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Self, Freedom, & Nothingness


Self, Freedom, & Nothingness


in conversation with Stephen Mulhall

What is the self? How does it relate to consciousness, authenticity and responsibility? Philosopher Stephen Mulhall talks to four by three about the self's non-identity drawing on Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger's conceptions of freedom, nothingness and finitude. 

What prompted you to write The Self and its Shadows, in which you argue that selfhood is best understood as a matter of non-identity, hence as an inescapable illusion? What is most problematic in conceiving of the self in contrary terms?

Steven Mulhall: What prompted me to write the book was an interest in what Stanley Cavell calls ‘Emersonian’ moral perfectionism, a version of perfectionist thinking that is not incompatible with democratic egalitarianism and may even be essential to its flourishing, but which envisions the self as split between its current or attained state and some unattained but attainable further state, and having to choose between attempting to realize that further state or maintaining its current state. It struck me that this idea of the self as essentially transitional resonated with the work of a variety of Post-Kantian thinkers, and that the moral issues that are rendered salient through its lens repeatedly recur in literature and other artistic media. I don’t however think of such models of ‘the self as necessarily becoming’ as showing that selfhood is illusory: on the contrary, they rather show what selfhood amounts to. 


Your book title not only refers to the self, but as well to its shadow, referencing Nietzsche’s ‘Wanderer and His Shadow’ [Part Three of Human All Too Human]. You argue that the wander’s ‘shadow is the manifestation of his motive to wander, since it will usually lie either before him [as an ideal to be attained] or behind him [as an ideal that has been attained and so is to be overcome]’ [172]. What happens at noon, when the sun is directly overhead and one’s shadow vanishes for that moment? Does one become complete or annihilated? 

SM: That’s a good question, and a good answer to it would depend on what tuition you might elicit from this facet of the image or figure Nietzsche is employing. One moral might be: that moment is as hard to locate as it is when one is actually hiking on a sunny day, and so is itself essentially vanishing, no sooner coming over the horizon than being left behind. Another might be: my shadow’s capacity to vanish entirely (however momentarily) discloses that my motive to wonder is never guaranteed to maintain or renew itself – that it might always go into eclipse, and not always for reasons within my control. In which case, the only thing to do is to wait – to hope for its recurrence. 


Being a philosopher, you nonetheless perform different roles and adopt varying voices within this book, such as that of a critic or as that of a creative writer (Sartrean Scenes). Therefore, you are not only arguing for a position, but one might even say that you embody your philosophical premise. Was this book in part informed by a desire or a need to come to terms with your own double and divided self? 

SM: The aspiration to write in a way that acknowledges the substance and implication of the views I am advancing has been central to my self-understanding ever since I began reading Stanley Cavell. But it is certainly true that this book takes that aspiration to new levels, or at least involved me in sticking my neck out as a writer in unusual directions. But the hoped-for pay-off was intended to be two-fold: that it would allow me to bring more aspects of my own identity into philosophical play, and that in so doing it would reveal connections between them whose appreciation would not only bring new elements into my thinking but reconfigure many of my more familiar intellectual reference-points, and thereby show how original directions of thought constantly emerge from returning repeatedly to genuinely creative sources.

If an individual tries to live as if she is not always already related to others, she will not be an individual, a being capable of being an other to others, and so to herself.

You examine selfhood from different directions and find inspiration not only from within philosophy, but as well in literature and cinema. This ties in with your argument that philosophy should be understood as a conversation with a ‘centre of variation’, a dialogue through unity-in-diversity. Thereby you establish a analogy between the self and philosophy. What happens if oneself and philosophy fail to understand itself in constant conversation and collaboration with other selves and disciplines? 

SM:  To put it bluntly, neither will be able to become what they are, and so both will fail to be what they are. If an individual tries to live as if she is not always already related to others, she will not be an individual (a being capable of being an other to others, and so to herself); and if philosophy fails to interrogate the ways in which its various branches relate to one another, and to the various dimensions of the broader culture, then it will fail to acknowledge its own distinctive nature as a question for it, and so will fail to relate philosophically to anything on which it is reflecting (because it will fail to relate philosophically to itself). 


You agree with Sartre’s famous insistence that existence precedes essence. How do you relate temporality and continuity to the self? Would you advocate a moment-by-moment state of awareness, whose becoming is always self-conscious? How does consciousness then relate to self-identity: is it capable of revealing the self, even if it finds itself in constant transition? 

SM: Insofar as Sartre’s way of envisaging these things seems insightful to me, it is so in part because he doesn’t think of temporality or consciousness as things to be related to the self, as if they are features or attributes of it. His view is rather that the self exists as temporal, as relating to itself in a tripartite, mutually negating mode of temporality; and consciousness is (although it isn’t only) that negating self-relation. Consciousness is always capable of grasping itself, but its doing so is not guaranteed (as Descartes thought) simply by virtue of its being as consciousness; and when it does so grasp itself, it necessarily grasps itself as it was, not as it is. Hence, consciousness is always aspiring hopelessly to coincide with itself. 


In Being and Nothingness, Sartre aspires to transcend his indebtedness to Heidegger. What are the pivotal differences and similarities between Heidegger and Sartre’s conception of the self? Does Sartre simply reformulate an existential phenomenology along the axes of nothingness, nullity and negation or does he succeed in formulating a new form of being?

SM: This is a far more difficult question than it may seem – certainly more difficult than many commentators on the two appear to suggest. My experience is that the further one goes into the details of one thinker’s system, the easier it becomes to see an analogue to something that is superficially far more salient in the other thinker. Take nothingness, for example: Sartre gives this notion far more prominence from the outset in his major work, but Being and Time in fact pivots on the recognition that Heidegger’s analysis of human being is incomplete until every element of it is related to negation or nullity.


Whereas authenticity is living out our essential non-self-identity, inauthenticity is living as if one is congruent with oneself. Is it possible to inhabit a space between these two poles of being? How does inauthenticity relate to the division between the self and the self of others? And what are the moral consequences of inauthenticity? 

SM: On the perfectionist model I mentioned earlier, there is no middle ground: either one’s attained state eclipses one’s unattained state, or vice versa. Of course, if the former persists, then one might lose the very idea that there is an alternative to it, and so lose the sense of oneself as exercising choice in staying with it; but this is simply a heightened version of the mode of inauthenticity I’m interested in. In that heightened version, the role of others becomes particularly important in holding open the possibility of recovering authenticity: for if an authentic other refuses to mirror back to us our lostness to ourselves, then a gap can be opened up in our understanding of ourselves as necessarily being what we currently are, and then the possibility of becoming otherwise recurs. As for moral consequences: one might say that being authentic in this sense, genuinely acknowledging oneself as non-self-identical is a condition for the possibility of taking morality seriously. How, after all, could one take responsibility for one’s moral cares and commitments if one didn’t have a self capable of holding itself responsible in the first place? 

Being authentic in this sense, genuinely acknowledging oneself as non-self-identical, is a condition for the possibility of taking morality seriously.

You argue that we should conceive of selfhood as a form of nothingness. Yet nothingness seems to lie beyond the horizon of that which we can represent or understand. What is the relationship between freedom and nothingness, if it is through a conscious state of freedom that nothingness manifests itself in the world?

SM: On a Heideggerian analysis of nothingness, it cannot be apprehended directly (as it were), but it can be apprehended indirectly – as the point at which our attempts to make sense of things, and in particular of ourselves, runs out, and thereby discloses us to ourselves as lying non-accidentally beyond ourselves, never entirely exhausted by any situation or circumstance in which we find ourselves. To put things the other way around: our inability fully to grasp ourselves discloses our life and its significance as finite, which means that that is precisely the kind of significance we can grasp – the significance appropriate to a creature rather than a God, hence one in which sense is always limited, capable of being interrogated, and so capable of being transformed (both deepened and impoverished), and in which necessity and contingency will be deeply interwoven and very hard to disentangle. 


We are determined by our fundamental finitude, while aspiring to be infinite and you have argued that ‘the denial of finitude is finitude’s deepest impulse’ (48). Is there a parallel account to be found in Heidegger and Sartre’s conception of death? And how is being-towards-death a matter of being-towards-ourselves and why does this seem to lie at the heart of our existence? 

SM: Being-towards-death is the central, most easily accessible mode in which our relation to nothingness shows up. The crucial point about our own deaths is that each of us is incapable of making sense of it: when it occurs or is realized, we will not be present, and that places it essentially beyond grasp – despite the fact that we know that our death is inevitable. So given that every moment of our existence might be our last, every moment of that existence is equally deeply and undismissably shadowed by the incomprehensible possibility of its utter annihilation. But what this shows us is that the significance of every such moment is determined by that shadow: it reveals that each such moment might not have happened at all, that it might have been otherwise, and that there is no guarantee that it will be succeeded by another such moment – one that is equally contingent with respect to both its content and its sheer reality. If we related to every moment of our existence in the light of such an understanding of its essential nature, it’s hard to believe that we wouldn’t be living very different kinds of lives. 


Stephen Mulhall is a Professor of Philosophy, and a Tutorial Fellow of New College, Oxford. He was previously a Prize Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and a Reader in Philosophy at the University of Essex. His main research interests are Ludwig Wittgenstein and post-Kantian philosophy.