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How We Fool Ourselves

Knowing ourselves must surely include knowing not only that but how much our very sense of ourselves is a “mythic reality” by which we convince others of things about ourselves by first convincing ourselves. In the dance of deception, the evolutionary arms race means that we all get pretty good at figuring out when someone is being a “fake,” a “poser,” or any of a number of ways to be less than honest and genuine. This is also why trust is so important, as well as reputation, as being taken as good at our word is not only important to being taken seriously, but to being paid attention to at all. These are also important for the confidence game we all play to make ourselves better than we were, by first acting like we already are. Unfortunately the best way to do this is by fooling ourselves first. Even if this may be, in some sense, epistemically pretty dangerous, it also means we can more readily be taken to be honest and forthright. Having fooled ourselves first, we actually believe it. It is dangerous mainly because we render ourselves ignorant or deceived, so it may turn out to be a major barrier to self-knowledge, especially if we do it very often (and how would we know?). It is also ethically problematic. One doesn’t have to lie to fool someone, and we are often taken to be, and feel ourselves to be perfectly honest and forthright, when we are actually just as much a dupe as those we have (now unknowingly) duped.

For Erik Erikson (Young Man Luther) becoming an adult means reconstructing the past in a way that leads to the present, accounting for one’s behavior as if it were intentional. This is how it is made intelligible, rather than the childish, or perhaps more commonly, adolescent account where, when asked why you did something, the only response is “I dunno.” This doesn’t mean falsifying the past, but we must use fictional and imaginative power to “make sense” of the facts as we remember them. Without this, there can be no sense of a unitary self behind one’s behavior. External, objective events don’t need to occur in the form of a story. But this means, from the empirical point of view, that narratives are always selections, fabrications, and constructions and to that extent are always fictional. In Opa Nobody, Sonya Huber tries to make sense of her own compulsive social activism by researching the life of her grandfather, who was an anti-Nazi activist in the 1920s and 30’s. She is very careful to document as much as she can with interviews, and historical documents, but finds that she cannot make sense out of it without adding the elements she needs to shape events into a story. What is troublesome with her book is that the very virtue of her clarity about what is documented and what is not, regularly interferes with the narrative, making it far more difficult to follow it, to make sense out of it all. Moreover the very motivation for writing it is not so much to understand the causal effects of the events surrounding her grandfather’s life on her life, but to understand the meaning of her own.

Stories can always be told in different ways by different people, and sometimes by the same one. I often entertained students by telling them a story of my arrival at our college as a descent into the hell of a third-rate college in a cultural desert, blindsided by a tenure denial, to vouchsafe the birth of my daughter, and then retelling the same story as my triumphant arrival at a post that would connect me to a generation of eager young minds, and enable me to pursue the interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship that would garner professional accolades and speaking engagements all over the world. Both stories are true. We learn how to tell our stories by first being told stories about ourselves by others, like the story my mother so often told about the early appearance of my first full sentence at age two on a street in Minneapolis: “Big car make Johnny go boom.” Stories may include actual events, or fail to do so, and there is a facticity that constrains falsehood-telling in stories, including the ones told by historians, without which history makes little sense. But narrative truth is not always historical truth. Narrative truth is about providing external descriptions of the world to be judged not by their veridicality, but more like by their verisimilitude. Robert Coles, in his work on the moral imagination (The Call of Stories), highlights the integrative functions of stories in healing what is sick or broken, bringing together what is shattered, helping us cope with stress, and propelling movement toward fulfillment and maturity. Even the Freudian concept of unconscious intention can be understood not as the causal power which explains an event, but as the retelling of an otherwise incomprehensible action as if it were intentional. As an interpretive principle, it may simply be useful to act as if there are no accidents. Why do you think Freud won the Goethe Prize for literature, rather than a Nobel for scientific discovery? No one may really ever know what Opa Nobody’s intentions really were, but we need to impute what makes sense of his actions.

There is a problem, of course, in distinguishing between the narrative latitude that produces greater verisimilitude and the violation of what historians (and by extension, those trying to hold to the historical truth) call “facticity.” There is an honesty claimed in calling autobiography and memoir non-fiction. There is an implied contr