This Blog Post Contains Multitudes

From a year ago, Paul Bloom in The Atlantic:

Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off, and why we insist on spending so much of our lives in worlds­—like TV shows and novels and virtual-reality experiences—that don’t actually exist. And it provides a useful framework for thinking about the increasingly popular position that people would be better off if governments and businesses helped them inhibit certain gut feelings and emotional reactions.


It is conservative in that it accepts that brains give rise to selves that last over time, plan for the future, and so on. But it is radical in that it gives up the idea that there is just one self per head. The idea is that instead, within each brain, different selves are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control—bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.

The notion of different selves within a single person is not new. It can be found in Plato, and it was nicely articulated by the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, who wrote, “I cannot compare the soul more properly to any thing than to a republic or commonwealth, in which the several members are united by the reciprocal ties of government and subordination.” Walt Whitman gave us a pithier version: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

David Brooks at NYT:

In Homer’s poetry, every hero has a trait. Achilles is angry. Odysseus is cunning. And so was born one picture of character and conduct.

In this view, what you might call the philosopher’s view, each of us has certain ingrained character traits. An honest person will be honest most of the time. A compassionate person will be compassionate.

These traits, as they say, go all the way down. They shape who we are, what we choose to do and whom we befriend. Our job is to find out what traits of character we need to become virtuous.

But, as Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Princeton philosopher, notes in his book “Experiments in Ethics,” this philosopher’s view of morality is now being challenged by a psychologist’s view. According to the psychologist’s view, individuals don’t have one thing called character.

The psychologists say this because a century’s worth of experiments suggests that people’s actual behavior is not driven by permanent traits that apply from one context to another. Students who are routinely dishonest at home are not routinely dishonest at school. People who are courageous at work can be cowardly at church. People who behave kindly on a sunny day may behave callously the next day when it is cloudy and they are feeling glum. Behavior does not exhibit what the psychologists call “cross-situational stability.”


In the philosopher’s picture, the good life is won through direct assault. Heroes use reason to separate virtue from vice. Then they use willpower to conquer weakness, fear, selfishness and the dark passions lurking inside. Once they achieve virtue they do virtuous things.

In the psychologist’s version, the good life is won indirectly. People have only vague intuitions about the instincts and impulses that have been implanted in them by evolution, culture and upbringing. There is no easy way to command all the wild things jostling inside.

But it is possible to achieve momentary harmony through creative work. Max has all his Wild Things at peace when he is immersed in building a fort or when he is giving another his complete attention. This isn’t the good life through heroic self-analysis but through mundane, self-forgetting effort, and through everyday routines.

Appiah believes these two views of conduct are in conversation, not conflict. But it does seem we’re in one of those periods when words like character fall into dispute and change their meaning.

Jonah Goldberg at The Corner:

Okay, but a “community of competing selves” is still a community of sorts, right? And we talk all the time about how certain communities have a character to them, and rightly so. Natchez, Mississippi’s character is  different than Milwaukee’s. Which is to say they do things one way in the former and another way in the latter.

Understanding the self as a “culture of one” (to borrow a phrase from Star Trek, heh) doesn’t necessarily contradict the idea that there is something unitary to our individual being, does it? I’m not big on all the Freudian lingo, Id, Ego, Super-Ego, etc. But it seems to me not unreasonable to say that there’s something that is moderating or refereeing the fights between these different selves and that something might have something to do with character. Even people of the highest character have to wrestle with the lowest of desires from time to time. Calling those desires “selves” is an interesting metaphorical approach, and it might have all manner of psychological validity, but I’m not sure it’s progress to do so nor am I persuaded it’s the more accurate way to go.

Maggie Gallagher at The Corner:

Having psychologized every other aspect of morality, there is no good reason why we shouldn’t also psychologize the idea of character.

But the core problem with David Brooks’s analysis is this: In the Victorian sense, character was not an innate characteristic you possessed, it was something that other people gave you.

Character was understood to be an aspiration, in other words, that became real by acting in such a way that others observed in you “character.”

Absent a cultural context that promotes this ideal, character in the old sense doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t exist raw in nature as an empirical fact of human beings. It is a cultural creation, made real when people care enough to aspire to it and to incarnate it to the extent that human beings can incarnate ideals.

James Poulos at PomoCon:

A lot could be said in this vein but the thing to underscore here is that Brooks’s account conceals two important things. First, the central contrast he strikes might really be that between philosophy and art, not philosophy and psychology. Recall Nietzsche’s semi-secret teaching that not just Jewish priest culture but Greek actor culture overthrew Roman noble culture. Roman nobility as Nietzsche means it wasn’t exactly a product of philosophy, but Nietzsche’s conviction that preserving nobility was only possible in the contemporary world via philosophy ought to be considered, I think, in light of his profound uneasiness and careful treading around the problem of the “actor’s faith” that characterizes “really democratic ages.” Second, the psychologist most frequently associated with Nietzsche is Freud, but Brooks isn’t at all talking Freudian psychology when he tells us that “it is possible to achieve momentary harmony through creative work,” or that we don’t secure “the good life through heroic self-analysis but through mundane, self-forgetting effort, and through everyday routines.” The trouble isn’t that Freud didn’t endorse disciplined creativity or creative discipline, but that Freud’s vision of life held out basically no hope for the GOOD life. His aim was to make extraordinarily ill people ordinarily sick, and his view of health involved much more coping than curing. Where Freud in the hands of an Emersonian like Richard Rorty becomes a fertility god, democratizing genius and with it the good life, Rieff — whom Rorty cites on the democratization of genius — shows how the rise of Nietzschean “actor’s faith” in democratic ages is dreadfully inimical to the good life. Rieff reminds us that celebration is alien to Freud, for whom the things ‘competing’ within us are to be analyzed into a negotiated stalemate, not channeled into socially productive activity or personally gratifying projects.

UPDATE: More Poulos


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