Levels/aspects of Self

When starting to prepare the paper which I will have to present soon in Bonn, Germany – on Kant’s and James’ dealings with Swedenborg’s thought, I had the impulse to look into Bergson’s work too, as I knew he and James read each other’s work and were approving of it. My interest in the relations between the mentioned authors is an interest in the relation between the concepts of morality, freedom and the spiritual. What, when reading Bergson sprung to my mind is this other fact: that all of these thinkers distinguish between levels or aspects of self – and that this is crucial to understanding the said correlation.

The point is that in modern times, in which scientific knowing is seen as the highest achievement of humankind, the free, choosing, moral agent, is hard to understand philosophically. As Kant has stated: in the world of phenomena, the world as it can be studied by the sciences, there is no freedom and no choice, since we have to suppose all events to be determined by the law of external causation. Think psychology’s attempts to explain the behaviour of people. Behaviour, the word already says it, is what we see when we look from the outside – it is not what I, as an individual, might experience as a free choice. So, when we do not observe free choice in the world as we study it by scientific research, we cannot understand morality. For Kant this was unacceptable, since we also have and need ideas of justice and goodness. His solution was that besides the empirical self (the one which is studied by science), we have to pose a free self, which he called the noumenal self – the self of pure practical reason. 

Bergson, in his study Time and Free Will, makes another disctinction, between the deep self, which experiences differences in quality, but not in quantity – and the surface self, which knows discrete states. The emotions, as they are understood in psychological theory, but also in everyday self-reflection, are states that can be distinguished and named. It is a mistake, however, according to Bergson, to think that free decisions are made at the superficial level of the emotions. This is only done at the deep level: ‘The deep-seated self which ponders and decides, which heats and blazes up, is a self whose states and changes permeate one another and undergo a deep alteration as soon as we separate them from one another in order to set them out in space.’

James, then, made his famous distinction between the conscious and the subconscious level of the self. He and Bergson seem to agree that the freedom to make moral choices can not be localized in the level of the conscious – here we have distinct states, spatially arranged, which are subject to the laws of a time that is understood in spatial terms: first comes an impulse, than a reaction. Freedom cannot be understood scientifically or logically, about this Kant, Bergson and James agree. Still we know freedom, and all three connect it to a different aspect or level of Self. A level which we thus cannot ‘know’ in the only way that modernity acknowledges as valid.

Some writers claim a profound influence of Swedenborg here – who makes the distinction which is well-known in so-called traditional cultures: that between the everyday, material world and the spiritual world. A living human being is part of both worlds, but how? Let us look into a passage from his work on Heaven and Hell:  ‘whatever does not enter into man’s freedom has no permanence, because it does not belong to his love or will, and what does not belong to man’s love or will does not belong to his spirit; for the very being [esse] of the spirit of man is love or will.’ So it is through love/will that a person belongs to the spiritual world. And: ‘Only what is from the will, or what is the same, from the affection of love, can be called free, for whatever a man wills or loves that he does freely; consequently man’s freedom and the affection of his love or of his will are a one. It is for this reason that man has freedom, in order that he may be affected by truth and good or may love them, and that they may thus become as if they were his own.’ Swedenborg’s conclusion is thus that we have freedom in order to be able to choose morally, and we can choose morally to become spiritually good.

So, yes, this text seems to confirm that the argumentation which we saw with our three thinkers is in line with that of Swedenborg: a good will as the source of a free choice cannot be found in the phenomenal world, it cannot be proven by observation nor by reasoning from known facts. It is conditional on our desire for this better place which traditionally is called heaven, and which Swedenborg claimed to be the imaginative world which we create ourselves by our way of being (as we do with hell).

Henri Bergson lived from 1859 untill 1941. I cited from his Time and Free Will, a 1910 translation of the 1889 French Essai sur les données immédiates de la la conscience. It can be read online: http://archive.org/stream/timeandfreewilla00berguoft#page/n0/mode/2up

Dates and works of Kant and James were mentioned in earlier posts. The same goes for the dates of Swedenborg. I cited from his work Heaven and Hell, which was originally published anonymously in Latin as De Coelo et Ejus Mirabilibus, et de Inferno, ex Auditis et Visis, in 1758. There are several online versions of the work in English.


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