The economic interpretation of the self

Sean D. Kelly, a student of Hubert Dreyfus, has an interesting comment on modernity’s view of the self. He writes:

the economic interpretation of the self, which I argue is a motivating background assumption of that tradition, may not be able to characterize what we are and what we need at this point in history. The background economic assumption about the self is so deeply rooted in our understanding of ourselves, however, that it is almost completely hidden from view.

In developing their political theories, Kelly writes, Locke and his contemporaries relied on economic theories to derive rights. For instance, a person’s right to property stems from his or her labor. Labor is, practically by definition (if not actually), doing.” Whether cause or effect, the modern interpretation of the self indexes the shift from being-centered to doing-centered.

How does it happen? First, one effaces the content of the individual self. It’s not just modern epistemology but its ontology as well that requires a tabula rasa. It seems the economic interpretation of the self requires a blank slate to start, and a commodification of values to exchange. This is the shift from identification with one's self to one's personality.

This shift is required philosophically to overthrow the prevailing political-economic system in which people are born into quasi-permanent roles. It’s not who you are that counts, but what you do. We post-modernists can generally applaud the overthrow of rigid economic determinism, but we needn’t fall in line with the route modernism chose. My mother used to tell me not to cut off my nose to spite my face.”

Last updated on May 27, 2024

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