The Buffered Identity

Philosopher Charles Taylor wrote in his 2007 book A Secular Age:

A modern is feeling depressed, melancholy. He is told: it’s just your body chemistry, you’re hungry, or there is a hormone malfunctioning, or whatever. Straightaway, he feels relieved. He can take a distance from this feeling, which is ipso facto declared not justified. Things don’t really have this meaning; it just feels this way, which is the result of a causal action utterly unrelated to the meanings of things. This step of disengagement depends on our modern mind/body distinction, and the relegation of the physical to being “just” a contingent cause of the psychic.
But a pre-modern may not be helped by learning that his mood comes from black bile. Because this doesn’t permit a distancing. Black bile is melancholy. Now he just knows that he’s in the grips of the real thing.
Here is the contrast between the modern, bounded self—I want to say “buffered” self—and the “porous” self of the earlier enchanted world…
…for the modern, buffered self, the possibility exists of taking a distance from, disengaging from everything outside the mind. My ultimate purposes are those which arise within me, the crucial meanings of things are those defined in my responses to them.
—by definition for the porous self, the source of its most powerful and important emotions are outside the “mind”; or better put, the very notion that there is a clear boundary, allowing us to define an inner base area, grounded in which we can disengage from the rest, has no sense.
As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don’t need to “get to me”, to use the contemporary expression. That’s the sense to my use of the term “buffered” here. This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.

Rony Guldmann writes:

This is why the ethos of disengaged self-control and self-reflexivity would have been inconceivable for pre-moderns. The latter were not “buffered,” and this is why they could not have “stepped back” from their total teleological immersion into naturalistic lucidity. The anthropocentricity of pre-moderns was in the first instance a function, not of limited knowledge, but of their particular form of agency—the nature of the boundary, or lack thereof, between self and world. The crucial difference between moderns and pre-moderns is not that the former, unlike the latter, believe that their mental states originate in a physiological substratum interacting with the rest of the physical world (producing either “delight” or “annoyance” as Hobbes says), but that the former, unlike the latter, have a form of consciousness and identity within which this proposition is intelligible in the first place. A pre-modern couldn’t seriously contemplate the thought that “it just feels this way,” not because he was ignorant of his feelings’ causal springs, but because he was porous rather than buffered, because his basic, pre-theoretical experience of the world did not permit any clear-cut distinctions between the inner and the outer, between how things feel and how they are. This is a difference, not of beliefs, but of the pre-deliberative disposition to “distance” from one’s pre-reflective, pre-theorized layer of experience…

The individual who “believed” himself possessed by a spirit did not maintain this belief as a theoretical proposition, but rather experienced it with the same visceral certainty with which he experienced the physical body in which it had become lodged. For he simply lacked the “inner base area” form whose vantage point that experience could be conceptualized as the contents of a “mind” that may or may not correspond to the contents of an “external” world. This absence permitted experiences of which most of us are no longer capable. [Ernest] Becker writes:

“And so we find that auditory hallucinations can be normal in a culture where one is expected to hear periodically the voice of God; visual hallucinations can be normal where, as among the Plains Indians, one’s Guardian Spirit manifested itself in a vision; or where, as among South Italian Catholics, the appearance of the Virgin Mary is a blessed event. Spirit possession can be a great talent even though we consider it psychiatrically a form of dissociation. What we call “hysterical symptoms” are thought to be signs of special gifts, powers that come to lodge in one’s body and show themselves by speaking strange tongues through the mouth of the one who is possessed, and so on.”

The difference between the modern, buffered self and the pre-modern, porous one cannot be reduced to a difference of belief, as per the subtraction account, because it also involves a difference in what it means to believe. Pre-moderns did not merely possess different religious beliefs than do we, but were moreover differently possessed by those beliefs. These informed, not merely their decisions and deliberations, but, more profoundly, their very sense of themselves as agents. Pre-moderns were “opened up” to forces that could, for good or ill, penetrate and mold their own affect-structure from the outside-in. Their teleology was no mere conviction, but the very substrate of their agency. The order of things, and so the significance of particular things, was not merely believed in, but inhabited, impinging on individuals more like the temperature or humidity than as an object of visual perception—to employ an imperfect but hopefully useful analogy.

Liberals believe in a buffered self and conservatives believe in a porous self.

Here’s one key idea about the buffered identity: “This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.”

Conservatives are less likely than liberals to understand themselves as having a buffered self that is invulnerable and is the master of things for it. Conservatives are more likely to believe that we get our meaning from our community, that it is not something we create individually.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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