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Chapter IX: Togetherness—Identity and Depth

During the last two chapters, but particularly during the very last one, we have gradually come to acknowledge how impossible it is not only to give, on one's own account, an objective answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’ but also even to imagine the valid giving of such an answer by anybody else who was considering one's life from the outside. Little by little, we have been forced to insist that my life is essentially ungraspable; that it eludes me and indeed eludes, in all directions, itself. Nevertheless, I can be called upon to sacrifice my life or, at the very least, to consecrate it. We should pause for a moment over this notion of consecration; self-sacrifice can be considered, of course, as merely the consummation of an act that consists of living for something, of dedicating oneself to what Josiah Royce called a cause, meaning an idea or a quest. But we should pause here again to ask ourselves what the secret link can be that binds my life to such an act of self-dedication. Can we consider the act as a sort of seal set, as it were, on my life from the outside? It is obvious that we cannot: the words ‘from the outside’ are grossly inadequate, and in fact where exactly, when we talk of this act of dedication coming from the outside, do we imagine it as coming from? No, it is only from the very depths of my own life that this inner need for self-dedication can spring.

Moreover, we are here rediscovering, at a level of higher potency, the truth which we acknowledged in our third chapter when we recognized, as the phenomenology of Husserl recognizes, that every kind of awareness is essentially awareness of something other than itself; so human living, driven in this way to dedicate itself, seems also essentially the living of something other than itself. What can make our path difficult and uncertain at this moment is, however, that we are inclined to take it as an axiom that awareness and life are concepts different in kind. But the arguments of our last chapter in particular should enable us to grasp the fact that such a difference in kind can no longer be postulated when I am speaking, not of life as a mere phenomenon to be investigated, but of my own life. I cannot speak of my own life without asking myself what point it has, or even whether it points in any direction at all.… The pun there, by the way, may appear frivolous but it is necessary to convey the ambiguity of the French word ‘sens’, which refers here not only to the meaning—in one of the multifarious senses of that slippery English word—but also to the bearing, or direction, or relevance, or orientation, of my life. The verb ‘to mean’, in English, has, of course, these two among its many other senses: ‘I don't see what you mean’ can be the equivalent of, ‘I don't follow the sense of what you are saying,’ but also of, ‘I follow the sense of what you are saying, but I don't see its bearing on our general argument’. ‘Meaning’, however, has far too many other senses, and is too vague and confused a word altogether in its popular usage to be suitable here. The Germans convey the two uses of ‘sens’ neatly by the words ‘Bedeutung’ and ‘Richtung’ and they have an intermediate word ‘Sinn’, though it does not strictly imply the notion of orientation.

After that little linguistic digression, let us repeat the proposition from which it arose. I cannot speak of my life without asking myself what point it has, or even whether it points in any direction at all; and even if I decide that it is in fact a pointless business, that it points nowhere, still the very fact that I have raised the question presupposes the assumption that life, in some cases at least, might have a point. If I could really uproot this assumption from my mind, at the same stroke my life would cease to be my own life. I mean that I would cease to apprehend it as my own; this would be that final estrangement from oneself that, in the ideal limiting case, can be reached only by a slave, and by a slave who has ceased to be aware of his own state of servitude. And in fact there is every reason to suppose that except in this abstract sense, as an ideal limiting case, such final self-estrangement is inconceivable. For I think that there can be no doubt that there does remain in every slave, fairly deep down, an obscure awareness of having been outraged, and with this awareness at least an indistinct, incipient protest, a feeling that one's life ought not to be a slave's life, that its proper growth has been thwarted.

When I ask whether my life has a point, it does seem that I am imagining, a kind of significance, or relevance, which my life would go on having whether or not I wanted it to; I am, or so it seems to me, more or less explicitly relating my question to the idea of a play in which I have to take a part; I am asking myself about the possible theme of the performance in which I have been induced to participate. From this point of view I might compare my situation with that of an actor who has been given his own cues and lines, but who has not had the play as a whole read to him and has not even been told briefly what it is about. He has merely been told: at such and such a cue, you will make your entrance, you will speak the following lines, accompanying your lines by this piece of business, then you will make your exit. The actor has to suppose that his lines and his business, which in themselves seem to him almost pointless have their point in relation to the total pattern of the play. Thus if life as a whole has a point—or as we would say here, not to break the metaphor, a plot or a theme—then in some sense my own life has a plot or a theme, too.

However, if we stick to our actual situation, it is obvious that the life I have to live is not quite on all fours with the sort of episode I have just been describing. Keeping to the theatrical comparisons, which seem almost to be imposed on us at this point, we might say that in fact I am not told in advance what my lines and business are to be; I have to go right out there and improvise. But where the actor in the old comedia dell'arte had to improvise on the rough outline of a story given to him in advance, I am given no such rough outline. It is just as if—or so it seems at a first glance—the producer of the play had carelessly omitted to provide me with just the information I needed to carry out the task that had been entrusted to me in a proper fashion. Given all this, might I not be led into calling the very existence of the producer into question? Or, to put the point more precisely, would I not have solid grounds for asserting that, whether or not there really is a producer, everything is run just as if there wasn't one? This comes down once more to saying that there is no rough outline, no plot, or, to go back the phrase we started with, that my life has no point. From this perspective, I will naturally be led to ask whether I myself, against the grain as it were of this general pointlessness, can by my own efforts give my life a point; can I myself confer a kind of significance on it? This is, in its atheistic form, the position of contemporary existentialism. Of course, we have already seen quite a number of reasons for considering it to be an untenable position.

Did I not affirm at the beginning of this lecture that it seems impossible that the act by which I consecrate my life to some idea or quest could be regarded as external to my life, but that, on the contrary, the act rather resembles the bursting of my life into flower? But according to the hypothesis of atheistic existentialism, which I have just formulated, this act of consecration would be something external to my life. The hypothesis implies, apparently, something more or less of the following sort: that my life has come into my hands by accident, through the merest unforseeable chance, like a notecase that one happens to find dropped on the pavement. If I am an honest person, I have no doubt tried to return the notecase to its owner; all my attempts to find him have proved vain, and here I am in possession of a considerable sum of money. What shall I do with it, to what use shall I put it? In this case, we should notice that our question has a definite scope and implies a range of possible definite answers; finding this money may give me a chance to satisfy some old wish—or to pay some old debt—or to help somebody who is not merely in a state of poverty but in a state of wretchedness. I must make a choice between such concrete possibilities. But such possibilities, it should be noted, have their roots in my own life, such as it was before I found the notecase. My life, itself, on the other hand, cannot really be compared to this lucky find. I do not find myself alive, in the sense in which I might find the owner of these stray coins or notes. My existence as a living being precedes this discovery of myself as a living being. One might even say that, by a fatal necessity, I pre-exist myself. But this forces us to take up a position diametrically opposed to that, for instance, of Sartre, in that sentence of his that has been so often quoted: ‘Man's motto is to be a maker and as a maker, to make himself and to be nothing but the self he has made for himself’. Everything that we have been saying up to this very moment forces us to take our stand against any such affirmation. ‘It would be impossible,’ I wrote, commenting on this sentence in my essay, Techniques of Degradation,1 ‘to deny in a more aggressive fashion the existence of any sort of natural world, of anything that is inherited by us, or, more profoundly, of reality itself, that reality which is conferred upon us or in which we participate, and which gives us a greater impetus, the deeper we penetrate into it.’

The time has come when we should attempt to draw out all the implications of the notions of a situation, and of participation as we have attempted to elucidate them in our three previous chapters. It may be, however, that to reach our goal we may find it convenient to go back, in the first instance, to the problem of the relationships between myself and others, as that problem now stands, in the light of our previous observations, and particularly in the light of that criticism of the notion of a state of consciousness which I roughed out in chapter three. I think my best course will be to present you with a condensed version of my analysis in my essay, Homo Viator, an analysis which is a kind of nucleus of the possible phenomenology of the relationships between myself and others.

We should notice, to start with, that the ego, as such, shows up in an extraordinarily vivid and aggressive fashion in the mental world of the child; and one might add that this vividness and aggressiveness persist, in later years, to the degree to which that mental world survives in the adult. The child, let us say, runs up to his mother and offers her a flower. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘that was me, I picked it.’ His tone and his gestures are very significant; he is pointing himself out as somebody who deserves the admiration and gratitude of grown-ups. Look, it is I, I in person, I, all present and correct here, who have plucked this flower! Above all, don't believe for a moment that it was Jim or Lucy who picked it. The child's, ‘I did it’, in fact, excludes in the most definite fashion the deplorable misunderstanding by which my exploit could be attributed to others. But we find adults standing up in the same way for the ego's rights. Let us take the example of the amateur composer who has just been singing, in a throaty voice, a song for which he has written the tune. Some artless listener asks, was that by Debussy? ‘Oh, no,’ says the composer, bridling and smirking, ‘that was a little thing of my own.’ Here again the ego is trying to attract to itself the praise, the surprised and admiring comments, of a something other than itself, that it uses as a sounding-board. In every case of this sort one may say that the ego is present in the flesh, appealing or protesting, in various tones of voice, that nobody should infringe on its rights, or, if you like, tread on its toes. Notice, too, that in all such cases one essential factor is what I shall call, a little pedantically, ecceity: that is, a hereness and a nowness, or rather a here-and-nowness; we can think of the ego in this sense, in fact, as a sort of personified here-and-now that has to defend itself actively against other personified heres-and-nows, the latter appearing to it essentially as just so many threats to what I have called its rights. These rights, however, have essentially a prejuridical character, they are from the beginning inseparably linked to the very fact of existing and thus are exposed continually to all sorts of more or less mortifying infringements. In so far as I feel myself in danger of being passively overlooked or actively slighted in a hundred different ways that all cut me to the quick, one might say, in fact, that I have no protective skin at all, that the quick is exposed already.

The obvious example to take at this point is, of course, that of the shy young man who is making his first appearance at some fashionable dance or cocktail party. Such a young man is, as you so admirably express it in English, to the highest degree self-conscious. He feels himself the cynosure, and the extremely vulnerable cynosure, of neighbouring eyes. It seems to him that all the other people at the party, none of whom he knows, are looking at him, and looking at him, too, with what meaning glances! Obviously they are making fun of him, perhaps of his new dinner jacket which does not fit him as well as it should, perhaps of his black bow tie, which was all right when he last looked in the mirror, but now, he feels quite sure, has gone lopsided. And then, of course, he cut himself when he was shaving. And everybody must have noticed how clumsily he held his glass just a moment ago, so that some of the sherry slopped over. And so on, and so on… To such a young man it seems that he has been literally thrown (as Christians were thrown to the lions) to the malevolent lucidity of other people's glances. Thus he is at once preoccupied with himself to the highest possible degree and hypnotized at the same time to a quite supreme degree by others, by what he imagines other people may think of him. It is this paradoxical tension which your excellent word self-consciousness so compactly expresses.

But on the other hand this tension is quite at the opposite pole from what I have at various times called, and shall here call again, intersubjectivity. And the opposite nature of the two things cannot be too heavily underlined. Let us suppose that some unknown person comes up at our party to say a word or two to the shy young man and put him at his ease. The latter, to begin with, does not find himself entering into the direct relation with his new acquaintance that is expressed by the pronoun you but instead thinks of him as him. Why is he talking to me? What is he after? Is he trying to satisfy some sinister and mocking curiosity? Let us be on our guard anyway. Let us be extremely non-committal in our answers to his questions. Thus, because he is on the defensive with this other guest, our young man has to the least possible degree what can be described as a genuine encounter or conversation with him. He is not really with the other any more than he can help being. But in a very general fashion, indeed, one might say that it is the relationship expressed by the preposition with that is eminently intersubjective. The relationship that with expresses, here, does not for instance really apply to the world of objects, which, taken as a whole, is a world merely of juxtaposition. A chair is alongside a table, or beside it, or we put the chair by the table, but the chair is never really with the table in this sense.

But let us get back to our example and let us suppose that the ice is after all broken, and that the conversation takes on a more intimate character. ‘I am glad to meet you,’ says the stranger, ‘I once knew your parents’, and all at once a bond is created and, what specially matters, there is a relaxation of tension. The attention of the young man ceases to be concentrated on himself, it is as if something gripped tight together inside him were able to loosen up. He is lifted out of that stifling here-and-nowness in which, if I may be allowed a homely comparison, his ego was sticking to him as an adhesive plaster sticks to a small cut. He is lifted right out of the here and now, and, what is very strange surely, this unknown person whom he has just met accompanies him on this sort of magic voyage. They are together in what we must call an elsewhere, an elsewhere, however, which has a mysteriously intimate character. Let us say, if you like, that they are linked to each other by a shared secret. I shall have to come back, no doubt, to the notion of the secret as a mainspring of intersubjectivity, but let us notice, before we leave our example, that ties of quite a different nature might have grown up between the stranger and the shy young man. A man whom I run into quite casually learns that I am very fond of coffee, coffee is desperately scarce in France at the time, so he gives me a hint about how to get some on the black market. One cannot say that this incident is enough in itself to create a bond between me and him; all we have in common is a taste, and that is not enough to draw us together at the ontological level, that is qua beings. And neither, on the other hand, is a taste for coffee, even combined with a certain broadmindedness about means of getting hold of coffee, enough in itself to create the sense of complicity and freemasonry in vice that might arise from the avowal, to somebody who shared it, of some much more dubious inclination. But such a sense of complicity is not really what we have in mind, either; rather it is in the sort of case where I discover that a stranger has recognized the deep, individual quality of somebody whom I myself have tenderly loved and who retains a place in my heart, that true intersubjectivity arises.

We could also take examples of intersubjectivity from artistic and religious experience. But it is clear that there would be no absolute discontinuity between the examples taken from ordinary life and those from the higher reaches of the spirit; on the contrary there would be a kind of graduated scale, with something like the mystical communion of souls in worship at the top end, and with something like an ad hoc association for some strictly practical and rigidly defined purpose at the bottom. But it would be possible to show that a single human relationship can work its way all the way up and down this scale; this, for instance, is quite obviously true of marriage. There may be moments of drought in marriage when the wife becomes for her husband merely that ‘silly creature who should have been busy darning socks, but there she was clucking round the tea table with a lot of old hens,’ and there may be almost mystical moments when the wife is acknowledged and loved as the bearer of a unique value to which eternal bliss has been promised. One might therefore say that there is an hierarchy of choices, or rather of invocations, ranging from the call upon another which is like ringing a bell for a servant to the quite other sort of call which is really like a kind of prayer. But, as I tried to show in my first Metaphysical Journal, in invocations of the first sort—where we press a bell or make some other sort of signal to show that we want service—the Thou we are invoking is really a He or a She or even an It treated pragmatically as a Thou. When I stop somebody in the street to ask my way, I do say to him, it is true, ‘Can you tell me how to get to such-and-such a Square?’, but all the same I am making a convenience of him, I am treating him as if he were a signpost. No doubt, even in this limiting case, a touch of genuine intersubjectivity can break through, thanks to the magical powers of the tone of voice and the glance. If I have really lost my bearings, if it is late, if I fear that I may have to grope my way for hours through some labyrinthine and perhaps even dangerous warren of streets, I may have a fleeting but irresistible impression that the stranger I am appealing to is a brother eager to come to my aid. What happens is, in a word, that the stranger has started off by putting himself, as it were, ideally in my shoes. He has come within my reach as a person. It is no longer a mere matter of his showing me the way as a guide-book or a map might, but of his really giving a helping hand to somebody who is alone and in a bewildered state. This is nothing more than a sort of spark of spirituality, out as soon as it is in; the stranger and I part almost certainly never to see each other again, yet for a few minutes, as I trudge homewards, this man's unexpected cordiality makes me reel as if I had stepped out of a wintry day into a warm room.

On an occasion of such a sort, we have lingered for a moment on the threshold of intersubjectivity, that is, of the realm of existence to which the preposition with properly applies, as it does not properly apply, let me repeat, to the purely objective world. Within the realm of intersubjectivity, naturally, a whole throng of different sorts of relationship must be distinguished from each other. Words like ‘ensemble’ in French, ‘together’ in English, ‘zusammen’ in German, can be entirely deceptive, particularly in the cases where they refer to travelling or even to working together, to the togetherness of the bus or the factory. There are certainly cases in which what is called collective labour can be considered, at least from the point of view of how it looks on the surface, as the arithmetical sum of the various special tasks performed by each separate individual. And yet even in such cases as this there is certainly also something that arithmetic cannot account for. There is at least in the background a sense of a common fate, there is certainly an indistinct awareness of the conditions to which all the workers in such a factory as we have in mind must without distinction subject themselves, finding, perhaps in every case, that such self-subjection goes against the grain. This feeling of community in effort and struggle that such factory workers have is quite enough in itself to deprive us of any right to treat them as simple units of force that can be added to each other. But we should recognize all the same that the level of reality represented by the preposition with can be a rather low and barren level—and this is naturally even more true in the case of the togetherness of passengers in a public vehicle. The content of this sort of reality, the reality for so many people of work and the journey to work, enriches itself only in the degree they learn to know themselves and to know their companions of bus or bench both in the uniqueness of their diverse beings and in the single colour of their common fate. It is only on this condition that a true companionship can be created such as that, for example, which existed in the army during the late war between fighting soldiers, and perhaps in a greater degree still between prisoners-of-war and civilian deportees in various German camps. An ordeal endured in common is the cement of such companionships, it is what permits them to arise.

But when we talk of common sufferings cementing human relationships, let us notice that this word is likely to lead us into error, unless we take it in a much deeper sense than its usual one for instance, in treatises on logic: we must think of the relationship between two terms as something that really does bind them, as something that causes them to negate themselves as simple, detached terms. We might make this point clearer if we said that relationships between things are external, relationships between people are internal. When I put the table beside the chair I do not make any difference to the table or the chair, and I can take one or the other away without making any difference; but my relationship with you makes a difference to both of us, and so does any interruption of the relationship make a difference. Between two people, in fact, who have an intimate relationship, a kind of unity tends to be created which makes a third person, who has not been initiated into the relationship, who does not participate in it, feel an intruder. Many women must have had this feeling—and it is a very painful feeling—when their husbands or their sons had reunions with old comrades of the army or of the prisoner-of-war or detention camps in their presence. We come up here, once more, against the notion of the shared secret (the secret, in our present example, not shared by the intrusive third party) which I mentioned at the beginning of this analysis; and we can see how important and also how ambiguous the notion is. What appears to the non-initiated person as a secret may be merely a few jokes, a few allusions, to which she has no clue, and which therefore inevitably irritate her. But the secret may also, and in a deeper sense, be a really incommunicable experience—generally a painful one—about which the initiated feel that others, who did not share it in the flesh, have no right to speak. It is just at this point that what we call in France pure sociology, and what you call anthropology, the study of customs and ceremonies, strikes on something deeper than itself, something that constitutes us in our very selfhood. I have only, for that matter, given very simple examples here; from my own dramatic works I could take more complicated ones, particularly from my Quartet in F Sharp, of which the first version dates back to the first World War, but which anticipates in the most concrete fashion this whole philosophy of intersubjectivity.

In this play of mine, I present the extremely rich and in the end indefinable network of relationships that interweaves itself between a woman, her first husband (a musician whom she divorces) and the musician's brother, whom she marries after the divorce. The climax of the play is the woman's sudden awareness of a suprapersonal unity which in some sense subsumes under itself the two men she has successively loved; she is no longer able to distinguish whether what she has loved in the second husband is, or is not, a mere reflection of the first. But on the other hand the fondness of the brothers for each other resists this new test, and the movement of the play is towards the discovery, as it were, of a kind of musical order of relationships in comparison with which the individual's usual hasty judgments about himself, and about others, seem precarious and destructive.

The notion of intersubjectivity is obviously capable of multifarious developments. In the first place, it is not in any hesitant fashion that I suggest it is only this notion that can throw light on the more obscure and more important aspects of what is improperly called psychical but should, I think, be called metapsychical research. As Carrington has made perfectly clear, telepathy is an inconceivable process unless we are willing to acknowledge that there is a region where the words I and You cease to denote two nuclei quite distinct from each other between which objective relations can be established by the emission of signals. And if one thinks it over, one will also perceive that all human intercourse worthy of the name takes place in an atmosphere of real intimacy that cannot be compared to an exchange of signals between an emission post and a reception post; this, or course, is the same sort of point as was made in a previous chapter when we talked about sensation and the impossibility of considering it as the equivalent of the emission and reception of a message.

But there is no doubt at all that we ought to go further, and to acknowledge that intersubjectivity plays its part also within the life of the subject, even at moments when the latter's only intercourse is with itself. In its own intrinsic structure subjectivity is already, and in the most profound sense, genuinely intersubiective; and it is at this point that the whole development of our argument becomes organically connected with the earlier part of this lecture.

We have already had occasion to notice that it is impossible to reduce the notion of the subject either to that of a mere formal principle of unity or to that of an aggregation of states of consciousness. Our last chapter, however, should have prepared us for the path we must follow if this opposition is to be transcended; or in more exact language, for the fashion in which original unity and plurality are yoked together within the borders of the unique being that I am.

It seems to me that we can never apply ourselves too strictly to the following problem: to what degree, and within what limits, can my relationship with my own past be brought before my mind? When, for instance, I see strange faces around me on a bus or in the tube, I am often haunted by the notion that each of them is carrying around with him his own past. But what does it mean to carry around something intangible, of this sort? There, as it seems to me, our whole problem lies. Of course, we might stop in our enquiry where the police stop. Each of my fellow passengers could be arrested, taken to a police-station, asked to state his identity, place of residence, and so on.… This means merely that each of them, unless suffering from loss of memory, has the data to hand that are required for the compilation of his or her dossier. There is a whole range of headings that might be relevant: illnesses, successive changes of residence, of job, religious affiliations, party membership, and so on. One might say perhaps that our imaginary detainee has a gramophone record inside that can reel off the answers to such questions. But just what we mean by that is still obscure. It will not do to say that he or she is a gramophone record; but only that he or she can become so if subjected, as so often happens in our contemporary world, to persistent questioning, and will become so only to the degree to which dehumanizing treatment brings about a state, of self-estrangement. All we can say is that from the very start there was something that could become, or rather could be degraded into, a gramophone record. This means that we must take it as a basic assumption that each of us has it in his power to submit his own experience considered as a whole to the kind of treatment that inevitably distorts its nature. However, this experience as a whole, which can be distorted in this fashion, is just what we have in mind when we talk about somebody or other's past.

It is obvious, of course, that the more a man is detached from his experience, the more easily it will lend itself to this distorting treatment; the more his total experience is something which he is still actively living, the less easy it will be for him to extract from it the depersonalized data required as answers to the police questionnaire. This is the very reason why we assume that a child, the least detached kind of human being we can conceive of, will be incapable of filling in such questionnaires. All this forces us to recognize that we cling to our past in a very uneven way, that we are our past in a very uneven way, and it must be added that this unevenness is related to a similar unevenness in our present situation. Here, as several times before, it is Marcel Proust who can set us on our way. In other words, we must not believe that we can at some given moment make a distinction that will be valid for all the rest of our lives between what I am now, on the one hand, and what, on the other hand, I am now so detached from that I can speak of it in an abstract fashion, that I can reduce it merely to the state of some external object to which I can refer. On the contrary the moods according to which such distinctions are made, or are not made, vary with the fluctuation of our present experience itself. This is enough to show how unreal it is to represent the past to oneself as in some sense preserved or pickled, as if it were last year's blackberries or walnuts. At any moment in my life, a magic shutter may snap back and I am once more the small boy of eight who is in a state of deadly anxiety because his mother is so late in coming home and who is running over in his fancy all the accidents that may have befallen her. Ought I to conclude from this that I have never really ceased to be that small boy?

Here again we are up against the apparently self-contradictory answer, the yes and no, which seems to be inseparable from the fact of existing as a human being. It would be false to claim that the little boy has been continuing to exist all these years, just as a table or a chair continues to exist even when I am not looking at it. The little boy of eight years old—who, in some sense, nevertheless, I still am—cannot by any means be conceived to have persisted after the fashion of a physical object. But on the other hand my assertion that I have never ceased to be this small boy is correct if we are ready to admit, like the fairy stories, which are the perfect symbolical expressions of this kind of truth, that there are modes of existence that are not objectifiable, but that have infinite possibilities of resurrection. Yet, strange as the symbol may be, it is only the extremely simplified expression of a much stranger reality. Between this latent mode of existence and the active, waking state in which I go out to post a letter and have to pause a moment at the pavement's edge to let the traffic pass, and so on, there lies an innumerable multiplicity of mental presences, that get in each other's way, and that enter into relations with me of such various sorts that it would be extremely useful to classify them even in the roughest and most approximate fashion. We might express this state of affairs by the simple formula that I am not merely myself: more strictly, is there any point in saying I am myself, since I am also somebody else? I am, for instance, the man I have been until quite recently, the man I was yesterday: there is a point of view, and a deep one, for which ‘have been’ and ‘was’ in such sentences lose all precise significance. There can be a real struggle for existence between the man I was yesterday, the man I have been until recently, and the man I have a tendency to be, a yearning to be, today.

It may, however, be objected at this point that we are here on a very dangerous road that may lead in the end to a mere flat denial of continuing personal identity. And we certainly ought to pause and look into that notion of personal identity, and into how we ought to understand it.

There is, however, a preliminary remark to be made, and it has to do with the conditions under which a judgment of identity can be properly made; for there is obviously no point in talking about identity, apart from judgments of identity. Now, we have to acknowledge that it is in the world of tangible things, in the objective world as such, that judgments of identity seem to be necessarily and strictly applicable. I lose my watch, say, somebody finds it and takes it to a lost-property office, let us say to the very office to which I myself have previously put in an enquiry about it. The watch that I claim and that is restored to me, because it corresponds to my description of it, is strictly identical with the watch that I lost. I am able to assert this not only because I recognize it but because the man who took it to the lost-property office found it on the exact spot where I had been sitting and where I supposed I must have dropped it. Apart, however, from this whole question of valid identification, we can the more properly speak of identity in this case because there has been no perceptible change in the nature of the watch itself between the moment when it fell from my pocket and the moment when I got it back from the lost-property office… It is a matter of common knowledge that an incident of this sort can be the point of departure for the dialectical development of what I shall risk calling an aporetic argument. A few superficial modifications (my watch, say, got its case slightly dinted by its fall from my pocket) do not prevent us from affirming that the thing which has suffered these modifications remains the same thing; but when the modifications extend their scope (for instance, I get rid of the old battered case of my watch, and have a new one made, and then some time later something goes wrong with the machinery and I have new cogs and springs put in, leaving of the original watch only its face and the face's glass covering), we may well hesitate to maintain our judgment of identity, to go on saying that it is the same watch, and it is obvious that there is no means of determining in an objective and universal fashion the precise margin of alteration beyond which the identity of what has been modified with what it has been modified from, can no longer be maintained.

Should we say, therefore, with the nominalists, that the only thing that persists as an element of identity and a principle of identification is the name? (This is still properly called my watch, the watch that I first bought in such and such a year, however often all the parts of it are successively replaced by new parts.) But this solution is obviously a fictitious one; the real question is what is it that induces us to maintain the identity of the name, of the appellation, even in the case where the identity of the thing as a thing seems to have disappeared. To explain what it is that induces us, we are obliged to evoke some such notion as that of a felt quality of identity; but such a quality is in its very nature not objectifiable. A better example than the one we have used already, that of the watch of which all the old parts are gradually replaced by new parts, would be a parallel example taken from the world of the child. It is not certain that we do really regard the watch of which all the parts are new, as in some sense the same old watch after all. But for the child the doll, of which head and arms and legs have been successively broken and replaced, does remain in a very vivid and real sense the same old doll; because the variable elements of the object have been caught up into the unity of the subjective sense of possession, and almost of adoration, that the child feels for this specially beloved object.

But what considerably complicates the problem is that quite apart from this permanence of a felt quality in the object, or a feeling about the object—a permanence which we ought not to call identity in the strict sense of the word—there is in the object itself the continuity of an historical becoming, and this even in the case where the felt quality of identity is absent. Let us take an example. Two or three years ago, I ran into an old schoolfellow whom I had not seen for a good forty years; I remembered him as a boy with red cheeks and bright eyes; I rediscovered him as an old gentleman with a flaccid face, whose eyes were quite expressionless. There was nothing in the quality of these two appearances, nor in my feelings about them, that could confirm that they were two appearances of the same person. All I could say is that I had an abstract, theoretical certitude that I should have been able to establish the existence of a continuity between these two contrasting states of the same bodily organism. But, indeed, that is not quite all: I should be able to assure myself that this man had memories which corresponded with my own memories of the period when we attended the same school.

This example is rather an instructive one, for it enables us to emphasize the contrast, where identity is concerned, between the realm of the He, She, or It on the one hand and that of the Thou on the other. There was nothing within me that, when I saw my old comrade, cried out joyously: ‘So it is you, so it is really you again.…’ Life, in such a case as this, has eroded something away; yet on the other hand I have an indefeasible certitude—some would say a mystical certitude—that if beyond the gulf of death I were to re-encounter those whom I have really loved (those, that is, who have been linked in the most intimate possible intersubjective fashion to what I am) I should recognize them instantaneously and as if by a flash of lightning, and it would be just as if no separation had ever taken place. This, however, is an act of faith, and it is not until my second volume that we shall be examining its possible foundations.

What emerges, finally, from this long analysis is the extreme complexity of the problem, as we call it, of personal identity.

Between the objective identity that we can affirm in the world of tangible things and what I have called the felt quality of identity there is obviously a gap; we can have the objective identity without the felt quality, and also, of course, the felt quality without the objective identity. Given such conditions, and given the general background of our argument, it is impossible not to acknowledge the usefulness of the notion of a kind of manifoldness within the self. But before attempting to define the nature of the manifoldness, we should make the following observation. At the level of feeling as such, quality (and most philosophers of the past have acknowledged this fact without, however, recognizing its implications) infringes upon, or one might even say usurps, the place of subjectivity as such. A felt quality, or a quality of feeling, that is, is not a mental object; one can make a distinction, for instance, between seeing a colour and the colour one sees, but not between feeling a pain and the pain one feels. The felt pain is an indissoluble unity. If it is true, as we have seen already that it is, that sensation cannot be understood on the analogy of transmission or passive reception, this is a fortiori true of feeling. This is a very important fact in relation to personal identity, properly so called; it enables us to get a better grasp of what I tried to express earlier when I spoke of my past which, in a sense, I still am, and on which my present situation is at every moment forcing me to make petty raids. These are rather like withdrawals from a small current account at the bank, where the greater part of my capital is not so easily available, being on deposit. But even this deposit account, though blocked for my everyday purposes, remains, however unhandy a one, an asset; and this is where the metaphor breaks down, for my past really cannot be considered as an asset, even a blocked asset, of this kind.

These remarks presuppose, and I hope that to some extent they clarify, a notion of the nature of time that is not that of common sense nor of commonsense philosophers. I shall not, at this point, raise the question whether it completely coincides with Proust's notion, but it is certainly akin to his.2

It is invariably the case at this level of discourse that, when we begin to expound any important notion, we have first of all to express ourselves in negative terms. Thus I must first of all explain just how duration, or personal time, ought not to be represented. We ought vigorously to reject any attempt to represent my life, or any human life at all for that matter, as a sequence of cinematic images. It is not strictly speaking the spatial representation of time that is the snag here, but rather the supposed relationship between a sequence of images and the life which the sequence claims to represent. It is part of the notion of cinematic images as such that they succeed each other; they follow on each other's heels and one takes the place of another. As a mere spectator, supposing myself to be in a state of extreme fatigue or perhaps merely of perfect relaxation, I let them flow past me, as on the edge of a stream one lets the current flow past. But in so far as there is a real substance in my life, or in anybody's life, it is impossible that my life should reduce itself to a mere flow of images, and impossible therefore that its structure should be merely that of a succession. Why, it may be asked, is it impossible? It is not that we have run into something that is absurd at a merely logical level: it is simply that we have to acknowledge that our inner experience, as we live that experience, would be an impossibility for a being who was merely a succession of images. And for that matter the old idealist argument still does retain, in this case, all its force. A succession is only a succession for an awareness that in some sense transcends it.

Yet this idealist argument is still more or less merely an argument at the level of formal logic. We must go deeper. In spite of what the Herbartian psychologists thought, a feeling, as such, cannot be reduced to a mere play of images. What is intrinsic to a human life, as it is experienced from the inside, is that it can no more be translated into terms of film than it can be adequately translated—as we have seen already that it cannot—into terms of story. But can we transform these negative statements into some kind of positive assertion? This is just where we have to be careful, for, having set the idea of succession aside, we are obviously in danger of coming back to a representation of the inner reality of my life as something static and invariable, something that cannot be budged. But such a view of things would be a complete illusion. Everything budges; there is every reason to believe that even the things that seem to us to not be moving, the static tables and chairs, are in a state of continuous imperceptible change; and this, indeed, is what every positive scientific approach presupposes. The only thing that does not move, that cannot move, is the concept, the abstraction, which is treated as if it were a real thing, that is, hypostatized. It is part of the intrinsic nature of the abstract as such that it resists any attempt to introduce into it the flow of succession.

But let us not be misled by sheer fiction. If we are expressing our meaning with strict accuracy, all we ought to say is that from the moment I postulate some abstract notion or other—let us say, the notion of the truths of geometry—I in some sense withdraw that notion from the stream of time. Nevertheless, considered as a discovery of the human mind, the notion has its roots in history. It was in certain given historical conditions, to a conscious being dependent in some sense on these conditions, that the notion was first revealed. It would not have been possible for just anybody at all, living under any set of conditions whatsoever, to have hit upon the truths of geometry. Of course, as soon as they have been discovered, the theorems of geometry can, at least in theory, be taught to anybody, at any time, and at any place. I say in theory, for it is permissible to conceive that there might be certain kinds of given psychic or even social conditions under which it would be impossible for any child or even for any adult to concentrate on the theorems of geometry the kind of close, continuous attention that is needed to grasp them; though of course this purely contingent impossibility would not in any sense affect the validity of the theorems themselves. More generally, I should say that any truth of this sort, though eternal qua truth, can conceivably lie covered up, for an indeterminate length of time, and from an indeterminate number of individuals.

What conclusion can we draw from all this about the very complicated, very difficult problems that have exercised us since the beginning of this lecture? In the first place, it seems to be only the concept, the mental abstraction, that is intrinsically irreducible to succession; in the second place, however, we have seen that human life also will not really let itself be represented as a purely successive phenomenon, there being something in its structure that is not properly comparable to a succession of images. It would seem, then, that we are forced to conceive of the principle of life as being itself something at least akin in its nature to the concept arrived at by abstraction. On the other hand, we have acknowledged that if we want to remain loyal to the data of experience, we cannot cut the abstract truth itself quite away from its roots in history. We are thus impelled almost irresistibly to envisage the necessity of transcending the opposition between the successive and the abstract, between the endless changing flow of sensation and the static eternity of the concept, and to bring in a new category, which we cannot yet properly locate; only everything leads us to suppose that this new category will have some relation not only to the spiritual in general, but to whatever the specific notes of the spirit, as such, may be. But at this point we ought to try to keep our thinking as concrete as possible; we should be alert for any messages from our most intimate inner experience. For in the last analysis our task is nothing less than that of perceiving in what fashion life can be organically linked with truth.

One might, indeed, say that all our investigations, from chapter four onwards, have been directed towards the discovery of this co-articulation of life with truth; we have, as it were, delicately stripped the surrounding tissue so as to lay the joint as bare as it can be laid. As it can be laid, I say: for when I talk about ‘laying it bare’, of course, I am still the prisoner of metaphors taken from sight. All the verbs I have been using refer to the possibility of exposing to view something that has been lying hidden away from view. Yet, in a fundamental sense, the point of juncture of life and truth is not something that can be exposed to view: for the simple reason that it lies in a dimension beyond life's probing, that of depth itself. Here we discover the ultimate significance of the notion of the secret with which we have had several encounters already. What we have to grasp is that there is present in history this kind of depth, that can uncover itself at many levels, but especially at the level of one's own life, and especially when one ceases to conceive of that life as something that could be adequately expressed in terms of story or film; for story and film are merely flimsy, makeshift bridges flung by us across a gulf that is always there.

In a fragment of my Metaphysical Journal that dates from January, 1938, and that has not yet been collected into a published volume, I have made a real effort to disengage what it is that we really mean by depth, or profundity, when we talk for instance about a deep thought or a profound notion. A profound notion is not merely an unaccustomed notion, especially not so if we mean by ‘unaccustomed’ simply ‘odd’. There are a thousand paradoxes that have this unaccustomed quality, and that lack any kind of depth; they spring up from a shallow soil and soon wither away. I would say that a thought is felt to be deep, or a notion to be profound, if it debouches into a region beyond itself, whose whole vastness is more than the eye can grasp; the image I had in mind, in 1938, was that of narrow tongues of water, like those which crisscross among clusters of Dalmatian islands, at the mouths of which one catches a sudden bewildering glimpse of the whole broad dazzle of the sea. Our experience of depth does seem to be linked, in this way, to the feeling that a promise is being made, but that of the fulfilment of the promise we can catch no more than such a glimpse. But what we should notice at this point is that this distant glimpsed prospect, this dazzling yonder, as one might call it, is not felt as being elsewhere; though we should have to describe it as a distance, yet we also feel it as intimately near to us—‘Near, and hard to catch hold of’, says Hölderlin, ‘is God’—and we have to transcend the spatial and merely pragmatic distinction between what is here and what is somewhere else. This distance presents itself to us as an inner distance, as a land of which we should have to say that it is the land we are homesick for—as being, in fact, just what the lost homeland is to the exile. A man's homeland may be distant but it has a tie with him that cannot be broken; his nostalgia is quite different from his youthful dream of a strange, foreign country, for it is that foreign country (however vividly he may imagine it and even if he goes there and lives there) that remains essentially a region of fancy, a somewhere else. But a man's own country is not something fanciful, it is something in the blood.

We must therefore, I said in 1938, concentrate our attention on the condition of a being who is not at one with his actual surroundings. Mere chance has landed the exile where he is, his place is only by chance his own place; he has a sense of being an exile because he is aware, in contrast, of somewhere that really would be his own place. In the given, contingent conditions, to which he must submit, however, this real place can only be evoked as a beyond, as the home of homesickness. All this could be related to those childhood experiences, that are at the basis of all the later imaginings that really arouse our emotions, and that centre round images of secret hiding places, of islands and caves. We know, of course, that psychoanalysis seeks to explain away the child's myth of the ‘real place’ in terms of subconscious sexual symbolism; but in the last analysis we must recognize that this discipline, seeking to destroy all the old myths, offers us a new one in their place, that of the pre-natal Eden of the embryo in the womb.

Let us notice, however, that what we have been expressing in terms of space could also be expressed in terms of time. And this change of key is of the liveliest interest to us here, in relation to our own argument. In terms of time, the deep thought, or the profound notion, is the one that pushes well ahead; it opens, that is, a long path that can be followed up only in time; it is like an intuitive dive into an investigation which can be developed only over a long period of lived, personal, human time. Nevertheless, it would certainly be wrong to interpret the notion of depth in terms of mere futurity. What is important is that, from our present point of view, the future cannot be thought of, or represented as, mere novelty, as something new and unforeseeable which simply takes the place of the used, stale present. The novelty of the future may be as attractive a notion as you like, but we certainly do not feel we are moving into depth, as we thrust on to the future, merely because we are moving towards novelty. The notion of depth crops up, or so it would seem, only in the case in which we think of the future as somehow mysteriously in harmony with the most distant past. One might even say, however obscure such a notion may at first appear, that in the dimension of depth the past and future firmly clasp hands; and that they do so in a region which, from the relative points of view of all my heres-and-nows, and all your heres-and-nows, would have to be described as the absolute Here-and-Now; and this region where the now and then tend to merge, as the near and the far did in our previous illustration, would and could be nothing other than Eternity; this word that we cannot do without, but which expresses a notion that we cannot body forth in any tangible fashion, in our present context takes on its full force. Die tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit—these are the words of Nietzsche, to whom, in my second volume, I shall need perhaps to refer explicitly. Let us acknowledge in passing that his hypothesis of the Eternal Return represents an attempt, justifiable at least in principle, to express in the language of causality this mysterious linking of the future with the past which can in reality take place only in some region transcending the world of cause and effect. These very difficult notions that I have just been expounding will, I believe, become easier to grasp in the second series of these lectures, when I deal with the nature of hope. For the moment, it is sufficient if my evocation of them permits us at least to get a glimpse of the sense in which the opposition of the successive, as such, and the abstract, as such, can be transcended at a supratemporal level which is also, as it were, the very depth or inwardness of time.

We ought, in fact, to go over all that has been said in this chapter, bearing our new notion, the notion of depth, in mind for it is a notion useful for throwing light, even if in itself a difficult notion to throw light on. This paradox—a paradox which, as we shall be forced to recognize in the final lecture of this series, should rather be described as a mystery—is undoubtedly at the basis of the only valid way in which we can conceive the notion of essence, in the sense in which that notion is contrasted with that of existence; and in the sense, also, in which to talk of something's essence or essential nature, is not a mere abstract fiction—the essence of something being in this case merely the aspect that we cannot disregard, as, for instance, in geometrical reasonings, we can disregard the size and colour of represented figures—of use merely for promoting enquiries of limited scope. The essence of a straight line is to be shortest distance between two points, but what is the essence of my being or my life?

To draw these remarks to a close, I should like to ask you whether you think that, in relation to my childhood and to everybody who was mixed up in one way or another in my childhood, my situation could, fundamentally, be anything other than that of an exile: unless I were to give myself over quite completely to abstract reasonings on a certain limited number of objective data, data which I should be substituting for the rounded and palpable whole of my childhood, my past, my life. And yet it is strange but true that this feeling of exiled home ickness does not necessarily imply that my childhood was an unusually happy one; except in extreme cases, which constitute abnormal exceptions, this nostalgia for childhood is connected merely with our sense that childhood is an irrevocable state of wonderful irresponsibility, of being still the object of protective care and tender guidance. I find all this splendidly expressed in Proust's great novel and in Sir Osbert Sitwell's autobiographies. But what is really strange is the fact that, in spite of everything that is implied by the current belief that time's arrow flies only one way, a man, as he grows older, has nearly always the feeling that he is growing nearer to his childhood; though the gap of years between him and his childhood is growing, at the same time, wider and wider. There could be no more striking demonstration that this arithmetical or linear representation of the temporal process is basically inadequate in relation to a life that has been really lived. It cannot be by mere chance that our contemporary interest in the civilizations of the remotest past has reached such a pitch of intensity. This fact would be absolutely inexplicable if it were true, as certain contemporary philosophers claim, that man is essentially a project, or if he defined his nature above all by the degree, at any given time, of technical progress and by the advances beyond old boundaries that such progress had made possible. These are both very superficial interpretations of the human situation, especially the latter one; nevertheless in our own day, man is more and more strongly tempted to accept such over-simplified interpretations, and to reject every view of life which they exclude.

At the beginning of the next lecture, which is also the last in our present series, I shall try to illustrate and make actual what I have just been saying, by stripping away some of the peculiarities that hide from us the true nature of the family bond. What it is to belong to a family, and to be attached to it, is something which it seems to me that neither biology nor sociology is capable of probing right to the core; and on the other hand, speaking rather generally, one might say that the family relationship is not one which up to the present has sufficiently engaged the attention of metaphysics.

  • 1.

    Included in a collection of essays on Evil, by various authors, Plon, Paris, 1948.

  • 2.

    As expounded by Georges Poulet in his wonderful Etudes sur le Temps Humain, Edinburgh House Press, 1949.