I have read
a great deal of the fiction written by Jean Paul Sartre, but my knowledge of
his philosophical works is second-hand. I read Nausea, The Age of Reason,
The Reprieve, and Iron in the Soul, when I was in my 20’s. Those
novels still sit on my bookshelves along side novels by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
and Ayn Rand.
Sartre novel that left a lasting impression on me is Iron in the Soul. I
have a vague recollection of the plot of Part One that novel. It ends with
Mathieu Delarue, an academic who became a soldier in the French army, taking
part in a futile military operation after France had been defeated by Germany during
World War II. The purpose of this military operation was apparently to use up
ammunition. Part One ends with Delarue declaring that he is free, even though
it seems that his life is about to end.
At the time
I read the book I would have been impressed that Delarue had found inner
freedom by doing something decisive, but I doubt that I contemplated whether he
had discovered himself or created himself.
It is only
in the last decade or so that I have pondered whether personal development is
best described as a discovery process, or a creative process. David L Norton’s
book, Personal Destinies: A philosophy of personal individualism (1976)
has recently prompted me to think further on the topic. I will begin with a
general discussion of Norton’s view of personal destinies before considering
his view of Sartre’s position.
destiny in your genes?
While reading the first chapter of Personal Destinies,
I balked at Norton’s injunction to "accept your destiny".
I accept the author's argument that self-actualization
requires a person to discover the daimon within, and to live in accordance with
it. I have no problem with injunctions to "know thyself",
"choose yourself", and to "become what you are". However,
being told to "accept your destiny" seems more challenging.
What does Norton mean?
Norton suggests that from the moment of birth, it is the
destiny of each individual to actualise their potential in a particular way. If
they live in accord with their destiny they become like the heroes of a Greek
tragedy, showing undeviating consistency of character as they meet their fate.
He is suggesting that individuals are destined to have a
unique personal character if they follow their daimon. He is not suggesting
that the individual’s fate is pre-determined.
Why did I object?
My first objection was that accepting one's destiny seems
opposed to accepting personal responsibility for one's choices. Norton explains
that is not so. Individuals are free to choose to adhere to their destiny or to
deviate from it.
I think my second objection has more substance. I have seen
individuals change their character through their own actions. Genes play an
important role in determining our destinies, but they are not the only
determinant. Brain plasticity seems to enable people to change their destinies,
for good or ill.
I recommend David Eagleman’s book, Livewired: the inside
story of the ever-changing brain, to anyone who needs to be persuaded that
genes are not destiny. As previously
discussed on this blog, Eagleman, a neuroscientist, makes the point that
the human brain arrives in the world unfinished: “despite some genetic
pre-specification, nature’s approach to growing a brain relies on receiving a
vast set of experiences, such as social interaction, conversation, play,
exposure to the world, and the rest of the landscape of normal human affairs”.
It may even be possible for adults who follow their daimons to
create more "potential" to actualize. If that is correct, it makes
sense to think of personal development as involving self-creation as well as
self-discovery. In the post already
mentioned, I referred to the approach offered by Gena Gorlin, a psychologist,
as an example of self-directed personal development. Gorlin has
referred to her approach as a call to self-creation.
What is the problem with Sartre’s view?
Sartre argues that humans are “condemned to be free”. Each
self constitutes itself as a “fundamental project” which is a product of free
Norton explains that Sartre’s view of self-creation stems
from the idea that whatever may be given to consciousness can appear in
consciousness only as a meaning, and meanings are the product of consciousness itself.
A person is nothing until he or she (or ?) chooses an identity. Human reality
owes nothing to “inner nature”. There are no innate capabilities. “Talent is
nothing other than acquired ability deriving from activity that is engaged in
Norton suggests that autonomous self-awareness first appears
in adolescence as a discovery rather than as a creation:
“In adolescence, autonomous self-awareness first occurs in
the form of one’s awareness of being misidentified by the other. … Throughout
childhood the individual has unquestioningly accepted adult identification of
himself, usually that of his parents. Now, however, it is in the parental identification
that the adolescent recognizes misidentification …. . Beneath this sense of misidentification
and responsible for it is the adolescent’s new-found awareness that only he
can speak. The moment is portentous and felt to be such. By its tone
of “from this moment and forever-more,”
it signals a future very different from the past, it marks a disruption of the
personal continuum. At the same time misidentification by others cannot be
corrected because the new found “inner self” of the adolescent as yet has no
voice with which to speak to the world, it is but a murmur within, audible to
one person alone, and this helplessness projects itself as “fated to be misunderstood.”
That passage brings back some memories of adolescence. And,
even now, that feeling of being “fated to be misunderstood” sometimes returns
An internet search suggests to me that developmental psychologists
commonly believe that autonomous self-awareness first occurs during adolescence
between the ages of 12 and 18 years. That stage of life often involves a great
deal of experimentation leading to self-discovery.
The attraction of Sartre’s view of self-creation is that it
appears to offer unlimited opportunities to individuals choose their identity. In
arguing that human freedom is freedom for self-discovery and self-adherence,
Norton suggests that Sartre’s advocacy of absolute freedom is actually a
capitulation to “the forces of alienation at work in contemporary life”:
“The man who has no authentic feelings, and must on every
occasion manufacture his feelings, is no exemplar of freedom but rather the
self-alienated product of special conditions of life today.” (p 116).
The main difference between Gena Gorlin’s approach to self-development
and that of Sartre is that Gorlin does not claim that it is necessary to choose
an identity before becoming a self-aware person. The existence of a person is presupposed in
the builder’s mindset that Gorlin advocates:
“A person chooses what she wants to build, and she holds herself
accountable for the work of building it.”
Robert Kegan’s concepts of self-authorship and
self-transformation also seem to me to be sensible approaches to self-creation.
Most adults have socialized minds – they are faithful followers and team
players. Those with self-authoring minds are in the next largest group. They are
self-directed and can generate an internal belief system. Only a tiny percentage have self-transforming
minds, capable of stepping back from, and reflecting upon the limits of
personal ideology. I included some discussion of Rober Kegan’s concepts in Freedom,
Progress, and Human Flourishing.
David L Norton’s book, Personal Destinies, has
prompted me to think further on the topic of whether personal development is
best described as a discovery process or a creative process. Norton’s view that
personal destinies are determined at birth does not leave any room for
self-creation. The existence of brain plasticity suggests, however, that it may
make sense for psychologists to view personal development as having a creative
Norton offers an illuminating account of what is wrong with
Sartre’s extreme view that it is necessary to choose an identity before being aware
of being a person. Norton seems to me to be correct in suggesting that
autonomous self-awareness occurs as a discovery process during adolescence.
Sensible advocates of self-creation do not claim that it is
necessary to choose an identity before becoming aware of being an