There was a time when I did not realize that communication had a dramatic effect on my relationships, career, and identity; when poor communication adversely affected my ability to cultivate a relationship, manage conflict, raise my children, or create professional success. In retrospect, communication was a one-sided affair. I just said what I said without understanding how my words affected others. As I grew as a person and a scholar, my communication improved, becoming relational, and my knowledge and beliefs about communication evolved towards a philosophy of responsibility, mastery, and purpose. In truth, I rooted my philosophy in social constructionist thought, believing if I were skilled and knowledgeable enough that I could make a difference. While those ideas remain relevant and central to my personal communication philosophy, they are ideas focused on self while projecting an illusion of otherness. In fact, my philosophy continues to evolve, away from the illusion of otherness to authentic otherness, away from a philosophy of self and towards a philosophy of service.
Hall (1996) once described his encounter with Marxism using the metaphor ‘wrestling with angels’; well, I also wrestled with angels, theorists and philosophers like Hall, Husserl, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Barthes, Sartre, Levinas, and many others to numerous to name here. In fact, I still wrestle with them today. Truly the contest is what matters; it is the source of our always-becomingness, the engine for Sartre’s concept of existence before essence (Kaufmann, 1956). Thus, my personal philosophy continues to evolve in the contest, retaining the earlier themes of responsibility, mastery, and purpose, but shifting significantly in emphasis towards otherness. Indeed, the difference between the two is my intention. When I intend to help others, to influence others, to lead others, others become an object of my empathy, but still an object.
Instead, I choose to see others as subjects that objectify me, going beyond empathy, to the experience of another as a subject just like me (Sartre, 1943). The conception of others as a subject has a different ethic than others as an object of my empathy, in that it truly makes me responsible for others; indeed, I no longer have a choice about whether I direct my intentionality towards another, the responsibility simply is (Levinas, 1969). Hence, I become my brother’s keeper, an ethical echo that subtly reshapes my identity (Griffin, 2012). In fact, I become the object of the other, their instrument, or servant. Accordingly, my philosophy evolves to a philosophy of service.
Of course, my earlier ideas of responsibility, mastery, and purpose remain central in a philosophy of service. In fact, I argue a philosophy of service requires a higher responsibility tied to the Levinasian sense of obligation, rather than my earlier idea of a ‘pick and choose’ responsibility rooted in the liberalist concept of freedom–including the freedom to fail or suffer– where help only goes to those that are worthy.
Consequently, a philosophy of service with its obligatory responsibility towards others requires that I conceptualize mastery and purpose differently. In fact, purpose becomes self-evident; no longer do I have to search for a ‘worthy’ purpose, rather purpose gives itself to me through the needs of other; in a philosophy of service, I experience the givenness of purpose. Indeed, purpose is all around me, all of the time, and my knowledge, skills, and experience enable me to fulfill the purpose given to me. Consequently, mastery is not simply necessary; rather, it becomes a calling, the engine of fulfillment.
As a communication scholar, I occupy a privileged position. Every day, billions of people experience communication routinely, as the taken-for-granted process of getting things done in the world (Wittgenstein, 1968). Indeed, despite incredible skill and deep experience with communication, I think most people experience communication on the surface and rarely see the deep structure. As a communication scholar, I wrestled with angels, and they gave me the gift of sight, the ability to see the deep structure in a variety of ways, cibernetically, critically, culturally, interpersonally, linguistically, rhetorically, semiotically, or countless other ways. Like Neo in the film, The Matrix, knowledge of communication theory helps me see the code that structures social reality, and occasionally rewrite it. Therefore, as a communications scholar, I can be an instrument for a variety of purposes, an engine of fulfillment to a) improve communication that occurs around me, b) improve relationships, c) transform conflict into productive outcomes, d) unmask ideology, or e) design and institute social reform, locally or globally. Thus conceived, my only limitation is that which I have yet to discover.
In summary, I wrestled with angels and now think of myself differently. No longer comfortable with a purely liberalist philosophy, I conceive of others differently and thus transform myself. Said another way, in otherness I find myself. I am not a different self, but a self with an expanded horizon where I no longer have to search for purpose; instead, I experience purpose as it gives itself to me through others. Thus, I have experienced a philosophical breakthrough of sorts, a transformation of thought from a philosophy of self towards a philosophy of service, a journey that is only beginning.
Griffin, E. A. (2012). A first look at communication theory (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Hall, S. (1996). Cultural studies and its theoretical legacies. In S. Hall, D. Morley & K.-H. Chen (Eds.), Stuart Hall : Critical dialogues in cultural studies (pp. x, 522 p.). London ; New York: Routledge.
Kaufmann, W. A. (1956). Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. New York: Meridian Books.
Levinas, E. (1969). Totality and infinity; An essay on exteriority. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
Sartre, J. P. (1943). L’être et le néant, essai d’ontologie phénoménologique. Paris: Gallimard.
Wittgenstein, L. (1968). Philosophical investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.