Is the self relational?

In various discussions on this page, the claim that “the self is relational” has come up. What do you suppose this means? Usually, when there is a relation, there are things being related (“relata”). So what are the relata that go into the composition of the self?

I guess a tough materialist could say, “Ultimately, the relata are atoms (or quarks, or whatever). Those are the ultimate building blocks, and sometimes their complex organizations result in there being a conscious self.” But I think this probably misses what people want to say when they say the self is relational.

Could it be that the self is a relation of other selves, which are relations of other selves, …, ad infinitum? I don’t know. Leibniz for one thought the buck has to stop somewhere; there must be true individuals, which he called “monads.” But these he thought were selves (or at least some of them were).

Maybe selves are relations among social institutions, cultures, histories,…? But are any of these things supposed to be more real than individual selves? I would think they are produced by the relations and interactions among selves, rather than vice-versa.


6 thoughts on “Is the self relational?

  1. Kleiner

    Quick aside before I make my real comments: You’ll notice that I am not remarking on the materialist point. Huenemann and I were doing some philosophy the other day, and I left the conversation quite surprised. We are both reasonably intelligent people, we’ve both been exposed to the basic arguments out there – and yet I insist that materialism is not worth spending much time on since, to my mind, it is a view that ultimately fails to account for basic experiential phenomenon (like language). But Huenemann says the exact opposite, that any kind of “dualism” (any role for an immaterial element) is not much worth spending time on, so even in his skepticism he uses materialism as the default “obvious” position. How can this be? How can two contrary positions be “obvious” to two reasonably intelligent and well read people?
    All the more remarkable: This is no small disagreement – we both agreed that if we were to change our particular views, it would “change almost everything” since what is at stake is one of the most basic questions about human nature. You’d think that this would get in the way. In some ways it does, philosophiclly, but yet Huenemann and I are already, in many ways, a lot alike (we get along well, laugh at each other’s jokes, similar hobbies, etc). My reaction to all of this is at once to be confounded but also to marvel at the practice of philosophy and its relationship to our lived experience.


  2. Kleiner

    Kierkegaard is clear enough on this, isn’t he? :)

    “But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.”
    – Sickness Unto Death

    What does this mean? It might help to first see what it does not mean. Kierkegaad continues,
    “a human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity [though] a human being is still not a self.”

    A synthesis is a relation between two (body-soul, etc). But this is still not a self. In other words, being a “particular human being” (say, a hylomoprhic compound in Aristotle and Aquinas metaphysics) is not co-extensive with being a “self”. So, clearly, those that suggest that the self is a relation are up to something much different than before. Actually, I should not even say tht the self is the relation (he denies that it is in the first quotation) – the self is an activity.

    SK: “If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.” In other words, the self is a kind of relating activity – it is not a “thing” (substance in the metaphysical sense).

    But not any old relating activity will do for Kierkegaard. He continues, “the self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude that relates itself to itself, whose task is to become itself, which can be done only through the relationship to God.”

    Now we have a basic view of Kierkegaard’s ontology of the self. On this picture, the self is a complex of relational activities. There are three constitutive relations of the self: the original synthetic unity of the finite and infinite (the lived body), the self as its relation to itself (self-consciousness), and the relation of the self to an other (its ground, God). The individual who appropriates and affirms his relationship to God in faith becomes what he really is – an individual before God.

    This is why Kierkegaard can speak of “becoming” a self. (“Yet every moment that a self exists, it is in a process of becoming.”) Becoming a self is a TASK – a task of properly “ordering” this complex of relational activities, a task that is fraught with possibility and freedom. Failure to do so is what Kierkegaard calls “despair” (of which there are three stages that mirror the three constituitve relations of the self). While some scholastic thinkers might be made to say what Kierkegaard is saying (I think we can save Aquinas, for example), no scholastic thinker I can bring to mind thought of relations as being constituitive of the self in the sense of being CHOSEN, or taken up as a TASK. Insofar as relations were considered “essential” (and I think, for the most part, the actual character of the relation was considered accidental), this was considered in a some great chain of being sense rather than in a lived, chosen, and experienced sense.


  3. Huenemann Post author

    I sorta see, as if through a glass darkly. Still, it seems like Kk is treating a relation as a thing: “the relation relates itself to itself” — can this really mean anything? Only, I submit, if you have a definite, conscious thing that is doing the relating of itself to itself.

    A further view has occurred to me. Maybe the self is relational in the sense that what we identify as a self is in fact a complex of beliefs, motivations, desires, goals, etc, without there being a “central command post” (or what Dennett calls a “Head Quarters”) where it all comes together, or where the complex is controlled. It would be analogous to a national economy (minus the Fed, I guess; minus the “Fed Quarters”!) which ends up as a quasi-entity despite there being no one in control, or no central organizing spots. It is relational in the sense of arising out of relations among entities that are not themselves economies. Similarly, the self arises out of relations among things which are not themselves “little selves.”


  4. Mike

    I see the Kierkegaardian point I think, the complexity of the inner life and his existential task. Similar to Nietzsche’s thinking of the self as a ball of snakes?

    I tend to see the self and personal philosophical points of view in flux. When people nail down and say definitively I believe X and don’t mean it contingently I think this is in some sense dishonest. The consequence of this is that I think honest, personal philosophical work is open-ended. Not that people don’t tend to believe many of the same things over time or that honest philosophers should constantly be saying “it’s just my personal point of view”. Each person should put forth the best argument possible while realizing obvious human limitations. I’m enough into this idea that I have some design sketches for open ended online publications where conversation and comments can eventually become part of the core text. Sometimes the point of view I want to express is better described by including a dialog on the view where my view might not be the only view I want represented. At best the self is probably editorial control so maybe that would be representative.

    I also see the point that the self is never defined solely by itself but that external factors play a major role.

    I do think we have greater access to (knowledge of) our-selves than other-selves. Not that we don’t have major blindspots and that there is no ambiguity within the self (and knowledge of the self) but that the ambiguity when additional selves are introduced is increased and not lessened.

    Is there another point I’m missing that is important? And is there something thinking of the self as relational is supposed to change?


  5. jtpaasch

    I just have a few disconnected thoughts.

    1. Kleiner suggested that the self is a kind of relating activity. I like this. Think of Aristotle’s metaphysics and subsequent scholastic metaphysics in the Aristotelian (rather than Augustinian) tradition. For this tradition, things (substances) are lumps of material or stuff that are enformed by various forms. A form is a little power-pack, a power to do certain things. And a thing is determined by the power-packs it has (not the other way around!).

    For example, the lump of stuff (energy, perhaps?) that is a flame, is a flame because it has the power-to-heat. Likewise, the lump of stuff that is a human, is a human (on a common scholastic view) because it has the power-to-think-and-will. That lump of stuff that is a flame is not a human because it does not have the power-to-think-and-will, and that lump of stuff that is a human is not a flame because it does not have the power-to-heat.

    So the powers a lump of stuff has are not determined by the lump of stuff. Rather, the lump of stuff is determined by the powers it has. [Heidegger’s stuff on Metaphysics Theta is, despite certain weird aspects, largely accurate on this point.]

    Also, forms are active, while lumps of stuff are passive. The difference here is that lumps of stuff in themselves don’t do anything. But their powers activate that lump of stuff. Suppose I have a lump of gold. Now, if I were locked in battle with my arch nemesis NinjaTron (who wears metal, strike-proof armor), and if I were to leap around jabbing NinjaTron with my lump of gold, I probably wouldn’t do much damage. The reason is that my lump of gold is pretty inert here. It doesn’t have the power to harm NinjaTron.

    But if I give my gold lump a little power-pack to generate an electric current, then my gold is no longer inert. It can electrify things. So in my next battle with NinjaTron, when I jab him with my lump of gold, well then, Take That NinjaTron! Let’s just say he’ll feel a ‘slight’ tickle where it hurts.

    That’s the idea here. The powers are active, and they empower and make lumps of stuff do the actions they do. And notice that powers and actions are two-place predicates. That is, they are relational. It is impossible, according to the Aristotelian tradition, to perform an action without thereby being related to something.

    My point here is that Aristotelian philosophy is a very active-relational philosophy. On this reading, every single hylomorphic compound is determined by relational-activities (i.e., every form a lump of stuff has is an active power-pack). This is not a radical reading of Aristotle, by the way. It’s pretty standard.

    Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that Aristotle’s definition of substances as ‘independent’ and properties as ‘dependent on substances’ might be misleading. Aristotle says that substances aren’t independent, they are whatever has properties. The idea is that properties are properties of things, so whatever those things are where properties occur, we’ll call those substances. Aristotle is not saying that a substance is independent in the sense that it can float around without any of its properties, even the relational ones. On the contrary, for Aristotle, a substance cannot be a substance without its properties.

    2. In any case, I agree from an Aristotelian/scholastic point of view that a self is a relating activity. But do we want to say a self is (i) a relating activity, and (ii) not a thing? Can’t it be both? Can’t we say there are lots of ‘things’ in the world — trees, rocks, people, fast cars, etc. — but that some of them are and some of them are not actively relating to other things with active-relations that count as self-making active-relations?

    I suppose a question might be: if we say a self is merely (i) a relating activity and (ii) not a ‘thing’, then presumably that relating activity could exist on its own, apart from any ‘things’. This would make no sense to me. I think I’m too empiricist in that respect. Properties occur in things (even relations), and I’m not sure I could get my brain to give that idea up. I’m not sure my brain could even imagine it otherwise.

    3. I suspect that the relations in question here, the relations which are self-making relations are various types of social relations. We’re not talking about just any relation. A rock is related to various objects in various ways, but I don’t think we want to go around calling rocks selves. The kinds of relations we are after here are belief relations, culture relations, knowledge relations, language relations, self- and other-consciousness relations, and so forth. And it makes good sense to me to think of a self as a cluster of such social relations. I don’t think we necessarily need a ‘head quarters’ here.

    But I don’t think these self-making relations can be floating around in space-time. I do think we need some compresence or overlap in these relations. If these relations didn’t overlap or bundle together at some particular place, I couldn’t point to that particular place and say ‘Mike is there, right where I’m pointing’. If the self-making relations weren’t bundled together or ovelapping in a particular place, then I’d have to point one way at, say, a self-consciousness relation, and point another way at, say, a belief-relation, and say ‘Mike is there and there’. That seems pretty unnatural to me.

    So yeah, I think we want to at least bundle these self-making relations together in some way, and where they all overlap, or where compresence obtains, or whatever, that is the individual.

    4. Levinas claims that the self is ontologically dependent on the other. I used to explain this to my (analytically minded) theology students like this: try to imagine a point without any other point or any space. You can’t do it, because you can only identify a point by relating it (or better: distinguishing it from) something else. Levinas thinks of the self in a similar way: it is impossible to identify ‘a self’ without reference to another from which to distinguish it. Thus, the self presupposes an other, so the self is constituted by the other.

    I think this is plausible. (Let’s pretend like we don’t buy Max Black’s thoughts on two identical spheres.) I’m not sure if I buy it anymore, but it still seems plausible to me. In any case, Kleiner’s description of Kierkegaard reminded me of this. Levinas seems pretty similar to SK on this point. And, of course, in the background of all this is Descartes. Do you think this is the same reason that Descartes says there must be a God? Or is that too much of a Marion-esque reading of Descartes?

    5. One more point. Kleiner, what do you think of the Victorines (Hugh of St. Victor and Richard of St. Victor are two excellent examples)? They have a pretty strong notion of self-formation (or rather, being formed by God) in terms of task. Similarly, all the mystical writings, e.g., Bonaventure on ‘the path to God’, or St. John of the Cross on the dark night of the soul. Do you think those ideas come close to what SK is saying? Likewise, what about the medieval conception of faith, hope, and love as virtues? In virtue ethics, virtues are only developed via the task of formation. Is this close enough to SK?


  6. Kleiner

    Sorry for being so long in posting a response to jtpaasch. You raise a bunch of really interesting points.

    1. First let me say that I think you and I largely agree that we need not jettison classical/medieval metaphysics. But I think we are in the minority here. I hold Heidegger’s view of deconstruction – deconstruction with recovery – rather than Derrida’s mere deconstruction/destruction. The tradition needs to be re-read, but it can be. And sometimes the re-reading need not be as radical as one might think (for instance, saving Aquinas from charges of onto-theology by just reminding ourselves what Aquinas means by act and God being “pure act”).

    2. The connection between Kierkegaard’s task of faith (especially through the lens of the theological virtues) and a kind of classical virtue ethics has not, to my knowledge, been adequately developed. There have been some articles and a book on MacIntyre and Kierkegaard, but otherwise not much else that I know of. That seems like a really interesting and promising project. My dissertation tried to take Heidegger and connect his later more “mystical” work with Aristotelian phronesis as a way of developing a more concrete postmodern ethics. Since I am convinced that Heidegger is secretly Kierkegaardian, I would think something similar (if not even more interesting) could be done with Kierkegaard.

    3. I have a friend who has done lots of work on Kierkegaard, and has tried to more explicitly connect Kierkegaard to some of the great mystic thinkers you mention. I’ll see if I can scare up a paper from him to post here.

    4. You are quite right to see a connection between Kierkegaard and both Levinas and Marion. A nice little collection edited by a former prof of mine called “Kierekegaard in Postmodernity” lays this all out. In fact, if I recall correctly, there is an article in there on Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and virtue ethics.
    Anyway, Matustik and Calvin Schrag both argued in many classes I had with them – convincingly I think – that Kierkegaard anticipated much of postmodernity. I would recommend reading Schrag in particular, a powerful voice of what I call “moderated postmoderntiy”.

    5. Regarding the mystical thinkers, formation, and the task of the self point: St. John of the Cross is perhaps the best example, if only because he has been explicitly drawn into this confluence of Thomism and existential phenomenology through the work of Pope John Paul II’s personalism. If you read JPII’s work, you’ll see the mystics, Heidegger, Marion, Levinas, and Kierkegaard lurking everywhere.



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