Periodically, I come across an essay reporting that experts are not especially good when compared to lay people at overcoming the cognitive biases they should be adept at perceiving and transforming—for example, psychologists aren’t better at identifying their own complexes, ethicists don’t make more ethical choices, philosophers of mind don’t better understand their own habits, behavior, and intentions, and so on. The latest in this series of essays comes from Scientific American here. It’s just one example of the type of reporting I’m talking about (though if you take a quick trip down this rabbit hole you’ll find many more essays and studies just like it).
The Scientific American article asks the question, is self-knowledge overrated? The point being that the so-called Socratic principle of questioning and examining oneself—through philosophy, meditation, psychology, etc.—doesn’t seem, at least in the context of the academics being studied, to have the outcomes that it advertises as having (think for instance of the amount of identity-driven in-group signalling and bias we see within certain academic groups). Hence the question, is self-knowledge, in the end, overrated? A good question, but let’s hold off on giving an answer for a moment.
Let me first contrast these findings with another recent article in Aeon about a purported link between behavioral economics and Plato’s dialogues (for my purposes we can generalize the link to include whatever it is you think Plato may have achieved before we empirically demonstrated this or that claim).
In Aeon, author Nick Romeo writes:
Many of Plato’s dialogues dramatise the habits and processes that lead humans to false conclusions. He depicts people believing what they want or what they are predisposed to believe (confirmation bias); asserting whatever comes most readily to mind (availability bias); reversing their opinions about identical propositions based on the language in which the propositions are presented (framing); refusing to relinquish current opinions simply because these happen to be the opinions they currently possess (a cognitive version of loss aversion); making false inferences based on the size and representativeness of a sample of a broader population (representativeness heuristic); and judging new information based on salient current information (a version of anchoring). And this is only a partial inventory of the mental errors that he catalogues and dramatises.
Readers will no doubt recognize this statement as a version of the argument for the existence of the humanities in general, and perhaps for philosophy in particular, the study of which in theory should train up our cognitive and critical thinking capacities so that we’re more able to function as engaged and responsible actors in society. A good story. And only a story, or so it seems.
The counter-factuals you’re no doubt generating in your head aside, I think we philosophers need to take these studies seriously and do more to figure out what’s going on here. But—and even more importantly, perhaps—I think it’s also right to accept that Plato does in fact demonstrate again and again in the dialogues exactly the kinds of moves we’d like to make in life were we to exemplify the Socratic principle in real time. At least in principle, then, the right moves are being articulated, so why the gap in actual change? Here’s where things get a little more interesting.
In the Scientific American article the author moves in the right direction when he writes, “The major weakness of the Schwitzgebel-Rust research is that it compares ethicists to other academics. I’d like to see comparisons of specialists in the human condition with lay folk like mechanics, firemen, engineers, bankers, ballet dancers, basketball players, orthopedic surgeons, and journalists.” I’m not picking on the author, but it strikes me that this gets the situation backward. I’d rather say that mechanics, firemen, engineers, bankers, ballet dancers, basketball players, orthopedic surgeons, and journalists (okay, maybe not journalists) are the experts in the human condition simply because their jobs involve a lot of doing what they are expert in.
Does that mean philosophers and other scholars don’t do things? Of course they do things. It’s just that what they do is a very specific set of things—reading books, writing papers, giving talks, and responding to emails are all things humanities scholars do, the problem is there’s no reason to think that reading books, writing papers, giving talks, and responding to emails will make you better at anything but reading books, writing papers, giving talks, and responding to emails. In other words, there’s no reason to assume that these activities bare at all upon the type of rigorous self-examination in question.
I gather that the succumbing of the philosophical discipline to a variety of bureaucratic and career-oriented tasks is exactly what the philosophers Pierre Hadot and Peter Sloterdijk rail against in their respective works. In my recent essay for Cosmos and History I wrote the following of Hadot’s approach:
Hadot writes, “self-transformation is never definitive, but demands perpetual reconquest.” As an ongoing contemplative exercise, philosophy is an inner dialogue of the self with itself, a preparatory initiation for wisdom. “The relationship between theory and practice in the philosophy of [ancient Greece],” writes Hadot, “must be understood from the perspective of these exercises of meditation. Theory is never considered an end in itself; it is clearly and decidedly put in the service of practice.” (p. 4)
These “ongoing contemplative exercises” is something Sloterdijk is fond of exploring in his work, too, particularly insofar as philosophy for Sloterdijk is comprised of many practices and exercises that aren’t necessarily tied to reading, writing, and giving talks. On this so-called side view of training in art, science, and philosophy, Sloterdijk writes:
Just as the history of science usually presumes that the scientists who do their disciplines already exist, the history of art has assumed since time immemorial that artists are the natural protagonists of the business that produces works of art, and that these players have always existed as well. What would happen if we rotated the conceptual stage ninety degrees in both cases? What would happen if we observed artists in their efforts to become artists in the first place? We could then see every phenomenon on this field more or less from a side view and, alongside the familiar history of art as a history of completed works, we could obtain a history of the training that made it possible to do art and the ascetism that shaped artists.
The side view is interesting to think about in terms of the gap between the ideas expressed in Aeon (that philosophers generate real insight and understanding into the human condition that stands the test of millenia) and in Scientific American (that these insights rarely seem to translate into meaningful observable change). Two ideas come mind here.
The first would be to see philosophers in the light of the “lay” disciplines, as people more like the mechanics, firemen, engineers, bankers, ballet dancers, basketball players, orthopedic surgeons, and journalists of the world than not—in other words, as vocational practitioners of a certain kind. The second would be simply to emphasize in a more rigorous way the material conditions of possibility required for philosophical activity in the first place. What does the philosopher’s training regime actually look like? What are the requisite daily practices? What are the physiological prerequisites of movement for achieving advanced skill? We may not be in a place to address the question, is self-examination overrated? simply because it’s not being trained in the first place.
As Hadot rightly notes in What is Ancient Philosophy? The schools and practices of ancient Greece had a strong emphasis on the necessary regimes and training grounds for obtaining the kinds of cognitive skills that people like to advertise the humanities as delivering. The question is not, then, is self-knowledge overrated? but whether or not self-knowledge is even on the menu when it comes to today’s curricular organization. I’ve noted before my frustration that there’s very little empirical research being conducted in this area when compared to, for example, mindfulness studies, and I think it’s time we really get a grip on what’s going on here.
If not the academics, then who are the practicing philosophers, really?