Kenneth Smith: Self-Knowing

KenIn my archives, I have a large amount of terrific Kenneth Smith emails. This one is an exhilarating journey through the psycho-therapeutic idea of “knowing yourself.” (Smith’s paragraphs are in maroon.)

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From: Kenneth R. Smith <kensmith@——.net>
Date: Tue, 11 Jan 2005 15:34:40 -0500
To: cbelan <c——@——.com>
Subject: Re: kernel of thought

on 1/6/05 11:54 PM, c—— at c——@——.com wrote:

Hi Kenneth:

Okay, there is a small rumbling deep in the dark recesses of my mind.   I’ll toss it and trust you to run with it.

Rumblings do set me to running.  Never mind to where or with what.  If it’s not an earthquake then it’s something visceral.

After years of therapy I thought that the goal in knowing oneself well was to apply that knowledge and awareness to a range of life experiences.   But looking back at my life I wonder if there are parts of it (namely that faith issue combined with work life) that one should just barrel through in trust of their principals and not analyze or try to make it match that “logic” side of me.

In the perfectly plastic world of “inner” or subjective life, where the reality of anything consists in its nuances of meaning, seemingly negligible little angles of interpretation make vast differences in the actuality of the codes of life and understanding and values that one draws from a rule or intention.  “Self-knowing” that is pursued and grasped JUST for the purpose of applying it to life-experiences turns out to be a very narrow and thin sort of self-understanding, a plastic spoon soon bent and worn down by the hardened core of character; “useful” self-knowing is the product of a very finite act with very aspectival interests in self-enrichment.  It is the kind of self-knowing that utilitarian or pragmatic perspectives–the dominant culture and mentality in modern society, in the US–fix upon, a useful and reliable instrument that one can be assured will not produce any surprises or blow up in one’s face, adversely affecting the rest of one’s bank-account of illusions and delusions.  But the reliability of this instrumental self-knowing is a mirage:  there is no profound concern in it to test one’s self-knowing, to develop criteria or value-intelligence to discriminate the knowing of true self from the acceptance of what one would like to believe about oneself, what one is pressured or conditioned to believe by forces outside oneself, etc.

–I am astounded sometimes what a fog people live in, how unseeing and uncaring and fundamentally unanchored their minds and psyches are in their own existence, even on the most literal or matter-of-fact levels–a friend who owns a bookshop showed me a fluffy, fuzzy 20-dollar bill (printed on a computer and then washed and dried, nothing whatsoever looking authentic about it, not the feel of the paper nor the detail of the engraving) that an employee had accepted:  but why should people take the trouble to scrutinize mere money when they don’t even audit their own assumptions and perceptions, or master the evidentiary rules that stave off delusion and deception in the social realm no less than among their senses?

Dewey–I will concede pragmatism this much–did have a well-founded concept of the place and limits of consciousness.  He understood that humans for the most part subsist, they carry on via autopilot:  they live in and by means of their habits, and it is only when their normalized patterns of self-custom produce problems and conflicts that any need for explicit consciousness awakens in them.  Without that sense of contrariety as an external motive, most people will not commit the extraordinary quantity and quality of energy required to muster a truly self-conscious and self-active consciousness, an “apperception” beyond their sensory perception.  In truth, in the absence of discriminating and acute (connoisseurial) consciousness, “truth” will not mean much among humans; they are governed by the prevailing acceptances, the customs or conventions that produce a socially agreeable system of relations (i.e. subrational habits attuned to the complexes of other people’s subrational habits).  A truly complicated society like modern order does not have less of these primitive, consciousness-retarding, subrational regulations than a traditional form of society; it has more of them, incalculably more.  Moderns may imagine–as their culture dictates for them to believe–that they are freer and more individuated than any previous people has been, but in truth they are flatter, more generic, more self-stereotyping than any “advanced” society has ever been; take away their platitudes and buzzwords and slang and other imitative speech, and nothing whatsoever is left of their “self-knowing.”

It is significant that “therapists” take just such a one-sided perspective for granted and never get an inkling how much lies beyond this specialized and limited framework.  There are biases in every kind of formulation of an issue.  “Goal,” “apply” etc. are all utilitarian or banausic terms in this context, in the absence of any higher intervening insights.  To speak of “the goal in knowing oneself” makes knowing oneself (of course) into a means to an end, that is to say, this way of thinking makes self-knowing into something valuable only because it is finitely or specifically useful to certain ends (and there are presumably other, antagonistic ends to which it is disadvantageous; and then which of the groups of ends should triumph over the other?).  Ultimately the most profound problems with psychotherapy have always been that instead of possessing any contrarian or transcendent values to enable it to produce insights countervailing against our dysfunctional and incoherent and humanly destructive culture, its “therapists” have been virtually all shills or agents for this culture, trying to accommodate their patients to a fundamentally unhealthy and insane way of life.  How wise is it, to capitulate in one’s core to what this society needs human beings to be?  Most humans know their own “reason” only in the sense that Hume defined it, as “a slave to the passions”–and by “passions” he meant not moral passions or the passions of transcendent genius, but only low appetites or base desires, which society and economy ultimately shape and spur on in us.  The concept of values is nowhere grasped clearly or rationally in our scientistic and economistic culture, the domain of means and materialities is the ultimate limit on most moderns’ judgment and conscience.  Why should the therapist’s perspective on who “you” are and what “you” ultimately need be accepted blithely as the truth?  What is it about science or scientific method that would make psychiatrists fit to see or understand anything about normative or moral truth, what ultimately ought to be accepted as true in a good, healthy, sane, and valuable sense?  Like the priestly cult of the Middle Ages, the modern priestly cult of “scientific” psychotherapists exist overwhelmingly to stultify or blunt a too-acute insight into the powers benumbed in our personalities by our prevailing culture.  That way, “fulfillment” certainly does not lie.

I use the phrase “self-knowing” instead of “self-knowledge” because it is a constant and ongoing struggle, like a violinist keeping up the proper tension and tuning on his Stradivarius and forever honing his own virtuosity.  There is no “self-knowledge” because this kind of knowing does not yield a finished and real product; it is just a living process, like breathing or seeing.  People who turn to philosophy expecting to harvest a crop of formulas of wisdom or understanding do not understand–philosophy has such things, but they are merely incidental, not the essence of the matter.  Philosophy is about subtilizing and tuning up the coherence and acuity of one’s seeing, it is about opening new dimensions for insight, learning to think about what one is doing when one thinks instead of just blundering through the processes of putting thoughts together.  Everything may be done reflectively, with finesse and transcendent sensitivity–whether it’s writing, childrearing, cooking, loving, conversing, doing art, governing, doctoring–or it may be done obtusely, deploying one’s mind mechanically like a brute object.  But that mechanical way is the utilitarian or pragmatic way, making the mind itself into a mere means to a presumptive end.

All human beings are by nature egocentric infantilists in their core and only very rarely do exceptions among them realize that, even though they may be contented in their self-stupefaction and imagine that their knowing, understanding and valuing are “good enough,” the ultimate problem consists just in this complacency or placidity, which is of course neither rational nor moral and ultimately not even healthy or sane.  For thousands of years oriental mysticism has understood the pathos and fog of self-obscurity that most humans wallow in, the delusions of being seduced to want the kinds of things (“the veil of Maya”) that the world wants to condition us to want, all the better to digest us into its systems and games.  More and more, critics of Western and modern ways have come to understand that what prevails among us is a falsifying self-consciousness, an “ego” that is in many ways just the construct of a culture and the tool of an ideological organism.  The pathos of most moderns well illustrates what it is like for humans to accept, benightedly, a fallacious or misconceiving notion of what it is to be a self–they pay with their lives and their misspent energies for their illusions and self-deceptions (since no culture of lies or illusions can succeed without profound collaboration and complicity on the part of its patients).  Abstracted methods or attitudes of “knowing” make moderns imagine that they just need to know, but actual life and human nature make it necessary first to understand what the forces in human psyche and society are that are antagonistic to this kind of normative or philosophical knowing.  Self-knowing and self-imagining are as different as really being prepared to run 10 miles and just imagining it.  In the absence of competent self-knowing, scores of opportunistic delusions prey upon one’s delusions.

No knowing will occur, no disencumbering of illusions and delusions, until one understands why one is orienting oneself in such a way as to make self-clarity, acuity, objectivity, truth, etc. painful and offensive to oneself.  One resists these things (at one’s peril) because one identifies with the forces of sloth, habituation, naive trust, materialist security, etc.; one wills the narcosis, the dream, the Maya, the pleasing and flattering rhetoric, then.  The reality is, there is a cost involved in knowing and a cost involved in not knowing, in psychic evasion, denial, negligence, self-deception, etc.  Of course, anyone who does not know himself is in no position realistically or rationally or objectively to compare the costs of knowing himself with the costs of not.  And the ultimate truth is, it does not matter that the cost of knowing may in some historical or cultural circumstances be greater and more agonizing than the cost of not knowing–still, self-knowing is the right and morally/rationally necessary way to live, costs be damned.  Seeing and understanding this need to have the right kind of principles and self-discipline at the core of one’s existence is what defines the noble or aristic personality, the imperative that what is higher, what ought to be authoritative, must be secured or else one is putting one’s tent-pegs into crumbling sand and the whole accomplishment of order in one’s life will not stand.  To be rational is to be decisive and to be decisive is to be essential.  No one can know himself by shilly-shallying, by vacillating or trying to work both sides of the street on all too-overwhelming issues of principle.  The “pragmatist” or banausic way is to split the difference, to look for a way to coddle indecision as if it were a virtue.  Self-knowing is self-certainty, it is a way of living, seeing and willing that struggles every inch of one’s life to make sure one is laying cornerstones upon the bedrock:  nothing goes untested and uncriticized, no angle from which a question or issue may be regarded is left in the dark.  Either one has made a judicious architectonic choice of a site and a structurally sound composition of life, or else one keeps taking back and undoing what one has already done, trying to correct ex post facto what should have been rightly seen a priori or in advance.

(1)  The elements on the one hand of experience (empirical or a posteriori knowledge) in modernity are no longer filtered and assimilated to us by myth, religion, literature, poetry, drama, philosophy, so that we know the meaning, value and interpretation of this experience in terms of what is ultimately good for us; but rather moderns get this “matter” of experience from the commercial mass media, from superficial peer-group chatter, from personal fantasies that were covertly cultivated by the media; what moderns know of “life” is without fail something they had to acquire someplace other than in their formal educational system, and probably for most of them also from some source other than their family.  We “take our good where we happen to find it,” but in actuality this is the gleanings of a junk-culture that no longer has the concerted cultivation of utmost wisdom as its highest purpose of life.  It’s all very well to learn about life from one’s friends, but for those with judgmental deficiencies, their inept selection of friends merely compounds all their other poorly processed situations and activities; and “friends” in modern understanding are friends because we trust them never to contest our judgments or perspectives but only to reinforce them and be agreeable with them.  –(2)  The elements on the other hand of a priori insight–ideas, concepts, presuppositions, interpretations, meanings, values, religion, the normative forms in culture, etc.–in modernity are notoriously attenuated:  we like to try to live up to that “individualist” ideal of free or arbitrary will, and thus we resist and resent a normative culture, as we do all expressions of overriding authority.  Literature for us is mostly for amusement or distraction or entertainment, and en masse we obviously run in droves away from any kind of movies or writings that might be instructive or edifying.  So the a priori forms of our lives come not from deliberate self-cultivation or wisdom-traditions but only inadvertently, as the effects of either junk-culture or subliminal ideological fertilizing.

Think of self-knowing as sobriety, as consummate self-orchestration:  when one feels a surge of ego, one does not mistake this for an insight into someone else’s needs or rights, or for a divine pronouncement from God, or for a wise and providential structuring insight into one’s own future life.  When one is really smitten with a strong desire, one knows enough not to mistake this for a rationally compelling axiom about what is true or right.  Kierkegaard says it is all too easy and all too natural to be objective about what is objective and subjective about what is subjective; what is hard, nearly impossible for most people, is to be objective about what is subjective.  I suppose I could add that the effects on us of capitalism and science have been to make it massively difficult also to be subjective about what is objective, to evaluate our “facts” and “realities” and see the biases buried all through them.  The perishing of any true value-culture means we really have lost our competence to digest the welter of facts into any value-intelligence.

It is useful and advantageous–in ways so profound most people cannot comprehend or even detect them–to be self-knowing, always to be exercising quality-control on one’s basal assumptions and preconceptions.  Above all the daily “uses” we have for our consciousness there is also an auditorial function–do the things we believe really square with one another, are we respecting primal forms of self-coherency, are we suspicious enough of the warpage in our fabric of personal consciousness?  And there is an editorial function, by which we ask ourselves relentlessly what is truly essential, and what is merely distracting us from what is essential.  And an adjudicative function by which we have to weigh the conflicting heterogeneous perspectives and claims, the values and criteria arising from others’ demands, that try to tear us in different directions.  For most people these higher functions are perceived or “felt” only as forms of crucifixion, of excruciating tortures that they haven’t the strength or the Olympian strategic vision to endure:  in the absence of values and sagacity, such tests are merely insufferable ordeals.  The more painful the experience of one’s value-incompetence (in effect), the more determinedly one shuns such situations and issues that demand superior self-clarity, creating a downward spiral toward confirmed and consolidated self-obscurity and self-oblivion.  Whole populations fear and loathe philosophical and moral-religious issues of any profundity, and the superficializing mass-media have evolved utterly in order to shield their psyches and personalities from such torture, like individuals with sore eyes who shun the hurtful light.  They settle into their narrow idiosyncratic paths and develop violent allergies to every word, perspective and value that would reveal the insanity of these parochialisms.  The private idiotisms of individuals, in modern massified society, flow together and resonate with those of their fellows, to aggregate into mass-forms of cloistered benightedness, of closed-mindedness that with the aid of modern techniques and technology of pandering rhetoric perfectly shuts out all dissonant reality and political-religious discord.  The modern apathy toward culture and philosophy means that the most elemental things ancient and Christian wisdom understood–”as you sow, so shall you reap”–are lost on us:  we are indeed reaping the idiotism or anorexic self-enclosure that we have been systematically sowing for centuries.  All who have tried to intercede and rupture this false consciousness have been isolated futile contrarians, their work resented and asphyxiated and eradicated, every generation and every century.

Is self-knowing a value and a virtue?  When one disrespects and repels it or imagines that one can cheat on it with impunity, one harvests such a profound self-obtuseness that indeed one cannot realize just how self-blind and fantasy-riddled one has become, just how dismally susceptible one is to the manipulations of the modern media-masters.  It is no accident that the vices of mind and soul form epidemic and generic pathologies–in the absence of values, virtues and philosophical acuity, one is making one’s personality permeable to every kind of prevailing prejudice or overpowering delusion.  And one cannot see this, cannot wake up from the cultish power of this mass-nightmare:  one cannot reach for the “organ” of self-knowing when it has grown most severely “useful” because, in order to strengthen and clarify it, one would have had to cultivate it back when it was far less useful, indeed back when it was primarily disadvantageous.  In truth one needs not this isolated “useful” instrument or organ of self-knowing, but rather one needs an entire context, an inner world of organized self-culture that can recognize and resist one-sided appeals and distortionary sophisms.  Things are always turning into something else, the premises of a situation or relation or conversation turning around imperceptibly into a very different flavor.

The irony or counterintuitive force concerning self-knowing is that, if one approaches it as something merely useful, one always has that aspectival bias binding on it:  useful for what end, in what context, for how long?  But self-knowing has to be more central, more encompassing and less peripheral than that.  The fact that we perceive a particular bent or interest or appetite of our self is not all that significant–we may have nearly infinite varieties of such objects or purposes.  The challenge is to capture and hold on to our quicksilver selves as a protean activity, a living energy.  An entire organism of dynamic life.  Just like the repertory of forms in music or literature, we need a special vocabulary and sensitivity to be always grasping the logos or wholeness in our own lives, at every moment (even those, especially those when we aren’t going to like the judgments or characterizations of those holist terms).  If you love your cat you are always alert to the quality of its whole life, the way its energy is tending, and you want to reassure it (just as you would a child) that it is enclosed in your entire love for it.  You should do no less with your own self and your own life:  make sure they are nested or socketed in the values that will harvest sanity and acuity.  Be alert to patterns, gestalten, forms, modes, interlocking qualities, etc., just as you would with the architectonic identity of a house or building.  Look not at the details or particulars but rather at the logic, the structure, the formliness or music of the whole thing.  When we go to a movie, the soundtrack is largely there for the benefit of those in the audience who have no genius, talent or spirit for “reading” the tone and significance of what is happening, and have to be guided emotionally to feel the right way.  In real life alas there is no soundtrack, we have to fall back on our own resources of self-interpretation whether we should be pleased, menaced, intrigued, delighted, unnerved, confident, etc.  That is the vital need for intuitive value-intelligence in us.  There are no sinister notes to emphasize or “underscore” that someone is uttering an entrapping absurdity or a sophism to us, offering an addictive and facile little article of faith we really ought to despise, etc.  We have to score our own lives and thoughts, a “music” that is the work of our own autonomous or inner Muse.

that’s all I am going to toss out – am really relying on those instincts of yours!  read between lines, go for the jugular, whatever strikes your fancy.

Hope all is well, take care,  C——

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  • BuzzCoastin

    knowing an ever shifting “self” is hard to do
    knowing something of one’s predilections is easier
    knowing one’s shadow personality is harder &
    requires feedback & the courage to acknowledge it

    • HCE

      I’ve heard about this shadow self for many years. But what is it? How does one discover it?

      • BuzzCoastin

        I first read about the shadow in Jung’s works
        the essence of which is
        wee all have a unacknowledged aspects of our personalities
        some well hidden & others obvious to everyone butt
        the naked emperor

        I began by paying attention to repeated feedback
        about the “me” I barely knew
        I began to acknowledge my shadow self
        the parts that were inconsistent with my self-created image
        the “negative” aspects of Saint Me

        not sure if it’s worth the effort
        since I prefer to be always right & righteous
        which my shadow often isn’t

        • HCE

          So what we’re talking about is a brutally honest self-assessment. The kind that most aren’t capable of unless there’s something powerful motivating them, usually pain and/or fear.

          Without realizing it, I’ve had to dig pretty deeply into this shadow self, it’s worth it, but it wasn’t easy. The only reason I was even able to do it was because those same dark traits had brought ruin to my life. The only way things were going to get any better was to get seriously honest about those things that had brought me to that place.

          • BuzzCoastin

            the awareness can mitigate the shadow
            but in my experiences with shadow boxing
            the tendencies persist despite awareness & mitigation

  • erte4wt4etrg

    I read alot of his stuff on the three castes or whatever it was. Interesting stuff. Inner muse ;)

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