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The Postmodern Self and Augustine

An adapted version of a paper that was to have been delivered at a congress of Augustinian theologians in Rome, 2004, which never took place.

There has been a significant shift in human self-understanding in the move from modernity to postmodernity. In order to understand this shift, however, we need first explore the self in modernity. Then we will look into the relevance of an Augustinian notion of the self in the postmodern context, a context which characterises the world we now live in.

There is a dispute about the origins of modernity, yet there is general agreement that the rational Enlightenment of the 17th to 18th centuries represents a turning point in self-understanding, with priority given to reason and the thinking subject, or Descartes’s cogito – ‘I think, therefore I am’ . The autonomous thinking subject, further refined after Descartes by Kant and succeeding philosophers, formed the basis of our understanding of the self in modernity. That is, he/she is rational, autonomous, and individual; the modern self rises above language, history and culture, and stands alone. This individualism that characterises the modern person, however, is now open to question, and its critique is one of the principal features of the period we now call ‘postmodernity’.

Modernity made a number of assumptions about the human person. Firstly, that thought comes before language or speech, and that it is something that goes on ‘in the head’, and is completely personal to the individual. Secondly, that a person’s individuality is in some way sacrosanct and a given, and that it represents the core of who we are, an unassailable citadel of the self. These assumptions, which were assumed as much by the person in the street as by the philosopher, are now being massively challenged from a number of different philosophical perspectives.

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations famously begins with a quotation from Augustine’s Confessions I.8, about the nature of language. Wittgenstein gently chides Augustine for taking the rather simplistic view that language is using words to articulate thoughts. The point that Wittgenstein goes on to elaborate is that we cannot think thoughts without first having a language, and that thinking, as suggested by Augustine and assumed by most, ‘is not an incorporeal process which lends life and sense to speaking’ (Philosophical Investigations, I. 339). That is, we do not have thoughts and then somehow clothe them in language. Language is prior to the individual, and we learn to speak and make sense of the world by being born into a particular linguistic community. This challenges the Cartesian notion of the priority of the thinking subject.

Another linguistic philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, came at the problem of Cartesian individualism from a different standpoint. He described Descartes’s description of the mind somehow residing in the body as a ‘category mistake’, calling it the ‘dogma of the Ghost in the Machine’. He pointed out that mind and matter are terms of a different logical type and should not be confused. Thought is not a separate activity that goes on in an individual’s mind. Body and mind, rather, are a mysterious totality that is misrepresented by philosophical individualism (see The Concept of Mind, London, 1949).

Other contemporary philosophical schools have also rounded on the autonomous thinking subject. Richard Rorty, representing American Pragmatism, borrowing both from Wittgenstein and Ryle, and others, challenges any confidence in the ‘mind’, and sees the value of philosophy as therapeutic rather than constructive. In other words, he seeks to refute the claim that by turning inward, as Descartes, Kant and the phenomenologists sought to do, we can find ineluctable truth. To locate an irreducible philosophical starting point in the mind of the individual is regarded as a pointless activity for Rorty (see Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton, 1979, chap.1)

This position is endorsed by another American philosopher, Richard J. Bernstein, who speaks of the ‘Cartesian Anxiety’ and the need to move on from the philosophical individualism that has characterised so much of Western thought up to recently. He proposes instead a more communitarian understanding of epistemology, pointing out that in the scientific community the pursuit of knowledge is something that is done together, and that ‘rationality is essentially dialogic and intersubjective’ (Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, Oxford, 1983, pp.77-78). Significantly, the collective and communitarian nature of knowledge is an important theme in the writings of a number of eminent philosophers of science like Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn.

However, it is perhaps the French post-structuralists, like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, and others, who have made the most thoroughgoing critique of the thinking subject and philosophical individualism. Derrida’s project of ‘deconstruction’ has as one of its principal aims to divert attention away from individual authorship to the text itself, and to highlight the inconsistencies in the text rather than the author’s stated intentions. It is not surprising, therefore, that he should look upon Cartesian individualism as a kind of madness, a ‘mad audacity’, as he calls it. He criticises the ‘logocentrism’, the over-emphasis on detached reason, of Western thought from the time of Plato, especially since Descartes’s insistence on the priority of the thinking subject and its claim of objective truth unfettered by personal prejudice and historical or social contingency. Proposing Emmanuel Levinas’s ethical starting point as an alternative to Cartesian metaphysics and Kantian transcendentalism, he speaks of the ‘violence’ of philosophical individualism:

…there is a soliloquy of reason and a solitude of light. Incapable of respecting the Being and meaning of the other, phenomenology and ontology would be philosophies of violence. Through them, the entire philosophical tradition, in its meaning and at bottom, would make a common cause with oppression and with the totalitarianism of the same (Writing and Difference, London and New York, p.113).

Michel Foucault famously remarked that ‘man is an invention of recent date,’ adding further, ‘and perhaps one nearing its end’ (The Order of Things, London and New York, 2002, p.442). He describes his philosophical methodology as an ‘archaelogy of knowledge’, and in a variety of different fields – medicine, sexuality, the prison system – sought to uncover how the philosophical subject in thrall to reason violently excludes anything, and anyone, not fitting in to a met a narrative of rational objectivity. Foucault proposes, therefore, nothing less than the ‘death of man’, in order to challenge what has been described as ‘the relatively modern idea of man as a self-contained rational agent, that knowing subject assumed by rationalists, and triumphant in the French Revolution’ (Stuart Sim, in The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, London and New York, 2001, p. 246).

What remains after this critique, this decentring of the modern self, has now become a matter of much discussion. Calvin Schrag, in a penetrating study of the human self in the light of the postmodern critique, is quite realistic about the task facing anyone seeking the rehabilitation of the self:

If one cannot rid oneself of the vocabulary of self, subject, and mind, the most that can be asserted is that the self is multiplicity, heterogeneity, difference, and ceaseless becoming, bereft of origin and purpose. Such is the manifesto of postmodernity on matters of the human subject as self and mind (The Self after Postmodernity, New Haven and London, 1997, p.8).

With the break-up of the autonomous thinking-subject, we appear to be left with only a fragmented understanding of the human person, a variety of different and hardly connected narratives of the self, that give us only a partial glimpse of who we are. And this is a problem not just for philosophers but for anyone who wants to know just who they are in our contemporary world. A number of social commentators are now describing the state of the postmodern self in terms of fluidity, fragmentation and dispersal. Zygmunt Bauman describes this well:

…today the problem of identity arises mostly from the difficulty of holding to any identity-expression as stands a good chance of lifelong recognition, and the resulting need not to embrace any identity too tightly, in order to be able to abandon it at short notice if need be (Postmodernity and its Discontents, Cambridge, 1997, p.123).

Another social commentator, Anthony Giddens, speaks of a world of increasingly greater risks in jobs, social relations and personal circumstances, which is characterised by a pervading sense of insecurity. We live in a ‘runaway world’, as he calls it, which seems to be out of control:

The Enlightenment philosophers operated with a simple but apparently very powerful precept. The more we are able rationally to understand the world, and ourselves, they thought, the more we can shape history for our own purposes… The world in which we find ourselves today, however, doesn’t look or feel much like they predicted it would. Rather than being more and more under our control, it seems to be out of our control – a runaway world (Runaway World, London, 1999, p.2).

This insecurity, coupled with a weak sense of personal identity, leaves the contemporary person is a state of anxiety about how to relate. It has become a truism to say that people today no longer seem able to commit themselves to long-term relationships in marriage, friendships, or even in terms of a vocation or a career. We live in a situation of ‘liquidity’, as Bauman calls it, where people are both desperate to relate and yet wary of the state of being related:

…our contemporaries, despairing at being abandoned to their own wits and feeling easily disposable, yearning for the security of togetherness and for a helping hand to count on in a moment of trouble, and so desperate to ‘relate’; yet wary of the state of ‘being related’ and particularly of being related ‘for good’, not to mention forever – since they fear that such a state may bring burdens and cause strains they neither feel able nor are willing to bear, and so may severely limit the freedom they need – yes, your guess is right – to relate… (Liquid Love, Cambridge, 2003, p.viii).

This inablity to relate, this sense of isolation, this incapacity to reach out to the other because of a weak sense of one’s own identity seems to characterise the postmodern self.

It may seem artificial to bring in Augustine at this point to address a situation more than sixteen hundred years removed from his own, but he, too, lived in times of profound and disturbing change, not unlike our postmodern times. The break-up of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasions brought a sense of insecurity and uncertainty to people’s lives at that time. The fact that many in the declining days of empire sought to pin the blame for its demise on Christianity, which prompted Augustine to write the City of God, is an indication of just how insecure people were at that time.

Augustine’s times are perhaps not the only parallel. One author has seen similarities in the philosophical projects of both Augustine and Michel Foucault, whom we discussed briefly earlier. In a challenging study, J. Joyce Schuld sees both men as ‘deconstructors’ of contemporary assumptions about the self and society. ‘Both Augustine and Foucault’ she says, ‘scrutinise the posturing of sacrosanct discourses that were competing during their lifetimes to seize or retain cultural dominance’ (Foucault and Augustine, Notre Dame, p.159). In other words, both philosophers were seeking to get behind the unarticulated prejudices and biases of the societies they lived in, though from different perspectives. Where Augustine sought to ‘deconstruct’ the triumphalist rhetoric of glory at work in the Roman Empire, mainly in the City of God, Foucault uncovered by means of his ‘archaeology of knowledge’ the lie behind the ‘objectivity’, ‘neutrality’ and ‘disinterestedness’ of the thinking supporting many of the social institutions of French society.

Modernity, however, tended to link Augustine to its own brand of now discredited philosophical individualism. Charles Taylor, for instance, regards him as the precursor of Descartes and the modern epistemological tradition of introspection, emphasising that ‘it was Augustine who introduced the inwardness of reflexivity and bequeathed it to the Western tradition of thought’ (Sources of the Self, Harvard, 1989, p.131). Jaroslav Pelikan concurs when he observes:

…the fundamental reorientation of Western philosophy associated with the name of Descartes was likewise a species of Augustinianism, and the Cartesian ‘Cogito ergo sum’ stands in a direct succession, through the scholastics, with Augustine’s use of thought and doubt as proof for the reality of the self and ultimately for the reality of God (The Mystery of Continuity, Charlottesville, 1986, p.151).

Those who have studied Augustine’s life and spirituality, and not just his philosophy, will quickly realise that to label him as a philosophical individualist, or as some sort of proto-Enlightenment thinker, misunderstand him. He was far from being an introverted thinker residing in some mental fastness. Besides, he lived at a time when the mind-body dualism that characterises Cartesian rationality was unknown. Thomas Martin examines the relationship between Cartesianism and Augustine and concludes:

Cartesianism, whatever its actual relationship to Descartes, fostered an autonomous and dichotomised self that would be most inhospitable to an Augustinian self… The lonely Cartesian self stands in stark clinical contrast with the Augustinian self… narrated in his Confessions (Our Restless Heart, London, 2003, p.147).

John Milbank, a contemporary theologian and one of the founders of Radical Orthodoxy, a British, largely Anglican, theological movement, sees in Augustine someone who counters philosophical individualism and who speaks convincingly to a postmodern generation yearning to rehabilitate theology in the light of the demise of secularism and scientific rationalism. He challenges those who see Augustinian interiority as an exercise of philosophical individualism (see Theology and Social Theory, Oxford, 1990, pp.290-91). Milbank argues that, contrary to Charles Taylor and others, ‘Augustine’s use of the vocabulary of “inwardness” is not at all a deepening of Platonic interiority, but something much more like its subversion’ (in Dodaro and Lawless, eds, Augustine and his Critics, London and New York, 2000, p.91). This language of ‘subversion’ sounds very like the language of ‘deconstruction’ used by J. Joyce Schuld earlier.

So if Augustine is now being called a subvertor or deconstructor of the isolated subject so beloved of modernity, what sort of self is now emerging from this critique? In a word, a ‘relational’ self. Where the modern self set up autonomy as its priority, and where the postmodern self sees such autonomy as doing violence to the other, Augustine’s self is essentially in relationship to God, and to others; and this challenges the modern, and brings to completion the postmodern, conceptions of the self. The restlessness of heart, so famously expressed in the beginning of the Confessions, goes beyond any quest for abstract truth, and is motivated by desire for a personal God: a desiring and relating subject, rather than a thinking one.

The human self, far from being isolated, now finds its meaning only in relation to the loving God who created it, and in relation to other human beings. This truth is a divine revelation - ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15:12) – and comes as a gift from God. While it is in the nature of a gift to be unanticipated and unexpected, it is recognised in the sense of being wanted at a deep but largely unaware level. It may be said, therefore, that human beings stand permanently open to, if not in actual expectation of, that gift of love which brings to completion every person’s deep desire for identity, selfhood and fullness of humanity, and which can only come from a loving God.

In the shift from modernity to postmodernity, we have moved from an autonomous and self-sufficient understanding of the self, where any notion of God appeared increasingly irrelevant, to a more vulnerable and uncertain self. This self, precisely because of its vulnerability, is more open to the possibility, at least, of a God who will fulfil its yearnings. In the light of this, Augustine’s relational self speaks more readily to our postmodern anxiety for greater relatedness with others and, finally, with a God who reveals himself as the ultimate foundation of all relatedness in the Holy Trinity.

The religiously disenchanted world of modernity is giving way to a postmodern world where those who are tired of bland secularism and heartless atheism are once again exploring the possibility of God. Time magazine, for instance, ran a major feature, ‘O God Where Art Thou?’ (June 16, 2003), which explored the reappearance of religious faith in our so-called secular world. Secularism, in the sense of a world view denying the existence of any transcendent reality, seems unable to satisfy the deeper longings of the human heart. Out of the waste land of secular modernity religious questions are once again being asked. In this new, and surprising, climate of openness to religion there is an opportunity to speak to a postmodern generation unconvinced by the blandishments of scientific rationality. We are now in ‘post-secular’ times. As Graham Ward has pointed out:

… with postmodernism God emerges from the white-out nihilism of modern atheism and from behind the patriarchal masks imposed by modernity’s secular theology. The emergence of the postmodern has fostered post-secular thinking – thinking about other, alternative worlds. In the postmodern cultural climate, the theological voice can once more be heard (The Postmodern God, Oxford, 1997, pp.xxi-xxii).

To conclude: the isolated self of modernity, which had closed off God, has given way to a postmodern self which, while less sure of itself, is more open to the possibility of transcendence. This self is more akin to the desiring subject of Augustine than the thinking subject of modernity, as it shows a passion for existential questions that can only be described as religious. And the postmodern need to be related rather than isolated reveals a deep anxiety: the purely secular, the intra-human, seems unable to bring to fulfilment the desire to relate as the only way to be truly human. Perhaps only the God who reveals Himself as gift, as love, who comes from outside and who is unanticipated but recognised, can address this existential anguish and lead postmodernity’s questing selves to true humanity. This is the God described by Augustine as the one who pierced his heart with the arrow of love: ‘You had pierced our hearts with the arrows of your love, and we carried your words with us as though they were staked to our living bodies’ (Confessions, IX, 2).


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