In Kyborg 9, I introduced the idea of an ontological opening, a rapid reordering of the map of reality. The modern era has an ontological opening, but it’s a two dimensional one with two perpendicular axes. These are the two Copernican revolutions. The first of the two is of course Copernicus’s own revolution which overthrew Geocentrism and in the long run led to the discovery that physical space is much much greater than anything that we might have imagined before - it’s both more vast and more microscopic than any picture that the ancients might have drawn.
The second Copernican revolution is the one that Kan't achieved which is to look at the maker of the world and instead of having the world be made by two beings - God being the primary and Man being secondary, there’s only one world maker from now on, and that’s man.
The self plays a much bigger role in the Kantian Copernican revolution but it's not without impact on the first. Can you imagine Star Trek or Star Wars or any other science fiction movie or novel which involves people ‘boldly going where no one has gone before’ without there being a certain kind of self that's capable of doing so? Or the tragic version of the same belief, which is expressed as ‘are we along in the universe?’ Of course we aren’t alone, for we inhabit a planet with millions of other species, but are we alone as sapient beings?
The Sketch and the Painting
It is this self, i.e., the world-making galaxy-farming self that deserves a cult of its own, and once one joins the cult, it proposes all kinds of new directions to explore: from new forms of marriage that are the product of romance rather than property exchange to the subject being the source of metaphysical truth. It's a self which can be understood in one of two ways; metaphorically speaking, the first is a sketch while the second is a painting:
1. A metaphysical subject which is the grammar of existence, defining the categories through which the world is grasped. It is this subject as the grammar of existence that Kant will teach us about.
2. But there is also the self as the story, the self that goes where no one has gone before, that experiences new places, new cuisines, new toys, that consumes the latest fashions and is targeted by any number of commercial establishments for the purposes of doing so.
Taylor is tracking both of these selves. I will end today’s essay with an introduction to the subject as the bearer of rights.
Whose Rights and Granted by Whom?
Taylor starts with the observation that both the previous picture and the current picture agree on the importance of human life. Who cares if the value of human life comes from natural law that with origins beyond the human (say, of divine origin) or if the value comes from our self-making capacity?
The law is negative, it closes options (as the ten commandments say: thou shalt not…) In contrast, the self-authenticating right is an opening rather than a closing. In our sketch versus picture analogy, the sketches are rather similar, but as we fill out the picture we start noticing major differences. Because rights are ours to disclose and expand upon, we don’t have to stop with the right to life; we can have far more fine grained rights such as the right to cohabit with whomever we chose or the right to live in the city of one’s choice. We can’t predict beforehand where the self will take us, but the intuition (i.e., the ontological opening) that it’s central keeps disclosing new vistas to us.
The story of the self continues to be told anew every day.
However, we would be amiss in thinking the self’s autonomy is the only (or even main) driving force of this new revelation. In fact, everything from rights to freedoms are guaranteed or violated by new institutions that also emerged in the modern era: the nation state in particular and the idea of society in general. The Yang to Taylor’s Yin is the story of how these institutions emerged in parallel with the self and how they shape the development of the self. I’ll end with a puzzle:
One of the classic problems of Christian (and in related ways, other religious traditions) ethics is:
if God is perfectly good, why is there evil?
Now replace divinity with the state and let’s ask the same question in the new language of the self and the state:
If our rights are inalienable, why is there so much (state sanctioned) oppression?