Self-deception and self-knowledge (with a brief excursus on the Socratic elenchus)

I think it a good starting point to claim that someone would’t think of deceiving himself unless that about which he were about to deceive himself were thought to be painful for him to confront. The thought of someone trying to deceive himself about something pleasant sounds patently absurd. It could only be that someone who got a chocolate cake for his birthday were trying not to be disappointed when he says, ‘This was the kind of cake that I really wanted.’ In this case, he would have been pained to have felt that his desire for angel food cake wasn’t actually satisfied and so he tells himself instead that it is chocolate cake that he always wanted.

Self-deception does seem to be like this: telling ourselves the things we would like to believe rather than examining whether something we think or said is, as a matter of fact, true. The reason we would like to believe that the world is cheery and bright in its everyday aspect is that believing this seems to make our lives a lot easier. Isn’t it great? This is the best of all possible worlds!

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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.

How the art of philosophical inquiry leads to self-knowledge: A schema

A philosophical inquiry aims at a desideratum. That desideratum is announced or implied in the statement: ‘This is it!’ The ‘this is it’ is the conclusion of the inquiry and the end of the philosophical conversation.

The diagram below seeks to shed some light on this moment of self-knowledge. What distinguishes self-knowledge from other modes of investigation (e.g., scientific investigations) is that it seems to require a dialogic structure. What distinguishes self-knowledge from other intersubjective genres (sharing, chit chat, active listening, validation, etc.) is that it involves inquiring into we know not what in the hope of making some discovery that had hitherto been unknown to both guide and pupil.

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