In everyday life the conception of the self, of our personality and identity is something that we consider as a given, an entity that is self-explanatory and the cause of our uniqueness – which is why we feel it to be our original and natural state. Anthropology has on the other hand endeavored to demonstrate that the notion of the self is not a natural category and that ways in which human beings conceive themselves vary just as the conception of the self and personhood varies throughout history and within different cultures comprising differing value systems.
This essay will explore whether this is the case, and if so, to evaluate the distinctiveness of the ‘Western’ notions of the person and the body that are said to be based in individualism in relation to notions developed in holistic societies of traditional character. To do so we will primarily trace Mauss’s evolutionist understanding of how western notions of the self came to be, together with that of Louis Dumont while drawing on examples described in the works of Meyer Fortes and Jean La Fontaine.
Marcel Mauss thought of man as a total human being, a complex that is the product of the unity of biological, psychological and social elements on one side, and society as a total phenomenon, composed of bio-psychological historical and social factors, on the other. By calling for this ‘triple viewpoint’ of physiology, psychology and sociology, Mauss succeeded in surpassing both the reductionist definition of man’s psychological life as a set of relatively autonomous elements, as well as the demotion of social phenomena to exclusively one category of factors (Mauss, 1979).
Such a view is complemented by the distinction Mauss makes between a human being’s awareness of body and mind – a self-awareness that is universal and manifested through language, and the social concept of the person as a fact of law and moral (Fontaine, 1996; Mauss, 1996). Thus when Mauss speaks of persons he is referring to the Western representations of the self that can be labeled as individualism, with the goal of comparing variable social forms that illustrate the universal human being.
Beginning with the analysis of the place of personnage and personne in tribal societies, Mauss tells that within clans there existed a fixed set of names that corresponded to belief in a fixed set of souls, signifying that the living are an incarnation of the original founders, the ancestors. These facts of life are lived out in everyday life, through the employment of names that denote rank, function and role both in real life as well as in rituals, so that those using them are ‘writing their statuses and laws in all their daily relationships and utterances’ (Mauss, 1996).
Therefore, each member of the clan has a role to play both in sacred dramas and family life that is defined by his place in the tribe and it’s rites, a place that is in the last instance defined by the name that this individual bears representing the soul that he carries within his body. According to Durkheim, the soul is the model according to which all spiritual and physical beings take shape because everybody hides in itself one inner being, the soul as the principle of life that keeps the body in motion (Durkheim, 1995).
Just like the body, the soul has physical needs and shape, and being independent, it is subject to change. After death of the body the soul is usually conceived as going to the afterworld where the primary ancestors reside, only to return in the shape of a newborn – in Durkheim’s theory of totemism the soul represents the totemic principle embodied in each individual, just as in Christianity a part of the sacred is embodied in all men who ‘are all one person in Christ Jesus’ (Mauss, 1996).