Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ask the Wrong Question . . .

From The Economist:
JOSHUA KNOBE, a pioneer in the field of "experimental philosophy" at Yale, has contributed a fascinating piece to the New York Times' online philosophy forum on the intuitions of ordinary folk about what constitutes the "true self". Mr Knobe takes up the illustrative example of Mark Pierpont, a once-prominent figure in the evangelical Christian movement to "cure" homosexuality who (surprise!) felt himself strongly attracted to men. So, who's the "real" Mark Pierpont? Mr Knobe writes:

One person might look at his predicament and say: “Deep down, he has always wanted to be with another man, but he somehow picked up from society the idea that this desire was immoral or forbidden. If he could only escape the shackles of his religious beliefs, he would be able to fully express the person he really is.”
But then another person could look at exactly the same case and arrive at the very opposite conclusion: “Fundamentally, Pierpont is a Christian who is struggling to pursue a Christian life, but these desires he has make it difficult for him to live by his own values. If he ever gives in to them and chooses to sleep with another man, he will be betraying what was is most essential to the person he really is.”

(Knobe’s original piece:


In his essay Knobe asks, “How is one to know which aspect of a person counts as that person’s true self?” “Philosophical tradition,” Knobe says, has “a relatively straightforward answer”:

This answer . . . says that what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection. A person might find herself having various urges, whims or fleeting emotions, but these are not who she most fundamentally is. If you want to know who she truly is, you would have to look to the moments when she stops to reflect and think about her deepest values.
But in contrast to the philosophical idea of the true self, Knobe says that people outside the field

are immediately drawn to the very opposite view. The true self, they suggest, lies precisely in our suppressed urges and unacknowledged emotions, while our ability to reflect is just a hindrance that gets in the way of this true self’s expression.
Knobe, himself, feels that neither of these definitions “fully captures the concept of a true self.” Knobe goes on to describe an experiment to test people’s ideas of a true self. To cut to the quick: the experiment determined that liberals thought that the true self was liberal and conservatives thought—well, you can guess. The findings of this study—a project of “the emerging interdisciplinary field of ‘experimental philosophy’”—Knobe says, “seem to point to an interesting new question.”

Does our ordinary notion of a “true self” simply pick out a certain part of the mind? Or is this notion actually wrapped up in some inextricable way with our own values and ideals?
(Those are two questions, but who’s counting?)


Well, ask a wrong question (or two) and you’ll get a wrong answer.

Knobe’s philosophical quest for the true self is grounded in the concept of “essentialism”—that is, there is underlying essence that defines the self and that is what makes it “true.”

But consider in contrast another New York Times essay, “What You See is the Real You” by psychoanalyst Willard Gaylin (Oct. 7, 1977). The essay begins as follows:

It was, I believe, the distinguished Nebraska financier Father Edward J. Flanagan who professed to having "never met a bad boy." Having, myself, met a remarkable number of bad boys, it might seem that either our experiences were drastically different or we were using the word "bad" differently. I suspect neither is true, but rather that the Father was appraising the "inner man," while I, in fact, do not acknowledge the existence of inner people. (Beautiful sarcasm, assuming you remember what Father Flanagan was all about.)
Gaylin goes on to confess that psychoanalysts have “unwittingly contributed” to a confusion that “has led to the prevalent tendency to think of the ‘inner’ man as the real man and the outer man as an illusion or pretender." We are asked to consider two cases. In the first case, a ninety-year-old man lies on his deathbed,

joyous and relieved over the success of his deception. For ninety years he has shielded his evil nature from public observation. For ninety years he has affected courtesy, kindness, and generosity -- suppressing all the malice he knew was within him while he calculatedly and artificially substituted grace and charity. All his life he had been fooling the world into believing he was a good man. This "evil" man will, I predict, be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The second case is that of a “young man who earns his pocket money by mugging old ladies.”

I will not be told [says Gaylin] that the young man . . . is "really" a good boy. Even my generous and expansive definition of goodness will not accommodate that particular form of self-advancement.
It does not count that beneath the rough exterior he has a heart—or, for that matter, an entire innards—of purest gold, locked away from human perception. You are for the most part what you seem to be, not what you would wish to be, nor, indeed, what you believe yourself to be.
And what you “seem to be” is determined by what you do. This is the existential answer to Knobe’s essentialist quest. Gaylin sums up:

The inner man is a fantasy. If it helps you to identify with one, by all means, do so; preserve it, cherish it, embrace it, but do not present it to others for evaluation or consideration, for excuse or exculpation, or, for that matter, for punishment or disapproval.
Like any fantasy, it serves your purposes alone. It has no standing in the real world which we share with each other. Those character traits, those attitudes, that behavior—that strange and alien stuff sticking out all over you—that's the real you!