Self-Expression and Our Need for Each Other

By Daniel Tippens

Self-expression is a popular topic these days, being something everyone really wants to achieve. The advertising industry has capitalized on it, frequently designing ads which employ some variation on “be you,” “express who you are” or “show your true colors,” by shopping at this store. As a result, people often say things like, “this outfit really does show who I am,” or “that pair of glasses is so me.” Apparently, by shopping at a particular outlet where millions of other people will also shop, and buying a product that millions of other people will buy, you can find that unique way to show who you are to others. To express yourself. 

There is a widely held assumption about self-expression which I want to question here. Namely, that our capacity qua human beings to express ourselves doesn’t require other people in order to be robust. That my capacity to be expressed in the world doesn’t depend on my having relationships with other people.

I don’t think that human beings qua individuals express themselves when they act and speak, and if they do, it is rare and minimal. Rather, we express others through our actions and speech, and are expressed by others who care about and trust us. In this way, self-expression isn’t something the individual does, but is something others do for him. If this is right, then self- expression can only be robustly manifested when we associate with others, and have them prop us up for display.

  1. The Granted and the Given

You believe that there is an external world, and if anyone asked you whether you believe this you’d give them an incredulous stare and reply “uh… are you mad?” But have you ever wondered why you believe this? Unless you’ve taken a philosophy course in epistemology and skepticism or read Descartes’ Meditations, the question is probably not one you’ve even entertained. You hold this belief unquestioningly.

Somewhere in your development as a human being, then, you acquired this belief that there is an external world and express it with every action that you take. When you go to the store, you express a commitment to your belief that there is a store — your action wouldn’t make sense if you didn’t believe this. When you play in the grass, you show a commitment to the existence of the little green things sticking up from the ground. That there is a store and that there is grass presumes that there is an external world, and so you express this belief when shopping inside or playing outside.

You express your commitment to an external world, then, every waking minute of every waking day through your actions. But, again, why do you believe this so fervently? Why do you know it, which we all agree you do? One of your most deeply held commitments isn’t one that you ever argued or provided rational justification for, nor is it one you’ve ever questioned. In other words, it is something that you have always presumed.

One answer to the question of why we presume it could be that it is built into us — it is innate. I come equipped as a newborn with knowledge of an external world, and this explains why I hold it without question. In this way, to express your commitment to an external world is to express your humanity; it is to express what you know as a human qua human being. You hold it in virtue of being a member of this wonderful species, and you express your humanity daily when you unquestioningly act on it. Of course this commitment might not be innate, but it could be, and we will call this sort of presumption that could express one’s humanity one that is taken as granted. 

That there is an external world is not the only belief that you have always presumed, i.e adopted and never questioned. You might presume that you have siblings and express this with a daily phone call. You likely presume that your family home is in Maryland, and that there is a state of Maryland. When you visit your home or talk about it with others, you express this presumption.

Why do we presume these things? It can’t be that they are innate. After all, not everyone has a sibling, and not everyone believes that they do. Certainly, not everyone lives in Maryland nor has Maryland always existed, and some people may not have a family home. But, again, these beliefs — like those we take as granted — are also ones we hold unquestioningly. You don’t reason your way to them, think about why you have them, and likely have never tried to defend them to others. Somewhere along in your development, you just took these beliefs on. Since these commitments can’t be innate, how do we explain why you hold them just as unquestioningly as those that might be built in? 

Pondering these sorts of presumptions gets even more interesting when we consider certain facts about political and religious beliefs that people hold. As it turns out, someone born in a religious household — one in which their parents have a commitment to piety of some form — are very likely to themselves express commitment to these beliefs. The same fact holds for political beliefs, broadly construed, and many of us don’t question these views until our early or late teenage years.

Plausibly, then, these presumptions we hold because someone whom we love or are committed to holds it — we hold them on trust in another person. I might come into being taking the belief that there is an external world as granted, but my belief that Maryland is a state is something that I take as given — I am given the belief from, e.g my parents whom I trust. 

Mom and Dad talk amongst themselves about whether to stay in Maryland or move elsewhere, and in doing so they show their commitment to the belief that there is such a state. When I begin having conversations about Maryland, expressing that there is such a state, and doing so unquestioningly, I express my parents’ belief which I have adopted on trust. Beliefs we take as granted we hold unquestioningly qua human being, and so express our humanity. But presumptions we take as given are those we hold unquestioningly because we trust someone else, and express her commitments — who she is. In doing so, we show that we love or care about her.

This mode of adopting beliefs is not unique to development. It is pervasive throughout our lives. Take, for example, the way that many college classes are taught, especially those in STEM. Students enter, hear the professor speak — whom they trust on authority — and they begin parroting back facts about biology or physics. When they enter into a lab, they start doing the things that their mentors are doing, and in this way express the beliefs of the scientific community. That one is putting media in a petri dish to feed cells expresses the scientific community’s belief that there are cells. Most biology classes don’t argue or show the experiments that justify this belief, they just take it as given, and present it to students as such. Perhaps on the first day of class the professor asks, “how many cells are there in the human body?” He presumes that there are such things.

It is plausible to think that many, most, maybe all of our beliefs are taken as given, and so most of our actions and verbal statements are expressions of someone else, and not of ourselves. Let’s assume that most of our beliefs are ones we take as given, given its plausibility.

  1. Three Arguments

Here are three arguments for the claim that when we act and speak on those things we take as given we express someone else. 

First, consider again religious or political beliefs that kids hold without taking pause to ask why. When we see a child going to church religiously, and we hear him parroting some beliefs that mommy holds, we might chuckle and say, “I wonder who told you that…” as we recognize her commitments in his speech. We also tend to laugh when we see kids sporting all their daddy’s favorite football gear, cheering on the Patriots with as much excitement as dad does. When I wear my dad’s favorite quarterback’s jersey, I express who he is; I represent him. We recognize others in a child’s actions and statements, suggesting that they are expressing someone they look up to.

Second, that we express another when we act on a given from someone whom we care about explains why individuals are apt to get upset when you challenge these presumptions, and especially if you do so with an attitude of contempt. Suppose you see two kids beating on your younger brother. Because you care about him, you will immediately grow worried for him and angry with his aggressors. You won’t go up and reason with them, you’ll go and fend them off. You have an allegiance to your brother in that you don’t care whether the aggressors are “justified” or not, you don’t want to see your brother getting hurt.

We get upset when people challenge our beliefs in just the same way. We are apt to get angry when we have our deeply held convictions contemptuously challenged, whether the reasons someone has for doing so are justified or not. This is neatly explained by the fact that when you aggressively challenge someone’s beliefs, you are hurting someone she cares about. You, in this case, are the bully, and they are the thing standing in between you and their loved one. We can understand why people get upset when beliefs they take as givens are challenged, by recognizing that they express who someone else is.

Third, this view explains why justification can only go so far in revising some beliefs, i.e why people manifest allegiances to certain beliefs, viz, that we care more about our loved one more than we do about rationality or justification. There are some beliefs which we are simply not going to give up, regardless of the reasons someone gives. As David Hume noted, this is true of beliefs we take as granted. I can be skeptical of the external world in my armchair all night, but I’m still going to walk around and chat with my friends tomorrow. But this is also true of many beliefs that people take as givens. Some people simply will not give up their religious convictions or other normative beliefs, no matter how compelling the argument that you give them. When it comes to deciding whether to endorse rationality or keep our loyalty to our parents, we unquestionably opt for the latter.

  1. Holding on to Direct Self-Expression

If we assume that most of our beliefs are taken as given, and that when we act on such beliefs we express someone else, then most of our actions and statements express others, not ourselves. We are mouthpieces for people whom we care about and trust.

But this, you might think, is precisely why we try to justify beliefs, and avoid taking them on faith in others alone. To do so is to take ownership of those commitments, and to fail to do so would be bad faith, one might say. When we seek to question our beliefs, we begin the process that allows us to self-express directly.

Here’s a way to put the point: John Locke held that we own those things we mix our labor with. When I reach out to pick an apple off of a tree, I put labor into the apple, and thereby take ownership over it. Maybe when we justify our beliefs we put labor into them, and thereby take them as our own. Then, when we act on these beliefs we express ourselves my beliefs and values, and not someone else’s. Isn’t this is exactly what philosophy is for?! Isn’t it precisely supposed to challenge presumptions that we take as given, and in this way free an individual from the chains of always representing someone else with his expressions? 

Maybe, but suppose I enter your home and see a beautiful painting you have hanging on the wall. You don’t know why its beautiful, but you know that it is, which is why you acquired it. Being an insightful aesthete, I tell you why the painting is beautiful, perhaps I even give you its history. Does this change the fact that the painting is yours? No, in fact my justification only further brings you out, telling you something you didn’t know about yourself. If there is an audience listening — maybe your wife — she may understand you better with the explanation I’ve given. Namely, she now knows why you might like the painting. In response you might smile and think to yourself, “he gets me.” 

… which suggests the second problem with the claim that justifying our beliefs makes them ours. Earlier we stated that there are some beliefs we take as givens which we simply won’t give up, regardless of the justification or amount of questioning. With regard to these beliefs for which we have allegiance, when we seek to justify them isn’t it more reasonable to say that what we are actually doing is not seeking to take ownership of them, but rather seeking to more fervently express who the giver is? When we question a belief we take as given that is also unrevisable, we do a service to the giver, asking about him with the aim of bringing him out more fully. 

John Stuart Mill was famously raised to be a utilitarian by his father, without being told. Of course, Mill would discover countless justifications for utilitarianism that his father never thought of, but when Mill realized how his father had intended him to be a utilitarian, he suffered a mental breakdown. An explanation for this is plausibly that Mill realized his whole life had been in service to his father, expressing him in the world, but that his father had abused his trust. 

But, of course, some beliefs we do get rid of. Perhaps it is in these cases that we begin to take ownership of beliefs, rejecting one thing and opting for another. But, a similar worry arises: why not think that when we give up one belief and take on others what we do is show which giver we trust or express more than another?

Suppose your mom tells you one thing and your dad tells you another. Being young and impressionable, you take in both as given and so have contradictory beliefs. When you later realize this and justify your dad’s belief over your mom’s, couldn’t we say you are choosing to express your father over your mother? Indeed, this actually explains why parents in conflict get upset when their child begins to “take sides” and justify one parent’s views over the other, e.g the father’s. The child is acting as a mouthpiece for his father. As such, the little one may begin to hear his mother say, “I see your father in you…” perhaps accompanied by an askance look behind a sip of red wine. If all of our beliefs are taken as givens, then when we get rid of one, all we do is begin to express one giver over another, not ourselves.

  1. Speaking for You

On this view of self-expression, people are expressed by others who care about and trust them, not by themselves. Our voices and actions express the commitments of people we love and trust. To have self-expression, then, is achieved when someone else props you up for display, taking your beliefs as givens, and enacting your tastes, desires, and values. The view may seem counter intuitive, but I find it attractive for at least four reasons.

First, it reflects a healthy understanding of our own epistemic limitations. Other people have more knowledge about what we believe and who we are than we do. Since others can take a third-person perspective on us, they can see us from the outside, in all of our dimensions. As individuals, we are trapped in our first-person point of view. Mirrors may help, but our backside is out of view, and even when we arrange mirrors in such a way as to access it, we can only take certain angles, and it is awkward. That we have limited knowledge about who we are is evident also from the first time we hear our own voice on video or audio recording. We are surprised and often times just a little embarrassed. The same point applies to our beliefs and desires, many of which are unconscious to us, but perceptible to others who look at how we behave and what we say. Of course, it is possible that we could de facto express ourselves without having knowledge about who we are, but I find it more attractive to say that I robustly express who you are because I know you and act on beliefs which I take from you as givens.

Second, the account expresses a recognition that human beings depend on each other, and grounds an argument for people to associate with one another. If we take self-expression to be a good, then in order for an individual to obtain it, she needs others to engage with, to take things as givens from them, and to give things in return. To achieve self-expression, she needs others who care about her.

Third, it breathes meaning into the idea that, ceterus paribus, one lives on in their children, whether they want to or not. Little ones just do care for and love their parents, and so they take on their beliefs, desires, and values as givens. This fact gives life to the notion that one’s children are one’s legacy, and so nurturing them ought always take strong priority. To fail to do so is akin to letting yourself go, for they represent who you are.

Finally, and perhaps most attractively, it gives romantic love a dimension which is quite beautiful. When we fall in love we get to know each other with incredible intimacy. As we begin to adore that significant other, one of the first things we do is start telling other people all about her. We start expressing to others those wonderful qualities and aspects of this special person whom our eyes are fixated on. Sometimes so much so that we actually annoy the people around us, though fortunately they tolerate it because this just is what people in love do. In this way, to fall in love is in part to recognize the beauty of the other, and to prop her up for display, as you find yourself doing things she does, saying things she says, and picking up her tastes. This is why losing the person you love is to lose yourself, for when we fall in love, we achieve self-expression in each other.

For Felicia Chacon

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