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This book is a theory-guided attempt to give an in-depth analysis of some of the pressing problems of our time as they emerge at the interface of self and society. I believe we are in need of rethinking the relationship between self, other, and the natural environment as a response to the limitations of the Western self-ideal. In order to realize this, I will present Dialogical Self Theory (DST) as a bridging theory at the interface of social sciences and philosophy. It is my purpose to present this theory as providing a broad picture view of some problem areas that place us in a field of tension between liberation and imprisonment.
The experience of uncertainty is outlined at two levels: individual and societal. On the individual level, uncertainty has both positive, constructive implications and negative, maladaptive ones. As a main response on the individual level, the function of promoter positions is delineated, with the Rogerian concept of “organismic valuing” as a prototypical example of an “inner compass.” Organismic valuing as a bottom-up approach is critically discussed, and the dialogical self is proposed as an interchange of bottom-up and top-down processes. On the societal level, the experience of uncertainty is addressed with reference to Zygmunt Bauman’s liquid society and Ulrich Beck’s risk society. Some adaptive and some less adaptive responses to several of the main challenges of our time are sketched: climate change and the corona pandemic. An identity model is presented that consists of identity positions at four levels of inclusiveness: individual, social (group), collective, and ecological, each with their specific types of responsibility.
Plato’s tripartite theory is used as a lens to increase our understanding of Dialogical Self Theory (DST) and to stimulate the further exploration of its personal, social, and societal possibilities. Plato creates links between (a) body parts (head, chest, belly), (b) faculties of the soul (logos, thymos, eros), and (c) societal groups (philosophers, military, artisans). Whereas in Plato’s vision, three main body parts are distinguished, DST is based on the assumption of a multiplicity of body parts that are linked to a multiplicity of embodied I-positions. Furthermore, whereas Plato puts reason (logos) structurally above emotion (eros), DST sees reason and emotion as equivalent and “cooperative” systems. The assumption of reason-with-emotion, instead of reason-above-emotion, creates room for the emergence of dialogical relationships among these central faculties. Finally, whereas Plato distinguishes three hierarchically organized societal groups, DST, as a multipartite theory, interiorizes a broader variety of social groups as participants in a multivoiced democratically organized self.
Two main forms of well-being are outlined: hedonic and eudemonic happiness as viewed from the perspective of Self-Determination Theory and from narrative psychology. Two limitations of these approaches are discussed: the lack of the other in the self and the neglect of reason. Taking these limitations into account, a model of multiple well-being is presented with four levels of inclusiveness: individual, social, human, and ecological, each with associated forms of well-being and responsibility. For each of these levels, research findings and related theoretical concepts are presented. At the collective level, the chapter summarizes the reflections of colleagues who applied Dialogical Self Theory in their own culture: African, Japanese, Chinese, and indigenous American. A comparison results in the conclusion that all of them show more open boundaries between self and nonself, more intimacy with others and nature, and less emphasis on control and manipulation of the environment.
Weber’s thesis of the disenchantment of the world is interpreted as “we-prison” in Dialogical Self Theory (DST). As a counter-example, the phenomenon of awe is presented as an experience that opens the self to the wider universe. In that context, Martin Buber’s work on spirituality and Rollo May’s work on creativity are compared. The shadow sides of mystical experiences are outlined and compared with psychotic states of the mind. The work of Aldous Huxley who described the workings of mescaline as a facilitator of mystical insight is presented. Mystical experiences change the so-called “minimal self” on a more basic sensorial level, and they differ from the narrating and the positioning self. Furthermore, Donald Crosby’s “perspectivism” is incorporated in DST under the heading of “positionalism.” As a practical implication, specific guidelines are presented in order to open the self to the experience of awe as a first step to the “depositioning” of the self.
Two imprisoning factors, rumination and loneliness, on the individual level, and two imprisoning factors, social isolation and over-positioning economy, at the collective level are extensively described. Several implications for the organization of the self in contemporary society are outlined: the increasing density and heterogeneity of I-positions, frequency of “visits” by unexpected positions, and larger “position leaps.” Then, the phenomenon of “over-positioning economy” as one of the main implications of neoliberalism is discussed in more depth. A sociological theory is introduced to account for the “asymmetrical penetration” of the economic value sphere into other value spheres (e.g., education, science, love). Also, on the level of the self, a one-sided penetration occurs as economic positions, such as consumer and entrepreneurial positions, are increasingly influencing other I-positions that, as a consequence, are at risk of losing their uniqueness. In all these cases, possible trajectories into the direction of self-liberation are sketched.
In the history of philosophy, two lines can be distinguished, one represented by Plato, Augustine, and Descartes, emphasizing the centralizing movements in the self, another one embodied by Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Freud, proposing decentralizing movements in the self. As an example of present-day centralizing tendencies, the rise of meritocracy is discussed. An example of a contemporary decentralizing trend is the global–local nexus that implies a decentralizing multiplicity of self and identity. Whereas the centralizing movement in the self is focused on the realization of just one main form of positioning (personal excellence or superiority), the decentralizing movement results in the development of a wide variety of positions (full self-expression). Given this bidirectionality, the self is located in a field of tension resulting in an experience of uncertainty, or even stress, which challenges the dialogical self to liberate itself from imprisonment by alternating between centralization and decentralization.
Sartre’s play No Exit is described in order to demonstrate the nature of imprisonment that results from looking at oneself via the mirrors of social judgment. In a similar vein, the “male gaze” is analyzed as the imprisoning reduction of the female body as an it-position in the service of the pleasure of the male viewer. This is followed by a discourse about racial discrimination in which the powerful and discriminating other is not simply an “objective” reality outside the self but an organizing part of it. Furthermore, it is argued that positions are not always fixed but, under specific circumstances, flexible as exemplified by a series of psychological experiments investigating the so-called rubber hand illusion. The flexibility of positioning and repositioning is further explained by the story of James Griffin who changed his skin color from white to black. Finally, the dialogical self is described as inherently social, spatial, temporal, and historical.
In this volume, Dialogical Self Theory is innovatively presented as a guide to help elucidate some of the most pressing problems of our time as they emerge at the interface of self and society. As a bridging framework at the interface of the social sciences and philosophy, Dialogical Self Theory provides a broad view of problem areas that place us in a field of tension between liberation and social imprisonment. With climate change and the coronavirus pandemic serving as wake-up calls, the book focuses on the experience of uncertainty, the disenchantment of the world, the pursuit of happiness, and the cultural limitations of the Western self-ideal. Now more than ever we need to rethink the relationship between self, other, and the natural environment, and this book uses Dialogical Self Theory to explore actual and potential responses of the self to these urgent challenges.