Tuesday, March 16, 2004

How Do We Know Who We Are?

I think Magnolia would like How Do We Know Who We Are?: A Biography of the Self as well:
"The terrain of the self is vast," notes renowned psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig, "parts known, parts impenetrable, and parts unexplored." How do we construct a sense of ourselves? How can a self reflect upon itself or deceive itself? Is all personal identity plagiarized? Is a "true" or "authentic" self even possible? Is it possible to really "know" someone else or ourselves for that matter? To answer these and many other intriguing questions, Ludwig takes a unique approach, examining the art of biography for the insights it can give us into the construction of the self. In The Biography of the Self, he takes readers on an intriguing tour of the biographer's art, revealing how much this can tell us about ourselves.
He has a memorable account answering the question (pp. 85-86): Can others know us better than we know ourselves?

During a morning walk, I silently rate how well I know myself, then ask my wife to rate how well she knows me on a scale from zero to one hundred percent. I estimate I know myself seventy five percent; she says she knows me ninety percent. "That’s ridiculous, you can’t know me better than I know myself" I protest, thinking about my private and often taboo thoughts. "But I do," she replies. Annoyed, I blurt out, "Now why did I ask such a stupid question?" She smiles, then says, "Do you want me to tell you?"

This anecdote highlights a number of important issues. By initially asking my wife to rate her knowledge of me, I make the assumption that the real me, my essence, is represented by the sanctum sanctorum of my private mental life, which, unless I choose to reveal it, is inaccessible to all. By her response, she makes the assumption that knowledge about my secret and forbidden thoughts is irrevelant to her knowledge of me. Whatever the reasons, I find it disturbing that someone can claim to know me even better than I know myself. It’s a threat to my sense of autonomy. The only consolation I have is that I’m in good company After his wife made a similar claim, John Cheever lamented in his journal, "It seems so unnatural."

In general, what we mean by knowing ourselves is an awareness of our own mental processes that may or may not precede any action, or in the absence of his awareness, knowledge of the mental processes that may or may not follow any action, letting us reconstruct for ourselves why the action happened. It is our awareness of these mental processes (whether or not they actually are necessary for these actions) that sustains our belief in personal options and freedom choice. We reason that if our thoughts and behaviors are linked, then they must be causally related, especially if one precedes the other. We resist the possibility that our thought processes may simply represent ad hoc justifications or post hoc rationalizations for doing what we’re inclined to do, accentuating our performances like accompanists at a recital.

Since those who believe they know us can’t read our thoughts unless we reveal them, they have to rely on other clues about us. We may experience our actions as purposeful, but others often perceive them as dispositional traits that determine how predictable we are, The implications of this are important. If we are completely predictable to others, then we represent nothing more than biological servomechanisms, automatically responding to environmental stimuli according to our instincts or psychological programming. Total predictability means strict causality, and strict causality means the lack of free will. When there are no surprises, then strict cause-and-effect or stimulus-response must be at work, negating the theoretical existence of a sovereign, independent, and potentially spontaneous self.

I tell my wife that she is probably bored being married to someone so predictable. She wisely denies that, saying it’s comforting to her to know how I will behave. Then she offers a sop to my ego by saying that anyway I’m not totally predictable. On rare occasions I can surprise her.

Fortunately for my pride, the issue of being totally predictable is more theoretical than real, probably because all the relevant variables about people never can be known. No matter how well we know others, they always have the potential for some unexpected, out-of-character response, if not in action then in their
fantasies or thoughts. For example, a farmer who engages in the same routine day in and day out, attends church regularly and does whatever he is supposed to do, one day goes in the barn and, in Richard Gory fashion, puts a bullet through his head. A former member of the Ku Klux Klan and a strict Baptist like William 0. Black, after appointment to the Supreme Court, turns out to be one of its most liberal members. Lovers who at one time are willing to die for one another later turn out to be bitter enemies. Once sentenced to prison, a White House aide
becomes a born-again Christian.

Predictability, then, is less of an absolute than a probability statement, much like weather forecasting. Knowing others, in one sense, means that we’re able to make reasonable guesses about how they are disposed to act: their habits, their customary responses, and their typical patterns of behavior under varying circumstances. When they are capricious, volatile, or unstable, they keep us emotionally off-balance. The more important others are to us, the more important it is for us to know what to expect from them. So when they don’t behave as we expect them to, we try to find ways to increase the accuracy of our forecasts. One of the ways we do this is to construct plausible narratives to explain their behavior.


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