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In recent years, there has been a trend in some branches of the social sciences- particularly by those with a feminist or anti-eurocentric leaning- to criticize traditional notions of agency and independence found in both Western philosophy and in the common attitudes that people have in their day to day life. Instead of trying to think of themselves as independent agents running as their will tells them, an alternative worldview of a person as the nexus of a group of interlocking relationships has been put forward.

For now, I will not actually deal with the practical aspect of this question...whether it is nice to share the cookies or hog them all to yourself. What I am going to deal with is the meaningless of either the concept of independence or relationship on a conceptual level.

Kant introduced the notion of an antinomy, that is, a way that using the same logical laws to look at one thing, you can come up with contradictory conclusions. For example, (in a very shortened form), when we try to think about space, we cannot imagine it being totally unbounded and infinite. However, if we try to imagine space being finite, we must imagine some kind of barrier stopping it, and then we have to ask ourselves what is on the other side of the barrier. In this way, it is impossible to conceptualize space as either finite or infinite.

In the same way, when we take the concept of what something is, whether it be a star, a rubber ball, an abstract concept or a person, it is impossible to conceptualize these things as either being independent or merely a series of relationships to other things. To take a simple example, such as a super ball, I can describe it as having various qualities...is is soft, round and bouncy. I only know that it is soft because of how it reacts in comparison to hard things, I know it is bouncy because I can see its movement in relationship to the static room around it. The roundness is a little bit harder, since it is an internal relation...the relation between the radius of the sphere and the surface. So, even with a simple object like a superball, it is hard to find three atributes to describe without reference to something else.

To take the opposite tact, and to describe the super ball as nothing more then a series of relationships with various facets of the environment leaves us with little more to say. If we say merely that something moved in relationship to something, and that that something is more of such an attribute then something, but less of that then something else, but that the first something and the second something are both equal in some way...that is not very useful information, and not very natural. This is because the very word 'relationship' means that there is a relation, and a relation means that there is things that relate to each other. Thus, there must be some static entity that gives a definition to the whole form. Although I suppose it is possible, within some form of abstract math, to form a world totally without values, but merely with relations, it is not the natural way to look at the world. We naturally look to objects and things, encapsulations of the world around us.

Now, when we take a human being, which is infinitly more complicated then a super ball, the situation becomes infinitly more complicated. Everything that a human being wants or needs, by definition, somehow relates to something outside of that person. As Tom Bombadil said: "who are you, by yourself, nameless, alone, and in the dark?". What we are, as Rei Ayanami says, is the sum of our relationships to others. However, if none of us had any core of actual desire or self inside of us, even our relationships would fall apart. If (to give a simple example) we were all so generous to each other that we always gave up our seats to others on the bus, then noone would ever sit down.

The reason I have gone through all this rather unclear explanation of things that I don't even clearly understand is that I wanted to make some comments on how this rather nebulous theory of humans as relationship centers has been misused. Apart from the various feminist and social theories that I have mentioned, I have seen such things, even in very good books such as Huston Smith's Religions of the World that describe Confucianism as believing in the theory that humans are a collection of relationships. While it is true that Confucianism places great practical value on human relationships, I do not think that Confucius, who was very reluctant to make any kind of metaphysical statements at all, was trying to say that people are metaphysically selfless. People misunderstanding this belief and attitude has led to generalizations about the Chinese people as being some kind of hive mind.

So, to sum up:

  1. It is hard to say what something is without saying what something else is.
  2. But a whole lot of nothing defined in terms of a whole lot of nothing is still a whole lot of nothing.
  3. It doesn't matter that much, anyway.

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