Imagined self

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Pinni B building auditorium 1097, address: Kanslerinrinne 1.

Doctoral defence of M.A. Heikki Kokko

Kuviteltu minuus – Ihmiskäsityksen murros suomenkielisen kansanosan kulttuurissa 1800-luvun puolivälissä (Imagined self – The selfhood on the interface between pre-modern and modern)

The field of science of the dissertation is History.

The opponent is professor Laura Stark (University of Jyväskylä). Professor Pirjo Markkola acts as the custos.

The language of the dissertation defence is Finnish and English.

Imagined self

In this thesis I examine how the conception of self or the human subject changed in the culture of Finnish-speaking population residing in the Grand Duchy of Finland at the turning point of modernization in the mid-1800s. My research task is twofold. First of all I ask what kind of culturally and socially defined conception of self or subject there was in the Finnish-speaking people’s culture in the mid-1800s and how this perception changed with modernization. I secondly ask which reasons led to the change of the conception of self and what this tells of the formation and spreading of the modern Western notion of self.

I examine the notion of self in the culture of the Finnish-speaking population by doing a representative cross-section to the mid-1800s published Finnish written culture. At that time, the concept of “sivistys” appeared on the literary language of Finnish for the first time. My research material includes all the texts of Finnish published written culture in the era of 1845-1873 in which the concept of “sivistys” described the internal self-formation of the human being. I carry out my study by combining the reference frame of Peter L. Berger’s and Thomas Luckman’s sociology of knowledge, Charles Taylor’s work on the history of Western modern notion of self and Benedict Anderson’s work on the sense of community. The main work method is the history of concepts.

In the first part of the work, I concentrate on the social and cultural structures which defined the lives of the writers of the texts where the ”sivistys” was articulated. In the second part, I concentrate on the writings and writers of the “sivistys” one by one in order to find out what kind of personal and local circumstances were behind each writing. In the third part, I change my point of view from the social level to a cultural one. I ask what kind of features of the subject or self could be found in the writings of the “sivistys” and which of these features were culturally shared by all the writers. Based on these comparisons, I perceive the ideas of the pre-modern and modern subject and the features of the cosmic orders which these ideas of self were part of and which manifest themselves in the texts of the writers.

The writers’ ideas of the initial state of the man articulated the idea of the pre-modern self that had been dominant in the Finnish culture. In this conception of self, the human being was understood as part of the wider order created by God which was considered to have gotten its final form in the Fall that is described in the Bible. This idea of the pre-modern subject was based on Lutheran Christianity and especially on its most important cultural meta-text in Finnish, the Catechism, a Lutheran book which everybody had to read and to absorb in order to get a recognized position in their communities. The Lutheran doctrine emphasized the principal sinfulness and badness of a human being and the hither world. The opposite of this was God and his spirit, which was understood to be the source of all good. The soul/body division was not exact as the dualism of all good God and of the sinful world was the hegemonic cultural categorization of the time. It was possible to understand the idea of the pre-modern subject and the cosmic order in this way because the temporal simultaneity was understood in a different manner than during the modern time. In pre-modern thinking, the simultaneity was conceived transverse, cross-time or vertically, which is why one may have thought that the events of the past were not only past but also attending continuously in the present.

The study shows that a new kind of idea of self was articulated in the writings of “sivistys”. It was based on the writers’ ideas of the process of self-formation and the ideal state of the achieved self-formation. The new modern idea of self also included a new kind of grasp of the cosmic order. The shift where the new grasp of the modern self was breaking through included the transition of the moral sources from outside of self to the inner feature of the human being. At the same time, there emerged a new horizontal or translocal understanding of the idea of temporal simultaneity. Consequently the features that are typical of the modern Western thought like dualistic soul/body and subject/object divisions became part of the thinking of the Finnish-speaking people and were spread by written and printed culture. At the same time, the sense of community began to be seen as “imagined community”, based on the experience of the temporal horizontal simultaneity. Therefore there appears the new kind idea of translocal and actual “imagined community”.

In the fourth part of my study I analyze the reasons that were in the background of the breakthrough of the modern Western idea of self in the Finnish-speaking people’s culture. I argue that the men who wrote about self-formation (sivistys) lived on the interface between the pre-modern and modern. They were born to the old agrarian culture whose main characteristics were locality, self-sufficient economy and face-to-face interaction. Nevertheless they had disengaged themselves from it to the domain of monetary economics and acquired literacy which made possible a new kind of personal and translocal written communication. Above all, these men had during their lifetimes been in touch with the first rise of the early Finnish information society which changed the social and cultural structures. This process of change gave birth to the Finnish public sphere in which knowledge in Finnish began to spread in a new current, actual and translocal way which crossed the borderlines of old locality. This meant the new kind of social interaction which changed the process in which the writers of “sivistys” formed their personal identities. The self or the identity now had to be imagined or conceptualized in the mind of the human being. This was the way how these people acquired the modern “imagined self” which in the name of clarity had to be imagined both internally and externally clear and wholly formed.

The results of this study which makes a representative cross-section of the Finnish-speaking people’s culture in the mid-1800s prove that there is a connection between the birth of a modern self and temporal simultaneous horizontal information, communication and community. All of them seem to have gained ground through the modern development and spreading of a communication technology and the early information society. This is why I suggest that the new kind of conception of self – imagined self – describes also more widely the mechanism in which the modern Western idea of subject became the self-evident way of understand the self of the human being.


The dissertation is published in the publication series of Acta Universitatis Tamperensis; 2233, Tampere University Press, Tampere 2016. ISBN 978-952-03-0281-8, ISSN 1455-1616. The dissertation is also published in the e-series Acta Electronica Universitatis Tamperensis; 1733, Tampere University Press 2016. ISBN 978-952-03-0282-5, ISSN 1456-954X.

The dissertation can be ordered at: Juvenes e-bookstore or by e-mail:

Additional information

Heikki Kokko, Tel. 050 330 3431,