Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Histories of the Self

In his other blog, Clavi non Defixi, Evan has an interesting post on work by Jan Goldstein, a history professor he is taking a course with at the University of Chicago. He provides selections from, and thoughts on, her book The Post-Revolutionary Self: politics and psyche in France, 1750-1850. Evan's post emphasizes Goldstein's sharp distinction between Cartesian and Lockean understandings of the self - a distinction that is minimized in other treatments of the subject. As a theologian, Evan also seems to be thinking about how this attempt to provide a sharper contrast between Descartes, Locke, and the post-revolutionary thinkers attempting a return to Cartesian selfhood can be used to broaden theological work on the self, which primarily engages Augustine's treatment of the issue, and the Augustinian precedent in later Western work on the subject.

However, as I click through Evan's links, I get the impression that Goldstein herself offers a far more institutional and historical perspective on the post-revolutionary concept of selfhood, which honestly interests me more. Goldstein argues that the post-revolutionary quasi-resurrection of Descartes served as a sort of prop for the new regime. This is the blurb for the book:

"In the wake of the French Revolution, as attempts to restore political stability to France repeatedly failed, a group of concerned intellectuals identified a likely culprit: the prevalent sensationalist psychology, and especially the flimsy and fragmented self it produced. They proposed a vast, state-run pedagogical project to replace sensationalism with a new psychology that showcased an indivisible and actively willing self, or moi. As conceived and executed by Victor Cousin, a derivative philosopher but an academic entrepreneur of genius, this long-lived project singled out the male bourgeoisie for training in selfhood. Granting everyone a self in principle, Cousin and his disciples deemed workers and women incapable of the introspective finesse necessary to appropriate that self in practice.

Beginning with a fresh consideration of the place of sensationalism in the Old Regime and the French Revolution, Jan Goldstein traces a post-Revolutionary politics of selfhood that reserved the Cousinian moi for the educated elite, outraged Catholics and consigned socially marginal groups to the ministrations of phrenology. Situating the Cousinian moi between the fragmented selves of eighteenth-century sensationalism and twentieth-century Freudianism, Goldstein suggests that the resolutely unitary self of the nineteenth century was only an interlude tailored to the needs of the post-Revolutionary bourgeois order."

My guess is that like me many readers will find this description of Goldstein's work as a historical project more interesting. But please click through and read Evan's post - it's a good read that focuses more on the substance of the understandings of the self, rather than the function that they served.

1 comment:

  1. You're exactly right about her approach to all of this, which is one reason why I've found the seminar helpful... because it's quite different from how I approach these sorts of questions. Alongside her volume, we read from Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the Revolution, which is also largely concerned with institutional issues as an historical lens through which to understand intellectual developments.


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