In the previous post of this series I explored Archer’s arguments about relational reflexivity: on this view the socialisation process should be understood as an active and ongoing engagement by a individual that is profoundly shaped by the matrix of relations within which they were embedded at any given point in time. There are two key concepts Archer uses to make sense of this biographical process:

  1. The necessity of selection that obtains when morphogenesis impinges on the social context(s) a subject inhabits: “more things to know, to do or to be – new occupations, new organisations and new relations” (Archer 2012: 97). However the novelty which characterises these opportunities also precludes any authoritative source of normative guidance. While the subject might not confront them alone, either in the sense of the opportunity being unique to them and/or lacking others from whom an attempt can be made to solicit guidance, these others are similarly situated vis-a-vis the novelty as novelty. There is no ‘common sense’ view to turn to where such novelty is concerned and, as a consequence, confrontation by it constitutes an initial spur towards reflexivity. Though, as discussed in the last post, the form this takes is empirically variable. In a natal context characterised by established ‘relational goods’ and a relative degree of normative consensus, the necessity for selectivity will tend to be low given the subject’s likely investment in their (highly valued) present circumstances. However as they begin to explore beyond this context, encountering variety will increasingly necessitate selectivity: other things to do and other ways to be poses the challenge of either recommitting themselves to their initial investment in their natal context or beginning to look beyond its normative horizons.
  2. Shaping a life refers to the ongoing and unavoidably provisional attempts made by subjects to establish a satisfying and sustainable form of life for themselves. This involves inventorying, accommodating, subordinating and excluding concerns: working out, under our descriptions, what matters to us and how to live life in a way which expresses these concerns. We have limited time, energy and resources. We find ourselves situated within a stratified social world which leaves some opportunities available and others foreclosed. The practical projects we might otherwise form on the basis of our concerns could require resources we do not or are never likely to possess. Furthermore such projects, as well as the underlying concerns themselves, exist in relation to each other. Some are mundanely compatible or incompatible but others are complementarity or contradictory. We can enjoy rich food & fine wine while seeking to preserve a certain level of physical fitness (incompatible) – there is a tension between them but it can be negotiated reflexively. On the other hand, our love of fine wine cannot be sustained alongside, say, a religious commitment to teetotalism (contradictory). Ultimately, one commitment or the other has to be surrendered by us given the necessity of ‘shaping a life’. It’s important to recognise that this is not the pursuit of an isolated ‘Sartrean Self’: our placement within the social world is integral to the challenges we confront in ‘shaping a life’ and, in turn, individual or collective projects of modifying that placement (or the overarching structures within which we are ‘placed’) can be well understood within this framework. Furthermore, as per the notion of relational reflexivity, “the reflexive practical reasoning involved is shaped by the networks of relations within which it takes place because these profoundly affect what does and can satisfy the subject and be sustained by each of them” (Archer 2012: 97)

Shaping a life is a messy and complex process. This is particularly true during adolescence where subjects are preoccupied by discerning and deliberating about their nascent concerns because they are learning about their selves and their circumstances. Archer places great stress upon novelty at the biographical level and this is integral to her project of linking an account of social change at the macro and micro levels in a non-reductive way. Any encounter with novelty is understood as producing a response in the individual, with the nature of this response being a variable matter conditioned by the subject’s relational-reflexively shaped pre-dispositions towards their context and the personal concerns which act as the normative ‘sounding board’ through which novelty is ‘filtered’:

Relationally, each ‘invitation’ to a new experience produces a response from the subject, via the experiment taking place between them, one registered in terms of satisfaction or dissatisfaction (which may come close to reflex-rejection where fear or repugnance are concerned). What is of supreme importance, even though it may be misjudged, misevaluated and not be sustained, is the subject’s discovery that a previously unknown experience ‘matters to me’. This is the beginning of practical reasoning about how one should live because it furnishes the potential raw materials, which may or may not be mutually compatible and thus have no guarantee of being retained. […] Discernment is messy, incomplete and provisional for eighteen-year-olds. Nevertheless, what caring means remains constant, even if the ‘list’ of their concerns undergoes additions and deletion as well as accommodation and subordination. (Archer 2012: 104)

The notion of ‘concern’ here is emphatically not that of wanting or desiring. The things I want can matter to me but, from Archer’s perspective, it’s the concern in virtue of which they matter that is important here. When we experience things as mattering in this way, it leads naturally to the challenge to commit presuming circumstances allow. On this view, our relations with the world are unavoidably evaluative: what Sayer calls ‘lay normativity’ cannot be ignored if we want to provide an adequate explanation of social action. However the fact things matter to us does not, in itself, provide guidelines for practical action and we can be sure about a concern while still later coming to feel we’ve mischaracterised or misunderstood what mattered to us and why. Even with a clear understanding of what matters to us, the process of subsequently shaping a life is a complex task:

Yet this is of real concern to students, who at least want to make lasting commitments and are quite capable, for the most part, of projecting ten years ahead and describing the contours of the life they would then like to b leading. this means their undergraduate years will also be the time (for some) when the necessity of selection meets the need to shape a life. Why is this described as a ‘need’? Because no one can simply continue adding to their list of concerns ad infinitum since they have insufficient time to attend to them all and would discover some conflict, generating dissatisfaction (for example, it is almost impossible to be an avid gardener and to be travelling for six months of the year). Consequentially, complementarity between concerns is sought and not as some abstract idea or strain towards consistency, but because it is desirable in itself. It is what protects that which matters to us most by ensuing it is well served and that concerns of lesser importance are not allowed to detract from it. This is why subjects (excepting the ‘fractureds’) actively though fallibly seek to dovetail their concerns. (Archer 2012: 108-109)

On Archer’s account, the process of shaping a life necessitates the prioritisation of some concerns as qualitatively more important than others. In committing ourselves to such final ends, these may then serve to filter novelty much more powerfully than our other concerns e.g. the ramifications for one’s family becomes the immediate frame of reference through which any new opportunity is assessed. Establishing final ends in this sense does not necessarily lead to the abandonment of other concerns – though sometimes it can do this and it’s an issue which fascinates me at the level of individual biography – but it does provide a principle which allows for their relativisation, as an ultimate concern implicitly subordinates other concerns without negating their value. Archer’s extremely sympathetic critique of the work of Charles Taylor and Harry Frankfurt rests on their occlusion of the relational dimension to these existential questions:

The process of shaping a life is necessarily a matter of relations, but these are not approached relationally by most philosophers, even when they are dealing with careers or, more blatantly, with friendship, romance of parenthood. Instead, they are considered unilaterally, from the standpoint of a single lover. My argument will be that the social relations, within which the designation of ultimate concerns is enmeshed, are indispensable to explaining the life that is shaped. Taylor will be of considerable help here, but his approach will need supplementing by relational considerations. (Archer 2012: 112)

The particular argument of Taylor’s she refers to here is that “in the end, what we are called upon to do is not just carry out isolate acts, each one being right, but to live a life, and that means to be and become a certain kind of human being” (Archer 2012: 112). The crucial question here is how our concerns ‘fit, or fail to fit, together in the unfolding of our lives’. However Archer argues that without a ‘sense of unity’, such that we do not know what kind of life we wish to lead and what sort of person we wish to be, such considerations cannot adjudicate on the present dilemmas we confront. Instead she proposes that this process be seen relationally and cautions that, contra Taylor, the fact that an “internal, subjective sense of what gives unity to his or her own life” must be a personal property by definition does not mean that it is a personal achievement. From a relational perspective,

 it is the relationships accompanying and surrounding her concerns that promote both the subjective sense of computability and objectively make concerns compatible, or the opposite. how do relational considerations help in answer the question Taylor has effectively posed: what does complementarity require, such that it can give rise to the ‘sense of unity’ of a life?

[…]

The difficulty for most students at the point of university entry (and usually aged eighteen) is that their concerns are fluid and often incomplete. In other words, they provide insufficient guidance for shaping a life. Whilst ever concerns can be displaced and replaced (without such shifts being prompted by dramatic contingencies), this indicates that discernment and deliberation are still ongoing and thus cannot provide the necessary traction for even being preoccupied about coherence amongst the components that the subject has started to flag up as important to her. This is where the majority of university entrants find themselves.

It is obvious that the eventual constituent concerns giving unity to a life must not be blatantly at odds with one another, such that it is volitionally impossible to serve both (wishing to remain a teetotaller and seeking to become a sommelier). Yet, something more than bald compatibility seems called for if the shape of a life is to prove durable and if it is to be more than one of several designs that ‘on paper’ might seem to yield the same ‘life goods’, to use Taylor’s term. The ‘constituent goods’ endorsed also need to be mutually reinforcing in a manner that requires further clarification. For instance, a concern to continue playing football during someone’s career as an engineer appears neither complementary nor contradictory, but the two do not reinforce one another in any self-evident way. This is where introducing relations and relationality can assist with both of the problems posed above; how to shape a life non-arbitrarily and how to cope with having two final ends. This is because both relations and relationality generate emergent properties whose effects exceed terms like ‘reinforcement’ or ‘deterrent’. They can make a life possible or impossible rather than simply being neutral towards it, as in the above example  (Archer 2012: 115)

The text then offers an extremely detailed example which, for the sake of getting something else done today, I won’t try and summarise. In brief: Archer’s point is that ‘final ends’ can be shared between people and that plural final ends can be incorporated into the ‘unity of a life’ which Taylor invokes. The broader message is that relations and relationality (relations between relations) are integral to understanding the biographical process of shaping a life because, without such a frame of reference, it becomes difficult to understand  at an empirical level the complementarity or contradiction between concerns which we can say at a theoretical level to be necessary for ‘shaping a life’. In successive posts (communicative reflexivity, autonomous reflexivity, meta reflexivity, fractured reflexivity) I’ll try and show what this means in practice.

In the third part of this series of posts covering The Reflexive Imperative I will unpack in more detail what Archer means by the notion of ‘internal conversation’. As discussed in the previous post on The Reflexive Imperative and Social Change, an integral part of her account is a denial of the homogeneity of reflexivity. She argues that there is variation in its practice and that, furthermore, this variation is conditioned by historical circumstances. In the first study of the trilogy (Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation) she conceptualised a number of ‘modes’ of reflexivity to account for the variation in the practice of reflexivity she encountered within her sample, these then formed the basis for the subsequent and much larger study Making Our Way Through The World. Crucially, these are not presented as ideal types. Instead she identifies generative mechanisms in the past circumstances of practitioners of each which incline them towards that mode and, in turn, the mode itself operates causally through the trajectories of action it conditions. The concept is not deterministic, in the sense that a mode of reflexivity ‘makes’ an individual do something. Instead modes of reflexivity are seen to engender orientations towards novelty, stances towards constraints and enablements and styles of decision making. Early in the Reflexive Imperative she offers a brief schema of different modes:

Communicative Reflexivity: Internal Conversations need to be confirmed and completed by others before they lead to action.

Autonomous Reflexivity: Internal Conversations are self-contained, leading directly to action.

Meta-Reflexivity: Internal Conversations critically evaluate previous inner dialogues and are critical about effective action in society.

Fractured Reflexivity: Internal Conversations cannot lead to purposeful courses of action, but intensify personal distress and disorientation resulting in expressive action.

(Archer 2012: 13)

We all exhibit each of these to varying degrees on different occasions and in different situations but, she argues, the majority of people exhibit a dominant mode at any particular point in time. The mode of reflexivity helps us conceptually ‘open up’ many everyday mental activities: “‘mulling-over’ (a problem, situation or relationship), ‘planning’ (the day, the week or further ahead), ‘imagining’ (as in ‘what would happen if…?’), ‘deciding’ (debating what to do or what is for the best), ‘rehearsing’ (practising what to say or do), ‘reliving’ (some event, episode or relationship), ‘prioritising’ (working out what matters to you most), ‘imaginary conversations’ (with people you know, have known or known about), ‘budgeting’ (working out if you can afford to do something, in terms of money, time or effort) and ‘clarifying’ (sorting out what you think about some issue, person or problem)” (Archer 2012: 13). Through the concept of ‘modes’ we can begin to see more clearly how, say, ‘budgeting’ can  vary across persons: the communicative reflexive who goes home to talk to their partner before making an expensive purchase, the autonomous reflexive who confirms internally that they can afford it and do indeed want it before making the purchase on the spot, the meta-reflexive who wonders whether there might be better things to spend their money and decides against it or the fractured reflexive who struggles to make a decision either way before impulsively coming back later and buying it on a whim.

It’s important to recognise that Archer intends this to be an account of those mental activities which are orientated towards action. Her focus is on particular sorts of mental activities and it does not entail that these activities are predominant in first-person experience. It also doesn’t deny the reality of “the days and times when, though we wish to concentrate upon some particular issue or activity, our inner conversations are distracted and flit around like midges or are leadenly unproductive through fatigue” (Archer 2012: 14). She is careful to avoid any latent sociological imperialism here, such as would appropriate mental life to be nothing more than the staging ground of social action. She also recognises the potential value of psychology to our understanding of reflexivity: holding that modes of reflexivity are not psychologically reducible but nonetheless recognising the role of psychology in their constitution, particularly in terms of individual propensities towards a particular dominant mode.

One common misconception about the notion of ‘internal conversation’ is that it is rationalistic. This is certainly true of the notion of ‘reflexivity’ offered in the later Giddens, with individuals approaching ‘fateful moments’ in a calculative fashion. However Archer’s approach understands decision making in terms of ‘concerns’, drawing on Taylor’s notion of strong evaluation and Frankfurt’s account of care, in terms of which the potential outcomes we see as attached to choices matter to us. As she puts it,

Our ultimate concerns are sounding-boards, affecting our (internal) responses to anything we encounter, according to it resonating harmoniously or discordantly with what we care about most. It is these reactions that affect what we do, not because we have complete or accurate discursive penetration of the situation. Instead, discordant elements have the capacity to move ordinary people because they are emotionally registered as offensive. They are shunned, repudiated or negatively sanctioned since they are antipathetic … Conversely, elements harmonious with the ultimate concerns are felt as congenial. They are welcomed, encouraged or positively sanctioned because this is what subjects’ emotions, as transvalued by their commitments, motivate people to do. (Archer 2012: 22-23).

In the next post I’ll explore the biographical aspects of this in further depth, particularly the notion of ‘shaping a life’ which is integral to how Archer sees reflexivity as operating given the ‘situational logic of opportunity’. Then I’ll address in turn: reflexivity/habitus, Archer’s critique of Mead, socialisation as reflexive engagement and fractured reflexivity. I’ll also likely post a selection of miscellaneous extracts which didn’t fit into these broader themes but that I thought were worth recording nonetheless. These posts are taking rather a long time to do – I’ve now read up to page 90 since I started but have still only blogged to page 25. However it is starting to feel like a worthwhile exercise. I think I’ve sharpened my understanding of some of the concepts and I suspect I will find these posts a useful resource for various post-PhD writing projects I have planned. I’m considering trying the same approach in future for the Genesis of Values by Hans Joas which is the next (in this case figuratively) ‘big’ book on my list of things I want to read closely.

The four features of internal conversation: privacy, ellipsis, personalization and context dependency. The first refers to the unavoidable interiority of internal conversation, as well as the topical freedom and the impossibility of misinterpreting the literal meaning of our inner dialogues. The second refers to the contraction of internal conversation relative to external speech, such that the “redundancy of communicated information, whether in spoken or written form, which linguists estimate at 60-70 per cent” is absent i.e. internal conversation is faster and shorter than external speech. The third refers to the tendency of internal conversation to proceed in terms of personalized and idiosyncratic meanings terms take on internally which are often difficult to communicate in a straight-forward manner in external speech. The fourth refers to the form and content of our internal conversations being context bound, in the sense that we take for granted a certain mental topography which is dependent upon characteristics of the external environment (Archer 2007: 73-86).

Archer’s account has recently been subject to criticism for allegedly marginalising the role of emotion in reflexivity (Burkitt 2012, Holmes 2010). Though largely stemming from reading her recent work in isolation, such that the elaborate account of the emotions given in Archer (2000) is ignored, the form the critique takes raises some pertinent issues. Burkitt wishes to avoid an approach which “sees emotion as just another factor to be drawn into the reflexive process, where it can be effectively monitored and managed”. Instead emotion should be construed as a “motivating factor to reflexivity, colouring and infusing reflexivity itself” and as “woven into the fabric of the interactions we are engaged in and it is therefore also central to the way we relate to ourselves as well as to others” (Burkitt 2012: 459). Though he recognises, unlike others such as Atkinson (2010), the profound differences between Archer’s account and that of Giddens et al, he nonetheless holds that the former has a ‘rationalist’ and ‘individualistic’ hue resulting, it is argued, from understanding emotions as a “subjective commentary on our own concerns”.

Burkitt’s objection seems to be that grounding emotions in the ontology of the person, such that our emotional reactions are shaped by what has come to matter to us over time, obliterates the relational dimensions to our emotional lives. He writes that “How others judge and value us seems to play no role at all in emotional responses, or if it does it would only be because someone else’s judgements of us chimes with our own subjective one” (Burkitt 2012: 463). The former claim is simply disingenuous, even assuming that Burkitt’s critique of an approach articulated across a number of volumes proceeds solely from a (seemingly far from thorough) reading of one of them. The latter claim though is more interesting. The obvious retort is this: we will only respond emotionally to the judgements of others if we care about what they think of us and/or we care about not being judged to be X.

In its own terms, this claim seems innocuous, even tautological i.e. we only care about things if we care about them. The real basis of the objection seems to be what this affirmation of the ontologically subjective dimension to emotional response seems to imply about the source of our concerns. Burkitt (2012) accuses Archer of rationalism, asking “surely, how we develop our concerns is not disconnected from our emotional connection, identification and dis-identification with caregivers, friends, teachers, the wide generation and society?”. His assumption seems to be that if our concern are relatively autonomous from the webs of relationships within which we are entwined, such as is necessary for the former to shape our emotional reactions to the latter, then our concerns must be those of a “reflexive agent that floats free of all commitments, except for those that are self-chosen” (Burkitt 2012: 463). Ironically given his accusation of rationalism, Burkitt’s own critique reveals an oddly rationalistic premise he himself would explicitly reject i.e. unless commitments result from social influence they must arise from the free choices of a rational subject.

This seemingly unlikely assumption arises from a failure to conceptualise emotional life in properly temporal terms. It ignores the temporal sequencing of our concerns, the situations we confront and our emotional responses to these situations in terms of our concerns. Our concerns predate, even if minutely, any particular situation we encounter: while we always have concerns and are always situated, it is nonetheless the case that we bring a set of concerns, shaped by past experience, to each new situation we encounter which retains some prior existence vis-a-vis that situation. Similarly our emotional responses to that situation, in light of those concerns, is not immediate: even in what seem to be situations that are transparant in the meaning they hold, we must still respond to them. Unless we recognise on an analytical level that this process has multiple stages, even if they may be empirically super-imposed, it becomes difficult to make sense of the emotional experiences of actual subjects. These always occur temporally and it is the cycles of emotional morphogenesis and morphostasis this temporality entails which renders the sharp dichotomies implicit in Burkitt’s critique effectively irrelevant. Things that happen matter to us because of what we have come to care about and what we have come to care about is shaped by how we have coped, more or less effectively, with the things that have happened to us. Burkitt (2012: 458) is in a sense correct that “emotion colours reflexivity and infuses our perception of others, the world around us and our own selves”. But this recognition does not entail that we collapse our account of such processes into one undifferentiated mass with the concomitant claim that those who object to this are closet Cartesians.

[Emotional Reflexivity: Feeling, Emotion and Imagination in Reflexive Dialogues. Sociology June 2012 vol. 46 no. 3 458-472]

I increasingly find myself obsessed by David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. In part this is because, through the almost indescribably useful Omnifocus and Omnioutliner software package, its introduction into my life has started to diminish a near constant feeling of information overload (and sometimes emotional disorientation) which had developed over two years of juggling an array of very different roles and commitments (PhD student, university teacher, freelance researcher, website editor, private tutor, researcher). However my interest also stems from the increasing realisation that GTD, as well as the extent of its popularity, actually deals with the themes of my PhD research in a more direct way then pretty much anything I have come across outside of an academic context.

My research is a longitudinal study of the internal conversations of 18 undergraduate students over two years. Drawing on the recent work of Margaret Archer, I’m interested in internal conversation because it is the medium through which human beings exercise their most characteristic (and yet under researched) faculty: reflexivity, understood, with Archer, as our capacity to evaluate our selves (desires, emotions, concerns, commitments) against our contexts (structural, relational, cultural) and form plans of action. Part of being human is working out what matters to us, what practical consequences are entailed by this and putting these into practice in an environment which intrinsically eludes our capacity to plan or control it.

Giving conference presentations on my research has sometimes been a bit tricky because Archer is getting at something very specific here and, within an academic context, it has rarely been studied in its full specificity. In the context of empirical research, once you get a grip of the concept, you soon realise quite how analytically powerful it is: it gets to something omnipresent which is at the heart of human experience.

It is not human agency as such but rather the cognitive (and non-cognitive) processes which undergird that agency and make it possible. Her work argues that this trait is universal but not uniform. Different people exercise it in different ways (e.g. for some it depends on trusted interlocutors to talk through ‘issues’ and decide what to do, whereas for others it is largely an internal and private focus) for complex reasons relating to the structural and social circumstances they encounter throughout life. Our practice of it changes throughout life but not in an entirely plastic way, as a result of many different sorts of factors, with causal consequences that impact at different levels of the human person in a way that is inherently temporal.

Furthermore, as a corollary of this, different societies at different points in time will tend to give rise to different balances of reflexive practice amongst the populace. When there’s a great deal of contextual continuity – similar circumstances and similar day-to-day experiences giving rise to similar mental topographies – the easy availability of capable interlocutors (those who understand our internal conversations because theirs are broadly similar and thus the effort involved in translating between inner and outer thought is minimised) gives rise to a more dialogical practice of reflexivity. Whereas in the increasingly differentiated, hyper-mobile, culturally diverse conditions of late capitalism, there’s an ensuing tendency towards the practice of monological reflexivity, often shaped by the ideas we have taken on board and made our own as we cut our own pathway through both low and high culture. Furthermore, the pace of social change undermines the possibility of habitual responses to everyday life: if the choices we face in daily life aren’t routine, such that ‘tradition’ and ‘common sense’ provide easy and practical guides to action, then we’re increasingly thrown back on our resources to decide what to do, how to live and who to be. A big aspect of my research is the emotional burden this places on individuals, particularly the adolescents who are the topics of my research, as well as the sources of guidance they turn to in their attempts to negotiate a satisfying and sustainable path through a social world increasingly characterised by flux and uncertainty.

I’ve long been interested in ‘self-help’ books on this level, with the massive expansion of the market (and its transformation into an enormous global industry) being, in my view, a reflection of the increasing necessity of autonomous reflexivity in conditions of modernity. I’ve seen these as ‘reflexive technologies’, tools designed to aid and support the increasingly necessary practice of reflexivity in everyday life, distinguished from older formers of moral & existential guidance with their tendency to either turn away from the stuff of daily life and/or offer what are frequently ossified traditions inapplicable to the questions of daily life.

What fascinates me about GTD is that it’s the first reflexive technology which directly concerns itself with reflexivity as such:

It is “not a system but a systematic approach” which addresses itself to a “desperate need to learn how to manage – not information but rather what things mean and how they all relate to each other”. The desperate tenor of this need stems from “how frequently everything is new”, as widespread “adoption of new technology has permitted al kinds of things to be landing in [our] e-mail and [our] voice mail, any of which could undermine what [we] think [our] priorities should be”. The unceasing flow of novel experience, the pace of human communication, makes it difficult to sustain life projects and plans simply because the inputs we rely on to formulate them tend to have much shorter time horizons than has ever been the case. GTD offers itself as a means to “deal with it in a positive, sustainable way, without it simply overwhelming you and your systems, and that you can integrate what it means to you as you recalibrate all of your commitments on the fly”. It is quite simply a blue print for precisely the sort of autonomous reflexivity which the circumstances many face in late modernity demands to live life in a productive, sustainable and satisfying way.

Will probably blog some more on this to get the thoughts out of my head. Not sure how clear the above is but at present am completely preoccupied with both how much GTD (at least as David Allen is presenting in his last book) deals explicitly with reflexivity but also how explicitly he sees the system as geared towards overcoming precisely the sort of pathologies (what I write about as the emotional burden of reflexivity) which my PhD is looking at empirically.

In his Emotion in Social Life Derek Layder (2004: 13) argues that there are three main objects which individuals seek to control through the exercise of their agency: “the self as object of its own control, other people and the individual’s current life situation”. Through an understanding of our own characteristics – our needs, desires, capacities and habits – it it becomes possible for us to modulate our reactions to suit the demands of our situations. Through an understanding of these characteristics in others we are able to predict (and thus control) the reactions  of the other individuals who populate those situations. Finally, through harnessing such understanding and exercising it in particular situations, we are able to control our life situation as a whole: the emergent sum of different life sectors (work, leisure, private life etc) which each consist of an array of interconnected situations.

This has left me thinking about the way in which our characteristics are rendered pertinent to our attempt to negotiate (a) particular situations (b) life as a whole. Layder plausibly argues that “the common focus of these possible objects of control is the individual’s dependence on them for the fulfilment or satisfaction of needs, concerns and problems” (Layder 2004: 14).  So while disinterested reflection upon our personal characteristics is certainly possible, it is the exception rather than the norm. As with the other possible objects of control Layder discusses, our stance towards our characteristics is inherently a pragmatic one. We ask questions of our selves as and when they are posed by the situations we confront:

  • Why do I always act that way?
  • Am I capable of doing this?
  • Do I want to do that?
  • What do I need to do this?

The historians taught us long ago that the King was never left alone. But, in fact, until the end of the seventeeth century, nobody was ever left alone. The density of social life made isolation virtually impossible, and people who managed to shut themselves up in a room for some time were regarded as exceptional characters: relations between peers, relations between people of the same class but dependent on one another, relations between masters and servants – these everyday relations never left a man by himself.

I originally came across this passage by the historian Philip Aries quoted in Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self a few years ago and it’s something my mind has intermittently gone back to. What effect has the possibility of solitude had on the form human interiority takes?

I think it was a necessary though insufficient condition for the widespread development of autonomous reflexivity: monological decision-making with practical criteria about achieving one’s ends. In any particular situation where an individual is alone, their solitude acts as an enablement for the practice of purely internal deliberation. Conversely the omnipresence of others serves to constrain such practice, with the constant possibility of interruption and concomitant attempts to draw the individual into dialogical decision making.

Solitude represents the possibility of escape from social normativity. In its facilitation of purely internal decision-making, it allows possibilities to be voiced which would meet conversational sanction with others and frees the individual from the need to articulate their deliberations in terms which are conversationally and socially acceptable. Lack of solitude doesn’t prevent this process but it makes it much more difficult. Furthermore, the kinds of internal conversations which take place in solitude tend to have different properties to those which don’t. They’re easier to sustain at length without the risk of interruption. Physical aloneness can often lead to an easing of social concerns. Their greater possible duration creates more opportunities for internal discernment and deliberative experimentation. I suspect that until much of the population was having these experiences on a semi-regular basis, it was not possible for autonomous reflexivity to develop in a widespread way. Monological deliberation may have been practiced but it was the exception rather than the rule: both in terms of how often people did it (much less) and what they did it about (practical concerns).

The development of monological deliberation is an iterative process. As progressively more deliberation takes place in a silent and internal way, greater difficulty is faced in the practice of dialogical deliberation. It takes a very real act of translation to articulate inner speech to external others. Our inner speech is more contracted, we use language idiosyncratically, it has non-linguistic components (images, feelings)  and draws on tacit understandings which may not be shared. Furthermore, this increases with practice. So the more we practice monological deliberation, the more difficulty we experience in extending our deliberations to include external others. It renders the interface between external and internal speech at least potentially conversationally problematic in all situations.

Once a certain qualitative threshold of monological deliberation has been reached (the individual has begun making rudimentary life choices in a way which is conversationally insulated from the standards of  her ‘similars and familiars’) then all situations possibly require an act of translation between the internal and the external: conveying decisions made using internal standards to external others who might not share those standards. This changes the experiential texture of social life  and gives the individual’s interiority a feeling of irreducibility which would otherwise be lacking. The interface between the internal and the external comes to the fore and neither is experienced as even potentially dispensable. Once autonomous reflexivity ‘takes hold’ in the internal life of an individual, it largely becomes self-sustaining and permits of no return. The individual might lack the social, culture or personal resources to practice autonomous reflexivity effectively (i.e. their practice is impeded) but this doesn’t entail a return to their pre-autonomous mode. Indeed the stress and uncertainty seems likely only to amplify their internal deliberations both quantitatively and qualitatively. Solitude changes everything.