Being open to being surprised

One claim I made about self-knowledge a couple of posts ago needs to be brought out. This is that we know ourselves, in part, when we know our dispositions. The occasion for this reflection is an upcoming workshop that Ian Prinsloo and I are putting on at the Banff Centre in the middle of June. The subject is surprise, and the genre is to be a philosophical drama. We are investigating what it means to be open to being surprised.

In this post, I want to raise and answer two questions. Firstly, what is an ethical disposition (exclude other sorts of dispositions)? And, secondly, what kind of ethical disposition would be the kind that is open to being surprised?

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Minding: An overview

Let me sum up what I have written about our mental lives over the past 10 odd posts. Recall the thesis with which I disagree:

Because the human mind, like the human body, tends to be sickly and ill, it seeks healing or cures.

I have argued all of the following:

1.) There is a disanalogy between the human body and the human mind. Consequently, the ways we talk about bodies cannot be the ways we talk about minds.

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How self-knowledge is possible

I pick up where I left off in the last post. Recall, first of all, that the picture of the mind as a some ‘place’ or ‘substance’ that contains important things (ideas, faculties, images, conceptions) deep within me is a mistaken picture of minding. Recall, second of all, that the question which springs from the picture of the mind as ‘having’ deep inner contents is this one: ‘How can I know my mind when, being inner contents deep within me, it is neither observable nor perceptible?’ Worse yet, ‘How can I know myself when these deep inner contents are, as Freud sought to show, well beyond the grasp of the conscious mind?’ It is wrongheaded, I have held, to insist that knowing myself involves undertaking forms of ‘deep introspection.’ Indeed, the entire edifice seems to be a systematic way of our never knowing ourselves. Looking in the wrong place, we continue asking the wrong questions with the result that we are endlessly perplexed.

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How self-knowledge became necessary yet impossible

The idea that the mind is a substance-like thing or an executive set of functions (a dashboard of sorts) residing in the head will lead to perplexities. I have already held that the mind is not ‘substance-like,’ that it does not reside in the head, that it does not contain a suite of activities, and that it doesn’t have a residence in anywhere. One of the many dangers inherent in this conception arises out of the literal belief in the metaphors of ‘inner’ and ‘outer,’ ‘internal’ and external.’ Believing in these, one finds it necessary to investigate each on its own (what is the inner? what is in the inner? what is the outer?) and then to connect one up to the other.

The commonest perplexities are centered upon the problem of other minds, the problem of representation, and the problem of self-knowledge. The problem of other minds: ‘How can I know another person when his inner contents are not accessible to me?’ Because of doubt, I may come to a general sense of mistrust of others as well as a particular distrust of my friends and lover. The problem of representation: ‘How can I know the world when it is ‘out there’ beyond the reach of my thoughts which are invariably ‘in here’?’ So, I may become cosmically lonely, trapped as I seem to be within the ‘inner’ circle of my own consciousness.

Now, we turn to stating the problem of self-knowledge: ‘How can I know my mind when, being inner contents deep within me, it is neither observable nor perceptible?’ Worse yet, ‘How can I know myself when these deep inner contents are, as Freud sought to show, well beyond the grasp of the conscious mind?’ For most people, the demand to ‘know thyself’ in some fashion or another has remained even though it has become impossible, given these terms, to ‘know thyself.’ This modal conflict–something’s being necessary yet impossible–gives rise to perplexity. It is a perplexity that cannot be resolved until we have cleared the ground.

We cannot do well without coming to an answer regarding ‘knowing thyself.’ In the next post, I will consider how to put this picture aside and how to re-address–from the right standpoint on minding–the vital question of self-knowledge.

Mind and world: Isolation or world-involvement

Recall where we are. We are in the midst of dismantling an erroneous picture of the mind and, in so doing, we are making it possible to inquire into the everyday mental activities we perform: into how they operate, into how they involve us n the world, and into how to bring them out when they are going well.

Part of that erroneous picture of the mind seeks to ask and answer the mistaken question of where the mind is and then to describe what goes on in there. The mind, it is held, is (a) a substance that exists (b) within the head and (c) in which certain functions are executed. These assumptions can be combined to form a picture of the ‘private drama’ about which Gilbert Ryle writes with a critical eye.

What makes this picture suspicious, at least in part, is the distinction it assumes between ‘inner contents’ and ‘external reality.’ The question for epistemology then becomes how the inner contents of the mind represent the external world. Given this puzzle, the epistemologist seeks to tell a certain kind of story about representation in order to show how the mind is connected to the world.

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