Rafael Winkler (Ed.): Identity and Difference: Contemporary Debates on the Self

Identity and Difference: Contemporary Debates on the Self Book Cover Identity and Difference: Contemporary Debates on the Self
Rafael Winkler (Ed.)
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardcover 96,29 €
XVI, 286

Reviewed by: Meghant Sudan (Colby College)

This collection of essays aims to show how questions about one’s identity (as a metaphysical entity, as a reflective knower, as a social-moral-political being) appear when difference is upheld as primary or fundamental. This approach is broadly characteristic of recent works in continental philosophy and through it the collection maintains a steady affiliation with phenomenological thought, although this is not its explicit focus. The reader is led through thoughtful explorations of topics such as how one’s self-conception is marked by a fundamental deception, or how a satisfying account of agency demands a thoroughgoing unity across my animal and my rational capacities, or how my being human and embodied entails my constitution through a dynamic of fragility. The collection contains eleven essays presented at a conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, including many by local and younger scholars, and so represents philosophical work itself in a somewhat different setting.

In that very setting, the collection is timely too, since the issue of identity has recently inspired lively public debate and much soul-searching at prominent sites of the South African philosophical scene, some involving the editor and a few authors of our collection. The controversy originally arose over systemic racism many felt exists in the Philosophical Society of South Africa, and in part concerned an all-white panel on the topic of South African identity at its annual conference last year (the panellists include some authors in the present collection). The editor then broached the topic and responded to critics in opinion pieces in newspapers this year. The collection encourages several ways to think about one’s identity and deepens the debate that already took place in the newspaper columns but which naturally could go only as far as these allow. At the same time, the collection courts a like charge as that which embroiled the panel, since no anxiety about manifest tokens of racial representation seems to drive the contents of the volume, while the sole article attending to the question of South African identity argues expressly from the position of whiteness (a pressing conundrum regarding how white South Africans are to be white South Africans in a post-apartheid state). These issues of the personal and the political are truly large and urgent, and easily dwarf the fact, which I would also like to make transparent in the context of this review, that I am personally acquainted with the editor and we share philosophical interests.

It is fashionable to fret about the lack of unity in collections, especially one that is conference-based, where it is even more susceptible to such worries. I do not share these worries, and judging from the fact that Winkler’s brisk introduction does not invest great effort in imposing order on the proceedings, I do not think there was any worry about settling them either. The essays are organized along four themes: “Narrative Theory and Phenomenology,” “Politics, Authenticity, and Agency,” “Feminism,” and “Race and the Postcolonial,” but they often speak to each other beyond these divisions. For example, narrative theories of identity appear in the first section (as they must) but also substantively in the Feminism section; the formidable thought of Spivak reflecting on Irigaray reflecting on Levinas comes up in both the Feminism and the Race and The Postcolonial sections; an interest in philosophical skepticism emerges in the course of discussing Sartrean views of consciousness in the first section and leads into a historical discussion of skepticism in the next. Such conversations among the pieces are helpful and are highlighted below. An unevenness does dog the collection, however, and I will comment on this aspect in the end after briefly reviewing the individual contributions.

Dermot Moran surveys concepts of self, ego, personhood, and personality, as they travel through the history of western philosophy until their phenomenological treatments by Husserl, Heidegger, Max Scheler, and Edith Stein. After Locke, who gave the concept of personhood a strongly moral orientation, and Kant, who pressed the ego’s sensible-cum-rational entanglements as a problem, these founders of phenomenology strive in mutually responsive ways to articulate its complex and dynamic unity, and stress the following: its systematic and historical dimensions (Husserl and Heidegger), its moral and concrete individuality (Scheler), and its psychic and spiritual depth (Stein). While the essay succeeds several previous versions, it is clear that Moran’s practiced hand (the essay succeeds several previous versions) brings the various moments of this otherwise expansive sweep before us effortlessly and situates the chapters that follow.

Alfonso Muñoz-Corcuera enters debates about narrative theories of personal identity, which Moran touches on when closing his essay. Muñoz-Corcuera defends these theories against objections which disable easy transitions between literary characters and living persons, which hold that we neither understand ourselves through narratives nor is our identity in fact constituted through narrativization, and which raise concerns about diluting our practical exigencies by relying on strategies relevant elsewhere, such as writing fiction. These objections are shown to rest on a misunderstanding easily avoided by distinguishing diligently between literary and cognitive senses of “narrative,” where the latter indicates a mental framework for thinking of agency rather than formal features of sentences that count as literary narratives. The different positions in this debate are laid out in detail, but key points of Muñoz-Corcuera’s rejoinder are stated without explicit support even if they sound plausible enough, e.g., the claim that the cognitive sense somehow conditions how we construe the literary sense, or the claim that our own identity is constituted through the interaction between stories we tell about ourselves and stories others tell about us. Similarly, the formal-literary notion is a tad flat without an account of the material-historical conditions of that form itself, which would arrest misuse of that notion in thinking about ourselves.

David Mitchell makes a strong case for continuing the dialogue between phenomenological and narrative views of personal identity by examining Sartrean insights into how a dialectic of fiction and belief underwrites selfhood. It is hard to account for self-deception as a state of mind resistant to a Cartesian type of transparent self-consciousness. Freudian theories incur the paradox that the subject must be conscious of what it is to remain unconscious of in order to repress it and epistemological theories equating self-deception with ordinary adhesion to false beliefs in the face of countervailing evidence do not do justice to the distinctive features and deep conviction marking the former. Mitchell therefore appeals to Sartre’s quaintly charming psychological case-analyses, which show them as grounded in the structure of consciousness as elusive and in flight, and he offers an account of belief as essentially overcoming itself at a pre-reflective yet spontaneous level of awareness. I only wish that he set aside some of the time spent on the case-analyses to help readers learn more about the intriguing processes at work in the theory of mind according to this view.

Vincent Caudron reminds us that the desire for a seamless self, without gaps or distortions, overlooks discourses of authenticity, which dominated the early modern epoch and its tenor of religious and epistemological uncertainty, and which probed a radical incompleteness of the self. Caudron documents such views in Montaigne and Charron to show not only skepticism about a true self but also a constant pursuit of hypocrisy in oneself that drove a wedge within the self in the service of moral authenticity. Fortunately, we have a wealth of historical-philosophical literature available (elsewhere, in the area of early modern skepticism) that offers greater heft and nuance to the indications Caudron flags as important to consider.

Irene Bucelli, in the one chapter that engages analytic philosophy, proceeds in the other direction and wonders if the constitutivist views of agency championed by Korsgaard and Velleman create an untenable rift between animal-active and human-rational levels of selfhood and if an approach that synthesizes the two orders is not preferable instead. Bucelli believes that minimal self-awareness without higher reflective endorsement is not only necessary for being responsive to reasons for acting as her opponents grant, but also sometimes sufficient, which is evident in coping actions in which I am immersed. The evidence, so far as I see it developed here, draws from the more cohesive and permissive account of action that will eventually ensue from the proposed approach: cohesive inasmuch as various capacities can be integrated towards human action instead of attributing the latter exclusively to an autonomous rationality, which attribution is nonetheless supposed to depend on lower layers of mental awareness and ownership; permissive inasmuch as a continuum or spectrum of actions and mental states can fund an account of agency under more flexible circumstances than the sort that Kantian formalism permits.

Rockwell Clancy wants to deliver us from a more pernicious formalism he perceives in contemporary liberalism, which, in having freed itself from allegiance to natural law and human nature, has led, he feels, to conservative and fundamentalist reaction. He observes that disavowing political anthropology is neither possible, because the barest description of human agency is still one, nor is it desirable, because, as Clancy warns, this opens us up to vast dangers ranging from ISIS and David Cameron to Dawkins and Derrida (the warning is issued in the now recognizable style of holding postmodern playfulness responsible for the severe indifference to truth affecting public discourse today and thereby enabling whatever-you-fear-worst). In lieu of an abstract and exclusive universalism Cancy imagines an inclusive particularism that would approach human nature through a more fluid understanding of nature, which lets us collect everything needed to avoid said dangers from everyone from Mencius to Latour to build a better world (and a daunting bibliography).

Kathy Butterworth’s chapter outlines a program for conceiving a relative (she prefers “relational”) autonomy by using Ricouer’s narrative theory of personal identity, which allows for thinking of a subject, and its autonomy, as a process for permitting degrees of achievement and contextualization. We need such a concept because the post-structuralist critique of the subject, while it compellingly dismantles traditional notions of an invulnerable, all-or-nothing autonomy, thereby also imperils the resources it could provide for a post-identity subjectivity consonant with a broadly feminist perspective.

Louise du Toit eloquently argues for rethinking subjectivity through bodily vulnerability with the help of feminist legal philosophy and phenomenology. Rape, she says, is inadequately understood when we only consider its physical violence, or only its sexual side and exclusively under the concept of consent as a corollary thereof. Relying heavily on Debra Bergoffen’s work on international tribunals on war rapes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, du Toit explains, rather, that rape concerns a physically coded violation of dignity that places it on the same plane as other crimes against humanity such as torture and slavery. Comparative analysis of these enables a phenomenological interpretation inspired by Merleau-Ponty, which evokes the fundamental ambivalence of the embodied human as both object and subject and calls for a thinking in terms of our living sensuality and enmeshed erotics. The essay is laden with insights that await unpacking via critical confrontations with other feminist and phenomenological work touched on in passing or raised by suggestion.

Laura Roberts takes forward the question of erotics signalled by du Toit and frames a dialogue between Irigaray and Spivak (which is surprisingly helpful in clarifying their otherwise abstruse texts), in order to conceive a feminist ethics of solidarity that is synaptically global rather than universal in a way that subsumes the other under itself. Spivak finds in Irigaray’s concept of sexuate difference as an irreducible difference a point of departure for thinking of an ethical relation to another, and in the question of women’s pleasure an excess-within-difference that can develop it as a radically indeterminate moment moving bodies together (in love) and playing between discourses (in translation or teaching). This style of thought naturally resists straightforward exegesis, proceeds performatively, and baffles any mere spectator or reviewer, but may at the very least be taken as articulating the “sensible transcendental” conditions of possibility of a solidarity to come, if one were to press mundanely about the solidarity hereby made possible.

Sharli Paphitis and Lindsay-Ann Kelland broach the question of South African identity from the standpoint of white individuals and record their personal struggles with it. As it is avowedly a personal question, albeit posed in a collective and impersonal register, it could have occasioned reflection on the very decision to write together (along with others like the focus on their race and citizenship, rather than, for instance, their being women), even if one did not want (but why not?) to go to Spivakian lengths of autoanalysis. Paphitis and Kelland do reflect on their guilt and shame, taking these as two kinds of relationships determining identity, one with their forefathers (their word) and another with their black compatriots, and they find that, denials of history and denials of recognition respectively riddle their reflection. Yet, they refrain from using the analysis of this emotional experience to disclose any larger truths, say, about being and intersubjectivity, and accept that they have merely begun their journey of self-discovery.

Louis Blond closes the volume with a reluctant defense of Levinas against postcolonial criticism of the topic of alterity. The essay includes a useful genealogical sketch of this topic, thus bookending Moran’s own on identity, to lead us up to the basic framework of Levinasian thought and interventions by critics as well as sympathetic commentators. Although Levinas is celebrated for stressing the singularity of the other and ethical confrontations ensuing from it, critics object that this denies representational politics or repeats exclusionary gestures of a colonial extraction or they point to plain instances of bigotry. However, postcolonial thought is not always beyond reproach, especially in overstating the body’s passivity against the transcendent-spiritual orientation of Levinasian thought, while, Blond hopes, repairing blind spots in the latter can preserve its intrinsically valuable prioritization of the ethical and social relation.

As I hope to have shown, the collection is uneven: some chapters are stronger, some weaker, some are interpretive or analytical, while some are programmatically promissory or resolutely exegetical, some are dense and some lucid. Given the editorial decision to represent a variety of voices, this may even be welcome. An unevenness harder to specify, however, concerns their intended audience. For, a few chapters will appeal to philosophers searching for argumentative developments in their fields, while others speak to generalists looking for the big picture, and some to non-philosophers interested in introducing themselves to specific ideas and movements. The publisher’s blurb recognizes this and addresses itself to the humanities at large. Inasmuch as philosophers are accused of not doing so, the book corrects a fault and ably informs a diverse readership about the variety of debates prevalent today about identity, difference, and the self.