Wednesday, November 07, 2007

passions, promises and pretence

I'm trying to divest myself of stuff so I can write more here, but this is temporarily creating more work. What I'm doing may also lead to a considerably reduced income and a redirecting of attention to the domestic sphere, which may be a good thing, but who knows.

With the assistance of a fascinating book, Lies we live by, by Brazilian writer Eduardo Gianetti, I'm reflecting on self-deception and self-knowledge, a theme I've also followed through the writings of Pinker and others. Gianetti plays on the Delphic prescription to know thyself. The Greeks apparently knew a thing or two when they put that one up for consideration. Some even knew that such knowledge was essentially impossible. Aristotle once wrote that nobody should be judge in his own cause, and let's face it, we all know that autobiography is generally less reliable, if often more entertaining and even enriching, than biography, and that the last person we would go to to find out about a person's character is the person herself. Gianetti takes us on a stimulating tour of ideas about self-knowledge, introspection and privileged access, noting some intriguing paradoxes and problematic entrapments in the battle for self-knowledge as self-improvement. He checks out some old favourite writers of mine - take this from Montaigne:
Not only does the wind of chance events shake me about as it lists, but I also shake and disturb myself by the instability of my stance: anyone who turns his prime attention on to himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice. I give my soul this face or that, depending on which side I lay it down on. I speak about myself in diverse ways: that is because I look at myself in diverse ways. Every sort of contradiction can be found in me, depending on some twist or attribute: timid, insolent; chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull, brooding, affable, lying, truthful, learned, ignorant; generous, miserly and then prodigal - I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgment this whirring about and this discordance. There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture.

We are whole worlds, in which the best and worst can be found, so that our failures can always be pasted over with other successes or memories or attempts, or reduced to a place in a far distant corner of the buzzing enterprise of the self.

Gianetti is fascinated by the paradox of our endless capacity for self-deception [nothing is more difficult than not deceiving ourselves, Wittgenstein has written] together with our immediate, certain self-knowledge [nobody else can feel our pain]. That enormous enterprise and treasury of the self is our exclusive possession - the rest of the humanity is forever locked out of it. Their only access is via our reporting. And we're forever locked in, only able to enter other minds through their reports and actions. Along the way he outlines the work of American philosopher Thomas Nagel, who effectively put a spanner in the work of the identity state theorists, those who have it that memories dreams and reflections are identical with brain states. I might post further on this after reading some of Nagel's work directly.

It's a wide-ranging book, full of deliciously quotable quotes, engendering an enthusiasm for the original works of many thinkers. I hope to mine it thoroughly before sending it back to the library. For now though I'll focus on self-deception in the political sphere, since it's so topical.

Amongst the many enterprises we engage in - trying to be successful in the world, trying to get laid regularly, trying to win all the arguments and so forth - one is the satisfaction of our curiosity about how the world works. A search for the truth about the world, if you will. This search requires that we keep an open mind and listen to and take on board other perspectives than our own, for the world - we surely know this - is multi-faceted and complex. Nothing could be more of a barrier to our search for truth than the conviction that we already know what it is. And yet, in the world of politics, we expect and demand such conviction - or at least politicians believe that we do, for nothing is more important, especially come election time, than that an air of absolute certainty and self-confidence regarding party policies is preserved. This creates a double image of the politician, as a source of strength and deception. It may be that we don't even mind our politicians lying, as long as they do so convincingly, but many of us, too, are uncomfortable with these displays of certitude, mindful of the Yeats line about the politics of his day - ''the best lacked all conviction, the worst were full of passionate intensity''.

This is where self-deception comes in. Better to be convinced yourself that your policies are the best thing since sliced bread than to simply present a veneer of confidence over a mass of doubts. That part of politics which is the art of persuasion - and it's a large part - militates against true reflective analysis of the efficacy of your policies and those of your opponents. Certainly this kind of analysis, the common wisdom has it, can never be conducted in public. The danger of all this, of course, is that you can sweep others into your deception, seduced by your self-confidence, at great cost [think of Nazism, but also of the invasion of Iraq], with the destruction of politicians' reputations for truth-telling being the least destructive of all the destructions that result.

All of this makes election time the most uncomfortable and often distasteful period for the philosophically inclined. Some of us - myself certainly - might look forward to a change of government - but we want to get the embarrassing beauty contest over with as quickly as possible.

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At 4:17 pm , Anonymous cerebralmum said...

This is wonderful. I found myself nodding so often as I read it. Now I just have to find the time to make a comment on the post I was shaking my head to.

At 8:54 pm , Blogger Stewart said...

That's okay, I don't need comments, only praise.
No but really, don't let me discourage you.


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