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The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century Paperback – 17 Feb 2005

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'The Idea of the Self is quite simply the most important and convincing book about Western thinking about the self that I have encountered. The scholarship is both deep and sweeping. Seigel's readings of a wide variety of texts over more than three centuries are cogent and beautifully nuanced, and he is remarkably adept at placing his texts in their relevant national contexts. The result is intellectual history at its very best … quite an event.' Anthony la Vopa, Professor of History, North Carolina State University

'… an overwhelming accomplishment, not only in its panoramic scope but also in its intense critical engagement with so many complex texts by so many important thinkers.' John E. Toews, University of Washington

'The Idea of the Self will inevitably provoke thought, discussion and debate. It should. It is simply the best book we now have on the subject, comprehensive, astute and profound, original in approach, forthright in the presentation of its own interpretation of the self … Any account of the idea of the self in modern times from now on will have to confront and absorb this magnificent accomplishment.' Modern Intellectual History

'In its scope, depth, richness and occasional brilliance, it is an astonishing achievement; in its insistence on the historical and structural complexity of ideas of the self, it is a necessary corrective to overschematic histories. It deserves - and will likely get - the closest attention.' Metapsychology Online Review

'Seigel has written an important and invaluable book.' The New Republic

Book Description

This is a magisterial 2005 account of how major Western European thinkers have confronted the self since the seventeenth century. Jerrold Seigel explores the ways in which key figures have understood whether and how far individuals can achieve coherence and consistency in the face of inner tensions and external pressures.

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
An Ambitious Study of the Modern Concept of the Self 24 Oct. 2013
By Thomas Llewellyn - Published on
Format: Paperback
As the author notes at the beginning of this massive study, the notion of the self is simultaneously both weighty and slippery (p. 3). The concept defines who we are, and perhaps more importantly, who we want to be. Our idea of self is multifaceted--incorporating our bodily image, our social relations, and usually some type of belief in transcendence or personal freedom. Professor Seigel articulates these as the three essential dimensions of selfhood in Western culture: (1) the bodily (or material), (2) the relational, and (3) the reflective (p. 5).

The bodily element of our selves is perhaps the most basic and most familiar. It incorporates our physical appearance, which is very important in satisfying sexual desires (possibly the prime driving force of our corporeal nature). And of course physical attractiveness goes a long way in developing an active social life, as anyone who has ever gone to high school can readily attest to. And let's not forget physical dexterity and mental prowess, both major components of our physicality. For thousands of years the former probably had greater value; modernity has demanded more from the latter.

The relational side reflects our lives as social creatures. This part of our being is manifested in our social institutions and cultural interactions. Our values and goals are uniquely constituted by our place in society and our reaction to how others value us. Bill Gates would not be one of the world's richest men if he had been born into an African Hottentot group or a Palestinian refugee camp. It is an uncomfortable fact that we are, for better or worse, constrained and defined by our human others.

The third part of our self, the reflective, posits our consciousness as an active agent in determining who we are. Through our own powers we can overcome physical limitations and social stereotypes. This relates of course to the ethical concept of personal responsibility. We can (and must) create ourselves. We alone determine our fate and must be held accountable. The three great monotheistic religions are wedded to this idea of the self, as is the reactionary thinker Ayn Rand. Of course not all proponents of the reflective self are religionists or right-wing nuts. Immanuel Kant and Jean-Paul Sartre are prominent counterexamples. As is Marx when he is promoting revolutionary consciousness.

Some major thinkers espouse a theory of the self that is one-dimensional. However, a truly reflective self is almost always aware of the ongoing demands of physical and social needs. "If the self takes shape at the intersection of multiple coordinates, each with a different vector, then it is bound to be subject to competing pressures and tensions" (p. 7). So the nature of the self quickly becomes complicated, at least among the more sophisticated theorists. A few examples will help clarify the issue.

The 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant addressed what he considered a crucial problem: the emerging scientific worldview versus the idea of human freedom. The conundrum can be outlined as follows: (1) Humans are part of the natural world. (2) Everything in the natural world is subject to causal explanation. (3) Therefore human behavior can be causally explained, hence no human freedom. And without freedom there can be no morally significant actions. In order to save morality Kant thinks he must put forth a theory of human choice that is not constrained by the iron cage of scientific law.

His solution is to posit a realm of "noumena" that is contrasted with the world of "phenomena," the latter designating the ordinary world of everyday sense experience. The former is composed on "things in themselves;" as such it is beyond (or behind?) the empirical world of scientific explanation. The foundation of this noumenal domain is the "transcendental ego," a theoretical entity that serves as a precondition for our experience. This postulated self is not to be confused with the "empirical ego;" the latter is the ordinary self of our common experience. The key point is that the transcendental subject--existing beyond the laws of science--is also the moral subject. Existing in a totally free realm it uses its rationality to create the moral law. Thus for Kant we have within (or behind?) our empirical selves a subject that is rational, autonomous, and moral.

These few words can hardly do justice to Kant's creative ideas. There have been volumes written on these topics. Seigel does a good job summarizing Kant's position. Kant's noumenal self, the bedrock of his ethics, has the same plausibility as the God concept. Neither can be seen, heard, or touched. Both are postulated to explain purposive behavior as manifested in our rationality and morality.

Freud's three-dimensional self has the following parts: (1) the id--organic, instinctual, and primal (2) the ego--reflective and rational (3) the superego--internalized, repressive social norms. For Freud human behavior is grounded in conflict. We all struggle against the outside world--the repressive demands of nature and culture. But we equally struggle with ourselves; various unconscious competing instincts vie to get the upper hand. It is the function of the ego to mediate and harmonize the sources of this social and intrapsychic conflict. If the ego fails in its task to create a unified self, the result is mental and emotional illness. The therapist, through reflective procedures of interpretation, tries to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Freud's goal, using his poignant phrase, was to turn pathological unhappiness into ordinary unhappiness.

Professor Seigel is an intellectual historian specializing in the history of French ideas. This would explain his allocating 6 chapters (out of 19) to French thinkers. But not a single chapter on Freud! Now several of the Frenchmen discussed are necessary figures in any history of the modern self. But some are not (Maine de Biran, Constant, Cousin, Fouille). The inclusion of these lesser known writers (at least in psychology and philosophy circles) could be justified if the author had adequately treated Freud. He does touch on Freud in the Epilogue (pp. 654-659), but this appears to be merely a guilty afterthought. To fail to give serious attention to one of the towering , influential intellects of the 20th century is a significant omission. Because of this I am docking the book's rating by one star.

This unpleasantness aside, I very much enjoyed reading this thoughtful and important work. Professor Seigel is obviously a prodigious intellect and a gifted writer. I definitely think that this book should be on the required reading list for anyone interested in the concept of the self.
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