Excerpt #24 — Alasdair MacIntyre on The Nothingness of The Modern Self

Riffing off of the last excerpt post by David Bentley Hart, it seemed appropriate to list here a similarly themed excerpt from Alasdair MacIntyre about the modern self, and modern freedom.

Since I am nearing the end of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, I thought to list just one passage from it here, and settled on this one because of its similarity to that excerpt.

MacIntyre denies that

the self is or becomes nothing but the social roles which it inherits. The self, as distinct from its roles, has a history and a social history and that of the contemporary emotivist self is only intelligible as the end product of a long and complex set of developments.

Of the self as presented by emotivism we must immediately note= that it cannot be simply or unconditionally identified with any particular moral attitude or point of view (including that of those characters which socially embody emotivism) just because of the fact that its judgments are in the end criterionless. The specifically modern self, the self that I have called emotivist, finds no limits set to that on which it may pass judgment for such limits could only derive from rational criteria for evaluation and, as we have seen, the emotivist self lacks any such criteria. Everything may be criticized from whatever standpoint the self has adopted, including the self’s choice of standpoint to adopt. It is in this capacity of the self to evade any necessary identification with any particular contingent state of affairs that some modern philosophers, both analytical and existentialist, have seen the essence of moral agency. To be a moral agent is, on this view, precisely to be able to stand back from any and every situation in which [32] one is involved, from any and every characteristic that one may possess, and to pass judgment on it from a purely universal and abstract point of view that is totally detached from all social particularity. Anyone and everyone can thus be a moral agent, since it is in the self and not in social roles or practices that moral agency has to be located. The contrast between this democratization of moral agency and the elitist monopolies of managerial and therapeutic expertise could not be sharper. Any minimally rational agent is to be accounted a moral agent; but managers and therapists enjoy their status in virtue of their membership within hierarchies of imputed skill and knowledge. In the domain of fact there are procedures for eliminating disagreement; in that of morals the ultimacy of disagreement is dignified by the title ‘pluralism’.

This democratized self which has no necessary social content and no necessary social identity can then be anything, can assume any role or take any point of view, because it is in and for itself nothing. This relationship of the modern self to its acts and its roles has been conceptualized by its acutest and most perceptive theorists in what at first sight appear to be two quite different and incompatible ways. Sartre –I speak now only of the Sartre of the thirties and forties– has depicted the self as entirely distinct from any particular social role which it may happen to assume; Erving Goffman by contrast has liquidated the self into its role-playing, arguing that the self is no more than ‘a peg’ on which the clothes of the role are hung (Goffman 1959, p. 253). For Sartre the central error is to identify the self with its roles, a mistake which carries the burden of moral bad faith as well as of intellectual confusion; for Goffman the central error is to suppose that there is a substantial self over and beyond the complex presentations of role-playing, a mistake committed by those who wish to keep part of the human world ‘safe from sociology’. Yet the two apparently contrasting views have much more in common tha[n] a first statement would lead one to suspect. In Goffman’s anecdotal descriptions of the social world there is still discernible that ghostly ‘I’, the psychological peg to whom Goffman denies substantial selfhood, flitting evanescently from one solidly role-structured situation to another; and for Sartre the self’s self-discovery is characterized as the discovery that the self is ‘nothing’, is not a substance but a set of perpetually open possibilities. Thus at a deep level a certain agreement underlies Sartre’s and Goffman’s surface disagreements; and they agree in nothing more than in this, that both see the self as entirely set over against the social world. For Goffman, for whom the social world is everything, the self is therefore nothing at all, it occupies no social space. For Sartre, whatever social space it occupies it does so only accidentally, and therefore he too sees the self as in no way an actuality.

[33] […] [O]ne way of re-envisaging the emotivist self is as having suffered a deprivation, a stripping away of qualities that were once believed to belong to the self. The self is now thought of as lacking any necessary social identity, because the kind of social identity that it once enjoyed is no longer available; the self is now thought of as criterionless, because the kind of telos in terms of which it once judged and acted is no longer thought to be credible. What kind of identity and what kind of telos were they?

In many pre-modern, traditional societies it is through his or her membership in a variety of social groups that the individual identifies himself or herself and is identified by others. I am brother, cousin and grandson, member of this household, that village, this tribe. These are not characteristics that belong to human beings accidentally, to be stripped away in order to discover ‘the real me’. They are part of my substance, defining partially at least and sometimes wholly my obligations and my duties. Individuals inherit a particular space within an interlocking set of [34] social relationships; lacking that space, they are nobody, or at best a stranger or an outcast. To know oneself as such a social person is however not to occupy a static and fixed position. It is to find oneself placed at a certain point on a journey with set goals; to move through life is to make progress –or to fail to make progress– toward a given end. Thus a completed and fulfilled life is an achievement and death is the point at which someone can be judged happy or unhappy. Hence the ancient Greek proverb: ‘Call no man happy until he is dead.’

[Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame, 1981-1984), 31-34]

Modern freedom, as MacIntyre notes, presents itself as liberation from these roles, seen as tyrannical.

That’s all.

Happy New Year :-)


Header image found here.

7 thoughts on “Excerpt #24 — Alasdair MacIntyre on The Nothingness of The Modern Self

    • I assume you’re referring to the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self”. If so, then yes: it eliminates these problems. It introduces, however, a cascade of other ones, psychological, political, ethical, metaphysical.

      Now, there is much that I love in Buddhism; I still return to the translated texts of the consciousness-only school of Chinese Buddhism, and profit from them greatly. There is so much wisdom in them! I love them very much, and commend them to others. –but as a final theory of the self, as an entire system, this Buddhist teaching of “no-self” fails all but a narrow sliver of either the monks or else the privileged, who are buffered from any need to address serious moral wrongs around them. When someone harms me, the teaching of “no-self” saps my resources to respond with appropriate moral force and integrity, and it is for this and like reasons that China eventually marginalized Buddhism in favor of Confucianism. Politically, I have yet to see a convincing case for human dignity and human rights that is rooted in Buddhist metaphysics. Perhaps you will be the first, though! ;-)


      • What I’m wondering is if the no-self takes better or worse photographs. By the way No Self No Problem is a book by Anam Thubten. Maybe you can find it in your library or read it in a bookstore-its fairly short.

        Liked by 1 person

        • If it’s that short, I’ll probably look for it on Google Books or the Kindle store.

          What’s your verdict about the photography question RE: “no-self”? You have some really solid experience with it, by the looks of your blog. :-)


          • If I’m not thinking that I’m taking a photograph and just taking a photograph the results are much better. Charlotte Joko Beck once said its not I hear the birds its hearing the birds…

            Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: MacIntyre — Secularization and Moral Change, I | Into the Clarities

Start a conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.