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The Self: Death by Technology

Kenneth J. Gergen

Habit de Marêchal, Nicolas de Larmessin. From Les Costumes Grotesques et les Metiers.

Drawing from early Greek, Judaic, and Christian traditions, and particularly from the Enlightenment, we have typically viewed the single individual as the atom of the moral society. Whether we speak in terms of psyche, soul, agency, rational deliberation, or conscious choice, we generally hold that moral action is derived from particular conditions of the individual mind. Thus, philosophers seek to establish essential criteria for moral decision making, religious institutions are concerned with states of individual conscience, courts of law inquire into the individual’s capacity to know right from wrong, and parents are concerned with the moral education of their young. The general presumption is that the virtuous mind propels meritorious conduct, and that with sufficient numbers of individuals performing worthy acts, we achieve the good society.

Yet, as Walter Ong’s exploration of oral as opposed to literate or print societies suggests, our conception of individual minds is vitally dependent on the technological ethos.11xWalter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen, 1982). The shift from an oral to a print culture, Ong proposes, significantly alters the common forms of thought. Thus, for example, in oral societies people are more likely to depend on recall, concrete as opposed to abstract categories, and redundancy as opposed to precision. Yet, there is an important sense in which this fascinating thesis is insufficiently realized. While Ong wishes to locate forms of mental life within a cultural context, he has no access into mental conditions themselves. That is, the analysis may be viewed as a treatise not on mental conditions but on cultural constructions of the mind. It is not thought in itself that changed but our way of defining what it is to think.22xSuch a conclusion would also be congenial with a rapidly growing body of literature on the historical and cultural construction of the mind. See, for example, Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1978); Catherine Lutz, Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Carl F. Graumann and Kenneth J. Gergen, eds., Historical Dimensions of Psychological Discourse (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

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