Selflessness

Jonathan Rée

‘For God’s sake leave me alone!’ ‘Why the hell should I?’ ‘What’s it to me anyway?’ That sort of unilateral declaration of indifference must be the starting point of nearly all family quarrels, and plenty of political catastrophes as well. ‘Why should I always give way to other people? Am I my brother’s keeper?’ But eventually the question will be turned sarcastically back on you. ‘You think you’re so special? The only pebble on the beach? It’ll be a different story when it’s you that’s run out of luck, just you wait and see.’

This homely dialectical routine is, I suppose, the basis of all our traditions of moral education. Aristotle started from the premise that ‘the good man should be a lover of self,’ and Jesus took the next step with the injunction to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself.’ In the beginning – the assumption goes – you care for nobody except yourself; but then, all being well, your selfishness will start to expand. Through the mechanisms of sympathy and calculated advantage, as described by moral economists like Hobbes, Rousseau and Adam Smith, self-love will be transformed into social benevolence. Your affections will spread like ivy, till at last the whole world is clasped in their tenacious tendrils and covered with your verdant love. In the end you may even shed all sense of separate selfhood as you learn, with Spinoza or Hegel, that there is no true identity short of an all-encompassing God.

Charity, it appears, begins in your own mind. We all started out, as Freud put it, with a cheerful ‘auto-erotism’ or ‘primary narcissism’, but in our bid for normal adulthood we hurled our libidinal harpoons out into the unknown, hoping to wind them back with a big enough catch to feed our sexual hunger for ever. But this self-centred theory of love has been pretty decisively snookered during the 20th century. Freud’s own consulting-room, for a start, received hundreds of patients whose problem was that they liked themselves too little, not too much. They could not even make it to the classic moral starting line, and it would be bad news indeed if they were to love their neighbours as themselves. And outside psychoanalysis, the idea of good deeds based on healthy self-love was falling into still deeper disrepute. As the century’s political daydreams turned into nightmare realities, goodwill revealed itself to be quite as destructive as selfish malevolence and there has surely been nothing more dangerous than persons on good terms with their conscience.

All this has led to a crisis of ethical thinking that cannot be settled by totting up new totals of pleasure and pain, or by striking a different balance between self-sacrifice and self-interest. The difficulty cuts much deeper: what can you ever have meant by the ‘self’ that enters into these hyphenated relationships with love, esteem, satisfaction and interest? And what defines the ‘neighbour’ you are expected to treat like yourself.

No one has done more to shine a light onto these issues than Edmund Husserl – the most austere of modern philosophers, the most self-effacing, and perhaps the most intelligent. In Logical Investigations, published in the first year of the century, he argued that philosophy must give up its old dream of portraying the mind and the world from some absolute standpoint outside the limits of human experience. Instead, it should content itself with the world as we know it – in other words the world of phenomena. Philosophy should reinvent itself as phenomenology, or the methodical study of experience. In doing so, it would have nothing to lose but illusions: what could ‘the world’ ever mean, except that to which our experience is directed? And what were we and our experiences, except a certain readiness or receptiveness towards the world? The world and the self were not separate entities that we could scrutinise from outside, and the old metaphysical see-saw with objectivity on one end and subjectivity on the other was a myth: they were as inseparable as the two sides of a sheet of paper. We should stop fantasising about a philosophy that would propound eternal truths about a world beyond our knowledge, and start trying to work out what things can mean to us within the horizons of our ordinary finite experience. This would give us the only absolutes we need; in fact, the only absolutes there are.

Husserl never strayed far into ethical philosophy, and it was many years before anyone woke up to the fact that his attempt to reorientate philosophical inquiry and redraw the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity might cast some new light on ethics. But this was the motive that eventually impelled Sartre to go off to Berlin in 1933, and bring back the exciting news to France. Phenomenology had destroyed the traditional primacy of inward experience, according to Sartre in The Transcendence of the Ego: feelings and memories, even consciousness itself, could never again be treated as if they were items of secret private property. There was no such thing as a vie intérieure, and the notion of real substantial selfhood – an inner spirit or soul or personality – was nothing but a bourgeois confidence trick.

But if there was no self presiding over our experiences and actions, what then of human relationships? How could there be love and hate, friendship and strife, in a world without secret selves? How could two nonselves ever meet? How could there be strangeness and surprise if, as Sartre thought, there was nothing to us except our explicit acts and choices – if we harboured no inner depths?

But, even if there is no private inner life, that need not prevent people from being a mystery to each other. It is not that they keep lots of little secrets to themselves instead of telling them to someone else; rather there is something about each of us that can never conceivably be shared – a single great mystery entire unto itself. The otherness of others constitutes a paradox, according to Sartre, a kind of epistemological monstrosity that sends us reeling back in horror whenever we try to approach it. When we think of other people, we make them into objects of our experience; but when we think again, we realise we are wrong: they are subjects of their own experience before they are objects of ours, and in their experience we figure as objects, not subjects. To acknowledge the otherness of others is to recognise them as exceeding the limits of our own experience, and hence to confront a nauseating black hole within our everyday self-satisfactions. The subjectivity of others is essentially ‘impenetrable’, and ‘radically refractory’ to our understanding. ‘No consciousness can even conceive of a consciousness other than itself,’ Sartre said. We cannot understand others, because if we did we would have destroyed their otherness. This paradox is not an illusion or a contingency, but essential to the structure of the world.

Wherever he looked, Sartre observed us living our ordinary lives as if we were self-centred beings, though we always implicitly know that the world contains neither centres nor selves. So if ethics was to be established on a sure foundation, it had to be built, not on our jovial but deluded enjoyment of other people’s company, but on our terrified and authentic apprehension of their inconceivable otherness. This strange ethical vision was expounded with vivid and remorseless logic in Being and Nothingness (1943), but Sartre’s attempts over the following thirty years to elaborate it into a systematic theory of political hope or moral obligation were, as he came to realise, stale, dreary and unconvincing. His phenomenological analysis of the horror of otherness got him into a theoretical hole, and all he did was carry on digging.

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