Saturday, November 18, 2017

ALBERT CAMUS ON THE ‘SELF’


One of my perennial themes is the elusiveness of the self, and the notion that self cannot change self.

Now, we use the word ‘self’ in two different senses. First, we use the word to describe the ‘person’ each one of us is---the ‘real you,’ so to speak---and that is a most legitimate use of the word. However, we also use the word to refer to what we mistakenly perceive to be our real identity. Let me explain.

We perceive life through our senses and by means of our conscious mind. Over time, beginning from the very moment of our birth, sensory perceptions harden into images of various kinds formed out of aggregates of thought and feeling. In time, the illusion of a separate 'observing self' emerges, but the truth is that our sense of mental continuity and identity are simply the result of habit, memory and conditioning. Hundreds of thousands of separate, ever-changing and ever-so-transient mental occurrences—in the form of our various likes, dislikes, views, opinions, prejudices, biases, attachments and aversions, all of them mental images—harden into a fairly persistent mental construct of sorts.

This mental construct is, however, nothing more than a confluence of impermanent components (‘I-moments’ or ‘selves’) which are cleverly synthesized by the mind in a way that appears to give them a singularity and a separate and independent existence and life of their own. The result is the ‘observing self', but it is little more than a bundle of remembered images from and out of which further thought and new imagesyes, more of themarise.

In an earlier post I wrote about one of my favourite authors and philosophers Albert Camus, pictured. On a recent trip to France – well, on the long plane flight from Australia to France and, two or three weeks later, back again – I re-read two books of Camus, namely, La Peste (English: The Plague) and Le Mythe de Sisyphe (English: The Myth of Sisyphus). Now, there were a couple of passages in Le Mythe de Sisyphe on the elusiveness of the self that I must have overlooked when I last read the book. I will quote from the English translation by Justin O’Brien:

Of whom and of what indeed can I say: ‘I know that!’ This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. For if I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers. …

Camus makes the point that we can only perceive life through our senses and by means of our conscious mind. We are in direct and immediate contact with both external reality and internal reality, but what about the so-called ‘self’? As Camus says, the moment we try to ‘seize’ this self, or ‘define’ or ‘summarize’ it, it evaporates. Who is the self that is to seize, define or summarize the other self? Are they not one and the same? They are indeed. The Indian spiritual philosopher J. Krishnamurti often made that point. What's more, the idea in our mind that there is some ‘thinker’ or ‘thinking self’ within the mind is fallacious. There is no thinker apart from the thoughts. There is only a person in whom thinking is taking place.

Yes, there is only thinking, and it is the thinking that creates the mental construct of a self and of a notional, but not actual, thinker. The latter is, well, illusory in the sense that it has no separate, independent, and permanent existence apart from our thoughts or the person each one of us is. Yes, the thoughts, or rather the thinking, come first, not the so-called thinker. It is the process of thinking that creates the idea of there being a thinker. Actually, the thinker (that is, the ‘thinking self’ in our mind) and the thinking are a ‘joint phenomenon,’ as Krishnamurti used to say. They are one and the same. Krishnamurti wrote, 'When you look at a flower, when you just see it, at that moment is there an entity who sees? Or is there only seeing?' Camus understood this. In his Carnets, 1942-1951 (Notebooks, 1942-1951), Camus wrote that he was ‘happy to be both halves, the watcher and the watched’. Well, why resist it? We are indeed both halves of this joint phenomenon.

Now, back to Le Mythe de Sisyphe. Camus writes:

… I can sketch one by one all the aspects [the self] is able to assume, all those likewise that have been attributed to it, this upbringing, this origin, this ardor or these silences, this nobility or this vileness. But aspects cannot be added up. This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance, the gap will never be filled. …

I agree with There is the self that knows, the self that judges, the self that gets angry easily, the self that takes offence, the self that cares, and so on. These are, as Camus points out, all ‘aspects’ the self is able to assume. But what do all these selves add up to? The answer—nothing. We cling to the self as self. We even manage to convince ourselves that we ‘belong’ to that self, that we really are those myriads of I’s and me’s that make up our waxing and waning consciousness. However, when we get right down to it, these selves are simply a manifestation of cognition by which, in conjunction with the senses, we apprehend the phenomenal world.

Camus then goes on to say:

… Forever I shall be a stranger to myself. In psychology as in logic, there are truths but no truth. Socrates’ ‘Know thyself’ has as much value as the ‘Be virtuous’ of our confessionals. They reveal a nostalgia at the same time as an ignorance. They are sterile exercises on great subjects. They are legitimate only in precisely so far as they are approximate.

Camus says that we will forever be a stranger to ourself. I beg to differ. Each one of us is a person—a person among persons. In that regard, I am greatly indebted to the writings and ideas of the British philosopher P F Strawson who, in his famous 1958 article ‘Persons,’ articulated a concept of ‘person’ in respect of which both physical characteristics and states of consciousness can be ascribed to it.

Yes, each one of us is a person among persons. We are much more than those little, false selves---all those waxing and waning ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’---with which we tend to identify, in the mistaken belief that they constitute the ‘real me.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Freedom comes when we get real, that is, when we start to live as---a person among persons.

You need not be a stranger to yourself. You can get to know the person that you are. It isn’t easy. It takes time. A lot of time—a whole lifetime, in fact. So, how can we get to know ourselves, that is, the person that each one of us is? By self-observation—that is, observation without the observer. You see, there is an 'observer' when we operate from our conditioned mind, that is, from the self that judges, the self that likes this, the self that dislikes that. Where there is an observer, there is a distorting lens which experiences, processes and interprets---and distorts---all that happens in our lives through an amalgam of thoughts, feelings, images, memories, beliefs, opinions, prejudices and biases---all of which is the past and for the most part conditioning. I love these words from P D Ouspensky (In Search of the Miraculous), who is quoting his teacher George Gurdjieff:

Self-observation brings man to the realization of the necessity for self-change. And in observing himself a man notices that self-observation itself brings about certain changes in his inner processes, He begins to understand that self-observation is an instrument of self-change, a means of awakening. By observing himself he throws, as it were, a ray of light onto his inner processes which have hitherto worked in complete darkness. And under the influence of this light the processes themselves begin to change.

By all means, observe your anger. Observe what you instinctively like or dislike, or judge or condemn. Watch your various selves in action. Learn from them. But never identify with them. They are NOT the person that, in truth, you are.


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