The Finnish notion of self needs updating

Submitted on Tue, 01/17/2017 - 11:04
Heikki Kokko/ Kuva: Jonne Renvall
According to historian Heikki Kokko, in his own early childhood the notion of self was closer to the 19th century than the present. Photograph: Jonne Renvall


Suomi 100/ Kuva: Jonne Renvall

“The Finnish selfhood must be reimagined and we should build a new conceptual system matching the current reality,” says Postdoctoral Researcher Heikki Kokko from the University of Tampere.

For his doctoral dissertation, Kokko researched the conceptual climate of Finland in the mid-19th century as reflected in the Finnish-language written culture. At that time, Finland was still an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. The research shows that it was not until the mid-1800s that the Finnish selfhood evolved from the pre-modern to the modern, to an identity based on Western scientific thought.

At the end of the 20th century, Finns still lived in an era that had echoes of the 19th century. Kokko says that during his own early childhood in the 1980s, the notion of self or the subject was closer to that in the 19th century than the present.

The new subject could be global and based on networking, not on the old dualisms of Western scientific thought. The idea of the nation state, which was created in the 19th century, is also currently being changed.

“The nation state as a nationalistic project with nationalist symbols may gradually vanish, but society will remain; we will still want to be a community making decisions on the best course of action, laws and the environment we want to live in. I do not think that is going to disappear,” Kokko says.

From the household to a nation

In the 19th century, the Finnish-language press created a publicity through which personal and local experiences started to become broader notions that were no longer based on physical proximity.

Kokko’s research shows that until the mid-19th century, Finland was based on an agrarian culture which had roots in oral traditions and personal interaction. The subject was understood to be the whole household, not the individual. Life was lived locally and most people did not yet even have a tribal identity. It was not until later that people on a larger scale started to talk about tribes, such as the inhabitants of the Savo or Häme provinces.

Kokko’s research is a cross-section of all Finnish-language publicity in the 19th century. The data he analysed were a representative sample of writings that reflected upon edification.

According to Kokko, the Finnish-language publicity in the 19th century concerned about ten per cent of the population, but its impact was much bigger because of spoken interaction.

Finland in the 19th century operated in Swedish even though nearly ninety per cent of the citizens were Finnish speakers. Nevertheless, the Finnish-language publicity started to gain ground, literacy increased and the language started to develop.

Kokko says that this happened because the Finnish newspapers were not editorially driven but based on readers’ participation and letters to the editor.

“Interaction with the reading audience created a new dimension, which clearly changed the people’s perceptions and notions about themselves. They started to construct an identity that extended from the local community to the other people who were connected through the same public sphere, wrote letters to the newspapers and were able to imagine the community created by the newspapers.”

As a result, the modern Western notion of the self integrally connected with the idea of an independent nation state was mediated to Finland.

“The Finnish-speaking intelligentsia was small at the time. It spread a spirit of enlightenment and brought in Western ideas. At the same time, publishers started to print an increasing number of books in Finnish.

According to Kokko’s research, previous research has overlooked the crucial role the Finnish-language publicity played in the change that transformed the Finnish identity as it replaced the idea of the household by the idea of a whole nation.

“Finnish historical research has previously examined the press as an institution. So far, the press has not been thought about from the point of view of how it influenced the whole society and worked in the background when the civil society emerged and the mass movements of people started resulting in the birth of the nation.”

Renewing the modern notion of the self

In the 19th century, the notion of the self started to transcend local boundaries because of the Finnish-language publicity. According to Kokko, this notion remained dominant until the 1980s when the newspaper was still the main media and television only had two channels. Computers had not yet been connected to the World-Wide Web.

In the 2000s, we are undergoing a digital revolution which challenges the old notion of the self. Mobile phones and real-time social media, which travel everywhere with you, have transcended the boundaries between the local and the global and made interpersonal communications instant and ubiquitous.

Kokko says that the change over the past thirty years has been vast and significant because it has concentrated on social interaction which is a core area of being a human. The revolution of the digital information society changes the ways we interact with each other and in so doing also our notion of self.

“The expansion of the modern notion of self has been a long process and the traces of the change are still visible. We can see aspects of the old in several regards.”

The notion of self in the era of printed materials can be seen in such modern innovations as artificial and machine intelligence. Artificial intelligence is based on the natural sciences created in the West in the 16th and 17th centuries by dividing reality into such binary oppositions as mind-body, nature-nurture and subject-object.

“To put it simply, the language of computers is ones and zeros. For me, all creativity and wisdom lies in the ability to go between the one and the zero. Artificial intelligence is just one aspect of human intelligence. Having just mathematical intelligence solve our societal problems would be a horrible scenario.”

Is it not just a tool?

“Yes, but it is claimed these days that mathematical intelligence will solve all problems. People are now saying that machines will become more intelligent than people.”

Finnishness without jingoism

According to Kokko, today’s Finns, who live among social media and information networks, should learn from the people who wrote to the newspapers in the 19th century without resorting to nationalistic bravado or waving the Finnish flag.

“For them, Finnishness meant a genuine relationship between the individual and society. They did not need the Finnish coat of arms, the flag or ice-hockey teams. To them, it was a societal question.”

According to Kokko, historians should constantly reflect their position in order to place the impressions they gain in the present time in proportion to the era they are investigating.

“I think historians should keep up to speed with everything. We cannot escape the present day. It is best if we know it and know how to deal with our own place in it. Perhaps then we can better give what is due to the people who lived in the past.”

Text: Heikki Laurinolli

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