Self, Freedom, & Nothingness


What is the self? How does the self relate to consciousness, authenticity and moral responsibility? Philosopher Stephen Mulhall talks to four by three about the self’s non-identity drawing on Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger’s conception 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?

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.

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?

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