There was an interesting column by David Brooks on Friday (NYT, 7/20/07). Brooks, based on Douglas Hofstadter’s “I Am A Strange Loop“, discusses the idea of the relational self. Namely, that Hofstadter’s work emphasizes “how profoundly we are shaped by relationships with others, but it’s not one of the those stiffling collectivist theories that puts the community above the individual.” Brooks notes that this line of research invaldiates the Ayn Rand claim that success is merely a function of genius and willpower since there “is no self that exists before society.”
In a statement sure to vex fellow conservatives, Brooks notes that Hofstadter’s work “explains why it’s so hard to tackle concentrated poverty. Human beings are permeable. The habits that are common in underclass areas get inside the brains of those who grow up there and undermine long-range thinking and social trust.” It explains how the same individual could be a flaming liberal or flaming conservative depending on where they grow up.
We’ve been interested in related questions of social identity (how people come to define themselves, what groups they see themselves as part of, etc.) and although the field of social identity is just starting to become a bit more hard-nosed, it has appeared clear to us that people’s sense of identity is partly informed by their social capital (who they hang around with and befriend, their relationships) and their social identity in turn also influences their social capital. More work will need to be done to sort out how strong these arrrows are in both directions. Are you more of a radical feminist or a Dittohead because of the friends you hang out with or does your identity as a radical feminist or Dittohead more influence who you relate to?
Brooks notes that in the information age we know that we’re connected to others by communication and “no man is an island” but yet the ways in which those webs of relationships and interconnections influence us is still somewhat of a mystery that Hofstadter is helping to solve.
[The Brooks article called "A Partnership of Minds" is available here.]