Self as Relationship and Project
I have certainly found it useful, even necessary, to explore what is inside myself, to dig a maze of tunnels into my interior in order to discover what is there for creating my life and world. But it does no good to get lost inside myself. Then the very purpose for self-exploration is undermined, because I lose the most essential tools for that exploration. Inner exploration can only be meaningful when it is carried out hand-in-hand with concrete exploration of the external world with the explicit aim of creating one’s life. I am talking here about practical activity such as building or finding shelter; getting food, clothing, tools and other necessities; destroying enemies and harmful elements that threaten my life; developing relationships of complicity, affinity and mutuality, love and friendship. In other words, learning how to bring together the tools, relationships, time and space necessary to create what I desire. My uniqueness lies in the fact that I am a particular web of relationships with everything that surrounds me. By grasping the various threads that make up this web and weaving them in specific ways, I become the creator of my life, and this is how I come to know myself. But precisely because this is a question of relationships with other unique beings striving to create their own lives, this is a project that is never completed, a continuing struggle to get beyond my present limits.
One of the necessary tools for this project is abstraction. This is the ability to draw broad, general ideas from specific situations and relationships, ideas that can then be applied to new situations and relationships. Without the ability to create abstract concepts (such as “food”, “heat”, “cold”, “pain”, etc.), we would confront the world at every moment as an infant, never learning to recognize what those things we interact with might mean to us and thus never even beginning the project of self-creation. But when self-exploration turns into a self-indulgent plunge into an interior separated from any concrete external projects, the necessary task of abstraction loses its link to the world and wanders into ethereal realms, perhaps of madness, perhaps of intellectual absurdity disguising itself as profundity. In my opinion, a great deal of present-day “critical theory”, particularly the sort that comes out of academia, is precisely this sort of intellectual absurdity. Consider these two problems that are frequently brought up within academic circles:
By leaving these questions in these general abstract forms (or giving them a gloss of false concreteness by addressing them in terms of broad political categories – like the categories of identity politics or the idea of the West – that are themselves abstractions), they can be endlessly debated in a way guaranteed to offer nothing useful. The only people likely to find any interest in these discussions are those who like to lose themselves in theoretical labyrinths separated from the concrete realities of life.
But if we make these questions truly concrete, it changes things completely. For example, let’s ask: “How do we know what we know about building a house? Can we truly know anything about building a house?” All of the sudden, everything is so clear. I come to know what I know about building a house by bringing together people who can teach and aid me, gathering tools and materials necessary for accomplishing the task, and doing it. Once I have successfully built a house, I can say that I truly know how to build a house.
It’s a bit trickier to make the idea of individuality concrete. It isn’t enough to merely rephrase the problem in this way: “Do I exist?” Because this “I” can be conceived of as a pure abstraction, completely separated from the world, a crystallized ideal standing above all relationship. This would leave us in the same quandary as the earlier wording. We would still be left in a labyrinth of pure abstraction without escape.
We can bring the problem of individuality into the concrete world precisely by talking in terms of our relationships with the world, in other words by asking questions like: “Am I picking up this hammer? Am I reading this book? Am I attacking this institution? Am I talking with my friend? Am I writing these words?” Made concrete in this way, the absurdity of the original question is exposed. Since existence is simply the interweaving relationships of individuals acting upon and with each other, of course individuals exist. The concept of existence and that of the individual are meaningless without each other. Since I pick up hammers, read books, attack institutions, talk with friends and write words, since I relate with and act upon the web of relationships that is existence, I exist. And since I do so in a way that is specific to the threads that weave together to form my life, I am a unique individual in relationship with other unique individuals.