Descartes was wrong: ‘a person is a person through other persons’


Abeba Birhane in Aeon:

Few respected philosophers and psychologists would identify as strict Cartesian dualists, in the sense of believing that mind and matter are completely separate. But the Cartesian cogito is still everywhere you look. The experimental design of memory testing, for example, tends to proceed from the assumption that it’s possible to draw a sharp distinction between the self and the world. If memory simply lives inside the skull, then it’s perfectly acceptable to remove a person from her everyday environment and relationships, and to test her recall using flashcards or screens in the artificial confines of a lab. A person is considered a standalone entity, irrespective of her surroundings, inscribed in the brain as a series of cognitive processes. Memory must be simply something you have, not something you do within a certain context.

Social psychology purports to examine the relationship between cognition and society. But even then, the investigation often presumes that a collective of Cartesian subjects are the real focus of the enquiry, not selves that co-evolve with others over time. In the 1960s, the American psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané became interested in the murder of Kitty Genovese, a young white woman who had been stabbed and assaulted on her way home one night in New York. Multiple people had witnessed the crime but none stepped in to prevent it. Darley and Latané designed a series of experiments in which they simulated a crisis, such as an epileptic fit, or smoke billowing in from the next room, to observe what people did. They were the first to identify the so-called ‘bystander effect’, in which people seem to respond more slowly to someone in distress if others are around.

Darley and Latané suggested that this might come from a ‘diffusion of responsibility’, in which the obligation to react is diluted across a bigger group of people. But as the American psychologist Frances Cherry argued in The Stubborn Particulars of Social Psychology: Essays on the Research Process (1995), this numerical approach wipes away vital contextual information that might help to understand people’s real motives. Genovese’s murder had to be seen against a backdrop in which violence against women was not taken seriously, Cherry said, and in which people were reluctant to step into what might have been a domestic dispute. Moreover, the murder of a poor black woman would have attracted far less subsequent media interest. But Darley and Latané’s focus make structural factors much harder to see.

Is there a way of reconciling these two accounts of the self – the relational, world-embracing version, and the autonomous, inward one? The 20th-century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin believed that the answer lay in dialogue. We need others in order to evaluate our own existence and construct a coherent self-image.

More here.