Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Self-Deception and the Splitting of the Ego

Pollock portrait-and-a-dream-1953
Herbert Fingarette (20 January 1921 – 2 November 2018) on the “splitting of the ego” and self-deception 

The following is but taste of the argument from Fingarette’s essay, yet it is intended to entice you into reading the original in its entirety. I’ve appended a short list of books on self-deception (not all of which are penned by philosophers) and there is a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry on same should anyone want to further explore this topic (the SEP entry’s bibliography contains the requisite journal articles as well). For those not used to a regular diet of philosophy or who are fairly new to philosophical writing by professional philosophers, a less intimidating but no less informative entry on self-deception is found at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) under “Self-Deception, Ethics and.”
  • Freud’s “doctrine on defence and the unconscious constitutes the most elaborately worked out, the most extensively applied contemporary doctrine touching self-deception.”
  • “The alteration of consciousness in defence should not be understood primarily in terms of knowledge and ignorance but, instead, by reference to the ‘dynamics’ of defence, that is, by reference to those feature of defence which we would in everyday language refer to in such terms as ‘purpose,’ ‘will,’ ‘motive,’ and finally ‘action.’” [This still might be characterized, in part, in terms of ‘self-knowledge,’ which is a peculiar form of knowing rather distinguishable from knowledge as such.]
  • Defence indicates a kind of split in the psyche in which, “so to speak, the ego says, this is not-me.” The splitting is “something the ego does, a motivated strategy,” leading to the creation of what we might term a “counter-ego nucleus” (like the synthetic or integrated ego, this too involves the id and super-ego).
  • “Psychoanalytic therapeutic technique is basically designed to offer to the counter-ego the possibility of some substantial gratification in altered form and harmoniously with the ego, and to offer to the ego the possibility of a bearable avowal of the counter-ego. The therapist thus makes possible avowal (removal of counter-cathexis and integration of the counter-ego into the ego).”
  • In explicitly avowing what was disavowed, the patient becomes conscious of what was heretofore unconscious (and perniciously so), the avowal being a “distinctive and natural expression of ones’ having abandoned defence.”
  • “As Freud said, the aim of psychoanalysis is not to tell the person what is good or bad or right or wrong in a specific context, but to ‘give the patient’s ego freedom to decide one way or the other.’ The medical aim is thus in substance a spiritual aim. It is to help the individual become an agent and cease being a patient; it is to liberate, not indoctrinate.”
— Herbert Fingarette, from his essay, “Self-deception and the ‘splitting of the ego,’” based on edited passages from the first edition of his book, Self-Deception (Routledge, 1969), in Richard Wollheim and James Hopkins, eds., Philosophical Essays on Freud (Cambridge University Press, 1982): 212-227.

Gottlieb phoenix burst 1973
A handful of books on (deception and) self-deception that I’ve found helpful (and, for the most part, enjoyed reading!):
  • Ames, Roger T. and Wimal Dissanayake, eds. Self and Deception: A Cross-Cultural Philosophical Enquiry (State University of New York Press, 1996).
  • Barnes, Annette. Seeing Through Self-Deception (Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  • Cohen, Stanley. States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (Polity Press, 2001).
  • Elster, Jon. (§ IV) “Belief, Bias and Ideology,” in his book, Sour Grapes: studies in the subversion of rationality (Cambridge University Press, 1983).
  • Fingarette, Herbert. Self-Deception (University of California Press, 2nd ed., 2000).
  • Giannetti, Eduardo (John Gledson, trans.) Lies We Live By: The Art of Self-Deception (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000).
  • Marar, Ziyad. Deception (Acumen, 2008).
  • Mele, Alfred R. Self-Deception Unmasked (Princeton University Press, 2001). [Kent Bach’s excellent review of this book is available here].
  • Miller, William Ian. Faking It (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Some titles I’ve yet to read (but come highly recommended):
  • Haight, M.R. A Study of Self-Deception (Harvester Press, 1980).
  • Martin, Mike W., ed. Self-Deception and Self-Understanding: New Essays in Philosophy and Psychology (University Press of Kansas, 1985).
  • Pears, David. Motivated Irrationality (Clarendon Press, 1984).
Images: Jackson Pollock, Portrait and a Dream (1953) and Adolph Gottlieb, Phoenix Burst (1973) respectively.


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