Take care of your Self!


As a permanent fellow at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies, I enjoy many opportunities to listen fascinating lectures and talks. This week, Postdoc Roman Madzia presented a paper on ‘Care of the S: The Dynamics of Mind between Social Conflicts and the Dialogicality of the Self’. ‘Care of the S’ means both ‘care of the soul’ and ‘care of the self’. Roman is an expert on G. H. Mead, and I was electrified by his use of the term ‘care of the self’ because this is an idea that an INSOSCI member, Mareike Kühne, pursues, namely substituting the standard economic notion of rationality by the concept of ‘care of the self’. I think that this is highly relevant not only in theoretical terms, but also with reference to clinical issues, as raised by Susanne in her previous blog. The problem is that reductionist neuroscience approaches do not help in drawing clear lines between ‘problem addicts’ and ‘pathological addicts’, that they cannot help in designing preventive measures, and that they fail to integrate different therapeutic approaches that need to be combined in a dual process framework. The latter applies especially to what I called ‘me-engineering’ in a previous blog.

I suggest that such an integrative framework comes close to what might be called ‘care of the self’, indeed. This term originates with Michel Foucault, in the title of the third volume of his ‘History of Sexuality’, and refers to Antiquity, in the first place. I think that Foucault’s approach can be easily integrated with Mead’s thinking, as far as ‘care of the self’ is concerned. As I outlined in previous blogs, one central idea of a Meadian restatement of dual processes models is to distinguish between ‘I’ and ‘Me’ as constituents of the Self. Reflexivity defines the dynamics between the two, starting out from the most fundamental idea that the ‘I’ is the source of human action and creativity, but that it is not accessible to the Self in terms of reflected knowledge (this is not the same as the distinction between conscious and unconscious processes). So, we only access our ‘I’ via the ‘Me’, which is the internalized perception of our roles in social interaction, as we think that others perceive it. In other words, the ‘Me’ is already a complex structure, as it is a perception of perceptions. Via the ‘Me’ we construct our ‘I’. In my other writings, I called this an ‘avatar’ of the ‘I’, because the ’I’ still maintains its autonomy as the source of creative action.

This view matches ideally with Foucault’s notion of ‘care of the self’. On the one hand, care of the self needs to be grounded in self-knowledge: We do not know who we are, and we need to learn about ourselves via our actions and their results. That corresponds to the Median ‘I’ as an unknown that is continuously being interpreted by ourselves, mediated by the ‘me’. On the other hand, while building our knowledge of ourselves, we take actions that shape ourselves. Human societies provide many means of doing this, what Foucault calls ‘technologies of the self’ (for example, doing exercises is such a technology, or meditation, or more mundane activities such as adopting certain daily schedules). These technologies result in constructions of the self. In other words, if we explore ourselves, this does not mean that we discover a fixed and stable entity that is our ‘Self’, but we create it. This is what requires and manifests ‘care of the self’. In Antiquity, care of the self was an aesthetic action, in the sense of designing oneself like a piece of art. Hence, it is a special form of creative reflexivity, thus matching with the notion of ‘I’, but explicitly endogenizing the relationship with the ‘me’ on a creative meta-level. This ties up with my earlier discussion of narratives. One way to take care of the self is to create narratives that, over time, evolve into constituent features of our Self. This establishes what Roman calls the ‘dialogic nature of the self’. Narratives are always shared, so they directly impact on the ways how the ‘Me’ is continuously being transformed via social interactions.

This is a far cry from standard notions of both rationality and failures of rationality. In both cases, there is the idea that efficient causality reigns the relation between certain stimuli and options on the one hand, and the resulting actions on the other. In standard rationality conceptions, there is no problem of self-knowledge, so we simply do what we want, rationally. Think of Beckerian theories of addiction. In dual systems theories, our impulsive system leads us astray, and so an external agency might need to interfere by nudging us towards the rational action. Even more reductionist, our system might just be damaged physiologically, so we need pharmaceutical means to change behaviour. In both cases, we do not care for our Self, as in the first case we do not adopt a reflexive creative stance, and in the second we lose our autonomy and leave it to others to take care of us.

Combining Mead and Foucault, we can provide a systematic reason and philosophical basis why therapeutic techniques such as motivational interviewing are often the most powerful means to change the behaviour of individuals. Indeed, motivational interviewing can be conceived as a ‘technology of the Self’, or, a way of taking care of the Self. It is dialogic, and it helps individuals to follow the maxim ‘know thyself!’.

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