You are Not Who You Think You Are. A Primer on Dostoevsky

Blame it all on Rene Descartes. Descartes wanted to find a way to describe human perception without needing divine connection. He settled on “I think, therefore I am”. In other words, I am not defined by any substantive thought (which might be wrong), but by the process of thinking.

Hmmm … this is dubious. But it is also the framework for our understanding of human identity. Consider the practice of putting people in solitary confinement as a form of criminal punishment. The original thinking was that doing this would offer the individual a chance to reflect more deeply on who they are and what they have done. After this reflection, they might be better prepared to re-join the community. That is not what happens. Put a person in solitary confinement long enough and you will destroy that person.

Interesting. This suggests that thinking alone is not enough to generate identity. Abega Birhane takes that idea a step further  He notes

The 20th-century Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin believed that the answer lay in dialogue. We need others in order to evaluate our own existence and construct a coherent self-image.

Interesting. And this leads to a conclusion

So reality is not simply out there, waiting to be uncovered. ‘Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction,’

In other words, you are not who you think you are. You are who you become through interactions with others.  Bakhtin used this idea to take a closer look at the works of Dostoevsky.

According to Bakhtin, “[a] plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels. What unfolds in his works is not a multitude of characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness; rather a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event.” (p.6) The result, with the exception of the tacked on ending to “Crime and Punishment,” is an open ended novel, that is a novel with no clearly fixed ending as in the novels of Turgenev and Tolstoy. Bakhtin uses them as foils to Dostoevsky.

Hmmm … I admit to a less than perfect understanding of this.


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