Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Tiberius on Reflection (and the Self)

From the opening pages of Valerie Tiberius' The Reflective Life:
But it turns out that the rational or reflective self isn't all that good a charioteer after all. Recent investigations in empirical psychology show us that the self-conscious, rational processor is more fallible than we imagined. The rational self makes inaccurate predictions about what we'll find satisfying, is plagued by biases, and has a tendency to distraction. When we try to be reflective about our choices, we end up confused about our reasons, and we choose things we don't ultimately like. The rational self is hardly the reasonable, responsible, and prudent leader we took it to be. (p. 5)
She goes on, but you get the idea. Bad news for reflection. (And roughly, like it or not, reason is "the slave of the passions.") What to do, what to do? She continues:
Perhaps, then, we should abandon the reflective self and identify with the elephant [viz. the passions]. But this won't work either, for two reasons. First, our non-reflective, emotional selves are not the best leaders either. The most obvious problem here is that we can have passions that lead us in opposite directions, leading to a lot of frustation. Even without conflict, momentary passions can lead us ina directions that frustrate our long-term interests.

Second, it is as reflective creatures that we want to know how we ought to live our lives. People who ask questions like "What is the best life for me? or "How should I live?" are already engaged in some reflection about their lives, and so these questions need an answer that will satisfy us insofar as we are being reflective. (p. 5)
Even though reflection has limitations and is prone to certain kinds of mistakes, the answer to the several questions here can't be "stop thinking" (full stop)--or as a put it in a prior post, "Don't Think Too Hard".

That said, Tiberius wants us to reflect better, and not, for that matter, "too much." (There are times when we should just live.) Her project strikes me as very much on the right track; we want reflection to "get us somewhere we'd like to be" (p. 7). "Somewhere" seems quite apt, and Tiberius doesn't want to postulate a summum bonum for, as it were, all of humanity, but to start from our own first-person, reflective viewpoints.

However, something about these opening remarks rubbed me the wrong way, although this is somewhat a side concern, especially since Tiberius wants to consider "how to train the rational and reflective capacities we actually have so that they function together with our emotions, moods, and desires" (p. 7). What irks me is the implicit division of the self into a "reflective self" and a "non-reflective (emotional?) self," and all the Platonic and Cartesian meanings and baggage that go along with that. Not having read the whole book, I'm interested to see what else, if anything, Tiberius has to say about this division. But there is something suspicious in the implicit idea that the "real me" is the reflective self, rather than the other self, or that this is, as Descartes might have it, a "real distinction" (i.e. a distinction between two wholly different entities).

The problem, I suspect, is that we'd like to think that the "real me" is the reflective me, not the (part of) me that acts spontaneously, sometimes in ways that we don't like, on reflection. But that sort of distancing from our spontaneous, emotional lives just fosters the idea that the emotions are not wholly "us", and thus, like Plato's wild horse, need to be whipped, etc. Now, since Tiberius aligns herself with Hume, I assume she rejects the core of those ideas. (And certainly, the first few pages are just laying out the philosophical situation and traditional responses, so Ii don't exactly want to pin these criticisms on her, as much as the language with which we (philosophers) have grown accustomed to discussing and framing these problems.)

To begin with a division of the self distracts from the thought that we are one person with one life, and in those respects, one self, all of which can be more or less integrated. Sometimes we reflect, but most often we act, and experience, and respond, etc. These are all activities of a single self (barring multiple personalities, etc.), not the doings of distinct "homunculi" within the soul. Presumably, none of this is to quibble with Tiberius' direction, but it makes more clear that reflection is not some privileged activity among others, even though it is an activity that is the only one suited at all to its aim.

But what is the aim of reflection? It isn't knowledge, for emotions (and more generally experience) can be a source of knowledge. (Similarly, it can't be self-knowledge, because psychology can tell us a lot about ourselves, as can our friends!) If reflection has a distinct aim, then, it is not the production (or discovery) of knowledge, but the ordering of knowledge (or, if you want, information). This ordering is the basis for personal decisions about what's important. (So reflection, and what some would call the "faculty of judgment" are, here, related.) Whether we go on to live by those decisions depends upon a great many other things (and is connected to whether our lives are more or less integrated).

Privileging reflection (a la Plato and the rational) is like saying that one organ is more important than all the others--but they are all essential for life. (Of course, one might say the brain has a special status, is irreplaceable, etc., but that might only be a contingent fact. And at any rate, the other important aspects of "the self" are going to have a significant claim on the brain, too. So no one gets to plant its flag first!) On the other hand, it's no good pooh-poohing on reflection as if the lesson is to give up on it, because there isn't anything to replace it in our practical lives (which is, roughly, Tiberius' point).

(Thanks again to Pamela for reminding me of this book! I'm likely to have more to say on this book as I read on...)


  1. Tiberius' distinction or division between a "reflective" and "non-reflective" self may be a fair reflection of the pervasiveness of "dual-process" theories in contemporary empirical psychology. As Timothy D. Wilson (a psychologist whose work, along with that of Daniel Wegner, is frequently invoked as empirical confirmation of Nietzsche's psychological profundity and prescience) puts it:

    Since [Freud], numerous dual process theories have been proposed that posit the existence of separate information processing systems, with one of them being much more available to consciousness than the other[...] These theories suggest that Freud may have been too conservative in his characterization of the unconscious. The architecture of the mind is such that a great deal of mental processing occurs outside of conscious awareness, not because thoughts and feelings are threatening to people, but because that is how the mind has evolved to work [...T]he key distinction is that one system is less available to introspection, and it is up to the other to make conscious inferences about oneself that may or may not be accurate.

    And here, of course, is the especially Nietzschean part I relish:

    These theories typically adopt a more pessimistic outlook on self-knowledge than psychoanalysis, because they view a lack of access to mental processes as part of the architecture of the mind that can’t be breached, rather than the results of motivational forces that can be overcome (albeit with difficulty).


  2. Rob: I agree it's a fair reflection of several different ways of thinking of the self as divided. It was maybe just the wording that set me off: that there are multiple "selves" in the self doesn't, in a certain way, make sense. Better to talk about parts of the self, perhaps. But then I guess the question is whether--or how--the unconscious bits are to be identified as part of the self, rather than something alien...

  3. Perhaps a benefit of the otherwise troublesome distinction between two selves is that it opens the possibility that the center of balance, as it were, of our identity can shift back and forth between them?