A Contrast between Individualistic and Social Theories of the Self

“The difference between the social and individual theories of the development of mind, self, and the social process of experience or behavior is analogous to the difference between the evolutionary and contract theories of the state as held in the past by both rationalists and empiricists. The latter theory takes individuals and individual experiencing – individual minds and selves – as logically prior to the social process in which they are involved, and explains the existence of that social process in terms of them; whereas the former takes the social process of experience or behavior as logically prior to the individuals and their individual experiencing which are involved in it, and explains their existence in terms of that social process. But the latter type of theory cannot explain that which is taken as logically prior at all, cannot explain the existence of minds and selves; whereas the former type of theory can explain that which it takes as logically prior, namely, the existence of the social process of behavior, in terms of such fundamental biological or physiological relations and interactions as reproduction, co-operation of individuals for mutual protection or for the securing of food.”
George Herbert Mead, On Social Psychology, The University of Chicago Press, 1977, p. 242.

I wanted to edit and shorten this but I didn’t. In fact, I needed to battle the urge to go on quoting the next page. It is what it needs to be: the sober discovery of an inescapable truth we could not but evolve to discover. Nevertheless, evolution works in mysterious ways; after half a century the fact is that the traditional (and false) position still prevails. Whatever.

But if the mind is not born with the body and the social not the deliverance of the individual, then death of body and cessation of individuality is not co-extensive, at least not necessarily so, with the termination of mind, socially speaking. Yes, I am talking here about the commonplace notion that one lives on in one’s works – albeit without the usual understanding of ‘one’, ‘living’ and ‘works’.

One of the reasons the notion of the original soul survives and is so sticky is that at some level it is true that there has to be an after-life of sorts. Paradoxically, at least from a traditional viewpoint, an after-life can only be rescued if we give up the false notion of an original soul. After all and as said above, only if the coming about of body and mind are separated can we succeed in separating the parting of mind and body.

I lost both my parents to dementia. It is only after the dementia that I lost their bodies to the cycle of nature. While, because of a dysfunctional set of laws, I was living on with their bodies I was reminded constantly of to which extent I was an outcome of who they were. It is a sad but – at least somewhat – comforting fact of life (and death) that when the body outlives the mind, the mind gets more salient in that the body reminds of it but does no longer get in the way of it.

It’s a lot like a web that is spun, generation upon generation and subculture upon subculture. It’s a lot like a web that is spun, except that there is no spider in it. It is in that sense more like the world wide web than any natural web. Call it maybe the history wide web where all of us have a part to play even if none of us can be reduced to one physical part of that web; from co-operation of individuals to the mutual survival to the co-operation of individuals for the mutual development of knowledge.

Individuals still because once the individual is created (and individualized by the reference to a body) the individual can only contribute to evolution by being the individual he or she really is, without her or his independence and autonomy the cultural evolution would come to a standstill. The more independence the faster the cultural evolution; to the extent that sometimes that evolution is too fast and both bodies and minds lost (the former in war and the latter to ideology).

Nevertheless, the ‘one’ that lives on isn’t the ‘one’ that was temporarily identified to its body. It isn’t even the trace of it because the last ‘one’ is just a trace of the first ‘one’. What lives on is the mind as it came to be on top of the body’s coming to be, the tone of that mind that inspired and will continue to inspire. Egoism has to be self-defeating and it is because the only works that live on are those which have impact on others, for instance the truth that egoism emerges as truly self-defeating in this life as well as in the next.

“Hello, parents.” he said to himself and therefore also to them without need for a God nor for misconceived spirituality nor for hot-headed indignation about this or that thing which was or isn’t yet or should be. I respect my parents too much to fault them for things that didn’t evolve yet, like the absence of a functional set of laws governing the right to die.

I do my best myself, you know, as they taught me, although maybe only my kids will see the results of it. Or theirs. There is always time.


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