Cover page

Title page

Preface

We first conceived the idea of this book during a winter school at Tallinn University, where Zygmunt was the keynote speaker and Rein one of the heads of the programme committee. One of the events of that school was a discussion between us, open to the public, on many topics touched also in this book. The hour allocated to that conversation was, of course, far from sufficient and thus it continued over dinner and then migrated into our correspondence, soon taking on a more structured shape and organizing all the ideas that have been intriguing both of us along a central core, a concept that we believe to be of fundamental importance to any discussion of the present world – that of selfhood.

How does an individual understand her or his position in the world? Are we determined by our genetic heritage, social circumstances and cultural preferences – and only tricked into believing that we make our own choices? By whom? Other individuals who have been determined similarly? Or are we autonomous – wholly or partly – and, if so, then to what degree? Are we or are we not autonomous enough to control and change the legacy fate has landed us with? How does selfhood emerge? Does it follow the same pattern of development in all people, all cultures, all ages? Or is it itself a socio-cultural construction that should be viewed in its historical context? If so, then what is happening right now – are the patterns of selfhood changing in the present world? Does contemporary technology allow us more autonomy – or does it tempt us to give up the freedoms we have?

A host of questions…All the dilemmas from which they arise could be plotted on the same axis – one end of which is designated by fate and determination and the other by choice and freedom. Notwithstanding the huge library of social and psychological studies these questions have inspired and continue to inspire, very few of them, if any, evoke obvious (and above all reliable, let alone definitive) answers. Possibly with good reason – some questions are important precisely for the ongoing dialogue they generate. All the same, fundamental as they are ‘to any discussion of the present world’ and also to awareness of the place in the world assigned to or earned by its inhabitants as well as their ability (or its lack) to change their lot, people struggling with their environment yearn for precisely such answers. This is why we felt the need to revisit the theories of self on offer in various places and cultural traditions, surveying their encouraging and disappointing potentials, and occasionally to pinpoint some insufficiently explored tracts or to suggest – even if tentatively – some new and as yet untrodden paths worth following. Needless to say, all the time we remained aware that final, definite, foolproof answers are utterly unlikely to be found or composed; and that the main cause of their evasiveness lies not so much in the (temporary and reparable) insufficiency of our knowledge as in the nature of the world we inhabit – as well as our human, all too human, mode of inhabiting it.

To put it in a nutshell: popular wisdom insists that to know means to control, oblivious to the fact that the controlling power of knowledge depends on its ability to predict with certainty the effects of our actions; the snag, though, is that our world is anything but certain. For better or worse, uncertainty is our fate: for worse, because uncertainty is an un-drying fount of our misery, and for better, because it is also the prime cause of our glory – of human inventiveness, creativity, and our capacity of transcending one by one the limits it sets to human potential.

One way to look at the situation is suggested to us by the studies of Nobel Prize holder Ilya Prigogine, a great natural scientist as well as a philosopher of science. The gist of his message is best conveyed in his reminder that ‘Obviously when fish came to earth not all fish came to earth. When monkeys became human, not all monkeys became human’ (2003: 64). This, in optimally condensed form, summarizes the worldview prompted by ‘the end of certainty’ and its consequences for modern science.

‘Classical science emphasized order and stability; now, in contrast, we see fluctuation, instability, multiple choices, and limited predictability at all levels of observation’ (Prigogine 1997: 4). According to classical science, probabilities were ‘states of [ignorant or insufficiently informed] mind rather than states of the world’. However, ‘once probabilities are included in the formulation of the basic laws of physics, the future is no longer determined by the present’ (1997: 6); accordingly, science itself can no longer claim absolute certainty, nor can probability be identified with ignorance (1997: 7). ‘The future is no longer given’, Prigogine concludes; ‘Our world is a world of continuous “construction” ruled by probabilistic laws and no longer a kind of automaton. We are led from a world of “being” to a world of “becoming” ’ (2003: 39). In other words: for most practical intents and purposes, the condition of ‘uncertainty’ has been shifted from the realm of epistemology (the study of cognition) to that of ontology (the study of being).

And, to cut a long story short: we now know, understand and believe that the non-attainability of certainty, as well as the impossibility of predicting the future other than in probability terms is not an effect of the dearth of knowledge, but of the excessive, principally unlimited, complexity of the universe. The history of humans as much as the history of universe needs to be retold in terms of ‘events’ – something not-inevitable, underdetermined; something that might but also might not happen. Let us repeat what needs to be recognized, reconciled to, and permanently kept in our minds: history is not given before it turns into the present (that means, reaching the moment of its recycling into the past); it is instead, as Prigogine insists, ‘under perpetual construction’ – as much as the history of any individual, namely ‘biography’.

The bold – or rather, arrogant – conviction of Pierre-Simon de Laplace that ‘once we know the initial conditions, we can calculate all subsequent states as well as the preceding ones’ (Prigogine 1997: 11), can no longer be sustained – and this applies as much to the states of the universe as to the states of individual humans. As for the latter, Prigogine (1997: 186) cites an unpublished manuscript of Carl Rubino – ‘For human men and women, for us, immutability, freedom from change, total security, immunity from life's maddening ups and downs, will come only when we depart this life, by dying, or becoming gods.’ And comments: ‘Odysseus is fortunate enough to be given the choice between immortality, by remaining forever the lover of Calypso, and a return to humanity and ultimately old age and death. In the end, he chooses time over eternity, human fate over the fate of the gods.’ Jorge Luis Borges, an exquisitely sublime practitioner and theorist of belles lettres as well as one of the greatest philosophers of the human condition, serenely accepts the consequences of such a choice: ‘Time is the substance of which I am made. Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges’ (1999: 332).

What are the implications of Prigogine's scientific insights and Borges' eloquent statements on the human condition? Is it at all possible to speak with sense about something called ‘selfhood’ in a world where certainty, too, has been demystified? Where and when we no longer consider strict frameworks and streamlined processes the primary structural model for explaining anything? Perhaps it is indeed hopeless to proceed from a holistic vision of the human self to its particular manifestations in social and cultural practice. In any case, that is the assumption that has prompted us to move our conversation from topic to topic, from aspect to aspect, and to try to see how selfhood is brought together and taken apart in social practice, through language, through efforts of self-presentation, through programmatic attempts of self-realization – as well as, last but not least, through interaction with other selves.

Spelling out and trying to unpack the contents of the quandaries listed above have sometimes kept both of us up to the wee hours and checking emails first thing in the morning. Both reassurances and provocations have made us rethink our positions and prove, not only to each other but also to ourselves, that things we have considered obvious are indeed so – and sometimes discover that they are not. But this is what such dialogues are for. Presenting them to you, our readers, we hope that you enjoy them as much as we have enjoyed composing them.

Zygmunt Bauman

Rein Raud