Self-portrait by the author
When a cow takes a look at herself in a mirror (or in the water surface of the ditch when she drinks), she doesn’t recognize herself, while a man does. There are hardly any animals that recognize themselves when looking in a mirror. I think that this is also an indication that man has personhood, while a cow hasn’t or has a reduced kind of personhood at most: One cannot be a person if one hasn’t a conception of oneself. Being able to recognize oneself as oneself in a mirror is an expression of this conception, which is usually called self-awareness. Following Velleman in the article I quoted in my last blog one can say that this self conception is not just the feeling of being there in the world. It’s not merely subjective, but “it is the conception of himself as a creature with this very conception of itself. This self-conception is objective in the sense that it represents its subject as its subject in the world …” (Velleman, 325) So, one’s self-awareness is objective in the sense that one can take an objective stance towards oneself just as one does towards a bird in the garden and wonders whether it is a marsh tit or a willow tit. Likewise one can think and talk about oneself.
Literary and philosophical expressions of this phenomenon are self-descriptions like autobiographies, autobiographic novels, apologies and the like. Many essays written by Montaigne have also an autobiographical content or aspect. His subjective treatises became so popular that they were the beginning of a completely new genre. However, not everybody valued the personal content of such writings. Blaise Pascal, for instance, wrote about Montaigne’s work: “His foolish project of describing himself! And this not casually and against his maxims, since everyone makes mistakes, but by his maxims themselves, and by first and chief design. For to say silly things by chance and weakness is a common misfortune; but to say them intentionally is intolerable …” (II, 62) Nevertheless Pascal has been much influenced by Montaigne, although his project was not self-descriptive.
But is it really so foolish to describe yourself? Maybe Pascal thought that it isn’t as long as you keep it for yourself, but showing yourself intentionally to the world isn’t done, according to him. Maybe it wasn’t in his time, but Montaigne’s Essays were widely read and withstood the ages, and that not only as a way of peeping in the soul of another person. They help to understand the age he lived in and human life in general; not only the author’s life. That’s also a function of autobiographies. They are interesting as self-descriptions of this life or that life (and they satisfy our voyeurism as well), but they reflect also the age the author lived in and they are lessons of life.
In these days of individualism self-descriptions in any shape have become very important. In an age in which one can rely less on relations, the way you present yourself has become very important. This concerns not only the way you look, your appearance, and the way you know to manipulate your looks in the right way. It concerns also the way you tell others who you are. A self-description is often a way to present the better side of yourself and then it is more a kind of self-justification, or self-promotion. And just as photos added to job applications are photoshopped today in order to suggest a “better” appearance, so often self-descriptions as presented to the world are nothing else than kinds of self-advertisements, in which the raw edges of the subject’s life are polished away. But who tells us that also Montaigne hasn’t avoided talking about the potholes in his road of life he was ashamed of? So I finish with a quotation from Pascal, torn loose from the context: “It is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find all that I see in him.” (II, 64) In other words: Look at yourself, take an objective stance and judge. Who can? “