Some Hesitant Thoughts after Mooney

I find what Ed has written very helpful, as I said.  One reason for that is because he clearly recognizes the difficulty of self-knowledge—that is, the conceptual difficulty about it (not the difficulty of acquiring it, although it is difficult to acquire).  Self-knowledge is not simply a species of information, information about myself.  Sure, there is lots of information about me, and lots of it I know (and some of it is hard to know, I need, e.g., doctors or x-rays to tell me about it), but none of that is what Socrates or Kierkegaard or Emerson calls on me to care about.  –In fact, Kierkegaard and Emerson signal this by ringing changes on the Delphic Commandment—“Choose yourself!” (Kierkegaard) and “Obey yourself!” (Emerson), distancing themselves deliberately from ‘know’ (without disavowing it).

As I see it, the difficulty (the conceptual difficulty) of self-knowledge reveals itself best when it is seen in the context of Perfectionism.  Now, although I am not quite a Moral Perfectionist of the Cavellian (Emersonian) sort, I am a Perfectionist.  (I suppose I could be called a Christian Perfectionist—of a Gregory-of-Nyssa sort.  Explaining that is a task for another day.)  And my Perfectionism can help itself to the “unattained but attainable self” structure that Cavell’s has.  Crucial to that structure is a form of self-involvement (in a non-pejorative sense) that can be described as knowing, as choosing and as obeying.  It can be described as discovery and as creativity.

Consider Kierkegaard’s “One must become a Christian.”  I take this as a grammatical remark.  But this means that no particular place a person finds himself on his Pilgrim’s Progress is going to be the final stop.  Even if the Pilgrim is, in one sense, a Christian, it will also be true that there is another sense in which he is not a Christian.  That is, for anyone who recognizes the grammatical remark, and lives in the light of that recognition, the term ‘Christian’ subdivides into two senses, one that applies to him now, and which seems to him now at best unsatisfying (conventional, rote, sclerotized, immanent), and another that does not (yet) apply to him now, but which seems to him to call him forward (and is unconventional, spontaneous, supple, transcendent).[1]  That person reaches out, as it were, toward the second sense by standing on the very edge of the first. The transcendent Christian self that the person is reaching out to is his own, himself, but is that transcendent self as yet is not fully determinate.  Who he will be when he becomes his transcendent Christian self is not (yet) fixed, not fully fixed.  And yet he will be himself.  He will be transmuted … into himself.  When he becomes his transcendent Christian self, he will come to know himself, but he will also choose himself, and he will obey himself.  He will discover himself and create himself.  Which of these descriptions we use will be a matter of how we center ourselves on the structure of his immanent Christian self and his transcendent Christian self.  If we center ourselves on the entire structure, then knowing is a natural enough description, since he comes to know a self he has not previously known, or to know about himself something he had not previously known.  If we center ourselves on his immanent self, then choosing is a natural enough description, since he determines or fixes, at least partially, that transcendent self.  Or, if we center ourselves on his transcendent self, then obeying is a natural enough description, since he has called himself  (immanent) to himself (transcendent).  So far as I can tell, none of these centerings is compulsory, all are available, and so each of the descriptions they generate is available—and natural enough. But even so, each of the descriptions is still in need delicate handling, since each is liable to be misunderstood.

Ed’s fascinating talk of ‘knowing-how’ relates to what I have in mind.  Ed understandably wants to retain the word knowledge (as I do too).  But since the knowledge we are after is not simply a species of information, a good thought is to treat the knowledge as know-how (where what is known is clearly enough not information).  Then we can think of our Christian as knowing how to become a Christian, and as utilizing his know-how by so doing.

Ed complicates his know-how story by bringing in ideas of loyalty, pledging and promising.  And here what he says sounds particularly Perfectionist.  When he mentions that the pledging he has in mind is “pledging-in-the-relative-dark”, I understand that as quite close to my idea that the transcendent self is not understood, not fully understood.

(I should add that although most of what I said on this topic in the previous post (and comments) painted self-knowledge as “confessional” or “reflective” (to use Ed’s terms) I too believe there is a commissive side to all of this, and that is part of the reason I have chosen to foreground my Perfectionist framework as I have.  Ed’s post helped me to see how better to balance what I wanted to say.)

Knowing, choosing and obeying are each natural enough descriptions, but each is liable to misunderstanding.  That all of the descriptions are natural enough reveals that each has its liability, since each normally ‘negates’ the other.  To seize one and to reject the others is not a good idea; the phenomenon to be saved is responsive to each, and not just serially but somehow all at once.  Socrates calls us to examine ourselves, so as to live worthily.  Kierkegaard calls us to choose ourselves, so that we are responsible for ourselves.  Emerson calls us out in front of ourselves, so that we can become our best.


[1] Each transcendent self condemns the immanent self and inspires its own eventual condemnation, since as it becomes immanent a new transcendent self becomes visible.

7 responses

  1. I want to suggest a distinction between two notions (two uses) of “self-knowledge”:
    (1) Self-knowledge as a secondary sense of knowledge.
    (2) Self-knowledge as a promissory sense of knowledge. (I take the term “promissory” from Cora Diamond’s papers on Riddles and Anselm’s Riddle.)
    Both senses involve conceptual, logical, difficulties, and are thus different from the matter-of-course sense of self-knowledge—the sense in which I can know my own height, or blood-pressure.

    (1) “Self-knowledge” is used as a secondary sense of “knowledge” when the paradoxes that characterize it are not taken to be resolvable—perhaps resolvable in the old language game, or in any new one.

    Here are two of those paradoxes:
    a) To successfully get to know ourselves is, among other things, to establish our own agency. But since self-examination is an exercise of agency, there is something baffling about the possibility of such an activity: an activity which is aimed at establishing for the first time something that is a precondition for its exercise.
    b) There is a (related) paradox that can be formulated explicitly about an activity that is supposed to be both a kind of creation and a kind of discovery: For there to be discovery, what we discover must already exist; for there to be creation, what we create must not already exist.

    The use of this term—“self-knowledge”—is logically problematic, and yet, when used in this way, it is not as if we have a better term. ‘We need this term here.’ And the similarity between this and Wittgenstein’s saying that he needs the word “fat” to describe Wednesday relative to Thursday does not seem to me to be a coincidence.

    (2) “Self-knowledge” is used as a promissory sense of “knowledge” when the paradoxes that characterize it are taken to be resolvable on a higher level, in a different (although perhaps related) language game which we do not yet have—or do not yet fully have.

    We use promissory language elsewhere. We do this for instance in mathematics, when talking of “the next prime after 37 in the series of prime numbers”: Even though we have a strong sense that there must be such a series, we don’t have it; we only have a promise of one. Therefore we don’t have what it takes to refer to the series, and all our references to “it” rely on our sense that there has to be one, and the promise that there is.

    Likewise, when we talk of self-knowledge in this sense, the implication is that we may intentionally examine ourselves only to an extent: we may only act under the guidance of a promise that we are really doing something—a sense that we must be. Whether we are or not, while we are engaged in this would-be self-examination, remains to be seen. It may turn out, if things go right, that we have been doing something after all. And if it does, this means that we have thereby discovered a new language game—established a new stretch of grammar, a conceptual scheme for a new use of the term “knowledge.”

    The reason why I suggest this distinction is that it seems to me that both kinds of uses are important, and both capture things that we care about. In particular, both capture something of the fact that when engaged in self-examination, we are not in full possession of the activity: We are building something, or we are relying on something, which we are not guaranteed to have (perhaps partly on others’ willingness to share the sense that the whole business is worthwhile), but all the while we are exposing ourselves. And in both cases the value of the self-examination goes hand in hand with this exposure: the exposure is what makes the examination humble, as it were. In religious terms, this exposure reveals our dependency on something like divine grace in the very use of our words. Nevertheless, the two uses of “self-knowledge” indicate two different types of actions, and two different ways in which we may be exposed. And this shows a possible ambiguity in our talk of self-knowledge.

    • Let me just say, Rashef, that this is great stuff. Like Kelly’s response, it’s set me thinking. I could wait until I have something more engaged to respond with, but that might be down the road a piece. I’m not AWOL but lost in thought — and appreciation.

  2. I have had the thought — “Thanks! That’s wonderful, let me mull it over, and get back to you!” I’ve had it both as I read your response today, Reshef, and as I read Kelley’s yesterday. Maybe I just want to applaud and sit with these ideas for a month — or perhaps something pertinent to share will come to mind the day after tomorrow.

    One of the great things about blogs is their conversational format. But that means if I fail to respond when I’m really interested in what’s been said my conversation partner for the moment is left hanging. They may think, perhaps I made no connection at all as I read their response. Sometimes in philosophy we can think (despairingly) that we’re talking in an empty hall. All this to say, no, I’m here listening and mulling and very much alive to what’s transpired, the advances registered, in these last two posts on self knowledge.

  3. Thanks Ed.
    I feel I need to say something more—something about the connection between what I wrote and what you and Kelly wrote, and why it is not just a change of topic.
    Let me say and emphasize that I do not want to claim that if we are to self-examine, we have only the two options I mentioned, or even that these two options are mutually exclusive. I’m offering the distinction between them, insofar as they are useful to shed light with on the activity you and Kelly have been describing.
    What I take you and Kelly to be interested in, among other things, is the grammar of self-examination. Now, the grammar of the activity you and Kelly are describing strikes me as very complicated. What I was trying to do is to identify clearer patches, clearer strands in the grammar of self-knowledge, as it were. Relative to the activity you have been describing, the two kinds of self-examination I distinguished have, I think, simpler grammar—perhaps more unified grammar. But neither seems to me to capture in full all that we want to identify in the grammar of self-examination.
    Now, and this was my hope, perhaps because of this relative simplicity they can be useful as objects of comparison. They are not meant to draw attention to themselves, but to help shed some light on the activity you and Kelly are describing.

  4. Last night I read a passage from John Coetzee’s ‘Diary of a Bad Year,’ which prompted me to formulate a thought I had, which I think is relevant to the present discussion. My thought was about the relations between self-examination and first person authority, and the idea in a nutshell is that the point of self-examination is to establish, or re-establish, first person authority. I thought also that this connection between self-examination and first person authority may form the beginning of a bridge between the discussion here and the discussions about self-knowledge in the philosophy of mind literature (not that I project that many will want to cross that bridge).
    Anyway, Coetzee tells about a newspaper advertisement, where an American lawyer, an expert on legal liability, offers, for a fee of $650 an hour, to “coach Australian companies in how to word apologies without admitting liability.”

    Coetzee comments (p. 109):
    “First Adam Smith placed reason in the service of interest; now sentiment is placed in the service of interest too. In the course of this latter development, the concept of sincerity is gutted of all meaning. In the present “culture,” few care to distinguish—indeed, few are capable of distinguishing—between sincerity and the performance of sincerity, just as few distinguish between religious faith and religious observance. To the dubious question, Is this true faith? or, Is this true sincerity? one receives only a blank look. Truth? What is that? Sincerity? Of course I’m sincere—didn’t I say so?
    “The expensive American coaches his clients neither in how to perform true (sincere) apologies nor in how to perform false (insincere) apologies that will have the look of true (sincere) apologies, but simply in how to perform apologies that will not open them to being sued. In his eyes and in the eyes of his clients, an unscripted, unrehearsed apology will likely be an excessive, inappropriate, ill-calculated, and therefore false apology, that is to say, one that costs money, money being the measure of all things.
    “Jonathan Swift, thou shouldst be living at this hour.”

    One thing Coetzee seems to me to be after here is the sense in which we may lose not only the ability to say whether others are sincere, but also deprive ourselves of the possibility of being sincere. And this, not just by overlooking the reasons for being sincere in a particular case, but crucially by succumbing to a temptation to see things from a perspective where the point of being sincere or insincere in general is lost on us. – The question does not make sense to us anymore. We lose the ability to be interested in things in that general way; we lose the concept.
    Now, perhaps this only happens in extreme cases, and perhaps the sense of the importance of sincerity and truthfulness can be easily revived in most—I’m not sure. But I’m concerned with something else: with the relation of all that to first person authority. Whether we are sincere or not—about whether we are in pain, or in love, or whether we are truly sorry for what we have done—is normally a matter regarding which we have first person authority. And typically, first person authority is, and is taken to be, a given: something that cannot be taken away from us. But if Coetzee’s implied phenomenology is right, then we may, at least in some cases and at least in part, lose our first person authority: we may fall into such a condition where we cannot tell—indeed do not even know how to ask the question—about what we feel, or think, or want. And Coetzee’s case is indeed extreme. There are other cases in which we don’t quite know what we want, or think, or feel, or how to make decisions about all that. It is quite common actually: Is this true love? Is this the right career from me? Is my prayer sincere?
    Not having first person authority, I take it, does not mean that someone else has the authority. I cannot—conceptually—have first person authority over your thoughts, feelings, or desires. Rather, not having first person authority means that no one has the authority, and in a sense there is no one to have it: It is a kind of absence of self. I’m not sure how to describe this condition. Can this be described in Kierkegaardian terms as absence of subjective existence (for having lost it, or not yet established it), or as ability to exist only objectively (perhaps willingly assuming such existence, or not being capable yet of anything else)?
    In any case, if Coetzee is right and it is not a matter of course that we have first person authority, then it also seems to me that it is not easy to establish such authority either. Even if we have it, first person authority is not something we always have once and for all, or something that we are guaranteed to have. Rather, it is something we need to work at establishing and maintaining; and one way in which we establish it is by acquiring concepts: by learning to be interested in things in particular ways—e.g. in religion beyond observance, and sincerity beyond performance of sincerity. Can we call that self-examination?

  5. Reshef, that is indeed a haunting passage from Coetzee. I think you’re right, that first person authority has to be won over and over, even sentence by sentence. We know in our bones that the American lawyer, and anyone who thinks that his sophistry is OK, is way off the mark, morally, linguistically, in every imaginable way. How do we know it? By what authority do we so judge? Well, how do we know moral depth or reality when we see it? We learn to see it over time, and open ourselves to cross-checks with others we trust in these matters, and to cross-checks with ourselves. This is out of the land of proof. We imbibe these realities, develop a knack for them, recognize the touch of sincerity and the shout of its absence. It’s growing up in the world. If a cynic thinks the very idea of moral reality is a sham, well, we’re right back to square one, knowing in our bones that Socrates is right, that “sincerity” isn’t just a husk used by the powerful to bluff the unwary or weaker. Sometimes we have every right to speak authoritatively in the first person even as we fail to give an account of that authority. I want to say I have the right (the authority) to judge in the case of the benighted American lawyer and any who would seek his services. But I need to establish that right over and over, against this cynic and that one, by examples that are telling, are ‘perspicuous representations,’ by a sense of the human I hope that we finally, despite appearances, share. We get close here to Wittgenstein’s spade, and “reasons coming to and end,” and my being no more (and no less) than a creature caught up in creaturely streams of life. It’s human to live in such weakness, such exposure. A cynic might ask Socrates (our authority for what it is to examine a life) why he believes and trusts Diotima with no examination at all regarding who she is or what she promulgates or her authority to speak first personally about love. The Socrates who says he knows nothing also says the one thing he knows about is love — and that knowledge is derived from a priestess whose credentials he never checks. At the end of the day, the sage wins our assent, our hearts, our minds. This is, as you intimate, a Kierkegaardian moment.

    • Ed,
      I’m grateful that you brought back the notion of authority into the discussion, for in the original post, Kelly mentioned Kierkegaard’s understanding of himself as writing without authority.

      I take it that writing without authority has to mean more than just writing without expertise. A person can be an authority—an expert—on how to bake cakes, or on the history of the Roman Empire. And certainly, to write without authority is to write without this kind of authority. But there has to be more to Kierkegaard’s self-understanding; he thinks of himself as somehow writing without first-person authority—without self-knowledge—and this is the really interesting part.

      It seems to me that we can distinguish several related elements in this attempt to establish first person authority: (1) the establishment of our place in a community—a way of making contact with others, the acquisition of language. (2) The establishment of a sense of the reality in which we live—like acquiring the ability to see things. (3) The establishment of identity—the ability to account for who we are relative to others, and the ability to have inner clarity about ourselves.

      But I keep wanting to say more about this. For this description of self-examination treats it as an activity that has a point—a project we are attempting to complete, an arrow with a target. But it seems to me that part of what is so intriguing and enchanting about self-examination is a tendency that we have—well, I have; I can only speak for myself—to consider the arrow in itself, without regard to where it is going. In other words, I’m interested in self-examination not just as an ACTIVITY, but also as a CONDITION. I want to put the emphasis on “without,” and not on “authority.” And I don’t think I’m alone in this.

      For one thing, as an activity, self-examination is certainly a transformative activity. Acquiring this kind of knowledge about ourselves has a tendency to change us, to make our former selves vanish. But more importantly, there is something in this limbo—in this state before we reach our destination, where we listen inwardly and only hear silence, where we find an abyss in the midst of our self, that is fascinating and terrifying. One might say that in this state we are revealed to ourselves as an embodiment of nothingness.

      I asked my wife Dafi, and she found this passage in the notebooks Simone Weil:

      Knowledge of the self is love of God.
      Why?
      The Silence of God compels us to an inward silence.

      What I don’t know now is whether self-examination (the activity) and self-examination (the condition) are the same thing or not. Or is it one of those cases, in which the way can be suddenly revealed to be the end?

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