Wednesday, June 08, 2011

A Whole Climate of Opinion

Joshua Knobe:

But when I mention this view to people outside the world of philosophy, they often seem stunned that anyone could ever believe it. They 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. To find a moment when a person’s true self comes out, they think, one needs to look at the times when people are so drunk or overcome by passion that they are unable to suppress what is deep within them.

For once, I don't even know where to begin quoting Nietzsche on the idea that there even is one single "true self", let alone one we can ever be completely conscious of. So I'll turn my attention elsewhere, confident that you will join me in dismissing the validity of the notion.

W.H. Auden wrote about Freud's legacy:

To us he was no more a person
Now but a whole climate of opinion.

Under whom we conduct our differing lives...

Yes, and it drives me slightly mad when confronted with the above belief, one of what I feel to be the most enduring parts of Freud's work, even among people who who would rightly roll their eyes at the idea that they ever wanted to fuck their own mothers or that their personality quirks are derived from conflicted feelings over their excretory functions. Why does a fleeting urge count as more of an honest expression of someone's nature than their more-or-less consistent behavior over a longer period of time? The neocortex is not necessarily the lie to the amygdala's truth.

It reminds me somewhat of how religious apologists are always insinuating (or outright claiming) that human nature is such that, left to our own devices, everyone would really prefer to be raping, robbing or pillaging, and that's why we need religion, or at least a belief in God, to keep us in line. Atheists wearily reply that it never seems to occur to these people that maybe we've considered what it would be like if we were to act on those impulses and have consciously decided against it, either because we don't consider the consequences worth the risk, or because we value the more subtle pleasures involved in being so-called civilized over those of immediate gratification.

In both cases, there's a core assumption that your knee-jerk impulses are more real, true, or valid, and that anything beyond them is a façade of after-the-fact rationalization, sublimation, or fraudulent deception. But they're not necessarily any of those things; they're just simpler. Thoughtful consideration isn't necessarily better or worse or more right or wrong than acting on impulse; it's just different. No one would consider a rough draft to be truer than the finished painting, novel or song; what if you attempt to cultivate your life like a work of art? What counts for more then, the inchoate jumble of competing ideas, or the realization of the overall vision?