Self-deception: A threat to philosophizing

Self-deception–what is it? It seems to be rather like lying to oneself, but how does one do that? You can lie to others, but it beggars the comprehension to fathom how one could pull off the trick of lying to oneself.

This may be why we say that self-deception is like lying to oneself. Deceiving oneself is not actually lying to oneself. But if it is true that self-deception is analogous to lying, then in what respect? In the respect, I think, that somebody is deliberately misled.

But can I deliberately mislead myself? The possibility is worth considering.

Suppose that I overlook something. ‘But then that may speak to your poor attentiveness or your absentmindedness.’ Both are possible, yes. But then suppose that I overlook something again and again. ‘Again, some are terribly, monstrously inattentive or absentminded. They could overlook lots of things. You might be one of them.’ Granted. But suppose that I overlook something again and again about my life. ‘Same quibble.’ Granted. But suppose that I persistently overlook something that is manifestly yet painfully obvious about my life. ‘I’m not sure that this is quite yet self-deception, but it is closer, yes.’

Yes, even if it may not be there yet, it does seem closer to a kind of self-deception. I will call this a ‘passive’ form of self-deception, a form which involves persistently overlooking something that is manifestly yet painfully obvious about my life. I vaguely recall watching an episode of Six Feet Under in which a housewife went to see her doctor who was non-plussed that she hadn’t come in much, much sooner. Had she come in once she saw that something was the matter, then she could have been effectively treated. Yet now she was most certainly going to die. How could this have been? My answer: passive self-deception.

There is also, I think, an ‘active’ form of self-deception. This seems to involve asserting over and over again something about one’s life that is manifestly false that one believes to be true. If John were to declare well into old age, ‘I am an excellent father’ and yet he vigorously abused his sons, then he would be actively deceiving himself in declaring this. Far from being an excellent father, he was actually a wretched father.

In some of these posts, my target has been the bullshitter because, if Harry Frankfurt is right, he does not care one way or another for the truth. I urged further that in not caring one way or another for the truth the bullshitter may induce us to think likewise. In other posts such as this one, I have sought to define self-deception because I believe that it is the second enemy of philosophizing. (The third enemy of philosophy is the coward.) The one who systematically overlooks what is glaringly obvious is someone who has forestalled the possibility of submitting his life to the philosophical question. Additionally, the one who actively deceives himself resembles a madman in this respect at least: we have no idea what ways would be available to us in order to ‘knock sense’ into him, getting him to ‘wake up.’ Just as bullshitting renders philosophy powerless, so self-deception makes philosophy speechless.