Saturday, June 17, 2017

Beyond Illusions & Delusions: Knowledge of Ignorance and the Disposition to Truth

Propositions pivotal to the “default liberal optimism about human welfare:”
  1. People tend to fare best when they possess, more or less, the greatest possible freedom to live as they wish. Exceptions will be marginal. Ideally, people will face circumstance of maximally unbounded and unburdened choice. 
  2. More freedom in determining the character of one’s life is almost always better, in terms of average well-being, with exceptions representing a fringe of special cases. 
  3. The benefits of option freedom are not marginal but major. A great increase in option freedom will typically yield large gains in well-being. 
  4. Individuals are almost always better positioned to make choices concern their well-being than anyone else, aside from limited resources and matters of special expertise. 
  5. People not only do best in conditions of unbounded choice; they tend to do pretty 
  6. Option freedom benefits individuals primarily through the successful exercise of their own agency. This is because it enables them to tailor their lives to their particular needs.
The Systematic Imprudence thesis:
Human beings are systematically prone to make a wide range of serious errors in matters of personal welfare. These errors are weighty enough to substantially compromise the expected lifetime of well-being for individuals possessing a high degree of freedom to shape their lives as they wish, even under reasonably favorable conditions (education, etc.).
From Daniel M. Haybron’s The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being (Oxford University Press, 2008).
*    *    *
“The Socratic allegories, unlike the Homeric myths, inherently encourage dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs. They thus motivated us to try to go on in different ways. If Socrates is right that we have been living in a dream [cf. the complex—and different—use of dreams and dreaming in the Advaita Vedanta and Buddhist traditions1], then these allegories serve as a wake-up call. If he is right that, unbeknownst to us, we have been living in prison [the Platonic Cave], then in becoming aware of that we begin to chafe at the chains. [….]
As such, the Cave seeks to instill a new form of Socratic ignorance. As is well known, in the Apology, Socrates says that he discovered that he was the wisest among humans because he knew that he did not know. But the Cave is a story that is designed to put Glaucon, and anyone else ready to hear it, into a position in which they can begin to recognize that they do not know. Socrates says that education is not a matter of putting knowledge into souls, but of turning the whole soul away from the darkness and toward the light [as several classical Greek and Indic philosophies, as well as teachings in the Judaic tradition would have it, it is a matter of having a proper disposition to truth2]. Certainly, what we are turning away from are images, shadow, echoes, allegories, not recognized as such. Thus we are turning away from a dreamlike state. And what we are turning toward is a recognition that if we are to understand what these images, we must grasp that they are images, and we must struggle to understand what these images are images of. Indeed, the process of turning away is constituted by coming to recognize the ‘allegorical’ nature of ordinary experience [this has a Daoist flavor3]. We may not yet be able to say what the deeper meanings are [although perhaps philosophical, psychoanalytic, or spiritual therapy can help!4]—thus we remain ignorant—but we are able to glimpse that the images are pointing toward deeper meanings; and thus we at least know that we are ignorant. So the allegory of the Cave facilitates a Socratic movement from being ignorant, yet ignorant of one’s ignorance, to being ignorant but aware that one is ignorant. And insofar as ordinary life is like a dream [thus involving illusions and delusions5], then we are moved toward Socratic ignorance, we begin to wake up.”—Jonathan Lear, from one of the essays in his latest book, Wisdom Won from Illness: Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Harvard University Press, 2017)
  1. See, for example, the superb treatment of prominent dream allegories and arguments in these two worldwiews in Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad’s brilliant book, Advaita Epistemology and Metaphysics: An Outline of Indian Non-Realism (RoutledgeCurzon, 2002): chapter 2, “Śankara, Vasubandhu and the idealist used of dreaming,”38-92.
  2. For a brief discussion that introduces the ancient pedigree of this concern in the context of Fromm’s use of the locution, “the pathology of normalcy,” please see Daniel Burston’s The Legacy of Erich Fromm (Harvard University Press, 1991): chapter 6, “Consensus, Conformity, and False Consciousness: ‘The Pathology of Normalcy,’” 133-158.
  3. Cf. Michael LaFargue’s commentaries on numerous passages in the Daodejing in his book, The Tao of the Tao Te Ching (a translation and commentary) State University of New York Press, 1992.
  4. Relevant titles on the value of psychoanalytic therapy are found in the first two sections of this bibliography: For various understandings of “philosophical therapy,” please see Jonardon Ganeri and Clare Carlisle, eds. Philosophy as Therapeia, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement: 66 (Cambridge University Press, 2010); Martha Nussbaum’s (now) classic study, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton University Press, 1994); and Michael McGhee’s Transformations of Mind: Philosophy as Spiritual Practice (Cambridge University Press, 2000). On “religious” or, perhaps better, spiritual therapies (‘exercises’), see: John Cottingham’s The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and John Haldane’s essay, “On the very idea of spiritual values,” in Anthony O’Hear, ed. Philosophy, the Good, the True and the Beautiful (Cambridge University Press, 2000): 53-71.
  5. For illustrations of the (not exclusively) Buddhist perspective on this, see Jan Westerhoff, Twelve Examples of Illusion (Oxford University Press, 2010).
Further Reading (i.e., in addition to the titles found above):
  • Barnes, Annette. Seeing through Self-Deception. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Bilgrami, Akeel. Self-Knowledge and Resentment. Harvard University Press, 2006.
  • Boudon, Raymond. The Art of Self-Persuasion. Polity Press, 1994.
  • Cohen, Stanley. States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering. Blackwell, 2001.
  • Cooper, John M. Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus. Princeton University Press, 2012.
  • Cottingham, John. Philosophy and the Good Life: Reason and the Passions in Greek, Cartesian and Psychoanalytic Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Dawes, Robyn M. Everyday Irrationality. Westview Press, 2001.
  • Elster, Jon. Sour Grapes: studies in the subversion of rationality. Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Elster, Jon. Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Fingarette, Herbert. Self-Deception. University of California Press, 2000.
  • Giannetti, Eduardo. Lies We Live By: The Art of Self-Deception. Bloomsbury, 2000.
  • Gillett, Grant. Subjectivity and Being Somebody: Human Identity and Neuroethics. Imprint Academic, 2008.
  • Hacker, P.M.S. Human Nature: The Categorial Framework. Blackwell, 2007.
  • Hutto, Daniel D. Folk Psychological Narratives: The Sociocultural Basis of Understanding Reasons. MIT Press, 2008.
  • Hutto, Daniel D. Narrative and Understanding Persons. Cambridge University Press (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement: 60), 2007.
  • Hutto, Daniel D., ed. Narrative and Folk Psychology. Imprint Academic, 2009.
  • La Rochefoucauld (Leonard Tancock, tr.) Maxims. Penguin Books, 1959.
  • Lynch, Michael P. Truth in Context: An Essay on Pluralism and Objectivity. MIT Press, 1998.
  • Lynch, Michael P. Truth as One and Many. Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Murdoch, Iris. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. Chatto & Windus, 1992.
  • Murdoch, Iris (Peter Conradi, ed.) Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. Penguin Books, 1999 (Chatto & Windus, 1997).
  • Rustin, Michael. The Good Society and the Inner World: Psychoanalysis, Politics and Culture. Verso, 1991.
  • Siderits, Mark, Evan Thompson, and Dan Zahavi, eds. Self, No Self? Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, and Indian Traditions. Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Smith, Christian. What Is a Person? University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  • Tallis, Raymond. The Explicit Animal: A Defence of Human Consciousness. St. Martin’s Press, 1999 edition.
  • Tallis, Raymond. The Hand: A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being. Edinburgh University Press, 2003.
  • Tallis, Raymond. I Am: An Inquiry into First-Person Being. Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
  • Tallis, Raymond. The Knowing Animal: A Philosophical Inquiry into Knowledge and Truth. Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
  • Tallis, Raymond. Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. Acumen, 2011.
  • Teichmann, Roger. Nature, Reason, and the Good Life: Ethics for Human Beings. Oxford University Press, 2011.


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