Alan Watts the famous existential life coach, and a man who heavily studied Taoism, consistently talks about ‘the real you’. ‘ The real you’ is supposed to be your essence, your ‘essential self’. It is the person you are meant to be, or your a priori essence. This notion of essence is actually a really old one, that existentialism begins to question, and poststructuralism destroys. The question then is: what makes my personhood individual? Alan Watts begins to deconstruct this essential personhood, in his talk Life is A Hoax. Interestingly, the word ‘person’ comes from the greek ‘persona’. Persona’s were the masks that people wore in Greek theatre; to get into character, and to project their voice. While etymologies do not reflect the definitive contemporary usage, I think as a metaphor, it illustrates something about inherent in personhood: it’s constructed.
While in my last post, I talked about how existentialism needed to learn from some of its contemporaries, Sartre and Beauvoir, actually bring a useful concept to the table when talking about social constructionism. Namely, facticity. Facticity has a long tradition of being used in philosophy, but in this case we are talking about something specific. Facticity is defined as the space and time in which the events of your life take place. There is a great Sartre quote that explains that:
freedom is what you do, with what has been done to you.
Facticity is all of those things that construct your notion of freedom. Imagine you needed glasses, but lived in a time when glasses did not exist. Or as Jason Silva quoting Kevin Kelly: what if paint had not existed for Van Gogh? Facticity is shaped by the space and time that you find yourself occupying. More broadly, it is also what shapes you. If I had not grown up with a computer in my hands, would I be as likely to want to integrate one everywhere? Probably not.
If what makes our particular individual-ness exist is the space and time it is founded in, what are we left with that we can call our essence? If I took away all the specific moments of my life, all of the constructs and facts that my brain interpreted, I would not be left with anything, except my own biology. While my own biology definitely makes me unique (although to a very small degree), that does not leave a very satisfying end for an essential a priori self. Especially, when we consider that epigenetics might show that our genetic code is shaped by our environment, and that genes can only be expressed when given space to do so (phenotypes), we still see that our physical self is shaped by our sociology. Now I am not a biologist, so I want to step back from making sweeping claims here about what this means. From my perspective though, it seems that culture plays a role in who we are biologically as well.
In Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity (discussed here), Beauvoir also breaks down how we gradually grow into freedom. Specifically, she talks about how the child at least lacks freedom, as their ability to choose is limited. If the child does not have a choice to begin with, then the things that they choose to experience (which will later shape their lives), are not their own. While they may be able to assert their freedom, their subjectivity will always be constructed around those past ideas. While we can critically engage with ideas, and change ourselves, we will always have a relationship to the ideas we blindly adopt.
That is to say your facticity/social construction is you! It is all of the things that make you, who you are. It is your unique relationship to the world of ideas that makes you who you are. We should stop looking for an essence, and start acknowledging our existence as socially created creatures!
I’m tacking this youtube video onto this essay, because I think it deals with this issue in a very friendly way. Thanks to Jacob Cohen on Ideapod for posting this video.