Constructivism is usually applied to things like people learning mathematics or object permanence, but the thing that most people spend most of their energy constructing is themselves -- their social roles, their internal sense of self, their own narratives. But then who is doing the building? The term "autopoeisis" was coined by Maturana and Varela to name systems that constructed themselves, but naming is not explaining and as far as I know the school of thought they founded belongs in the same category as some of the other ideas I've mentioned recently -- which is to say, not necessarily wrong, but it has not been nearly as productive of science as more boring mechanistic approaches. It's fringy.
There's a vast literature on self-construction in anthropology, psychology, and related fields most of which I'm unfamiliar with, and I've never been able to quite get into it when I tried. How do you study something so elusive and amorphous? There are no instruments for selves, and studying social interaction (which seems the best entry into the subject) just gives you the traces, not the phenomena itself. But that's a reflection of my intellectual limitations, or rather, how my own self is constructed.
It occurred to me today that one of the main functions of religion is to construct selves. Theistic religions construct a person who runs the universe and provides rules and techniques for the individual person to relate to it. Such relations obviously mirror the relations between actual human persons, and vice-versa. Consider the historical construction of human selfhood, religions function as a kind of cultural scaffolding for individuals to create and interpret themselves.
Religions create persons in very different ways and, so as a result create very different kinds of selves. Someone who believes they are at the core an immortal being who is only temporarily and incidentally wearing a body as a kind of fleshly envelope just has/is a very different kind of self than I do/am. Yet this song still moves me, so maybe the differences are merely superficial and our spiritual core is the same.
Buddhists seem to be deconstructionists of the self -- they talk about this process critically. They talk about how people are constantly trying to make themselves appear to be solid, permanent, real things when in fact they aren't. And this process of delusion is at the root of suffering. But my own dabbling in meditation (Buddhism ultra-lite at this point) suggests the opposite -- it seems to be about constructing an additional layer of self, one that can stand somewhat outside and monitor all the other self-construction going on. I may be doing it wrong.
During the Yom Kippur service, the Ashamnu prayer has the congregation chanting together:
Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, deebarnu dofee. Heeveenu, v' heershanu, zadnu, chamasnu, tafalnu shaker. Yaatznu ra, keezavnu, latznu, maradnu, neeatznu. Sarar'nu, aveenu, pashanu, tsarar'nu, keesheenu oref. Rashanu, sheechatnu, teeavnu, taeenu, teetanu.The "infinite wisdom and eternal goodness" seems to be a recent addition to this particular translation, and it's a bit too treacly a sentiment for me. But the idea that sin is an error, a case of "missing the mark", I can get behind. (Here's a good present-day interpretation). The most striking feature of the Hebrew is that it is a litany of words suffixed with -nu, the first person plural possessive ("our"), which emphasizes that all these faults are faults of the community and not solely of individuals. Consider not so much content of this prayer, but the fact that here's a community of people who get together, at some expense of time, money, and attention, and jointly declare a view of their nature. Isn't that odd? It seems almost to be a performative linguistic act, not as explicit as a marriage vow, but still functioning to bind together.
Who are we? We are God's image and truth and infinite wisdom, eternal goodness. Yet we've abused, we've betrayed, we've been cruel, yes we've destroyed...we have missed the mark.
So the self under construction in this world is a social self, a self inherently part of a community doing things together and taking a collective responsible for itself and the world. Maybe this is an unremarkable thing to most people; after all Jews and others have been doing it for thousands of years; if it's so fundamental to human nature then it usually operates without thinking about it. I may be more consciously and intellectually aware of these sorts of commonplace phenomena because with me they don't generally work all that well.