Many social scientists argue that the modern Western conception of the self is a social construction. In “The Subject: The Person” (1979) anthropologist Marcel Mauss wrote that the history of the modern Western self began with the ancient Roman concept of the persona. Originally persona simply meant a “mask,” as in the mask that a dramatic actor would wear during ritual performances. But as time went on the notion of persona became inscribed into Roman law as an individual with rights, duties, and obligations. Every male Roman citizen was considered a “person” with ancestors, a name, a clan or family, and a right to the protections of Roman law. At the same time, a slave had no personality, no ancestors, no right to property, no “self.” Emerging during the final days of the Roman Empire, the early Christian Church democratized this notion of selfhood by investing every human being with a “soul.” While in the human world fundamental differences in social status remained, in the eyes of God all were equal. But this early Christian self was still distant from the modern Western notion of the person as a psychological being.
According to sociologist Max Weber, the next stage in this conceptual evolution came with the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Within the Catholic Church, persons invested with souls depended upon the mediating power of the priest for salvation. The priest took confession, provided communion, and offered contrite sinners salvation through his power to dispense God’s forgiveness. When Martin Luther and John Calvin turned against the Catholic Church, they eliminated the priest’s mediating power. The sinner’s salvation depended upon individual conscience, not the priest’s magic. With this emphasis on conscience and personal responsibility, a new notion of self emerged, a psychological being with a complex interior life visible to God but concealed from the world at large.
The Protestant notion of a rational self invested with personal responsibility became one foundation for the ideas of individuality promulgated by Enlightenment philosophers and the early classical political economists. Beginning with John Locke, the quasi-divine quality of the self became indissolubly linked with private property and a new conception of political rights. For Locke, and later for Adam Smith, a natural object became personal property when the individual mixed his or her labor with the thing. This early “labor theory of value” made it clear that the self was sacred and its holiness could be transferred to things, transforming them into individual possessions. Further, this new sacred self had the capacity to challenge the so-called divine right of the absolutist sovereigns that had ruled Europe for almost a thousand years. Now every individual had the same God-given right to self-government and individual rationality. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a wave of republican revolutions washed over Europe and the Americas. Under these new republican regimes, the state was considered a servant of the people; the people were thought to be a collection of self-governing, self-possessed individuals.
But beginning in the late nineteenth century, notions of the centered, rational subject were increasingly called into question by philosophers and social scientists. For instance, Friedrich Nietzsche conceived of the individual as an instinctual cauldron propelled by the “will to power.” This will to power drove the first human beings to excesses of bloodlust and cruelty as they expressed their individual sovereignty through the domination of others. But this changed as the original sovereigns entered human society. Social discipline no longer allowed the free expression of the will to power, and the instinct for domination turned inward. That repression of instinct led to the rational, centered, subject conscious of her or his guilt— the bad conscience of antisocial desire. Building on Nietzsche’s notion of the disciplinary self, twentieth-century scholar Michel Foucault produced a series of historical studies documenting techniques that created the modern subject. In Madness and Civilization (1965), Foucault argued that while madness had often been punished in early modern Europe, it was not until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the modern asylum took shape. This institution operated differently than earlier forms of incarceration. A disciplinary arrangement, in which the “insane” subject was made to feel guilt for “transgression” against reason, created a new kind of person, a self whose interior life was governed by a persistent internalized self-surveillance. As a site for the inscription of social power, the subject internalized the asylum.
More recently, many feminists and postmodernists argued that the “will to power” itself was the product of this rational, alienated individuality. In her essay “The Feminist Standpoint” (2004), Nancy Hartsock wrote that as “a consequence of this experience of discontinuity and aloneness, penetration of ego-boundaries, or fusion with another is experienced as violent” (p. 46). The self seeks to escape its internalized prison through contact with others, but the only escape seems to be through violence, violation, and domination. Sexuality itself becomes tangled in this process, and the masculine self often sees the object of its desire as a thing to be conquered. But another path is possible. Mutuality, rather than domination, could satisfy the desire for fusion. Such mutuality, however, depends on a new kind of subjectivity, a self decentered, continuous, and open to transformation.
SEE ALSO Alienation; Feminism; Foucault, Michel; Locke, John; Madness; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Postmodernism; Religion; Sexuality; Slavery; Smith, Adam; Social Science; Subjectivity: Overview; Weber, Max
Foucault, Michel. 1965. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Vintage.
Hartsock, Nancy. 2004. The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism. In The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies, ed. Sandra Harding, 35–53. New York: Routledge.
Mauss, Marcel. 1979. The Subject: The Person. In Sociology and Psychology . Trans. Ben Brewster. London: Routledge.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1887. On the Genealogy of Morals . Trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1967.
Weber, Max. 1958. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. Talcott Parsons. New York: Schribner’s.