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Common Knowledge, Volume 19, Issue 2, Spring 2013, pp. 205-210 (Article)
Published by Duke University Press
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Again. misses the emperor. A perennial favorite is Louis XVI. and is wounded. Take his journal entry for July 14. most people seem certain that. The king kept an uninterrupted record of engagements from the age of eleven. we assume. falls asleep.” Among many others.” the sergeant replies. “Is this a real battle?” he asks a sergeant. wanders around the ﬁelds of Waterloo in his desire to ﬁght alongside Napoleon. whose reputation attained a quasi- Stendhalian condition of unintended misery. Those who have doubts about where they are or what is going on around them we dismiss as examples of historical stupidity. for someone not to have been aware of a historical event of such consequence. were he around) and in the process substituted a complete analysis of the French Revolution. “A little. and the events of July 14 were not royal engagements.” “Nothing. Leon Trotsky complained of the “depressing spiritual emptiness” of Louis’s journals. “Rien. were they to have had the misfortune of having been Louis. Perhaps the reason why we half- smile at Fabrice’s misfortunes is that we are certain we would have never had any such doubts. It would take immense stupidity and even callousness.1215/0961754X-2073197 © 2013 by Duke University Press 205 .CoLuMNS IN DEFENSE OF LOUIS XVI Miguel Tamen Hapless Fabrice del Dongo. perhaps even a cultural analysis of the French Revolution. is rescued by an innkeeper.” Common Knowledge 19:2 DOI 10. they would have relinquished power promptly (to Trotsky. but no one seems to care. sees some action. the hero of Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme. which moreover was taking place in his immediate vicinity. gets lost. for the royal entry. half- sees Marshall Ney. 1789: “Rien. king of France.
First. in Trotsky’s book. one that comes easily and goes down smoothly: being at the place of an event does not guarantee that one understands what is going on. After all. or with me. or indeed whether someone who has never been there may know more about it than someone who has been there often. The main one is that. There are two other points that need making instead. How could there be a remedy for this- t hing- here being insufﬁciently somewhere? The reason why claiming that people are not particularly well qualiﬁed to describe their own thoughts and intentions sounds counterintuitive and preposterous is that we tend to imagine there is a scale of assuredness to be derived from our relation to the object that is to be known. though it also introduces a number of difﬁculties. What suggests that we cannot perceive distant objects also appears to suggest that we can trust our instincts. The king’s lack of experience with revolutions and insufﬁcient knowledge of the laws of history were shortcomings that. they are really different in kind. having to do with the understanding of “I” as — in the words of Elizabeth Anscombe — “this- thing- here. the latter are by deﬁnition closer to us than the former. Or are they? Part of the difﬁculty comes from imagining that. There seems to be a connection between my two points. though there may be disagreements about whether “being there” is a necessary condition or an optional feature of knowing anything about it. perhaps in inches or in years. does not guarantee that I understand what happened.There is no need to argue that Louis’s comment on the meaning of July 14 has proved to be a prescient anticipation of all the consequences of the events in question. appears to be without remedy. We would wish for such a relation to be measurable. they must occupy a place in space and time — they must be located somewhere. although my two points seem related. if intentions and self- awareness in general exist. One has only to say a few words about cultural diversity and perspectivism for this point to be immediately granted. Not being present to oneself. on the other hand. Yet our perceptual devices have Co M M o N K N o W L E d G E 20 6 . The second point I wish to make is less familiar and consensual and involves the claim that something having happened to me. It does not occur to most people that being the person who is reporting on his or her own feelings might not constitute assurance enough for those kinds of reports to be true. Concessions to diversity and perspectivism do not seem to apply here. Trotsky might have excused Louis XVI more easily for not having understood what was going on in Paris in July 1789 than for not having realized what was happening to himself personally. could be remedied by reeducation. and we feel tempted to derive from the trivial experience of nearsightedness a whole theory of skepticism.” It is the funny word here that makes the connection. The rest of the difﬁculty comes from imagining that there is an organic parallel to introspection and thus that what I know about myself is known through perception.
Granted. The rejoinder that we feel there is something wrong with us before we ask other people is unpersuasive. wishes. Needless to say.” To deliberately move oneself into a bodily position conducive to an adequate examination of one’s mental states would be a form of optional gymnastics rather than a condition for self-k nowledge. Indeed. not the philosopher. William James once remarked that our so- called states of consciousness are always analyzable in terms of bodily organs and bodily impressions — he called them “bodily facts” — rather than known by “direct introspective acquaintance. Position. our ﬁrst impression is still to a great extent the best impression. and intentions. a good example. given enough time. the argument goes. since we are sure that something is wrong with us. and understand many things about ourselves that we cannot perceive. But it is misleading to the extent to which the soul is not an organ and so is of no great consolation to that line of defense. if anything. Not necessarily. It cannot. We often resort to asking other people whether there is anything wrong with us. is wrong with us. call the plumber.” since very often we see things about our bodies that we do not understand. someone will be right about us eventually. Our belief that there are forms of “ﬁrst- person authority” is.” What can be denied is that the claim to know the causes of the peristaltic movements of your own consciousness can be granted simply because it is a claim about your own consciousness. Talk of peristaltic movements is. but. It would be as silly to deny that we all know many true things about ourselves as to deny that we can be wrong about ourselves sometimes. The word also does not mean “bodily position. we are in such a position. We generally hope that. feeling suspicious. for things like stomach aches we often are not in a position to know what. mean “position to see. A different line of defense would be to say that all analogy between peristaltic movements and states of consciousness is misleading. Only time will tell. though: very often the people to whom we recur tell us that there is nothing wrong with us. used by Bertrand Russell in a related context. our interlocutor might say. in Donald Davidson’s words. is an unfortunate word. position cannot be given any clear meaning. for instance.” Being sad or in love. In the case of feelings. or perceive. they too can be wrong. “an unavoidable presumption. But it is simply not true that we look for help only in cases similar to that of stomach pain. are translated as “having this- impression- here. Like acquaintance.” James’s insight is an important one and can be found preserved in otherwise discredited ancient theories of bodily humors. Good knowledge of the kinds of help available would preserve the connection between a bodily impression and a helpful person: if the pipes are clogged. The problem is that we often do not know whether a pain in the Ta m e n • In Defense of Louis X V I 207 . The reason why we recur to other people is that we are not sure of what is wrong with us or not sure about the cause of what we think is wrong. and that’s that.a limited scope. if taken literally. however.
complete with ascriptions of feelings and intentions. My having this- feeling- here does not entail that I can produce a true description of its cause. let alone of its putative consequences.stomach is better dealt with by a gastrologer or an astrologer. Were it not for the contingency that this disagreement was between giants. more importantly. Kant’s claim seems to be on a par with any claim by a professed or unaware non giant about having understood Kant better than Kant himself. that is. feel powerless to reassert what they believe is a true description of their intentions. want to claim that the diagnosis is both true and insulting. provided the statement is made by the right kind of person and is true. There is. and civilians have used the argument many times. No particular feelings of invasiveness are attached to statements about our entrails. however. Gastrologers (though perhaps not astrologers) routinely refer their patients to other specialists or simply send them home.” Not being Plato. Philosophers. that is. These points are well known. better than any he himself would have been capable of making. Put it this way: one can have a sense of having been deprived of one’s natural authority over descriptions of things close to oneself. The rest of us only pay attention to their arguments because authors. They have been discussed by technical philosophers. or libelous. or simply the posthumous use of their works. Very often. are thought to suffer from a special form of immunity to self- deception. even if we half- acknowledge the plausibility or truth of what we have been told. In short. the meaning. gastrologers routinely tell their patients that they were wrong about the cause and estimation of their own bodily impressions. you know me better than I know myself. “All things considered. The prob- Co M M o N K N o W L E d G E 20 8 . It would not occur to most of us. even by nontechnical philosophers. or incomplete. Kant claimed that his understanding of the Platonic notion of “idea” was better than Plato’s. we usually resent being in that sort of situation. authors feel offended by certain interpretations of their work and. usually when they want to suggest that authors cannot fully control the implications. we would long ago have become sensitive to the difﬁculty. literary critics. and I would not presume to add much to the discussion. for many contingent reasons. The situation becomes interesting when someone. we would not. an author or not. This- t hing- here is sometimes not the most reliable source for descriptions of what is happening to this-thing-here. We can resent a diagnosis by our gastrologer or indeed by anyone on the grounds that we believe it to be false. Prima facie. to resent a correct diagnosis by our gastrologer. This situation would be analogous to one in which Plato says to Kant. acknowledges that someone else has produced a description of his mental states. patients are told they have produced false descriptions of something very close to them. or humiliating. a less- traveled aspect of the problem that will perhaps help me to connect in a more robust way the two points with which I began. though. In a famous passage in the Critique of Pure Reason.
however. which is ideal for those who like to compare. could presume to know anything about it in any special sense. and the amazing thing is that I know next to nothing about Portugal. does not exclude the possibility that his evaluation of Serbian. his evaluation would have been different. perhaps. however. countries tend to elicit multiple descriptions.” we say to ourselves. There is also a more pleasant version of the phenomenon. had he hailed from Estonia. the ﬂattering effect of hearing. the sort of thing this- t hing- here is. Contrary to individuals. they are not equipped. refute. Then there is the intermediate case of a friend disagreeing with us about ourselves or even saying things about ourselves whose truth had hitherto been unapparent to us. Brazilians might resent that the best description of the threatening landscape of Rio de Janeiro was provided by a young Belgian anthropologist who Ta m e n • In Defense of Louis X V I 20 9 .lem is that there appears to be no right kind of professional equipped to tell the truth about our mental states. on the one hand. Mencken’s having put the contribution of each to world literature in the status of “awe- inspiring blank. L. so their insights can variously excite anger or glee. no one in principle. Estonian. and civilians.” Since Mencken loved his native Baltimore with a passion unknown in Tallinn. not every astute verdict: only astute verdicts that had previously not occurred to us. we believe. “Look. namely. “that sphinx is talking about me. again in principle. and one- t hird experts. one- t hird know- nothings. we might surmise that. and antebellum literature was right. and therefore not the owner of this- thing- here. Serbia. That likelihood. We would like to assert that since we have mental viscera. since of course we have not abandoned the notion that we are the supreme authority on the knowledge of our own mental states. and defend descriptions. Natives of the American South. Thus the difﬁculty. is that an unknown.” except that generally he or she proffers no riddles to solve. I say so. and denote incomprehension or intrusiveness. total strangers saying pleasant things about us. Those whom we call friends tend to be one- t hird sphinx. on the other — between specialists and presumed know-nothings. Portuguese. often overhearing. Few people will acknowledge that someone else is the best authority on himself or herself. but rather between gastrologers and astrologers. Given. Astute verdicts by people unknown to ourselves are resented as a form of smug trespassing — though. Portugal. and Estonia have occasionally felt chagrined by H. So the contrast we need to make is not between gastrologers and astrologers. unequipped amateur can know things about our mental viscera as well as anyone can. they must be our own. just as few natives of a country will recognize that the best description of their neck of the woods has been produced by foreigners. however. Their words come out as fragments of a truth for which. A strange conjunction of chance and necessity gives these pronouncements an oracular hue.
Affairs- of- state metaphors applied to personal interactions are as dubious as conjugal metaphors applied to international law. “of culture. philosophers. but he remains an exception and his opinions on the issue are still thought to be paradoxical. however. true. a matter of being good. Some people are naturally good at it. some forget how good they once were. Epimenides.” “of propaganda” — the hopeless impulse to set the record straight and assert or limit the right of access to certain goods (in this case. and some are hopelessly inept. accurate. just as no one should be granted any additional right because he or she happened to be at the right time in the right place. rare and worthy of performance. None should be deprived of their civil rights because they failed the introspection exam. variously. rather. had well- founded and well- k nown misgivings about what to expect from Cretans in general when talking about themselves. is barely a right. Such is the confusion of self- description with self- determination that surrendering one’s right to the former feels like surrendering a civil right. As the case of Louis XVI shows. even at the risk of ﬁnding oneself in the company of Louis XVI. just as nothing need follow from my occasional recourse to gastrologers. truth) to specially protected individuals. it could be invoked by all who feel that native descriptions of Rio are edulcorated or self- serving.many years ago compared it to a “toothless mouth. One can understand the impulse behind the state agencies and ministries called. The notion that the truth about me is to be known from me is the product of a similar impulse. and successful at describing this- t hing- here. A conﬂation of psychology and politics appears to be responsible for this state of affairs. if at all. some learn how to become good at it. Self- description. Relying on others for the news about oneself is a noble act. being in the right place is as elusive a condition as having a thing- here.” “of tourism. Nothing need follow from either. it is. and political representatives. According authority to someone else is not necessarily to open doors to reprehensible foreign domination. who was from Crete.” Were the metaphor more widely known. Co M M o N K N o W L E d G E 210 .
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