being a person. Versions of this idea are defended by philosophers across a number of traditions.

According to Buber, Levinas, and others in the tradition of the philosophy of dialogue, one of the central components of "person-constitutive" ways of relating to others is mastery of the unique form of language of personal reference associated with the first-person and second-person perspectives. The language of evocation, and address and response-"addressive language”-is based inter alia on the experience of being the intended target of the second person nominative pronoun you, as uttered by an interlocutor, and the concomitant experience of addressing another with the second-person nominative pronoun you.

Levinas adds to this the idea that addressive ways of relating to other persons are essentially ethical in nature: that is, they involve responsiveness, responsibility, desire, and interest. Other forms of relations between selves and others, such as relations that involve the adoption of a stance of knowing, understanding, or explaining, are possible because of these first-order ethical relations. The event at the heart of self-other relations that gives to these relations an ethical dimension is the face-to-face dialogic encounter, which is essentially an evocative relation in which two interlocutors take responsibility for one another in the act of responding to one another. Levinas characterizes the other person's facing the self as something that obligates the self to enter into discourse with it; that is, as an appeal before which the self cannot remain silent. The dialogic encounter that takes place between self and other is not, however, a union, an empathic identification, or a blending of the self with the other into some harmonious synthetic whole: it is a relation between two separated terms, the self and the other." Discourse is the experience of something absolutely foreign, a pure experience, a traumatism of astonishment." All language, Levinas argues, ultimately refers to this face-to-face dialogic encounter. There is no word for which someone is not ultimately responsible, and which does not ultimately revert to an interlocutor whose facing the self commands the self to respond.


Philosophical accounts of the relation between self and other that under-emphasize the differences between the first- and second-person point of view by modeling the other person to whom the self is related as
another self are incomplete. A sufficiently rigorous phenomenological description shows that relations between self and other are not relations between two subjects of experience, with each subject encountering the other from its respective first person point of view as another subject occupying a similarly structured first-person point of view. The other to whom the self is related is not a "re- edition of the first person," which would per impossible be addressed with the first person locution I: the other encountered by the self is the second person, the You, which Buber characterizes as the "Thou," and Levinas characterizes as the "Other."

The idea that self-other relations are essentially relations between two subjectivities is found in fully developed form in Sartre's phenomenology of the look, which describes the dynamics of looking and being looked at that express the existential superiority at stake in the encounter between two conflicting centers of agency. Two selves, both of which are "beings for themselves," are destined to struggle with each other in order to preserve their respective freedom and sense of self, and to fend off objectification at the hands of the other. They oscillate between looking at the other, and thereby retaining the upper hand as the active, superior agent, and being looked at, and thereby being impaled by the other's hostile, freedom-robbing look. Neither one wins in this struggle: there is a ceaseless exchange between one for-itself and the other, first with one freedom subject to violation, and then the other.

As Sartre conceives it, the look that is directed from the for-itself to others is hostile and alienating, because it involves objectifying others and depriving them of the agency that is quintessentially their own. But the look cannot be directed at other persons as they are for themselves, that is, as subjects of experience. It is directed at others only insofar as they are quasi-objects, or "freedom-things." Because the encounter with the other threatens the self's freedom, it is the "original fall" of the for-itself.

Sartre's account of the phenomenology of the look follows from conceiving other persons in the self-other relationship as other selves, in all essential respects similar to how the self is for itself, with differences being attributable to differences of perspective and mental history. But an essential dimension of the other's reality-viz., the other's otherness-is overlooked when the other person is "duplicated" in the self's own terms. To conceive others in this way is to overlook one of the primary facts of experience: viz., that for , each individual person there is only one I-namely, oneself. The other person cannot be addressed as I, but only as you. The force of this "cannot" is both logical and phenomenological.

Thus the otherness that characterizes the other person in the self-other dialogic encounter is not something that can be fully captured by the fact that other persons are different by virtue of different histories or psychological states; or that they are different by virtue of an inobservable inner life. The sense of otherness that Levinas intends is stronger: it is otherness in the sense of transcendence. The other is present to the self in the dialogic encounter in his or her refusal to be contained or comprehended. The other as Other cannot be made explicit as an object. Nothing in this encounter is adequate to any idea by which I might try to measure the other as Other. Levinas's model for the otherness of the other person is not unlike the kind of otherness that would be attributed to God, whose reality is uncontainable, and beyond every idea by which it might be measured.

From this discussion of the philosophy of dialogue, six features of the pragmatics of interlocutive language that is involved in reflective dialogue can be discerned.

First, reflective dialogue is open-textured. The interlocutors who address each other with a view to working out the question "Who am I?" do not know in advance the outcome of the dialogue in which they are engaged; nor do they know how they will be changed by it, and how their original self-understandings will be expanded. Reflective dialogue is therefore to be distinguished from pedagogical dialogue, which follows a program or set of rules and moves toward a determinate end. The direction of pedagogical dialogue is largely predetermined, and the possibility of unanticipated developments is reduced to a minimum.

Second, reflective dialogue requires of both interlocutors a willingness to encounter the other person in such a way that his or her otherness, rather than sameness or like-mindedness, is manifest. There are a number of ways this willingness can be blocked. I can, for instance, systematically interpret the words of my interlocutor into terms that favor my own point of view; or I can hold something back from my interlocutor. But I cannot learn from my interlocutor while covertly remaining committed to the promotion of my own view. If for instance I secretly regard my interlocutor as pathologically motivated, and construe his or her words as symptoms rather than as bona fide reasons, then I cannot learn what he or she thinks about the question I have posed. In a reflective dialogue, I regard the other person as a fully responsible partner in the discussion, and as complying with inter-subjectively established norms of responsibility and trustworthiness; but in doing so I am keenly aware that the other person is other than me, and not merely a "re-edition" of my self.

Third, reflective dialogue has an addressive component: the self addresses the other person with forthrightness, and the other responds in kind. This does not involve the exchange of information or the co-creation of a narrative: it is a spontaneous face-to-face conversation between two interlocutors who are in each other's presence. This aspect of language is easily overlooked because of its pervasiveness and familiarity. Spoken language is often modeled on the enunciation and reception of propositions, or on the exchange of referential statements. But these are abstract models that are removed from the phenomenology of everyday moral discourse. One of the most common events of everyday life is the act of addressing and responding to another person face to face, engaging the other in a way that is frank and unrehearsed in order to establish a commonly understood meaning. Language would be a rootless and impersonal system of signs if it were not anchored in the face-to face confrontation of interlocutors.

Fourth, reflective dialogue involves an evocative component. My addressing the other person with regard to the question "Who am I?" evokes a range of other-directed emotions and mutually responsive attitudes, to which I respond in kind: for example, care, compassion, sympathy, love, respect, shame, and desire. To engage another person in dialogue is not to acknowledge that the other person's feelings accompany his or her carefully considered responses to my question; it is to recognize that these feelings themselves constitute responses to my appeal.

Fifth, reflective dialogue has a nominative component: that is, it involves an exchange based on the utterance by self and other of the pronoun you, the pronoun of mutual recognition and response. My sense of myself as interlocutor in the dialogue includes my sense of myself as the referent of the address you, spoken by the other person whom I too address as you. The pronoun you has what might be called elicitative locutionary force. As the pronoun of mutual recognition, it calls forth interlocutors, and situates them in a discursive space where the first-person and third-person pronouns also become appropriate. It is an elicitative speech act.

Finally, reflective dialogue has an existential component: that is, it involves being with other persons and participating in the appropriate kinds of interlocutory, moral, and emotional relations. It does not involve merely thinking about others. It is not possible to address an interlocutor with elicitative locutionary force while maintaining a detached and objective stance. When the other person is addressed with the directness of the nominative second person pronoun, he or she is not an object of observation; nor is the other person the object of a certain stance (e.g., a stance involving the interpretation of their actions according to a psychodynamic theory). The distinction between the self's theoretical, technical, or aesthetic stance to the other person and the self's dialogic encounter with the other person is not simply a distinction between perspectives on one and the same self-other relation. That is, it is not merely a matter of seeing the other person first in one way, and then in another way, as the duck-rabbit reversible figure is seen first as a duck, then as a rabbit. The other who is addressed face to face is not part of the same information-yielding dimension that is the object of theoretical, technical, or aesthetic stances. To address the other person is to be called into a conversation that itself brings about an understanding of moral and social identity. It is this original dialogical situation that provides the context for an answer to the question "Who am I?"

The concept of self-knowing is indissolubly tied to the nature of dialogic encounter, and the epistemic and moral responsibility it entails. Outside of the context of a shared form of life, and the linguistic community and the face-to-face interaction that it affords, there is, properly speaking, no self-knowing. Not only does dialogue open the self to itself by opening it to the other person; it is by means of reflective dialogue that persons are "talked into'' knowing who they are. Interlocution is a constitutive feature of self-knowing; it is not built up from the contingent interactions of pre-social atoms. Knowing who I am is possible only in relation to other persons who constitute a community of interlocutors.

The Stone Angel
Margaret Laurence's novel The Stone Angel employs a literary device well suited to a discussion of the dialogic dimension of self-knowledge: namely, the retrospective survey of a life, at the brink of death, told in the form of a continuous first-person monologue. The novel contains a wealth of allusions to Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner; both works depict aged persons narrating the story of their lives, seeking some final degree of clarity before the end, and discovering (almost haphazardly) that the understanding of the self is contained in the response to a call from the other.

The Stone Angel is rich in metaphors of blindness, insight, and self-deception. It portrays the thoughts of Hagar Shipley, a ninety-year-old woman who is endeavoring to come to terms with the meaning of her life, and the person she has chosen to be. At one level the story traces the external events of the life of Hagar-a fiercely independent and proud woman who grew up under harsh conditions in a small prairie town in Manitoba during the Depression era. At a deeper level it is a story of how Hagar comes to develop a clear awareness of the facts of her life history and moral character, just weeks before her death, after many years of self-blindness and self-deception. The theme of blindness to self is announced early. The stone angel that symbolizes Hagar is a white marble statue standing in memory of her mother, who died giving birth to her: "Above the town, on the hill brow, the stone angel used to stand. . . . Summer and winter she viewed the town with sightless ever. She was doubly blind, not only stone but unendowed with even a pretense of sight. Whoever carved her had left the eyeballs blank. It seemed strange to me that she should stand above the town, harking us all to heaven without knowing who we were at all." Like the stone angel, Hagar has eyes but no real interpersonal or intrapersonal sight. She is too obdurate to feel much sympathy for others, and to recognize how she stands in relation to their needs and sufferings. At one point, in a moment of defiant lucidity about her blindness, she says, "I could not speak for the salt that filled my throat and for anger-not at anyone, at God, perhaps, for giving us eyes but almost never sight."

The central action of the novel revolves around Hagar's conflict with her son Marvin and his wife Doris, who, afru many years of tending to Hagar as she becomes increasingly fragile, have decided to send her to a nursing home. Hagar refuses to leave the house, insisting that she is capable of looking after herself. She is terrified of change. For her, involuntary confinement to a nursing home resembles the situation of the biblical Hagar, banished to the desert. Her attitude is symptomatic of a lifelong pattern of failing to see how she affects others, and how others see her. Her refusal to acknowledge her deteriorating condition closes her off from being aware of the responsibility she has to her son and daughter-in-law, who are repeatedly hurt by the self-protective strategies of self-ignorance and self-deception that inform her actions. At one point, when she has fallen down in her room, she demands to be left alone; but she also knows she cannot stand up on her own. Crying out, she does not recognize the sound of her own voice: "Can this torn voice be mine? A series of yelps, like an injured dog?" Looking in the mirror after the fall, she fails to recognize herself, describing the figure in the glass as "somehow arbitrary and impossible."

In a moment of semi-delusional rebellion against her son's decision, she flees to an isolated part of the British Columbia coast. The journey is doubly symbolic. The "quiet place" she seeks is a place of rejuvenation, a place where she can gain some degree of control over her life; at the same time, the arduous trek down the steep overgrown steps to the shoreline represents a descent into the deepest parts of her self. She amps in an abandoned cannery, with only a handful of foodstuffs, and no warm clothing. During the night a stranger enters the cannery, unaware that it is occupied. He too is burdened with painful memories, and is seeking a quiet refuge for reflection. Hagar is at first terrified, but he shares with her his food and drink, and initiates a conversation that ultimately effects in her a momentous change in how she understands herself.

The conversation begins as an exchange of cautious pleasantries, both speakers maintaining a respectful distance, and both hesitant about where the conversation will take them. The stranger first talks about his family and his work: "He talks and talks. He's a bore, this man, but I find the sound of his voice comforting. The wine warms me. I can't notice the chest pain so much now." As he talks of his marriage, the birth of his son, his loss of faith, and his beliefs about death and the purpose of life, Hagar begins to warm to him: "He's drunk as a lord, but he pours my glass without wasting a drop. He's an experienced hand. But I'm not mocking him, even inwardly. There's a plausibility about this man. I like him now, despite his rabbity face, his nervous gnawing at his mustache. His strangeness interests me and I wonder how I could have thought him a bore."

The rambling narrative to which Hagar had been listening more out of amusement in storytelling than genuine interpersonal openness begins to change direction and take on a more serious tone. She senses the intensity of the stranger’s voice, and feels its transformation from monologic narrative to addressive appeal. It becomes clear to her that his words are an injunction to listen and to respond wholeheartedly and exclusively-not necessarily with articulate utterances and insights, but with the careful attention of a moral witness. The scene illustrates how the understanding of the self is contained in the response to a call from the other. The dialogue on which they embark is open-textured, with neither of them knowing where it will lead or how it will change them. It is a dialogue in which they encounter each other as complete strangers, and this serves to foreground for each of them the other's otherness, rather than the other's sameness or like-mindedness. Hagar and the stranger are not close; nor are they like-minded in the strong sense defended by Sandel: they come from different backgrounds and generations. Nor do they consult one another as friends who deliberate together, "offering and assessing by turns competing descriptions of the . . . [persons they are], and of the alternatives [they] . . . face as they bear on . . . [their] identity." But while they are not close, they address and respond to one another face to face in a way that is forthright and unrehearsed, with their dialogue turning on the use of the second-person nominative pronoun you, the pronoun of mutual recognition and response. Singled out in this way, Hagar's characteristically rigid and proud manner of dealing with others, and her tendency to stereotype others as a defensive reaction to keep them at bay, are temporarily suspended. This gives to their dialogue an evocative character: both Hagar and the stranger evoke from one another certain other-directed emotions and mutually responsive attitudes. The stranger's account of his crisis in religious faith, and his citation of the preacher at his church, is more addressive appeal to Hagar than simple narrative.

I lean forward, attentive, ease a cramped limb with a hand, and look at this man, whose name I have suddenly forgotten but whose face, now turned to mine, says in plain and urgent silence-Listen. You must listen. He's sitting cross-legged, and he wavers a little and sways as he speaks in a deep loud voice [quoting the preacher at his church].

"Reveal, oh Lord, to these few faithful ones Thy mysterious purpose, that they may prepare to partake of the heavenly feast in Thy Tabernacle on high and drink the grapes anew in Thine Own Kingdom-"

He stops. He peers at me to see what I make of it. I look at him and at the shadows streaking now around him. His face recedes, then rushes closer, but only his face, as though the rest of him had ceased to exist. Now I'm afraid, and wish he’d stop, I don't want to hear any more.

Hagar cannot maintain a stance of neutrality to the stranger's appeal; she is implicated and enjoined by the “plain and urgent silence” of his words, which more like an interlocutive injunction than a moral commandment or imperative, say to her, "Listen. You must listen." The stranger recounts to Hagar how he lost his son in an accident for which he still feels responsible, and continues to raise in his mind unanswerable questions about the nature of causality and blame. Hagar is astonished by his frankness, and her immediate reaction, a retreat into her habitual defensive posture, is one of condescension: "He thinks he's discovered pain, like a new drug. I could tell him a thing or two. But when I try to think what it is I'd impart, it's gone, it's only been wind that swelled me for an instant with my accumulated wisdom and burst like a belch. I can tell him nothing. I can think of only one thing to say with any meaning. 'I had a son,' I say, 'and lost him.' " The "old" Hagar-proud and emotionally ossified-would have maintained a facade of stoic wisdom, half-heartedly engaging the stranger but remaining inwardly aloof. But in this new setting, aware of his strangeness and of its effect on her own vulnerability, she utters only a simple factual statement that establishes an immediate sense of rapport.

Hagar in turn addresses the stranger and enjoins him to witness her words. In telling him the sequence of events that led to her eldest son's tragic death decades earlier, she opens up a part of her life, and a wealth of feeling, that have for decades been sealed off by complexly integrated behaviors of self-deception, pride, selective forgetting, and class consciousness. She recalls vividly how, in response to the overwhelming guilt she felt upon first hearing the news of her son's death, she made an irrevocable decision to harden herself.

She [the hospital matron] put a well-meaning arm around me. "Cry. Let yourself. It's the best thing."

But I shoved her arm away. I straightened my spine, and that was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my entire life, to stand straight then. I wouldn't cry in front of strangers, whatever it cost me.

But when at last I was home, alone in Marvin's old bedroom, and women from the town were sitting in the kitchen below and brewing coffee, I found my tears had been locked too long and wouldn't come now at my bidding. The night my son died I was transformed to stone and never wept at all.

The words she speaks, decades after the fact, and before a stranger whom she cannot see since night has fallen, are cathartic, and they bring her closer to accepting the tragedy and understanding her-long-repressed feelings about it. She cries openly, an expression of emotion she never would have allowed herself before: "I'm glad he's here. I'm not sorry I've talked to him, not sorry at all, and that's-remarkable." The understanding she achieves in conversation with the stranger could not have been reached in any other way: by exploring the etiology of her feelings and her psychological makeup with a psychodynamic psychotherapist, by experimenting with alternative self-descriptions, or by constructing a narrative life history. Decades of emotional and intellectual habit have closed off these other avenues, and have been incorporated into complex stratagems of denial and selective forgetting. The interlocutive injunction of the stranger is like a provocative force: it calls Hagar into question, and disrupts her conventional self-understanding. It is not merely an instrumental means to insights she would have acquired by other non-interlocutive means; rather, the presence of the stranger as interlocutor is itself a way in which she comes to know herself. The stranger provokes Hagar to account for herself; he is a witness, neither judging nor interpreting her words according to a prior frame of reference. The conversation between them is thus free of the distortion of stereotyped language and social role play, and therefore free of the objectifying stances that typically characterize more conventional forms of interpersonal behavior. The stranger escapes being pinned down by Hagar's normally shrewd stereotypes by an essential dimension. He "overflows" every idea by means of which she might try to measure him according to her own terms.

Throughout the conversation, perhaps to symbolize his alterity and his refractoriness to Hagar's grasp, the stranger is often in the shadows. The relation between them is not visual; it is not a Sartrean look that enables a “reading” or an objectification of the other person, but a dialogic confrontation based on a non-appropriative respect for the otherness of the person who is expressing himself with unabashed sincerity. The stranger is neither empathetic nor sympathetic; he does not feel toward Hagar a sense of at-oneness.

Later that night Hagar falls asleep, only to awaken in a delusional state in which she believes she is talking to her dead son (although, in fact, it is the stranger to whom she is talking). She expects him to be angry with her, not only for the many years of having to live with the harshly judgmental nature of her love but for the cruel words that were spoken between them just before he bolted out of her house and to his untimely death. Hagar has felt guilty about this fight her whole life, but her imaginary conversation effects a resolution, and allows her to experience for the first time since his death a sense of transfiguring forgiveness. "But when he speaks, his voice is not angry at all. 'It's okay,' he says. 'I knew all the time you never meant it. Everything is all right. You try to sleep. Everything's quite okay.' I sigh, content. He pulls the blanket up around me. I could even beg God's pardon this moment, for thinking ill of Him some time or other. ‘I’ll sleep now,' I say. 'That's right,' he says. 'You do that.'"

When Hagar awakes the next day, the stranger is gone. But she is changed as a result of the conversation the night before. "He's gone. My memory, unhappily clear as spring water now, bubbles up coldly. It could not have been I, Hagar Shipley, always fastidious if nothing else, who drank with a perfect stranger and sank into sleep huddled beside him. I won't believe it. But it was so. And to be frank, now that I give it a second thought, it doesn't seem so dreadful. Things never look the same from the outside as they do from the inside." With the conversation of the night before rejuvenating her long-repressed ability to experience emotions, she is flooded with feelings of loss for her son John: "Something else occurred last night. Some other words were spoken, words which I've forgotten and cannot for the life of me recall. But why do I feel bereaved, as though I'd lost someone only recently? It weighs so heavily upon me, this unknown loss. The dead's flame is blown out and evermore shall be so. No mercy in heaven."

The stranger has left to notify Marvin and Doris about Hagar, whose physical condition overnight has deteriorated as much as her self-understanding has improved. Hagar is hospitalized, and when the stranger visits her she displays the same haughtiness that the night before she had overcome, angry because he broke his promise not to notify Marvin and Doris. "And so the man goes away, back to his own house and life. I am not sorry to see him go, for I couldn't have borne to speak another word to him, and yet I am left with the feeling that it was a kind of mercy I encountered him, even though this gain is mingled mysteriously with the sense of loss which I felt earlier this morning." While resting, the train of her self-reflections culminates in another moment of insight in which she sees through the web of denial and self-deception she had lived with for so long. The insight lays the ground for a sense of self-acceptance more permanent than she has ever felt before. Hearing a simple verse from a hymn, she soberly takes her measure:

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with joyful voice.
Him serve with mirth, His praise forth tell;
Come ye before Him and rejoice.

I would have wished it. This knowing comes upon me so forcefully, so shatteringly; and with such a bitterness as I have never felt before. I must always, always, have wanted that-simply to rejoice. How is it I never could? I know, I know. How long have I known? Or have I always known, in some far crevice of my heart, some cave too deeply buried, too concealed? Every good joy I might have held, in my man or any child of mine or even the plain light of morning, of walking the earth, all were forced to a standstill by some brake of proper appearances-oh, proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart's truth?

Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched. Oh my two, my dead. Dead by your own hands or by mine? Nothing can take away those years.

This is the culminating moment of Hagar's reflective self-inquiry and reflective self-evaluation. The dialogic encounter with the stranger in the cannery gave her the opportunity to understand herself in the context of addressive experience, in being solicited by the other's call. Wishing to recapture the same dialogic conditions so that she might discuss her impending death, she repeats to the nurse attending her the stranger's imploring words, "Listen. You must listen." But the moment is unpropitious; the nurse, who regards her perfunctorily as no more than an elderly patient, is not receptive to her call.

The world is even smaller now. It's shrinking so quickly. The next room will be the smallest of all.

"The next room will be the smallest of the lot."
"What?" the nurse says absent-mindedly, plumping my pillow.
"Just enough space for me."
She looks shocked. "That's no way to talk."

How right she is. An embarrassing subject, better not mentioned. The way we used to feel, when I was a girl, about undergarments or the two-backed beast of love. But I want to take hold of her arm, force her attention. Listen. You must listen. It's important. It's-quite an event.

Only to me. Not to her. I don't touch her arm, nor speak. It would only upset her. She wouldn't know what to say.

The same failure to establish the conditions of interlocutive injunction occurs when her teenage grandson visits her in hospital. Hagar reflects with bitter irony on the generational stereotypes that trap both of them, blocking genuine dialogic openness, and the possibility of having a witness to her reflections. "That's what I am to him-a grandmother who gave him money for candy. What does he know of me? Not a blessed thing. I'm choked with it now, the incommunicable years, everything that happened and was spoken or not spoken. I want to tell him. Someone should know. This is what I think. Someone really ought to know these things."

Hagar's addressing the stranger, as a witness in the context of raising the question "Who am I?" is a kind of interlocutive speech act. She is doing more than describing and explaining her character traits and her past, both of which are actions that could be carried out monologically. Her exploration of the question "Who am I?" revolves around the I and the you of dialogue. She needs a second person to bear witness to her reflective self-inquiries to ensure their meaningfulness. There is no doubt that her illusions, self-ignorance, and self-deceptions have served her well in the challenging environment in which she lived. They have filtered out some of the harsher and more hurtful elements of life, and thereby allowed her to cultivate a range of adaptive self-regarding attitudes and sentiments such as self-esteem and self-contentment. But this has come at a high price. While adaptive from a strictly self-serving point of view, they have functioned as filters or barriers that have prevented her from seeing other persons accurately, and from rejoicing. For most of her life she has been unaware (or only partially aware) of those moral feelings, responses, and actions from others that were directly or indirectly statements about how she was affecting them: for example, explicit verbal criticisms, antagonistic or supportive behaviors, or interpersonally directed emotions expressing love, sadness, desire, or sympathy. Unable to perceive these accurately, Hagar conducted herself in a way that was narrowly responsive to the dynamics of her immediate social world, and in keeping with the "proper" social appearances of the community in which she lived. When she finally comes to see with clarity how her selfish decisions and joyless and invulnerable character have adversely affected others around her, and how others have responded with flight or fear, she is placed in a position-at the very end of her long life-to respond more openly and more appropriately, replacing egoistic pride with sympathy, and judgmental distance with acceptance.

Hagar's story shows how the deeper and more pervasive a person's self-opacity or self-deception, the more his or her awareness of other persons is diminished. As fewer aspects of the self are noticeable, and therefore knowable to the person whose self it is, so fewer possibilities for interpersonal conduct and moral responsiveness are presented as viable options. The morally relevant distinctions in interpersonal situations, and in emotional and practical response to others, which would be available to those who are more self-knowledgeable, are not available to those suffering from self-opacity or self-deception. As more aspects of the self, and the self-in-relation, are closed off from view, there comes the risk of a corresponding stunting of emotional and moral growth. The capacity to experience sympathy, regret, desire, and other interpersonally specific emotions and attitudes is directly proportional to the capacity for self-knowledge.

Persons come to know themselves in being known by and responsive to persons other than themselves. By bringing them into contact with an alterity that they cannot contain, nor measure in their own terms, reflective dialogue gives persons a social and interpersonally constituted understanding of the shape of their character, life history, and the values that matter most to them. Understanding of this kind is not acquired for its own sake; it serves the ends of interpersonal responsiveness and responsibility. The response to the question "Who am I?" therefore has a triadic structure: it is for the self, of the self, and before the other. It involves encountering the other in a face-to-face dialogue that, because it takes the form of injunction, attestation, and avowal, carries the self beyond its narrow first-personal boundaries, and beyond the naive egoism that places it at the center of the world, as the measure of all things.

1 comment:

klatu said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.