I apologize in advance if this line of thinking that I have been following is getting tedious for some. I just can’t quite let it go. Hopefully, this will be the last post on the subject. It may resurface, so I make no promises, but I intend to move away from the highly theoretical soon. We shall see.
Last time, I mentioned a complicated section of James Mensch’s paper “Public Space”1 but only glossed it before applying his more general theory to the context of my field school. But I do feel that, now, in this separate post, some discussion would be valuable.
Necessary for our understanding of self, in Mensch’s view, is that the self is fundamentally social and cannot be a self without its others. The self’s inherent freedom and “privacy” (that is, its separation from the world, and thus, distinctness as a unique identity) depends on others to manifest their own potentialities, and thus, circularly (or better: infinitely, you’ll see why), make possible one’s own potentialities. A little confusing, I know, but this idea is just so cool. I’ll explain why I think so.
Our freedom is contained in and made possible by the “appearing” of our others. The self, in Levinasian terms, being the limited, finite, “said” (all that a person has been and done; the historical self, as it were), encounters the infinity of the “saying” of its others (that is, the potential or future self), and in that infinity, finds its inherent freedom. But, because freedom is contained in the infinite, excessive potentiality of others, it is, therefore, necessary for the self to engage with those others—necessary in the most imperative sense of the word. If there are no others for the self to engage with and from whom the self can learn new potentialities of will, the self remains trapped within its own finitude and does not attain that most basic and most encompassing potentiality, the raw ideal or capacity for freedom itself. Thus, isolation is not, in fact, freedom, but slavery.
The beauty in this is twofold.
First, it bestows upon our interactions an ontological value that far exceeds our usual understanding of them. I cannot help but think of the line from Tennyson’s Ulysses, “I am a part of all that I have met,” but in the inverse, “all that I have met are a part of me.” In the act of meeting my finitude is increased, and the more people I meet, the greater the infinity of my freedom. I am more me the more I interact with others. I am more me the more I engage with the others I already know.
Second, on the individual level, every person I meet is infinitely unique and valuable, because again, in the act of meeting, the saying (future; potential) always exceeds the said (past; history), and so, every person always has the potential to exceed my own expectations of them and surprise me. The finite self finds its infinite expression through relationships with other selves.
And so, after a week together in the field, I can already see the beginnings of this infinite interexpression of our group. People are getting to know each other more deeply, discovering things about each other that they would have never imagined, encountering the strange and the startling and the wonderful in each other. It is a marvelous thing. And rather than be limited by one another, by our competing interests and beliefs and desires, we are made more than ourselves through one another.
Mensch, James. “Public Space.” Continental Philosophy Review 40 (2007): 31-47. PDF. ↩