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The Self after Postmodernity.

Schrag, Calvin O. The Self after Postmodernity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. xiv + 155 pp. Cloth, $22.50--Calvin Schrag's Self after Postmodernity is a trim but ambitious book. In it Schrag sets out to correct, or at least to temper--sometimes seemingly to appease--what he regards as the excesses and distortions arising from contemporary assaults on the concepts of selfhood and subjectivity, arising particularly from recent French philosophy. In so doing, he tries to articulate a response to the problem of modernity as framed by Weber and Habermas, that is, in terms of the increasing mutual alienation of the cultural spheres of science, morality, and art. To these three Schrag adds a fourth, religion, and doing so affords him repeated--though not always fruitful--digressions into Kierkegaard's account of the aesthetic, ethical, and religions stages of existence.

Schrag is clearly sympathetic to the dismantling of the substantial, foundational, transparent subject of the Cartesian tradition, but his "principal argument is that a jettisoning of the self understood in these senses does not entail a jettisoning of every sense of self" (p. 9). More specifically, against such figures as Lyotard and Foucault, Schrag suggests that "in the proverbial final analysis the postmodern counteractant of celebrating plurality, incompleteness, and difference may well be an overreaction that leaves us with a subject too thin to bear the responsibilities of its narratival involvements" (pp. 27-8). He thus joins forces with a number of philosophers, including Paul Ricoeur and Charles Taylor, who insist that a specifically narrative self-understanding is constitutive of selfhood proper.

Having considered selfhood in terms of discourse and narrative, Schrag devotes the subsequent chapters of the book to reflections on the self in action, in community, and in what he calls "transcendence." He appeals to embodied action as "the needed corrective to certain postmodern predilections toward a pantextualism and linguistification of reality" (p. 43). He urges that "Community is constitutive of self-hood" (p. 78), but he wants to save some measure of critical autonomy by arguing that although criteria of justification are always "conditioned," they are never fully "determined" by historical context (p. 107). "The communalized self is in history but not of history," he suggests (p. 109). The book culminates in an account of transcendence, which according to Schrag secures the possibility of critical reflection, allows for the unification of the three (or four) cultural spheres, and ultimately somehow "transfigure[s]" the self and society altogether (p. 124).

Schrag makes a number of suggestive remarks throughout, but the argument of the book never quite seems to get off the ground. I shall restrict my substantive criticism to what seem to me his two most interesting and most problematic lines of argument: his endorsement of the narrativist conception of selfhood and his anticipation of the possibility of at once reconciling the several cultural spheres and dissolving the problem of relativism by appeal to what he calls "transversal" unity.

Schrag insists that narrative is not something imposed on life and action from without, but is "an ontological structure of human experience" (p. 43). This strikes me as an exaggeration (depending, of course, on how loosely one construes the notion of narrative structure itself). Granted that human beings always understand themselves as having meaningfully integrated pasts and futures, what warrants the further claim that they must necessarily apprehend their lives as adding up to something like a story with a plot? Is it not possible in principle to be a full-fledged self-interpreting agent, and yet to apprehend one's life as a sustained and continuous project whose only distinctively narrative features are those one occasionally stumbles upon or constructs as a matter of happy (or unhappy) accident?

The notion of "transversality" (pp. 128-34) seems to offer a useful way of conceiving of unity--whether of the self or of society at large--without any distinct unifying agent or principle. Just as the threads of a rope or a rug hang together without all crossing or knotting up at a single point, so too personal experience can coalesce without the help of a transcendental ego, and social practices and institutions can cohere in the absence of any single principle endorsed by all. Schrag would like this concept of transversality to "split the difference" (p. 134) between modern universalism and postmodern relativism. Yet taken by itself it hardly seems up to the job, at least at the level of abstraction at which Schrag enlists it. For the question remains what the transversal unity of the subject or society amounts to in concrete terms, and whether it in fact entails anything less than what moderns like Habermas aspire to or anything more than what postmoderns like Lyotard and Foucault would be happy to admit.

Taylor Carman, Barnard College.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Carman, Taylor
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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