Friday, March 09, 2007

Know Thyself: Impossible?

Comment on “Do the Impossible: Know Thyself” by Theodore Dalrymple, New English Review, March 2007.

In the following lines I approach the question from an angle different from but not opposed to or at variance with that of Dr. Dalrymple, whose conclusions I find insightful, sagacious, and truly enlightening. Indeed, I fear that my angle of approach being so different, my comments may be thought irrelevant to the content of the article.

I agree that it is an illusion to think that we are “on the verge of … a breakthrough in self-understanding”, not, however, because self-understanding is an impossibility but because we are taking the wrong road to that destination.

A question ‘that is in principle unanswerable’ might be unanswerable not because it demands the impossible but because the question-form suggests that the answer be sought outside the terms of the question, whereas the terms of the question do constitute the reality sought. Thus the endless quandaries of neuroscience and philosophy of mind stem from the error of treating the mind as an object to be explained in terms of other objects – be those elements, concepts, or processes – instead of seeing the self-evident reality of the mind as the first principle of all meaning and all explanation.

This position is not to be confounded with the belief that the thorny practical problems of human existence have been solved. The inner reality of the mind may be our citadel, but on the outside not only the world at large, not only human society at large, not only our body, but even all the drives, inclinations, fears, imposed dogmas and superstitions that throng the mind, form a dark and fearsome jungle that we can only cut through slowly by the instruments of empirical inquiry and pragmatic trial and error. Only those who have surrendered their minds to dogmatism of whatever kind think there are ready, definitive answers to the problems of human existence. But this question is distinct from and should be kept distinct from that of the philosophical question about the mind.

I have no problem, for instance, with conceding that neuropsychiatry may be of help in dealing with certain behavioural or interpersonal problems.

However, self-understanding, the self-understanding that Socrates preached, that Buddha sought, is not something to be achieved, by an individual person or by humanity at large, definitively and once for all. It is not knowledge arrived at and established by some science: it is a way of life, founded on the realization that our inner reality, our inner life, which can only be in the exercise of intelligence, in living as rational beings, is what makes us human and is what gives us what worth we might claim. This self-understanding is not impossible, it is something all normal human beings have some flicker of, but it is not something that may be captured in any fixed objective formulation.


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