Self, Subject

Once again, I’d like to dwell on the subtlety of the relation between empirical “me” and transcendental “I”. As usual, for philosophical purposes I want to advise that we hold off on identifying the two in the way that we commonly do when immersed in living our lives.

A contentful self exists on the empirical side. There are biographical and psychological facts about it. Each such “me” is unique. I take the primary referent of this “self” to be our developed emotional constitution, or Aristotelian hexis. When immersed in living our lives, we often say “I” in common-sense reference to this contentful, factual self, but this is very different from a transcendental “I”. Each person who says “I” for “me” in this common-sense way says it differently, because in each of these cases, “I” refers to a different “me”.

A transcendental “I” is a contentless symbolic index for a constellation of values and commitments, i.e., what we care about and what we believe, our Aristotelian ethos. Here, what is of interest is not the content of a contentful, factual self (“us”), but rather the content of what we care about and what we believe. Transcendental “I” refers to the identity of an ethos or unity of apperception. Thus anyone who in some context cares about the same things and believes the same things says “I” transcendentally in exactly the same way in that context, because in each of these cases, “I” refers to the same ethos.

(I’m using the common vocabulary of reference and identity here to keep things simple, but the usual caveats apply. Reference and identity are actually derivative notions, not primitive ones, but there is no philosophical harm in using them in a simple way anyway, provided we avoid tacitly assuming they are primitive.)

What identifies us as individuals is the empirical “me”, but what plays the role of an ethical subject or subject of knowledge is the paradoxically intimate but anonymous transcendental “I”. (See also Transcendental?; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; and many articles under Subjectivity in the menu.)

Historically, tight theoretical identification of ethical subjects and subjects of knowledge with empirical individuals is associated with the rationalization of practices of blaming and punishment, especially when translated into a theological context.

Emotional Intelligence

I originally glossed Aristotelian hexis as something like acquired emotional constitution. In adopting the contemporary term “emotional intelligence” for the kind of good development of hexis that is conducive to ethical development, I have in mind especially its broad association with a strong capacity for empathy and a related kind of self-awareness, rather than the details of a contemporary psychological theory. I also mean to recall something more like a kind of practical wisdom than any connection to what Aristotle said about intellect per se.

Ethos, Hexis

For Aristotle, ethical character or culture or ethical development (ethos) — including what Brandom would call our constellation of commitments and what Hegel would call our self-consciousness — builds on hexis. The latter is most commonly translated as habit. Earlier, I called it emotional constitution. It is an acquired, active disposition to respond or act in certain ways that seems to be centered in the emotions. A good hexis is characterized by what we might call emotional intelligence.

Actions, reactions, and choices — as well as many things that just happen to us — cumulatively contribute to the formation of a more long-term emotional constitution that then becomes directly responsible for the tone of our responses to things, and that we can only change with major, prolonged effort, if at all. This, I believe, is the main basis of common-sense personal identity.

People respond to situations based on a combination of emotional disposition (hexis), their constellation of commitments and self-consciousness (ethos), and deliberation and choice. It does not generally make sense to blame someone for acting in accordance with their acquired disposition, but at a broader level, people are partly responsible for the formation of their disposition. People are responsible for their choices, unless they are coerced or misinformed. People are in principle responsible for their commitments; bad commitments usually involve more than simple misinformation. But misinformation, lack of good opportunity for learning, and emotional disposition should certainly be taken into account in charitable interpretation of commitments, too. (See also Willing, Unwilling; Second Nature.)

According to Aristotle, a disposition favoring reasonable emotional responses is a prerequisite to higher ethical development, and this needs to be learned from childhood. (See also Feeling.)