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by Margaret S. Archer
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Review by Thomas Sturm on Nov 14th 2001

Being HumanThis book is a programmatic plea for a new approach in sociology (the discipline of the author). Being Human is, as Archer points out, the third part of a trilogy, the other parts of which are Realist Social Theory (1995) and Culture and Agency (1996). I found no difficulty in reading only Being Human, however. In this book, Archer asks her colleagues to describe and explain human action in terms that thoroughly reflect, as she writes, "the stuff of life" (2). What does she mean by this, whom does she attack, and by what arguments?

First and foremost, Archer criticizes what she calls "Postmodernism's 'Death of Humanity'": the widespread views according to which certain ordinary views concerning our own self-identity and self-consciousness and self-understanding are hopelessly wrong. She connects such postmodernism, not without reason, to claims such as that one cannot but "dissolve the human being into discursive structures and humankind into a disembodied textualism". Roughly stated, the argument of postmodernists is that the self-representation each person has of herself is a "construct" of social conversation, or that our "continuous sense of self" derives from linguistic interaction with other human beings, instead of being prior to such interaction. Against this, Archer wants sociological and other empirical approaches to human action and its explanation, to take account of the fact - and it is a fact - that in ordinary life we view ourselves as acting in order to promote deeper concerns, as trying to make sense of our individual lives, and that this is in turn inconceivable without the assumption that we enjoy a kind of self-identity and self-consciousness. Sociology should not only take seriously our ordinary concerns and commitments, but also see them as rather intimate and constitutive parts of ourselves. Archer not merely argues that postmodern views regarding the self and the role it plays in each person's life are based on bad arguments. She also notes that if postmodernism cannot really be true - if we really were such postmodernist beings without self-identity and self-consciousness, "they are such a contradiction in terms that they could never get out of bed." (2) In science, the latter point cannot be enough; here we want good reasons even for criticisms of views which, in ordinary life, we do find absurd.

The argument of her book is divided into four parts. In Part I ("The Impoverishment of Humanity"), Archer discusses critically two views: a view of humanity as it has been developed during the Enlightenment, namely "Modernity's man", and the set of views subsumed under the heading of "Society's being". Enlightenment thinkers are said to have viewed human beings as essentially characterized by their instrumental, means-ends rationality: man is a "lone, atomistic and opportunistic bargain-hunter". Archer thinks that this model cannot deal with the human ability to have concerns and commitments that are not of mere instrumental value. It overlooks that precisely those ultimate concerns are what constitutes our self-identity. Consequently, according to "Modernity's Man" human being are never really agents: they are pushed and pulled around by their passions or preferences rather than having a certain control over them; also, being active, creative members of their society is not something they are fully capable of. Writers who view human beings as "Society's beings", again, explain all human properties and capacities, hence also the abilities to identify oneself and to be self-conscious, as being socially constructed. The self here is sometimes explained in terms of a capacity of mastering first-person pronoun statements, an ability which has to be learned during our social upbringing. Hence the self becomes a "grammatical fiction". Basically, Archer's point here is that it is to narrow to view ourselves as merely linguistic animals. We are biological creatures as well, even prior to being social creatures. We live in a natural environment we have to deal with and survive in.

Parts II-IV provide constructive considerations concerning the notion of the self and its role in sociology. Archer distinguishes between (i) the "natural", prelinguistic "sense of self", (ii) the practical self and (iii) the social self and theorizes over their development. Stated somewhat differently, she distinguishes between "self-consciousness" (the first and most simple kind of self), personal identity (the self we achieve by developing certain basic commitments), and social identity (the roles we take over in society). The most important point here is that she draws a major distinction between "evolving concepts of the self, which are indeed social, and the universal sense of self, which is not, being naturally grounded." (p. 124) Archer uses quite a bit of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology and of some parts of modern neuroscience, here to make her views on (i) plausible. Our natural self, that is, our "continuous sense of self, or self-consciousness" derives from our practical activity in the natural world. Instead of being a product of the rather high-level practice of language, it is already achieved as soon as we start to talk. The continuity involved in the notion of self-identity is, from the view of modern neuroscience, based upon certain types of memory (briefly, eidetic as opposed to declarative memory).

Archer is sometimes a bit too repetitive and redundant about basic points, and her style is, especially in Part I, sometimes too close to the excessive rhetoric and the lack of argumentative rigor characteristic of many of the writers she is attacking, Yet, I am quite sympathetic with her criticism of postmodernism. I find postmodern writers usually so disagreeable that at least I myself won't get out of bed just in order to read them. Also her arguments are often more detailed and complex than can be shown here. Yet, unfortunately for Archer, one can point the reader to certain crucial problems that occur at the more basic levels of her approach. Let me point out three of them.

First, there seems to be a misuse of the notions of reduction, emergence, and epiphenomenalism. Archer defends a "critical realism": we should accept that one can neither explain human beings and all their properties and actions in terms of, or as a result of, purely social relations nor can one explain social relations completely in terms of human individuals, their properties and actions. We should be realists both with regard to some individual and some social phenomena. Her aim is to motivate the reader to become openminded to the idea that not everything deeply important for our human lives can be explained in social terms - in particular, the basic kind of self-consciousness that we enjoy cannot be explained in that way. Sociology should open itself to a cooperation with the natural sciences in this realm. That sounds moderate enough, and it is a fair methodological advice. However, it is a bit misleading that Archer says of both of the views she is rejecting in this context that they are "reductionist theories", where this means that either social phenomena or individual phenomena would be mere "epiphenomena" (pp. 4-6). Talk of reduction, emergence and epiphenomenalism comes from philosophical theories of the mind-body-relation. Here 'reduction' does not have the rather negative overtones it has in Archer's usage of the term. Moreover, to be a reductionist with regard to the mental is precisely not to be an epiphenomenalist. The latter is a kind of ontological dualist, whereas the former adheres to a variety of ontological monism. For instance, when a mind-body reductionist claims that my thought "It never rains in southern California" can be reduced to the set of neural firings in brain area so-and-so, or that my pain can be reduced to the set of neural firings in region blah-blah, he does by no means turn my thought or my feeling of pain into mere epiphenomena. He rather argues that thoughts and feelings are physical phenomena (under a different description), and so are firmly embedded in the whole network of causal relations of physical phenomena, whereas epiphenomena are epiphenomena just because they do not causally influence the physical world. The moral for sociology should be that to reduce a certain phenomenon of an individual human being's life to a social phenomenon would by no means turn it into a mere epiphenomenon. What she may want to say is that those "reductionist" views try to render certain properties as epiphenomena, hence as causally inert, hence as somehow superfluous. Usually views which reject the existence of mental states are called eliminativist. But it is unclear whether Archer wants to characterize her opponents as eliminativists: to claim, as she thinks her opponents do claim, that something is an epiphenomenon is not to claim that it does not exist. It is merely to claim that it does exert a causal influence to phenomena of a certain realm (typically the physical realm), while perhaps itself being causally produced by that realm. So the opponents of her "critical realism" are not characterized in a perspicuous way, with the consequence that it is not entirely clear what critical realists claim. I leave aside here the point that the debate over reduction, elimination, and emergence of mental properties has become so complex in the hands of contemporary analytic philosophers that things are more complex than it might seem right now.

Second, Archer's characterization of her enemies is sometimes too simplistic. My worry does not so much concern the postmodern authors she cites and criticizes but her depiction of the enlightened model of "Modernity's Man". Yes, some writers have defended the view that human beings are "lone, atomistic and opportunistic bargain-hunters". But by no means all Enlightenment thinkers have done so. Rather, many of the most important of them would have rejected such a claim. Archer qualifies her claim only mildly by noting that, say, David Hume did put a strong emphasis upon the fact that human beings often act quite altruistically, and that their capacity to express and further develop their sympathy is indeed one of humanity's most distinguishing features. But so did Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and even the - often misunderstood - Immanuel Kant. Moreover, these Enlightenment thinkers, and countless others besides them, viewed human beings as essentially social animals in other regards too. Kant was happy to accept Rousseau's view that human beings, due to their open nature - their "perfectibility" - need education, and that who educates a human being is himself just another human being, and so on ad infinitum. According to Kant, our most human capacity is indeed the capacity of reason (though not of instrumental reason, as Archer clearly sees). However, man, he also said, is not so much an animal rationale; it is an animal rationabile. This capacity has to be developed in a genuine social context, and cannot evolve without (as Archer doesn't seem to see). It is dependent upon the complex dynamics Kant called "the unsocial sociability" of mankind. And in part he got his ideas from Rousseau and Ferguson and Hume. There's little of sociological loneliness and atomism in these thinkers. Rather, in both Kant and Hume we find views that would qualify as varieties of "critical realism". They both accept that some of our properties are essentially social, whereas others are essentially individual in their nature. I leave aside here that other mistakes can be found in Archer's characterization of Descartes' views of mind, matter, and the Cogito (cf. p. 26). Her writing in those passages suffers from a kind of name-dropping instead of a thorough, and historically adequate, analysis of this thinker, of the problems he was concerned with, and of his detailed arguments and solutions. Descartes' problems and solutions are largely epistemological and metaphysical in highly specific and demanding senses. They have nothing to do, and cannot be substantial contributions, positive or negative, to how we understand ourselves in ordinary life or as viewed by the social scientist. Other historical points could be noted here. Perhaps Archer has become prey of the caricatures we find in Rorty or in Derrida of "the metaphysics of Modernity", and postmodernism's rather superficial despise for Descartes and rationalism. Otherwise I find it difficult to explain how she can seriously maintain that "practice has never been given primacy in the philosophy of Modernity." (p. 145)

Finally, and most importantly, Archer's notion of a "sense of self" is not quite an example of crystalline clarity. Clarity is required, however, given the significance of that notion for her crucial claim that the "sense of self" is prior to any kind of linguistic - hence also to any kind of social - practice, and given enormously complicated philosophical and psychological history of the notion of the self, its cognates, and the problems connected to it. In brief, my criticism is that although her intuition that many linguistic and other social practices presuppose that who performs the relevant actions also exercises certain kinds of self-identification is correct, her conceptual framework for analyzing and explaining that intuition is not.

Archer thinks that the self referred to in her formula "sense of self" is the most basic, prereflexive and prelinguistic kind of self. Is it? There is one sense of 'self' or 'I' which is also quite basic or "prereflexive" without being "sensed". I have in mind the well-known distinction between the self as subject and as object of thought, a distinction which is reflected, if crudely and superficially, in the distinction the personal pronoun 'I' on the one hand, and reflexive first-person pronouns like 'me', 'myself', and so on, on the other (one of the ways in which William James has tried to express the distinction). It is useful to try to make clear the significance of that distinction for a project such as Archer's by means of some examples.

Consider a list of various first-person-thoughts or -statements: "I have a dot on my forehead"; "I am shaving myself"; "I hereby marry you"; "I am truly devoted to tennis"; "I am the boss here, not you"; or "I am the son of my father". In some of these cases self-identification is made explicit through use of reflexive pronouns, in others it is not. It would be wrong to think that it is only by usage of the appropriate reflexive pronouns that we would identify ourselves as objects. As long as we assume that the statements or thoughts are understood or used correctly, we always assume that self-identification must be made at least implicitly. For instance, in the performative utterance "I hereby marry you", there seems to be no reference to the speaker or thinker himself, but we typically assume that the speaker knows who is speaking and what is involved in his statement; so he must implicitly identify himself. Nor is it correct to think that 'I' would always be used for the self-as-subject only: "I think I have mislaid the car keys" is a clear counterexample, where the word 'I' is used both for the self-as-subject and the self-as-object. That is all grist on Archer's mill that the basic sense of self is not all too closely connected to language. That being said, the question is: why must we distinguish at all between these two senses of self?

Thoughts or statements such as "I am truly devoted to tennis" or "I am the boss here, not you" do not work without some prior self and a way of identifying it. Equally, second-order reflection upon first-order desires or intentions requires such a basic notion of self, much as the playing of specific roles in society does. That, again, supports Archer's intuition that the selves of personal and of social identity presuppose rather then establish a basic self. But the problem is: Is one sensing or observing one's own basic self in the relevant sense? Take the thought "I think I have mislaid the car keys". What would be the self of Archer's formula "sense of self" underlying such a thought? It can hardly be what is referred to by the second occurence of 'I', since this occurence is, so to speak, embedded in the first occurence, in the 'I think...'. So maybe it is the first occurence which is most basic. But can we sense this self? The familiar, and still correct, answer is: we cannot. When I myself try to experience or point to the thinker indicated by the first occurence of 'I' in this thought, when I, to use Archer's words, try to sense that self, there seems to be yet another 'I' observing or even guiding me in doing this. And so on. Whenever I myself try to sense or capture my most basic self, it systematically evades my attention to it. It looks upon my own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, perceptions, and so on, as if from a detached point of view. As the philosopher Colin McGinn says, this 'I' again and again stands aside as if it wanted to mock at reality. It would be absurd to assume that the groom, while looking at and speaking to his bride, and while making his performative utterance, "I hereby marry you", would be also be looking and checking inside for his own self and make clear that it is him who is intending to say the words of his life, and then go out again and do it. That is not how the word 'I' functions here, nor is it how we should understand his way of identifying himself in making his utterance. Neither will ideas of an access to the 'I' through some non-observational "reflection" do the trick (so much seems to be agreed by Archer, given her claim that the basic self is "prereflexive"). All such reflection or presumed self-observation leads to the regress of self-identification noted above.

Archer briefly alludes to the problem of the elusiveness of the self (p. 95), but she does not realize the difficulty involved in her basic notion of the self. She mentions Hume's and Kant's views on this (pp. 95-97), but she does not really take up the debates over different notions of the self and of the complex relation between them. At that point, her target is merely Rom Harré's view that the self involved in the use of the first-person-pronoun is a "theory". That view is clearly implausible, at least if we assume that theories are sets of claims or models by which we explain phenomena. The self is no such thing. Archer finds objectionable that, by claiming that the self is a theory, Harré turns it into a hypothetical entity, and that may be a fair criticism too. I will not enter this question here. The point is that it is the self-as-subject, not a self-as-object that is the required condition of the possibility of second-order reflection and other first-person thoughts and acts (it is quite in place here to use a Kantian formula here), and that we have yet to understand our mode of access to that elusive 'I'.

Archer's notion of a "sense of self" stands in the tradition of classical empiricism (indeed, even in her choice of words), and such talk is dangerously seductive: it appeals to the idea that we would be able to identify ourselves somehow as isolated entities or objects one could sense, look at or point to, quite independently of any descriptions we give of these entities. And so many writers on the subject speak of "the Self". But though I can shave myself, I cannot shave my Self; and though I can know what I think, or though I can know my own position in space, I cannot know the thoughts of my Self, or know the location of my Self. Archer notes that her analysis of the notion of the self is "relational" (p. 97), but she does not seem to be aware of the consequences of that claim. Our mode of access to the self is not that of pointing to or feeling or touching or looking at an isolated entity. The self always shows up characterized in one way or another: "How could I overlook that dot on my head", or "I remember saying that to her", or "I would like to raise the following question...". It seems proper to that to be conscious of oneself as an object needs to be expressed, roughly, by a formula such as, "I know (or think/am conscious...) that I so-and-so", where 'so-and-so' stands for some description or other. The same formal structure even applies to when one is aware of the position of one's own limbs, say, or one's location in space: I realize that my legs are crossed, or I am surprized that I am suddenly standing on the edge of a very high building. The self that is present here need not be strongly dependent upon language or society. But it is a substantive question how one can think, or perhaps even sense or feel, that it is oneself rather than another person or thing to whom the description applies. If we do wish to say that in such self-identifying acts one is conscious of who exactly one is among the many things that there are in the world, then one presupposes that there is a certain kind of correct rather than incorrect application of descriptions. And then it seems plausible that standards of correct and incorrect applications of descriptions are required, and that at least invites the question of how we can apply standards completely independently of any social relations we are embedded in. Maybe it is the capacity for evaluating the correct application of those standards that is decisive for the possibility of that kind of basic self-consciousness that we connect to the ideas of the elusiveness of the self and of the self-as-subject. That this capacity is best described as "reason" is the suggestion of Kant and even of Kantians in our own times such as Tyler Burge. Archer, of course, embeds the basic self in our bodily behavior, especially as related to its natural environment. But what might appear to oneself to be the same in introspection or phenomenology need not be the same in fact. Maybe what she calls a "sense of self" is merely some sort of integrated sentience or mere consciousness, some basic form of integration of more basic bodily and mental acts with no self involved. If we want to say here that sentience or consciousness itself requires self-consciousness, that is a claim that cannot be assumed without further argument, on pains of begging the question.

We do not have to return to any of the social constructivisms Archer wishes to reject. But we should consider that, even from the point of view of contemporary developmental psychology and cognitive neurobiology, the development of the human brain, including its capacity of self-representation is no longer seen as something that can be understood outside of the natural and social co-evolution of every one of us. Perhaps Archer distinguishes too strongly between the natural and the social. And certainly her work is a piece that invites a closer connection between philosophical and scientific work on the self.

© 2001 Thomas Sturm

Thomas Sturm is currently completing his Ph.D. thesis in philosophy on Kant und die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (Kant and the Human Sciences). He is coordinator of an interdisciplinary research group in the history and philosophy of psychology at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, Berlin/Germany.

Revised review received December 10, 2001, posted January 6, 2002.