Home > Philosophy, Postmodernism > Notes on Mensch’s Book: ‘Knowing and Being- A Postmodern Reversal’ -Pt 1: (Post)Modernity And The Self.

Notes on Mensch’s Book: ‘Knowing and Being- A Postmodern Reversal’ -Pt 1: (Post)Modernity And The Self.

This book. Boy, has it been a challenge for me. Partly because I’m very rusty, partly because it’s working in a field that I have not extensively studied. That said, let us try to muddle through it anyway. Firstly I might start with Mensch’s deconstruction and analysis of modernism.

For Mensch, the case for modernity sits largely with Descartes, to the point that Mensch thinks Cartesian principles are so ingrained in modern thought so as to be a bias for modern thinkers. The analysis of modernity lies in how it is prescriptive, not descriptive. From Descartes to Kant to Marx it applies rules for how things are and should be and anything that sits outside of this prescription has no meaning. More than this, and problematically Mensch would say, it draws its prescriptive norms from the subject. With each new attempt, and failure, at drawing such norms from the subject Mensch sees a problem with “the project itself, in the very attempt to explain the world in terms of subjective performance.” (p.2)

Where we might like to start is with Enlightenment thought, particularly with Descartes in which we are shown a brief look at Cartesian doubt:

In the first Meditation, he [Descartes] considers the possibilities that everything we now sense and experience is actually a dream and that “an evil spirit, not less clever and deceitful than powerful” prevents us from realizing this (…). To banish this enchanter Descartes searches for something absolutely certain, something he cannot doubt. He finds the “I” or subject of the “I think”. Even if we doubt every object of this subject’s thought, we cannot doubt the subject itself. It becomes ens certissimum, the being whose certainty is such that it can stand as a norm, a standard against which to judge all other claims to knowledge. (Mensch, 1996, p.2)

Mensch moves next Kant with his attempt to ground certainty on the self through his synthesizing subject:

For Kant, the self is such a ground through its synthesis. (…)  Synthesis is its action of connecting perception with perception so that, through their ordering, we have an extended experience of some object – an object shows itself as one and the same in different perceptions. Given that the syntheses yield the experience of an object, judgements that embody their rules naturally apply to this object. “A priori” certain (certain “before” experience) naturally attaches to them. In Kant’s words, it is inherent in our “assuming that the object must conform to our knowledge,” the conditions of such knowledge being those of synthesis (…). (Mensch, 1996, p.3)

To Mensch both Descartes’ and Kant’s work have a major fault, which lies with the subject as the basis for normativity. With Descartes the problem becomes: if all objects of attention can be doubted, but the “attending self” cannot be, we could ask how this works.  The subject being appealed to is not an object (like other objects), but rather something that thinks about and directs itself to objects:

As such, Descartes attempt to turn it [the subject] into a “thinking thing” – an entity whose perception can stand as the norm for the perception of other objects – is highly problematical. To the point that we cannot doubt it, it escapes any characterization that could give it some objective content. (Emphasis mine, Mensch, 1996, p.3)

Part of this has to do with the modern notion of the self, which is problematic for Mensch due to the idea of the self being a continuous thing, a unity, when in it is not clear that it is so, and if it is not so, if there are a multitude of ‘self’s’, how could it possibly be the grounding for normativity?

The same criticism is leveled at Kant, when the author asks if we can have certainty about the synthesizing subject, he would say we do not. The reason we do not is because the synthesizing subject is not a result of such synthesis as applied to objects, as he states it is what connects perception, what Mensch calls “the uncombined combiner” (p. 4), a noumenal subject, that is, a subject that is unknown and beyond our experience.

Postmodern Reversal of the Self

Mensch’s view of the self, which he borrows from Aristotle, is that of an openness to the world, as opposed to a definite thing. Mind is defined by its action, that before it thinks, before it grasps an object, it has no existence:

It is “potentially identical with the objects of its thought,” indeed, this potentiality is its openness. But, he adds, it “is actually nothing until it thinks”. This means that it has no inherent content, that all such content is derived from the objects it thinks. This is why the attempt to grasp it as an object is bound to fail. Objects have definite content. A subject, however, has content only in its temporary identity with what is not itself, that is, what it is transparent or open to. (Mensch, 1996, p.4)

It is the self’s adaptability, its openness to the world, that makes it appear to support every normative structure from “the Kantian to the Freudian” (p. 4), but Mensch argues it is the last place we should look for said normativity. It is open to norms, takes them on as it is shaped by its environment, as such it is the world itself that becomes the grounding for the subject, not the other way around. “Rather than being something that in its singularity yields universal norms, subjectivity is pluralized by the situations it finds itself in.” (p. 5)

From this reversal Mensch notes that it is in fact time that becomes the basis for content for the subject. With the world as its grounding, time acts as the unifying connector for the series of subjective processes of the self. To Mensch time itself has no content, as such it exhibits every kind of content: “it’s moments are empty containers – or rather, placeholders – of possible contents.” (p. 5) This conclusions however opens us up to a perplexing relativism:

If we really hold that subjectivity is temporality, then the implication is that it has as many forms as time has. This means we can speak of subjectivity as sheer nowness, as temporal flowing, as the forms of objective synthesis, as our being-there in and through other persons, and even as the unidirectional flow of objective causality (the flow that allows us to suppose that our own inner relations are subject to causal laws). (Mensch, 1996, p.5)

To Mensch there are different forms of subjectivity, exhibited in different actions such as when solving a mathematical equation versus playing in a musical ensemble.

And it is here I might leave it, as Mensch goes on further to tie time to the subject, comparing his notions back to Kant. This is all well and good, and might support his argument further, but space and your interest is limited.

Look, I’m not sure I really grasp this stuff, its convoluted and difficult and may require many readings. Give it a chance and do some of your own research, I’ll attempt to muddle through it further at a later date.


Mensch, J.R. (1996). Knowing and Being- A Postmodern Reversal. University Parl, PA. The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Categories: Philosophy, Postmodernism
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