Monday, June 19, 2006

Self Evolved: The Problem of the Past

I need to diverge briefly from my concern with TV shows and literature to address an article I read recently which asks questions that hit to the heart of my interest in adolescence. It's a historical overview of human self-understanding and provides a compelling but, for me, problematic framework for describing how human psychology has evolved over time.

Roy F. Baumeister's "How the Self Became a Problem: A Psychological Review of Historical Research" was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1987. Yes, it's almost 20 years old, so I may be merely shadowboxing here, but it's a very evocative treatise. It's a complicated article, supplemented with an impressive graph depicting ideas of selfhood across major historical stages, but I'll try to boil it down.

Baumeister describes four "problems" pertaining to the self: self-knowledge, self-definition, self-fulfillment, and the relationship to society. He then shows how each of these problems were addressed from the late medieval period to the late 20th century. Students of sociology may not be surprised at the overall trajectory of his historical evolution: folks in the medieval period were untroubled by psychological issues, and the farther you get from this period the more complicated things become.

So, for example, on the issue of the relation of the individual to society, those in the late medieval period took for granted that they were part of a fixed and stable social order, and that everything was ordained by God. They also did not question that Christian salvation was the way to personal fulfillment, or that there was any difference between one's inner and outer selves.

He provides a lot of evidence, and concedes that his article describes trends rather than universals, so I don't want to mischaracterize his arguments as trite or simplistic. I'm still skeptical, however, about historical arguments that exploit a belief that those in the past were fundamentally lacking some major human insights, or that take a lack of historical evidence as proof that medieval serfs were cool with their plight.

This is similar to the argument that I've encountered in my research on childhood that says pre-modern folks did not see any difference between children and adults: the "tiny adults" thesis. Ideas of human development have indeed changed, and my own thesis is built on our ability to perceive and describe those changes. But it's sobering to consider how deceptive the historical record can be. How arguments about reality, whether philosophical or scientific or literary, persist and are held up as the truth for a given period is such a complicated process, involving economics, politics, and mere chance.

Similarly, arguments about contemporary life tend to skew and oversimplify reality. "Trends" are revealing, but also misleading because we tend to glom on to what is novel. Of course people are still dealing with psychological issues that were first described centuries ago, hence the continued relevance of Shakespeare's plays. Baumeister shows how the early modern period (that's Shakespeare's era) was highly concerned with sincerity, the "equivalence of inner and outer selves, as a virtue." Are we so postmodern, as many suggest, that we've abandoned the struggle for authenticity? Honesty and sincerity may not make the most compelling subject for contemporary drama--it's "been done"--but it's something I certainly struggle with. We don't collectively solve all of our psycho-social struggles and move on, having learned our lessons.

Having said that, I do like Baumeister's categories. If adolescence narratives are concerned with how their heroes solve these "problems" of the self in reaching maturity, it gives us four questions to answer of any such story. How does a character define the self? How can she know her true self? How does she find fulfillment? And how does society help or hinder the path to fulfillment? This is just one possible starting point.


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