This is not so much an idea as a commentary on other great ideas…. A couple of weeks ago, my friend, Richard Harper, gave me a book to read – ‘Writing The Self’ by Peter Heehs. I guess it came up in our conversation because of my writings in pwofc.com and because of my questioning about why I keep things. However, it turns out that it informs neither of those endeavours. Instead, it made me realise, first, just how little I ever learned about mankind’s greatest thinkers; and, second, that I’m really not sure all that great thinking would have been any use to me.
The book is essentially a quick run through of the great philosophers and theologists and their most basic tenets in respect of The Self (they may well have pronounced on other great matters but this book sticks to their ideas about Self); which, so far as I can see, tend to have concentrated on answers to the simple questions of what we are and what we are doing in the universe. The answers seem to have been anything but simple – particularly as religion seems to have provided the excuse for huge amounts of rationalisation and speculation. Thankfully, as the book points out in its last chapter, the consensus among today’s philosophers, social scientists, cultural theorists and neuroscientists is that the self is a construct not a substance; and most people in modern society take selfhood for granted, and don’t bother theorizing about it. I’m not sure where that leaves the huge amount of writings that have been produced in the past on the subject.
The ‘writings’ focus of the book seems to have four aspects; first, the fact that ideas produced by the great thinkers were recorded in writing; second, from about the 16th century onwards, the thinkers started to use their own writings for self examination (the start of the modern diary); third, memoirs and autobiographies started to become commonplace in the eighteenth century; and, fourth, also around the eighteenth century, novelists started to explore the notion of the self – sometimes using the mechanism of diaries and memoirs as a vehicle for their fictional stories. Writings in the age of the internet – the blog and social media – are only given a brief mention in the last 7 pages of the book; and, disappointingly, I found only one half page passage (on page 170 regarding the Goncourt Brothers in the nineteenth century) referring to the survival of the personality through material artefacts, writings etc. – there must be more of that out there somewhere.
I’m left feeling that I should appreciate more, glad that at least I’m aware there is more, and thankful that I am not driven to find out more. However, It would be interesting to hear from someone who is knowledgeable in these fields as to whether the past thoughts of the great thinkers on the subject of The Self still hold any sort of sway today.