This series of posts is about Dr. Olav’s Smith’s famous (or should be famous) book: Myths of the Self: Narrative Identity and Postmodern Metaphysics (called MOS here). (Click here for partial text at Google Books). Dr. Smith is a lecturer at California State University, Chico. The book is based on Smith’s doctoral dissertation under David Ray Griffin at The Center for Process Studies at Claremont in Los Angeles, CA.
William Desmond, Director of the International Philosophy Program at KU Leuven says: “This is a very intelligent and engaging essay in constructive postmodern metaphysics. Olav Smith brings Whitehead into provocative and fruitful dialogue with the philosophies of Kant, Heidegger, and Ricoeur. The diverse discussions are marked by many illuminating and surprising connections.”
A warning: This is a read for those somewhat familiar with the history of philosophy. It’s fairly sophisticated. Of course, this shouldn’t put off those interested folks who don’t have the philosophical background, but after all, keep in mind, it is a doctoral dissertation.
Smith describes the dead end into which philosophy ran with Hume, and how Kant tried to revive it but came up a bit short. We then see how Heidegger through his existential analysis made up for some of Kant’s shortcomings, and then Smith makes the connections between Kant, Heidegger, and Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead’s postmodern ontology can, Smith claims, bridge the gaps left by Kant and Heidegger because it provides a holistic picture, taking science and the human body into account, to which Kant didn’t have access (living 250 years ago) and Heidegger bracketed out as ontic. Then Paul Ricoeur is brought in.
The ground-breaking fact about this book is that, by using Whitehead’s metaphysics as a foundation for Ricoeur’s hermeneutics, Smith makes ontological sense of a human self. Looking at the Self through the lens of Ricoeur, fortified by the holistic ontology of Whitehead, with the illuminating connections to Kant and Heidegger, a picture emerges that makes our place in the world, as persons, more clear and more meaningful. Using especially Whitehead, we see the temporal process of existence itself is interpretive and expressive, and the self is part of a continuum–described by what Smith coins the “panexpressionist” ontology of Whitehead. We are expressive and creative and this may be described in both an epistemological and ontological sense.
There are three basic theses, and they are best summed up by Smith:
“…the best way to understand the self, and the world we live in, is through an integration of a postmodern ontology and a narrative theory of identity. Underlying this central thesis are twin theses, epistemological and ontological. The epistemological thesis is that the actual individual entities that comprise the world, including the self, are encountered as an expressive, sign-bearing text that can be experienced, interpreted, creatively developed , and enjoyed. The underlying ontological thesis is that the world is best understood as composed of a communicative network of experiential, interpretive, creative and expressive acts. It is argued that the self, a part of that network, partially determines itself through a series of such decisive and communicative acts. Its underlying identity over time, prereflexively experienced at a feeling level, is best disclosed and articulated through narrative.” (MOS 1)
For me personally, the book opened my eyes to a deeper understanding of Kant, Heidegger and Ricoeur.