In modern life, we have given up God only to worship the self. Staunch individualists celebrate “freedom” by refusing to wear masks or get vaccinated. Large swaths of American society treat with derision the idea that we might be responsible for the welfare of others or share a common fate. We fail miserably to muster the collective will to confront the existential crisis of climate change. Egoism and narcissism are now virtues. The cult of autocracy festers and grows in the U.S. and throughout the world.
A philosophical response to this situation must think through the possibilities of self-transcendence. We need a way out of the toxic individualism and subjectivism that frames too much of Western philosophy, without falling back into metaphysical nonsense, ascetism, or sanctifying an objectivity that excludes the personal or the singular.
This is my philosophical needle to thread.
The concept of final value has a role to play. Some activities are valuable in themselves independently of external rewards such as recognition or income. Being a parent, writing a book, engaging in play, helping someone solve a problem–any activity that allows us to exercise fundamental human capacities is worth doing regardless of whether we profit from it.
Self-transcendence begins with such activities because one’s attention is initially drawn away from the self’s incessant neediness and towards activities that require we attune ourselves to the needs of other people or things. The trick is to maintain that focus.
A song, a garden, a luminous thought, each begins in the self’s unfathomable depths. But for them to speak the world in its wild objectivity that wily master must shrink and winnow itself. What can stay that self-sufficient machine that lives only to kiss itself?