Here is a draft of a talk I am to give soon. I was asked to present something that might inspire majors and non-majors, and to do something more like what I would do in a class than what I would do giving a conference paper. This is the result so far. It is a formalization of the sort of thing I might do in an upper-level class. Since I think of it as a talk and not a paper, it is not bedecked with all the scholarly niceties–footnotes or full footnotes, etc. Most of the footnotes are really just drawers in which I have stashed useful quotations or (I hope) brief, helpful clarifications. Comments welcome.
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). 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.
 Each transcendent self condemns the immanent self and inspires its own eventual condemnation, since as it becomes immanent a new transcendent self becomes visible.
Cavell notes that in Part IV of The Claim of Reason PI had shifted for him from object of interpretation to means of interpretation. I mention this because of my growing sense of how much of the blog has been devoted to trying to say something about the importance of PI, to reveal something of what and how it is central in my life, and I am chagrined by the error of each trial. Nonetheless, I continue, even as I fail to satisfy myself in treating PI as an object of interpretation, —I continue unabashedly to use it as a means, even as my primary mean, of interpretation. That impresses me now as mysterious. Is it because I am convinced by the rightness of PI beyond my ability to articulate that rightness? But how should I understand that inarticulate conviction? Can it be trusted? Or is it rather that my conviction of its rightness is itself justified for me by my repetitiously endured inability to articulate that rightness, as if being able to articulate it would demote PI from its position as standard for me, so that success would be a form of self-defeat? Or is it rather because my conviction is that PI requires itself to withstand all of its own judgments, understands itself both as supplying and suffering its own terms of criticism, making itself simultaneously object and source of philosophical criticism? Or is it rather because only what shows itself as a faithful means of interpretation is surely worth the difficulty of interpreting?
Those who have been following the blog will recognize this as a both recapitulation and variation on earlier bits and pieces. It is from the essay I am working on.
I’ve been talking about our relationship to philosophical problems, and I want to say more about that idea. The idea is made more clear by Cavell’s notion of a generic object–and in its turn makes Cavell’s notion clearer. (I will not now say more about the use to which the notion (and its companion notion, specific object) is put by Cavell. To see that use, look at pages 52ff. of The Claim of Reason.)
Consider Cavell’s crucial comment:
I will not by such titles be meaning to suggest that there are two kinds of objects in the world [generic and specific], but rather to summarize the spirit in which an object is under discussion, the kind of problem that has arisen about it, the problem in which it presents itself as the focus of investigation.”
Here (briefly) is what I take to be crucial: whether the object under discussion is to be ‘classified’ as generic is a matter not settled by the object itself (by its marks or features), but rather by the way in which we are related to the object–but that means by the way in which we are related to the problem of which the object is the focus. To ‘classify’ the object as generic is really to classify the spirit of our discussion, our relationship to the problem. In the Kierkegaardian terminology I habitually use here, to ‘classify’ an object as a generic object is to highlight the how of our relationship to it, not the what of the object. (The distinction between generic and specific objects is not metaphysical but metaphilosophical.)
Cavell’s phenomenologies of philosophizing, populating the pages of The Claim of Reason, are extensions of Wittgenstein’s own (less protracted) phenomenologies of philosophizing, populating the pages of Philosophical Investigations. And the phenomenologies are devoted to revealing our relationship to philosophical problems.
A quick thought. Recall Cavell’s wonderful description of Wittgenstein’s famous line that “if a lion could talk we could not understand him”(II, pg. 223). He describes the line as “penetrating past assessment ” to “become part of the sensibility from which assessment proceeds”. If it does less than that, he concludes, the line is “philosophically useless”. Shouldn’t we describe one of Cavell’s most famous lines, a question, in the same way, mutatis mutandis?
Can philosophy become literature and still know itself?