zondag 9 augustus 2015

Self-reflection by the other

If you had to nominate a profound value that has been produced and cherished by Western civilization, would that not be the capacity for self-reflection?

This proposition is sometimes suggested during the workshop Thinking for someone else, and I think it is true. The Greek motto ‘Know thyself’, combined with the relentless search for truth by Socrates, has triggered a millennia long tradition of critical research. This has not only produced science and critical philosophy, but as its most praiseworthy result – in this view – also a tradition of self-scrutiny.

For examples of the latter, one can think of the Confessions of St. Augustine, the Essays of Montaigne or the Confessions of Rousseau. Typical of this tradition of self-scrutiny is that the self appears twice. The self is doing the action of the investigation, and thus appears as actor. But the self is also the object of the research performed by itself. Quite an achievement indeed.

Undeniably this capacity for self-reflection is something to be proud of. But is it the best thing a man or a culture can achieve? Will you, as a culture, manage in the end, working with the ability to self-reflect as your highest value? The proposition does not pretend that, but I add the question because I think it is an important question to which the answer is no. And because our culture is troubled by that negative answer.

That trouble, in my opinion, consists in the circumstance that, through the emphasis on the self in a double sense, the horizon of thought will also coincide with the horizon of self. The universe of the self-critical self is that of the self. Self-reflection remains reflection of the self on the self. Autonomy is the norm, the self remains its own initiator and author. Many beautiful things can spring therefrom, but the repetition of all those words ‘self’ also emphasizes the solipsistic character of autonomy thinking. How restrictive that is, is shown if you put another – self-invented – word next to it: other-reflection.

By which I mean: reflection – on yourself – that is not triggered by yourself but by someone else. Because, whatever you come up with in your attempts at self-criticism or whatever discipline you display in that, the world turns out to be just thát bit greater than you could imagine, and the other precisely different from what you could imagine. There are other universes indeed, which I can not get at by myself. There self-reflection – triggered by the self – stops, and other-reflection – triggered by something surprising from the other – starts.

This is difficult for Socrates and his followers. They indeed keep asking questions, but they mostly invent them themselves.

Also see Immune and Levinas and Rousseau