My Personal Inspiration: Why am I doing this?
Some family members and friends said to me after my retirement “Why do you go always go on? Why don’t you stop?” Then I asked myself: Why am I doing this work? What is my basic inspiration?
My most spontaneous answer is that it is a “drive,” something which is incessantly pushing me from the inside, I just cannot stop it, I have to go on. Moreover, it gives me the well-known “pleasure beyond small talk,” like drinking water from a deeper well without precisely knowing what is in there. But it is tasting “well.”
However, there is more, on the content level, which has since a long time my vivid interest. I’m fascinated by the idea that the self of the individual person functions as a “society,” composed of a multiplicity of “members” who are able to address each other as the individuals in the society at large. Therefore, I like C.S. Lewis’ statement: “A person cannot help thinking of himself as, and even feeling himself to be… two people, one of whom can act upon and observe the other. Thus he pities, loves, admires, hates, despises, rebukes, comforts, examines, masters or is mastered by, ‘himself’.” With one difference, I would add: the self is not composed of only two people but consists rather of a multiplicity of people, in Dialogical Self Theory, named as I-positions. Much of my work can be understood when one realizes that dialogue can only productively and realistically be studied on the assumption that dialogue takes place between people who are positioned in time and space.
I feel that conceiving the self as a society of mind has the potential of transcending a long-standing separation in the social sciences, between the individual and society, which would suggest that it is possible to understand the existence of an individual as standing on himself, as separated from the people with whom he lives together and with whom he lived together in the past. When the self is approached as a “society,” at the same time being an intrinsic part of the society at large, we create a conceptual bridge that is enables us to link individual and society, psychology and sociology, and psychotherapy and community building.
I’m not only strongly interested in “dialogue” but I also belief that society, including the individual as part of it, is in desperate need of it. This need is particularly compelling in an increasingly compressed world society in which people of different historical and cultural backgrounds can no longer avoid to take each other into account. It is as if strangers are brought together in a house, small enough to be invited or even forced to address each other. How to do that? What is that: the other??
This brings me to another point of inspiration. Elaborating on William James’s idea of the “extended self,” the other person is not simply outside the self but an intrinsic part of it. In this way, I think, it is possible to overcome the kind of individualism that is typical of the modern model of the self, which is based on the problematic belief that you are a person just on your own, an autonomous individual that finds the ground of his existence just in himself. I find this view of the person overly limited because it neglects the fact that our selves are populated by others, including persons we love and those we feel opposed to. In fact, we are never totally alone. Instead, others are welcomed in the house of our self or they are felt as intruders who visit us often at unexpected moments.
I’m very interested in the relationship between theory and practice, but I do so on the basis of Kurt Lewin’s premise that there is nothing more practical than a good theory. However, I’m a bit sceptical about purely academic mini-theories that often lead to extensive research on the basis of a very limited number of “variables.” I feel more attracted to invest my effort in a broader, more extensive, and open theory that is constructed in such a way that it leads to not only to the study of the self but also to its enrichment.
In my view, dialogue is one of the most precious capacities of the human mind. I believe in the existence of “good dialogue” that has the power to contribute to the improvement of social relationships in our globalizing world society. However, this improvement can only be realized when external dialogue goes hand in hand with internal dialogue. As humans we have the privilege that we cannot only learn from others but also from ourselves, on the condition that we have the courage to explore and interrogate ourselves as if we are another person.
Finally, inspiration is for me not only an individual but an interactive process. I’m happy when I can inspire other people and also when be inspired by them. When I go, together with Agnieszka, somewhere to find the space and rest for a discussion, I hear myself saying when going back: “That was a “good dialogue!”
Hubert Hermans, Milsbeek, January 2010