Sunday, 3 April 2016

knowing your own mind as an emotional and ethical achievement

The conception of self-knowledge on offer in ‘theory of mind’, developmental psychological, approaches, describes it’s attainment in merely cognitive terms. It is, I believe, typically seen as an ability which is not intrinsically ethical or emotional. Sure, we may become able to self-ascribe moral attitudes or emotional states, but the ability to self-ascribe such states is not itself described in emotional or ethical terms.

Well, I think this an unpersuasive account of the phenomenology of self-knowledge. All I can appeal to here is your honest self-reflection, and all I can do is describe my own. So here is how it seems to me. That when I”m feeling something that I’m not already able to simply own and avow, I’m in some kind of a state of anxiety, of which I also may be unaware. That it is hard to acknowledge this state without both wanting, or hoping I have the means, to make it cease. That I would rather ignore it than acknowledge it, if such acknowledgement does not somehow lead to its going away. That allowing my own disturbing emotional experience to be there is difficult. That what helps with this is an attitude of self-solicitude, an attitude in which I thoughtfully, kindly, accept the feeling and accept my self and my own vulnerability in feeling it, rather than unkindly neglect myself. That this may sometimes mean feeling emotions I’m ashamed of, which perhaps seem unbecoming or regressive. But that if I accept myself where I’m at I can foster the conditions to grow up and through such feelings over time. That attaining such emotional self-knowledge is demanding, for it means suffering. That, however, the more I can suffer my feelings, the less anxious I am.

Now, isn’t this just how it is? Not: how it is for exceptionally neurotic people, say, but rather: just how it is for anyone?

And, now, a stronger claim: I can imagine someone saying ‘Well, yes, Richard, not just the having but also the attaining of emotionally difficult self-knowledge is an ethical (self-solicitudinous) and emotional (anxious and painful) achievement. But why are you focusing on the difficult painful cases? Aren’t there plenty of others which are very much easier to self-ascribe? Cool cases, cases in which I can self-ascribe beliefs in the same manner as I may be able to other-ascribe beliefs (James thinks the smarties tube has smarties in but it has pencils in’).’

My reaction to this is that it is an empirical matter whether it is quite such a cool business to self-ascribe false beliefs and many ordinary emotions. I’m not so sure - but how about you? - that it’s all that easy to acknowledge errors or acknowledge even minor emotional perturbations. Self-ascribing true beliefs about cool matters is an easier matter - one hardly has to do anything other than say what one takes to be the case. Error however is often galling, and those shifts in the whole state of the self we call ‘feelings’ are often disconcerting. (Hence the psychotic ambition for nirvana.) Given the prima facie reasonableness of this, isn’t it the cognitive developmentalist who owes us the data on the independence of the capacity to avow from the capacities to show kindness to oneself and suffer?