WiP: The Man Without Self: Emptiness, Flexibility and Mobility as Existential Ideals in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities

Title: The Man Without Self: Emptiness, Flexibility and Mobility as Existential Ideals in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities
Speaker: Mette Hoeg
Date: Wednesday 11 May, 2.30 p.m.– 3.30 p.m. BST
Venue: Seminar Area, Littlegate House (Zoom possible, please email Miriam.wood@philosophy.ox.ac.uk to arrange)
Booking: not required, this internal talk is for Oxford Uehiro Centre members and associates.

Abstract: In this WiP session I will present a draft for a paper on the relevance of Robert Musil’s classic Modernist novel The Man Without Qualities (1930–1943) for the field of neuroethics.

The paper forms part of a broader project of integrating disciplines from the humanities, and in particular literature, in consciousness research in order to develop a strong ethical and existential dimension in the field. More specifically, the aim is to explore and illustrate the potential of fictional narrative for developing conceptions of self and personal identity that cohere with the reductionist explanations of human consciousness and self in modern empirical consciousness research. The idea is to conduct a form of conceptual engineering through literature. A central claim is that looking to the existent literary representations of human consciousness, self and existence that reject or are free from conventional ideas of essential self, agency, free will and of anthropocentrism can help 'normalise' the new reductionist scientific descriptions of humans and reduce their psychologically, emotionally and socio-culturally disruptive impact.

In this specific paper, I look at some of the central ideas of self-transgression and human enhancement in Musil’s literary-philosophical work: the ideal of a subjectivity without qualities; the notion of ‘the Other Condition’; the idea of a ‘primordial hermaphroditism’; and the opposition of convexity and concavity as representative of a meaningful/desirable dual mode of existence. I point to the alignment of the conceptions of self in the novel with philosophical reductionist conceptions of self and personal identity – and to the compatibility of these literary and philosophical notions with modern neuroscientific explanations of consciousness and self. And I consider the characteristics of emptiness, flexibility and mobility as possible ideals, maybe even criteria, for an adequate and sustainable model of self in the context of the emerging ‘neuroanthropology’ and the rise of neurocentrism.

Bio: Mette is a hosted postdoctoral research fellow with her project “The role of literature and the humanities in the development of a consciousness culture and ethics” (funded by the Carlsberg Foundation. The purpose of the project is to establish consciousness research as an interdisciplinary field by integrating in it theories and methodology from the humanities, in particular literature and philosophy.