A hermeneutical account of psyche and polis:
History making of self and identity
Randal G. Tonks
Victoria, B. C. Canada
This account follows Wilhelm Dilthey`s situating of human lived experience at the nexus of psyche (mind) and polis (cultural world). As such this account draws from the human science of Dilthey and the hermeneutics of other more contemporary scholars. Beginning with a discussion of the shared ontologies of self and identity for Gadamer, Taylor, and Erikson, the emergent methods for Dilthey and Erikson are examined. Built upon this overview of the hermeneutics of self and identity is an application of an Eriksonian model of psychohistory-making to the lived experience of one young Canadian. Thus a brief biographical sketch is made which grounds "Sarah's" expressions of identity in the larger cultural life of the social and institutional milieu in which her life has emerged. The resulting account constructs her identity as a dialogical self with a dynamic horizon that has been thrown into an ethico-moral, historical, situation.
Throughout history the dictum "Know thy self" has often been quoted to illustrate the importance of critical self-reflection (Paranjpe, 1998; Taylor, 1989; Hodges, 1952). Posing this task, however, begs several questions like "what is the nature of this self that is to be known?" "What impact does such self knowledge have on one's everyday life?" and "How does one come to understand the self? These perplexing questions of paramount importance have provoked innumerable answers to this essential human feat.
Beginning with a brief examination of these questions,
this account considers the role of self and identity in the hermeneutical
tradition. Special attention is paid to the nature of psyche and
polis within several theories of self and identity, particularly
with respect to the works of Charles Taylor, Wilhelm Dilthey and Erik Erikson.
Central to this essay is a description of the hermeneutics drawn from Erikson's
model of identity, along with a comparison of his methods with those of
Dilthey. In closing an application of Eriksonian hermeneutics is performed
in making a case of the lived experience of one young Canadian, as an example
of contemporary cultural psychology.
What is this self that is to be known?
There have been many books and edited volumes on self and culture that have emerge over the past 20 years. These range in perspective from culture and psychological theory bridging (Paranjpe, 1998, 1984) to ego-analytical psychology (Roland, 1988, 1996), psychological anthropology, (Heelas &Lock, 1981; Paranjpe, Ho & Reiber, 1988; Rosenberger, 1992) and sociology (Carrithers, Collins & Lukes, 1985). Beyond their specific disciplinary perspectives, these numerous accounts of self and person also arise with attachments to the weltanshauungen or worldviews of natural and human science.
Tonks (1997) provides an overview of several important features of these foundational worldviews and their impact on scientific psychology. Central to the divisions between these views are attitudes towards praxis or practical knowledge, the identities and roles of scientists/observers, and the role of history in knowledge and understanding. Natural science, on the one hand, can be characterised as being driven by the pursuit of a technological orientation to applied knowledge, seeking control over nature by obeying the laws of nature. Natural scientists also tend to idealise the "objective" observer who maintains a division between scientific and personal roles and identities in the pursuit of trans-historical knowledge. On the other hand, human science can be characterised by an emancipatory ethico-moral interest in taking action through the application of knowledge or understanding. Human scientists also tend recognise the need for continuity between personal lived experience and the observational roles we play as scientists in seeking historically grounded understanding.
Charles Taylor (1985a,1989, 1994) has carefully examined the nature of the person, citizenship and society. He contends that the self or person is literally informed by the moral topographies or social traditions in which the life is lived (Taylor, 1988). Taylor refers to the "inescapable frameworks" that form the basis of all psychological experience or self. These moral ontologies provide an intuitive "background picture" for self and personhood by informing the person of the right, good, or just action or behaviour. Within an everyday cultural world, the self and person are constructed as experiential and societal identities in a dialogical process of moral informing through the recognitions we give to and receive from others (Dumont, 1985; Mauss, 1985; Taylor, 1985b; 1994).
Grounded within such a moral topography is an "ideal of authenticity" that supports constructions of individualised identity and of the need for our being in touch with our moral feelings. Taylor indicates that within this ideal of authenticity there lies a need for fulfilment of the moral sense in order to "be true and full human beings" (1994, p. 28). He also contends that the völk or polis of a people has an equivalent need to be "true to itself." Together, these inherent needs reveal the "fundamentally dialogical" nature of human identity. According to Taylor (1994), we engage in a process of negotiation of our identities through the "crucial feature" of human life, language and dialogue with others, both overt and internal. Not only does identity hinge upon immediate psychosocial processes; it also depends upon the historical conditions that lead the current social world to unfold.
Paranjpe (1998) shares this dialogical view of self with
Taylor along with his recognition of the crucial significance of practical
knowledge of selfhood and identity. If one is to "know thy self" one must
develop an awareness of the socio-historical conditions of "thy self".
In doing so, one can then come to understand and emulate that "right",
"good," or "just" life that is most fulfilling for one's human condition.
Implications of self knowledge to everyday life
Intellectual civilisations have given consideration to knowledge of living the right life or knowing to how to live a life worth living since the earliest times of recorded human thought and history (Taylor, 1989; Paranjpe, 1998). Prescriptions abound as human beings have advocated one or another perspective on self and the application of self-knowledge to everyday life. Charles Taylor (1994) points out that these ideals of authenticity and moral sense arise through the social histories in which we live that offer a substantive moral commitment for us to make to "the Good Life", as we understand it. Within recent history the ideal of bildung or character development has emerged as an important characteristic for human fulfilment. Within the Germanic human science tradition, bildung is placed centrally to identity as it entails finding one's place in society as a fulfilment of the ideal of authenticity. Wallulis reports that Gadamer and Erikson regarded bildung as a form of play or ritual grounded self-formation. A similarly grounded notion is the related concept of phronesis.
According to Richard Bernstein (1988), Gadamer's appropriation
of Aristotle's phronesis involves the acquisition of "ethical-know-how"
where phronesis is a mode of moral judgement that is grounded in tradition
and is constitutive of the ever-changing unfolding identity of our being
or dasein. As such, ethical reasoning is something to be "engaged
in" within an "acting situation" where one is "obliged" to take some form
The self and identity in the hermeneutics of Dilthey and Erikson
Turning to the self and identity for Dilthey and Erikson this essay focuses on how to know or develop self-understanding, however, this requires some discussion of the ontology of the self. Dilthey (1961) pointed to biography and autobiography as the most suitable methods for understanding the lived experience (erlibnis) of a person or group of people in developing his model for human science. Thus, to understand a person's life, one must understand the socio-historical context in which the life was lived. As with Gadamer's historical effectivity and throwness, Dilthey (1883/1989) acknowledged the actual life lived as existing in part as psyche (individual and personal) and in part as polis (social and historical); forming a primary dialectic of identity.
Gadamer's effective historical consciousness involves the emergence of an explicit awareness of one's historical "affinity or belongingness"
Dilthey's ontological hermeneutics also considers the nature of the historical object (human life) as being inextricably bound to its social-moral tradition with which it is codetermined. Psyche and polis, together form the "I - world" nexus as the subject-object interface that comprises the foundation for psychology as an understanding of human lived experience. Knowledge is grounded in the psychological and social domains of the person and his or her culture. Thus, "the world" and the consciousness of the person are seen to meld in a form of mutual dependency, something akin to Erik Erikson's notion of wirklichkeit or mutual activation (Hodges, 1952; Erikson, 1964; 1970). Focussing of the social and the psychological interface or nexus, Dilthey suggested a grounded understanding of biography in both the context of its occurrence (as experienced) and the context of its later interpretation as a historical case study (Owensby, 1994).
Dilthey and Erikson shared an interest in biography, both emphasising the psychosocial, volitional, and temporally situated nexus of lived experience or "psychosocial" identity (Tonks, 1999). The phenomenal experience (psyche) of the "subject" is understood against the context of its social milieu (polis), recognising the identity of lived experience as grounded in a practical life nexus of communicative relations. For Dilthey, self-understanding involves an awareness of the categories of life as lived, with an explicit recognition of the phronesis of life. In this context, a person's life involves bildung, or the development of character and a practical sense of value and action, "knowledge in the service of life" (Owensby, 1994, p.1). Likewise, for Erikson, the development of identity involves enculturation (internalisation in psychoanalytic terms) through the ritual play of bildung, enabling self-cultivation and self-understanding as part of the historical process of psychosocial life (Erikson, 1970; Wallulis, 1990). He states that:
Erikson further articulates his method stemming from the fact that the lives of the clinician and the client merge as they engage in disciplined subjectivity and work to develop "shared insight" in the achievement of emancipation or cure in psychotherapy. It is through a careful self-reflection of their own experiences that they can share their feelings and notions of identity, acquiring new contexts of meaning and new understanding of their lives. Through the ongoing process of self-reflection and the sharing of insights, the two people reveal and re-interpret their understanding of themselves, their personal histories, and their cultural traditions. Each partake in the other's life (as any two people do), through mutuality or the "cogwheeling" of the virtues of life accompanied by the transference and counter-transference that is expected in a therapeutic relationship (Erikson, 1968). Through this sharing of experience they "put into words" their thoughts and feelings about experiences they have had in creating the historical case study. One might say that they are negotiating troubling points from the past through present narrative construction, transforming and shaping, smoothening and refining, making harmonies and contrasts into a new identity that is carried into the future. This reveals the same dialogical character of the fusion of horizons of identity that is seen in the hermeneutical writings described above (Taylor, 1985a, b, 1989, 1994; Gadamer, 1982; Habermas, 1973).
Revealing the lived experience of the person also often
forces the historian or clinician to become "inexorably drawn into the
super-personal history 'itself', since he, too must learn to conceive of,
say, a 'great' man's crisis and achievement as communal events characteristic
of a given historical period" (Erikson, 1968, p. 696). Psycho-history making
involves the meaningful construction of the private and public spheres
of life, as they unfold together (Erikson, 1968). For Dilthey, the diachronic
coherence of life is achieved through reflective narration of lived experience
that is elicited from life and not imposed upon it; having been
a "call for narration" that carves out the life-story (Owensby, 1994).
Any understanding of the importance and significance of the events must
be understood against the context of the life as lived itself and as it
was recorded and interpreted. As seen above, for Erikson it is through
the worldview in which the life is lived that the meaning must come in
order to fulfil the liberation and cure. Like Freud's "talking cure", the
putting into words of psychohistory making provides meaning in many ways;
personal, social, historical, cultural.
Inroads from Cultural Psychology
The recently burgeoning field of cultural psychology has been built upon hermeneutical foundations like these as well as those laid out by Vico and Herder's accounts of Vökseele and Volkgeist (Berlin, 1976). The 19th century work of Lazarus' and Steinthal's folk-history and psychological ethnology and Wundt's ten volume Völkerpsychology have also been identified as human science exemplars (Jahoda & Krewer, 1997).
Richard Shweder (1990) was one of the first contemporary
scholars to articulate cultural psychology as involving an understanding
of the dialectics of the subject-object / person-constituted social world.
Others like Cole (1996) have also echoed the need for understanding personal
and collective identity as "thinking through" language, value and custom
as they are expressed and interpreted along with others. Shotter's (1993)
notion of "joint action" also focuses on this everyday practical activity
of our cultural lives as the foundation of shared knowledge or common sense.
Cole suggests that living within historical traditions is the fundamental
human activity, not unlike the playing of language games in the making
of linguistic tools (Shotter, 1993). Ratner (1997) suggests that the interpretation
of behaviour & verbal statements can reveal the "objective" common
cultural activity as well as the "subjective" personal psychological
experience. By interpreting personal experience against the context
of the collective, a dialectical relationship between the experience and
social activity is revealed. This revelation can offer a glimpse at the
meaning of human life as understood in a historically situated account.
Narratives of identity and ethnicity in Canada
It is task of this essay to apply these hermeneutical ideas in developing a qualitative understanding of the lived experience of young people living in Canada. Only one case is presented here due to limitations, however, other cases developed in parallel with this one also involved similar themes to the ones presented here. This account draws from Grounded Theory by recognising a role for "outside" information and the investigator's observation notes to play in the interpretation of data and the development of descriptive themes (Rennie, 1998).
This present narrative account arose through the (less than ideal) speech situation of a semi-structured interview, however, mutuality and dialogical production are present in the process. Furthermore, recognition of one's personal identity is essential to the interview and narrative process in order to produce authentic expressions of identity through the fusion of horizons and disciplined subjectivity. Along with these interests, some discussion is presently made about character development (bildung) and the development of an understanding of one's own social-moral world. In the collection of interviews performed there were many common themes and numerous variations on each theme that emerged, such as crisis and confusion, comfort and stability, go with the flow. Principally because of her "call for narration" present discussion is limited to a focus on issues of crisis and resolution in the case of Sarah. At the time of the interview she was a 28 year old woman who is the daughter of a Chinese-Native-Irish father and a "radical ex-hippie" white mother. Growing up in poverty, "washing her clothes in the creek", and later bouncing from foster home to foster home while her alcoholic mother tried to sober up she experienced many challenges in life. She reports having grown up with feelings of alienation from the other natives when at powwows with her "white" mother. She states:
This reveals some of the polis in which her identity has emerged, where the history of our region, Canada, is marked by the forced assimilation of Natives to Christian European culture, forced marginalisation and segregation, the languages, practices and family traditions have almost been wiped out. Nowhere is the negative impact of Europeans on Natives more clear than the residential schools that Canadians are now coming to grips with, putting into our own words as we come to initiate the healing process following generations of enculturative disease. For many Canadian Natives there is a new dawn on the horizon, as more power, respect and authority is being given back to the First Nations peoples. A new territory, land claim settlements, and the recognition of native justice, healing and cultural systems in mainstream Canadian life. As a collection of peoples we share a common legacy, bad and good, that can be seen in micro form in the particular life of one person.
Now turning back to Sarah's life, one can recognise the collective struggles of identity and history as they are played out in the life of a young woman. Sarah reports finding her tradition in the following passage:
Growing from the hermeneutics of Taylor, Gadamer, Dilthey and Erikson, this account of identity and ethnicity offers a mere snap shot of human lived experience. Constructing a rich and detailed biography or historical case study would require several hundred pages and much more space than is presently afforded. This brief sketch was written to provide a glimpse at the method of history making in application to a particular psychosocial case. While concern over the editing and rendering of a life lived into quotes and context provides only limited insight into the human experience, it offers one of many possible accounts of the experience of culture and identity as captured on paper, magnetic tape or living in real time.
Nonetheless, a number of characteristics of self and identity
have been articulated and illustrated by excerpts as a hermeneutical account
of identity. Whether or not this account "passes" the criteria for a scientific
or good qualitative account is perhaps another matter that can be considered
by the reader. Elliot, Fischer & Rennie (1999) provide a number of
criteria, including owning one's perspective, situating the sample, grounding
in examples, coherence and resonating with readers that may prove to be
useful in evaluating this and other hermeneutical accounts of identity.
It is hoped that at least some of these criteria are met by this account
and that the reader has acquired some new understanding of the hermeneutics
of psyche and polis.
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