Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Two Biases That Stop Us From Knowing Ourselves

Did Rousseau have a lot to explain.

In 1745, he met Thérèse Levasseur, a barely literate laundry-maid who became his lover and, later, his wife. Thérèse bore him five children, all of whom he deposited at the foundling hospital — an almost certain death sentence in eighteenth-century France.

Yes, it’s true: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, philosopher of compassion, vehement defender of the weak against the strong, the man who never tired of talking about equality and justice and virtue, who wrote a treatise about how one ought to raise children(!), sent his own offspring to die at the Paris Foundling Hospital.


What does it mean to ‘be yourself’?

On the one hand, being oneself is inescapable, since whenever one makes a choice or acts, it is oneself who is doing these things. But on the other hand, we say that some of our thoughts, decisions and actions are not really ‘myself’ and therefore do not ‘count’ as genuinely expressive of who one is.

Some things are in some sense you, or express who you are, and others aren’t.

How do we tell which is which?

It is natural to assume we have privileged first-person access to our feelings, thoughts, motives, and beliefs. Therefore, I am the ultimate authority on the subject of me:

“I may omit some facts or transpose them, or make errors in dates; but I cannot be deceived about what I have felt, or about what my feelings have made me do, and that is what I am mainly concerned with. The real aim of my Confessions is to make known precisely my inner state, in all the situations of my life. It is the history of my soul that I have promised to give.” — Jean-Jacques Rosseau, Confessions

Since self-discovery has this authority — you’re the only one who can introspect into yourself — sincere declaration, the product of one’s presence to oneself, will guarantee a true understanding of one’s motives, Rousseau argues.

Besides this first-person authority, the second component of Rousseau’s picture of self-knowledge is that honesty about ourselves will reveal that we are a good person deep down. In his own case, he was sure that these reasons for action were basically benevolent and well-disposed toward others.

On both counts, Rousseau’s is not the right way to think of self-knowledge.

His idea that sincerity could guarantee the other virtues, together with his conception of it as simply the spontaneous declaration of what was immediately evident to oneself, leads to hypocrisy and inaccuracy — Rousseau’s two mistakes.

Knowing yourself

— Excuse me, I wanted to ask you, do you believe that Jean Jacques Rousseau was a sincere man?
Stephen laughed outright . . .
— He was like you, I fancy, said Stephen, an emotional man.

(James Joyce)

Leaving aside the ridicule he attracted by giving tireless advice about how to bring up children when he had refused to bring up his own, his critics pointed out he made himself out to be a better person than he was.

For example, in the second book of the ConfessionsRousseau tells the story of when he stole a ribbon, and accused a fellow employee, Marianne, of having taken it, because of which she got fired. Her response pierces the soul:

“Rousseau, I thought that you were a good person. You make me very unhappy, but I would not want to be in your place.”

Jean-Jacques goes on to express his remorse, but he can’t help but insist on some mitigating circumstances. Besides the proposal that there is virtue in confessing the incident, and the claim that his sorrow has kept him from any such crime for the rest of his life, he finds excuse in the fact that there was no animosity in his motivation: he was simply overcome by shame at the prospect of being found out.

If you ask me, his suggestion that this somehow reveals a benevolent and alleviating motive for his putting the blame on her, is a clear achievement of self-deception.

The famous philosopher of Scottish Enlightenment David Hume said of Rousseau: “I believe that he intends seriously to draw his own picture in its true colours: but I believe at the same time that nobody knows himself less.”

If authenticity should always reveal the morally good person underneath, reality will be secondary to your wish to frame your deeds in that way.

If introspection yields the pure self, and we are the only ones who can do this scrutiny, we have the power to tell a story about all our deeds that makes us look like the good guy, as Rousseau did in the cases of the stolen ribbon and his abandoned children.

As his own case shows, we should be suspicious about this model of self-knowledge — about viewing sincere declaration of one’s inner motives as necessarily revealing the angel within us.

First, it’s a too convenient tool for exploiting the throne of privileged first-person access to your psychology to plant ideas you want to have about yourself in the minds of others so you can feel reassured about what an ethical person you are.

And on top of that, if there is such a thing as the “real self” of an individual, why think it must coincide with an underlying character of honor and goodness? If sincerity reveals the real self, that may not be, as Rousseau assumed, a citizenly self. There is no reason for our deepest desires to be necessarily good in the ethical sense. They are whatever they are.

This was Rousseau’s first misapprehension.

Revealing yourself

As we saw, Rousseau wanted there to be a link between sincerity as authenticity, and virtue, where there needn’t be such a connection.

In any case, and this is the deeper question, what guarantee is there that sincere self-declaration will reveal the real self? As Rousseau himself eventually came to suspect, one may be in the dark about what one most wants or deeply needs or genuinely feels or really believes.

This was Rousseau’s second error.

Studies reveal that when asked to explain their behavior, people engage in an effortful search that may feel like a kind of introspection. However, in Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain Michael Gazzaniga eloquently shows that behavior is usually produced by mental modules to which consciousness has no access but that it provides a running commentary anyway, constantly generating hypotheses to clarify why the self might have performed any particular deed.

Our brains’ language center — or ‘The Interpreter’ as Gazzaniga refers to it — is tremendously skilled at making up these narratives. When asked to justify their actions or choices, people make up myths that sound plausible but are probably false. They frequently cite factors that could not have mattered and fail to recognize factors that did matter.

In short, while the conscious mind writes the autobiography of our species, the unconscious mind does most of the work.

This forces us to confront the question of how far the demands of an authentic life can be regarded as a matter of self-discovery.

Embodying yourself

“Devil take me if I know at the end what I am.” — Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew

Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had been friends ever since they met in Café de la Régence watching games of chess and drinking coffee in 1742. When, five years later, Diderot was imprisoned for publishing a manuscript with atheistic implications, Rousseau visited him almost daily.

However, Rousseau’s deceit in the Confessions appalled Diderot. And like many, Diderot felt that Rousseau‘s subsequent decision to leave society behind because everyone misunderstood his truly good soul which, of course, only he himself could know and he had so “honestly” laid bare, smacked of shameless self-aggrandizement.

In February 1757, Diderot sent Rousseau a copy of his new play Le Fils Naturel, the war began. In it, one character says to another who, like Rousseau, had decided to live by himself in the country: “Look into your heart, and it will tell you that the good man is in society, and that only the bad man is alone.”

Regarding authenticity, Diderot develops a view which diametrically opposes the first-person authority central to Rousseau’s thinking about self-knowledge. He insists that authenticity is more about what you than do what you say. Sincerity is a matter of uninhibited expression, rather than of honestly reporting the findings of self-examination.

We can’t make up a story about ourselves in isolation. Self-knowledge doesn’t work like that. The demands of authenticity require more than verbal adherence. As Diderot writes in The Conversation between d’Alembert and Diderot, “our real opinion is not one in which we have never wavered, but the one to which we have most regularly returned.”

For instance, across time, to ‘stay yourself’, you must, as you get older, develop in the right way. This doesn’t mean that authenticity requires unchangeability — it means that to keep being you, you should change in some way rather than in another. It would, for example, be weird if PhD-Maarten is the same as teenager-Maarten, but some ways of maturing are more ‘me’ than others.

Discovering yourself (in the behavior of others)

Our declarations do need to be patterned in some way if they are to count as expression of who one is. If what we say and do is too whimsically inconstant, our words and actions will not come across as rooted in a ‘self’, but as something like moods.

In doing this thing called living together, we learn to present ourselves to our peers, and consequently also to ourselves, as people who have moderately steady outlooks or beliefs. This allows others to rely on us.

But in fact, it does more.

It also gives others the power to shape our identities, by taking us to be a certain way — feeding ourselves mirror-images of our behavior:

“We tend to allow others’ appraisals to play a determining role in how we see ourselves. Our sense of identity is held captive by the judgements of those we live among.” — Alain De Botton, Status Anxiety

Back in 1902, the psychologist C.H. Cooley introduced his classic theory of the ‘looking-glass self’. This theory says that how you view yourself depends mostly on what you believe other people think of you. Since that’s a mouthful, here’s a funny punch line I came up with: ‘I am what I think you think I am’.

According to Cooley, identity is the result of learning to see ourselves through what we perceive to be the perceptions of others. In his metaphor, other persons are mirrors showing us a reflection of ourselves. It is by looking into those mirrors do that we learn our own characteristics.

When people consistently laugh about my jokes repeatedly, apparently, I am funny. When people greet me enthusiastically, apparently, I make for pleasant company. If no one ever sends me a message, I might not. And so forth.

How we ‘find out’ who we are

More and more, we live in a world where we are defined by who we say we are rather than how we behave.

For Rousseau, similarly, the prior task of understanding himself was already completed. He took it to be entirely obvious to himself what he was like, and his aim in the Confessionswas to make it clear to the rest.

On Diderot’s more accurate view, human beings have an inconsistent mental constitution that needs to be steadied by society and interaction with other people.

Accordingly, authenticity is not just a matter of a character that is revealed once and for all in sincere self-disclosure.

“As we get comfortable relying on [our labels], we forget something: Their utility is in what they accomplish, not what they represent. They are valuable, yes, but what they represent is an approximation — occasionally wrong, often problematic. You are not the words you define yourself by, and I am not the person with a disposition that can be captured by a written scene.” — Zat Rana

At a more basic level, we are all together in the public activity of at the same time discovering and crafting our unique selves. We’re social animals, not rational animals. We emerge out of relationships, and our mutual identities are deeply intertwined.

It is a misunderstanding of the self to think of it in terms of a set of formed and committed convictions. Rather, the process of arriving at a practical conclusion about what to do and who we are typically involves shifting and indeterminate desires, beliefs, wishes, hopes, and fears.

Exploring yourself

“I recognize that I am made up of several personsand that the person that at the moment has the upper hand will inevitably give place to another. But which is the real one? All of them or none?” — W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook.

Today’s main takeaway is that we must leave behind the assumption that we first and immediately have a transparent self-understanding, and then go on either to give other people a sincere revelation of our belief from which they understand us, or else dissimulate in a way that will mislead them.

Self-knowledge is harder than that.

Since Plato’s famous Chariot Allegory about the three parts of the soul, there has been a tendency to suppose persons should be understood in terms of a conflict between elements in the mind which act as separate agencies. This picture of the soul implies identifiable members of the mind’s assembly, but in the typical case we are awash with many images, many excitements, merging fears and fantasies that dissolve into one another. To sort things out to a position at which they seem like an assembly of identifiable voices is already an achievement.

What we hold to be true, what we are like, what we wish for — this is often a mess. Authenticity, then, is not merely a matter of entering into yourself and reporting honestly what you find. The activity is more complex. In knowing ourselves, creativity and discovery — invention and introspection — are intertwined and can’t be neatly separated.

There is no sharp boundary between finding out who we are and crafting our identities.

All Rights Reserved for Maarten van Doorn

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