Archived project

The role and value of self-knowledge in contemporary liberalism (Niels Stensen Fellowship)

Goal: Project will be carried out at the Faculty of Philosophy, Cambridge, starting +/- August 2017.

This project explores the socio-political circumstances of self-knowledge. Self-knowledge, generally speaking, is the kind of knowledge that individuals have of their own minds, most notably, their own beliefs, desires, and intentions. The idea that individuals themselves know best what they believe, want or intend, lies at the heart of many of our day-to-day social interactions, and forms the foundational principle of liberalism. As Mill famously wrote: “with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those than can be possessed by anyone else” (Mill 1859, 129). The assumption of self-knowledge, moreover, lies at the heart of liberalisms rejection of (most forms of) paternalism (Brink 2007; 2014). If, after all, the individual herself has the best/most access to her desires and beliefs, the government should better refrain from interfering with her choices.

The self-knowledge assumption raises two important questions. First, what sort of self-knowledge, exactly, lies at the heart of contemporary liberalism? Is it knowledge of what’s currently on one’s mind, knowledge of one’s cognitive and affective attitudes (beliefs, desires, intentions) or knowledge of character traits or life plans? Second, is it actually true that individuals possess a kind of knowledge that “immeasurably” surpasses the knowledge others can have of her mind?

This project aims to explore these two fundamental questions, thereby aiming to illuminate the role and value of self-knowledge in contemporary liberalism.

Extended project outline

1. The Self-Knowledge assumption in Liberalism

In On Liberty, Mill writes that when someone were to see a person “attempting to cross a bridge which had been ascertained to be unsafe, and there were no time to warn him of his danger, they might seize him and turn him back without any real infringement of his liberty” (Mill 1859, 163). Liberty, Mill writes, consists in “doing what one desires” (ibid.), which assumes that one must know what one desires. Since the man lacks knowledge about the risky bridge, and he does not desire to fall into the river, he cannot act in accordance with what he most desires, and we are, in this case, allowed to use force. Mill’s example of the man on the bridge is an example of the exceptional case. The assumption is that people normally know what they want, and that intervening in a person’s life is, by default, advised against.

There are two basic liberal claims. The first is an anti-paternalistic claim, which is that certain interventions on the individual’s choices and/or life are prohibited (possibly including various forms of paternalistic intervention, such as the recent ‘nudge’ units and/or policies in e.g. the UK and the Netherlands (WRR 2014a; WRR 2014b; Hausman and Welch 2010)). The second is the assumption of self-knowledge: individuals themselves know best what they believe, want and intend. Together with the fundamental principle of liberty, the assumption that individuals have self-knowledge and can speak authoritatively about their own attitudes, is assumed to justify, or provide the foundation for, the first, anti-paternalist, claim.

The self-knowledge assumption that Mill and liberalism in general relies on, can be understood in two ways: as an empirical claim, or as an ideal. If claims about self-knowledge are meant to describe an empirical fact about human beings, and this description turns out to be false, then one possibility is to conclude that certain forms of (paternalist) interventions are justified after all. Alternatively, if self-knowledge is an ideal, something to be aspired even if absent or incomplete, then the circumstances that potentially threaten people’s capacity for self-knowledge should be designed such so as to enhance people’s (capacity for) self-knowledge. For instance through education, societal support systems and changing the social infrastructure (Anderson 2009), so that paternalistic interventions such as ‘steering’ or ‘nudging’ citizens would not be required (Anderson and Honneth 2005; Christman and Anderson 2005). In this project, it will be assumed that self-knowledge is an ideal, that it has “human importance” and that it “matters in a practical or even a moral sense” (Cassam 2014).


2. Problem statement, research questions and aims

If self-knowledge is under treat, and self-knowledge is an ideal rather than an empirical fact about human beings, then it appears something fundamental to our self-conception is under threat. Second, if self-knowledge is a foundational assumption of liberalism, then this means liberalism itself may be under threat. The challenge is how these threats might be either disarmed or their implications accommodated into a new liberalist framework in which a novel theory of self-knowledge, which is scientifically and socially robust, has its place.

Surprisingly, the relation between the two fundamental liberal principles, self-knowledge on the one hand and non-interference on the other, have not received much attention (one notable exception, see Christman 2005). Though there is an increasing body of literature on the interrelation between autonomy and liberalism (see e.g. the collected volume by Christman and Anderson 2005), this larger body of literature does not systematically address questions of self-knowledge, either. And yet, self-knowledge is arguably necessary for a person’s capacity to make autonomous choices. On a relatively standard definition of autonomy, a person is autonomous when she is in principle capable of rationally reflecting on her own attitudes, which assumes that she knows what these attitudes are (Roessler 2015). But how exactly is self-knowledge related to autonomy, and, eventually, to liberalism? If we want to have a better grip on the relation between paternalism and liberalism, autonomy and e.g. nudge policies, then we need to get a better grip on self- knowledge, and the role it plays in these debates.

The proposed project aims to fill this theoretical lacuna. Specifically, the proposed project aims to address the following two questions:

• What sort of self-knowledge is assumed to form the foundational principle of liberalism?
• Is the self-knowledge assumption legitimate?

It intends to do so by drawing from two main sources of literature. First, it critically examines recent philosophical and psychological scepticism about self-knowledge (see Scientific Background, section 3); second, it examines the recent ‘socio-political turn’ in (feminist) epistemology and the philosophy of language, and explores the issue of ‘hermeneutical injustice’ as well as self-knowledge in the context of populism and propaganda (see Scientific Background, section 4).

These two sources of literature present two ‘threats’ to the self-knowledge assumption underlying most contemporary accounts of liberalism (but, for an alternative take, see e.g. Garnett ( 2013; 2014; 2015). The first is what I’ll call the ‘sceptical threat’ (see Scientific Background Section 3), the second is what I’ll refer to as the ‘socio-political threat’ to self-knowledge (see Scientific Background Section 4).


Scientific Background

3. The ‘Sceptical Threat’ to Self-Knowledge

According to the renowned psychologist Timothy Wilson, we are “strangers to ourselves”. We don’t know (i) who we are, (ii) why we do what we do, (iii) how we feel and (iv) how we will feel (Wilson 2002). The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel likewise claims that we “live in cocoons of ignorance, especially where our self- conception is at stake” (Schwitzgebel 2012; for other self-knoweldge skepticism see e.g. Snowdon 2012; Doris 2015). Despite the piles of books written on the topic of self-knowledge in philosophy and related areas of research, Schwitzgebel writes that “The philosophical focus on how impressive our self-knowledge is gets the most important things backwards”.

The conclusion that we are strangers to ourselves is supposed to follow, mainly, from a large body of empirical research in (social) psychology. As has become well-known ever since Nisbett and Wilson’s famous ‘stockings’ experiment, people often tend to ‘confabulate’, i.e. concoct a story, when they are asked why they chose one object over another. While we thought that people were introspecting, they are actually just making up a plausible story; they are telling us “more than they know” (Nisbett and Wilson 1977). Moreover, people can be wrong when they report their feelings. People think they’re nervous when they simply had too much caffeine, or think they’re sexually attracted to someone, when it’s merely the ‘adrenaline talking’ (Dutton and Aron 1974; Schachter and Wheeler 1962).

Most disturbing, perhaps, is the literature on ‘implicit bias’ or our unconscious, prejudiced (‘racist’ or ‘sexist’) beliefs (Schwitzgebel 2012; 2010; Holroyd 2012; Holroyd 2015; Cameron, Payne, and Knobe 2010; Sullivan-Bissett 2015; Vierkant and Hardt 2015; Huang, Frideger, and Pearce 2013; Greenwald et al. 2009). When asked whether all human beings are equal, people will, in all sincerity, say that they believe all humans are equal. But, without realizing, they don’t act like it. People tend to take more distance towards non-white people (Dotsch and Wigboldus 2008), and are more tempted to hire Larry rather than Sally or Muhammed when the CVs are in fact identical (see e.g. Moss- Racusin et al. 2012). If all this is true, then this is bad news: it will have great consequences for how we think about ourselves, our actions, our relationships. It will also have implications for the Millian idea that people generally know what they want.

If it can be shown, however, that the kind of self-knowledge that Mill was (implicitly) referring to is not threatened by the empirical studies such as those above, then liberalism can be left intact as is. Whichever way, either it needs to be shown how traditional formulations of liberalism are immune from these threats, e.g. by disentangling different types of self-knowledge, or liberalism needs to be formulated anew in light of (some of) the above considerations.

The hypothesis is that even though the sceptical threat cannot be simply ignored but should be taken seriously, it does not undermine the specific type of self- knowledge that is fundamental to the liberal principles articulated by Mill and others, and so more or less leaves intact the traditional model. The sort of self- knowledge that lies at the heart of liberalism, it will be suggested, is knowledge not of what one is currently conscious of, nor knowledge of one’s future actions, but knowledge of one’s intentions, one’s fundamental projects and/or life plans (cf. Rawls 1999). But this still leaves the second, socio-political, threat to self-knowledge.

4. The ‘Socio-Political Threat’ to Self-Knowledge

The second threat to self-knowledge comes from a recently emerged ‘social-political turn’ in (feminist) epistemology and the philosophy of language. This body of literature suggests that various forms of injustice and inequality, e.g. institutional racism, propaganda and/or populism, can and often do form obstacles to acquiring knowledge and/or being treated as a knower (Langton 1993; 1997; 1998; 2000; Fricker 2007; Stanley 2015; Medina 2013; Cudd 1994; Mills 2007).

This ‘socio-political threat’ arguably has implications for self-knowledge: if certain socio-political conditions can block or impede knowledge, then couldn’t they likewise impede or block acquisition of self-knowledge? For instance, in his recent book How Propaganda Works, Jason Stanley remarks that certain group identities that are co-created under a regime of propaganda “channel rational and affective streams in specific ways, creating obstacles to self-knowledge, as well as to the free flow of deliberation required in a healthy democracy” (Stanley 2015, 4). This seems prima facie plausible, but Stanley himself does not address the topic and relevance of self-knowledge any further.
If certain coercive or subordinating socio-political circumstances can undermine knowledge generally, as is claimed, then it’s conceivable that they undermine self-knowledge specifically. In that case, self-knowledge may require that certain socio-political circumstances be present or absent. This is especially plausible in two cases: self-knowledge in the context of ‘hermeneutic injustice’ and self- knowledge in the context of populism and propaganda. These will function as case studies for examining whether or not there is a socio-political threat to self-knowledge.

4.1 Self-Knowledge in the context of Hermeneutic Injustice
According to theorists that can be said to belong to the socio-political turn in epistemology and the philosophy of language, language is not just a neutral tool for conveying truths and falsehoods or to describe reality. Rather, language has a constitutive—self-verifying or self-fulfilling—role.

There are ‘good’ or ‘innocent’ cases of self- constitution through language. For instance, in The Secular Age and elsewhere, Charles Taylor suggests that language has a constitutive or what he calls a ‘poetic’ function (Taylor 2009, 757–61), such as being able to constitute our own emotions by expressing them in (new) vocabulary. But the constitutive role of language also has a much less positive, indeed much less innocent, side. A key example of the present day is how a flattened or hollow language about religion can obstruct people’s religious self-experience or self-constitution. For instance, negative ideas or statements about what it means to be Muslim are often based on uninformed and highly generalized conceptions of Islam that overlook the different varieties of religious experience. This, on its turn, can hinder a person’s self-understanding and/or religious identity formation (Slootman 2016). As a result, the stereotypical model of Islam may be left intact, given that its members lack the resources to express themselves properly and change the stereotype, causing a loop.

In the literature, an example of this kind is referred to as an example of hermeneutic injustice. Hermeneutic injustice occurs when someone has an experience that he or she isn’t in place to understand or articulate, because it’s not sufficiently shared in the local or global community, and/or the concepts required to properly understand it, are not accepted throughout social space (Fricker 2007). Due to hermeneutic injustice, both Muslims and non-Muslims fail to properly know what it means to be a Muslim, thereby creating serious obstacles to self-knowledge. In a slogan: there’s no knowledge where there should be knowledge.

4.2 Self-Knowledge in the context of Populism and Propaganda
Another example that is central to the socio-political model of knowledge, again particularly urgent in the present day, is how populism, ideologies and propaganda impact (social) knowledge, and so, potentially, self-knowledge as well. A common definition of populism is a (flawed) ideology in which a language is used to describe a bifurcated society of ‘us’, the people, versus ‘them’, the (corrupt) elite (Mudde 2004; Baggini 2015; Stanley 2015; Albertazzi and McDonnell 2015). This is done at least in part through what psychologists call the ‘framing effect’ (Pinker 2007; Kahneman 2013; Waite 2015).

Importantly, as is central to the socio-political knowledge-model, populists and demagogues do not merely describe a social world, but by their speech acts, they create and co-constitute that social world. They bring about the bifurcated ‘us-them’ society that they are said to describe, thereby forms a dangerously successful method of sowing fear. Normally, “opinion is in the business of conforming to truth” but at least in some cases, “truth may be in the business of conforming to opinion” (Langton 2009, 302). The main idea of the socio-political turn in philosophy applied to the case at hand is thus that language creates harmful (social) realities (Langton 2009, 305–9). Demagogues in some sense, ultimately ‘make it true’ and thereby come to have knowledge that there is an ‘us’ that is radically opposed to ‘them’, the elite. The slogan is now the reverse: there’s arguably knowledge when there shouldn’t be.

In this case, the potential threat to self-knowledge is more difficult and will require treading carefully. After all, there is no reason to think that adherents of extreme right-wing or populist parties would not have self-knowledge, i.e. know what they believe, and why they believe it. In this sense, those swayed by populism undoubtedly have an important type of self-knowledge, e.g. knowledge of what’s on their minds.

Therefore, what this project aims to examine specifically, is whether certain socio-political circumstances can threaten some specific types of self-knowledge. The hypothesis is the following: if it is plausible to think that in extreme cases of coercion or subordination, such as brainwashing or hypnosis, people cannot be taken at their word and cannot be said to have self-knowledge properly speaking, then this raises the question of certain absences of coercion might be necessary conditions for self-knowledge. The subsequent question, and the central one of this part of the project, is whether and if so how, populism and/or propaganda can be considered to be coercive, and so threatening with respect to such (types of) self-knowledge.

If the socio-political threat to self-knowledge is real, then it appears we are faced with something of a paradox. The paradox is that liberalisms rejection of intervening on individuals’ lives can no longer be defended by appealing to self-knowledge, as is ordinarily done, because self-knowledge itself requires the absence of specific sorts of interventions, or perhaps the presence of certain socio-political conditions that enhance people’s capacities for self-knowledge. In order for the subject to be the ‘authority’ or ‘to know best’ what it is she wants, feels, believes or intends, it might turn out to be a necessary condition that she is not brainwashed, subordinated, silenced, or the subject of propaganda, populism – perhaps it’s necessary that she is not ‘nudged’ by her government (Thaler and Sunstein 2009). But if self-knowledge itself requires the absence of certain interventions, then self-knowledge cannot, on pain of circularity, be invoked in order to explain why such interventions are illegitimate.



Philosophical, Scientific & Societal Relevance

If there are socio-political circumstances of self-knowledge such as those described above, then this potentially has far-reaching implications. First, if self-knowledge is under treat, and self-knowledge is an ideal rather than an empirical fact about human beings, then it appears something fundamental to our self-conception is under threat. The self-knowledge assumption plays a role not only in our mundane, day-to-day interactions where we normally presume that another’s self-expressions are true, but also in e.g. medicine and (economic) theories of rationality.

Consider for instance the hot dispute in the Netherlands regarding euthanasia. A basic principle in these discussions is that the subject has self-knowledge: she knows what she wants. Especially in cases of dementia, this assumption becomes problematic, because self- knowledge can no longer be assumed. Another example: the assumption of self- knowledge also appears to play a fundamental role with regard to notions of ‘self- management’ in healthcare, and the respective notions of eHealth, telecare, and so on. Notions of self-management and patient autonomy seem to rely at least in part on the more fundamental notion of self-knowledge. In order to govern oneself, one has to know what one wants, intends, and believes.

Second, if self-knowledge is a foundational principle of liberalism (see extended project description), then this means liberalism itself may be under threat. As we’ve seen, this possible implication forms the main impetus for this project. It either means that we need to rethink the basis or foundation of liberalism, or at least rethink the reasons that are normally given to justify various claims to non- interference and/or reasons against paternalism, or we need to find a way to neutralize the ‘socio-political threat’ to self-knowledge.

Moreover, in the long run, the proposed project can have an impact, more concretely, on policy issues such as nudge policies. For instance, in the recent policy on health issues delivered by the WRR, where certain nudge policies are advised, a great number of different types of knowledge get mentioned—knowledge of biology, ecology, institutions, society, and psychology—all except for self- knowledge. This is surprising, and in light of the above, may suggest something of a lacuna, especially given that nudges are weighed against individual’s capacity for autonomous decision-making, which is a capacity that itself is grounded on self- knowledge (see e.g. Christman 2005; Roessler 2015).

Updates
0 new
0
Recommendations
0 new
0
Followers
0 new
8
Reads
0 new
211

Project log

Fleur Jongepier
added a project goal
Project will be carried out at the Faculty of Philosophy, Cambridge, starting +/- August 2017.
This project explores the socio-political circumstances of self-knowledge. Self-knowledge, generally speaking, is the kind of knowledge that individuals have of their own minds, most notably, their own beliefs, desires, and intentions. The idea that individuals themselves know best what they believe, want or intend, lies at the heart of many of our day-to-day social interactions, and forms the foundational principle of liberalism. As Mill famously wrote: “with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those than can be possessed by anyone else” (Mill 1859, 129). The assumption of self-knowledge, moreover, lies at the heart of liberalisms rejection of (most forms of) paternalism (Brink 2007; 2014). If, after all, the individual herself has the best/most access to her desires and beliefs, the government should better refrain from interfering with her choices.
The self-knowledge assumption raises two important questions. First, what sort of self-knowledge, exactly, lies at the heart of contemporary liberalism? Is it knowledge of what’s currently on one’s mind, knowledge of one’s cognitive and affective attitudes (beliefs, desires, intentions) or knowledge of character traits or life plans? Second, is it actually true that individuals possess a kind of knowledge that “immeasurably” surpasses the knowledge others can have of her mind?
This project aims to explore these two fundamental questions, thereby aiming to illuminate the role and value of self-knowledge in contemporary liberalism.
Extended project outline
1. The Self-Knowledge assumption in Liberalism
In On Liberty, Mill writes that when someone were to see a person “attempting to cross a bridge which had been ascertained to be unsafe, and there were no time to warn him of his danger, they might seize him and turn him back without any real infringement of his liberty” (Mill 1859, 163). Liberty, Mill writes, consists in “doing what one desires” (ibid.), which assumes that one must know what one desires. Since the man lacks knowledge about the risky bridge, and he does not desire to fall into the river, he cannot act in accordance with what he most desires, and we are, in this case, allowed to use force. Mill’s example of the man on the bridge is an example of the exceptional case. The assumption is that people normally know what they want, and that intervening in a person’s life is, by default, advised against.
There are two basic liberal claims. The first is an anti-paternalistic claim, which is that certain interventions on the individual’s choices and/or life are prohibited (possibly including various forms of paternalistic intervention, such as the recent ‘nudge’ units and/or policies in e.g. the UK and the Netherlands (WRR 2014a; WRR 2014b; Hausman and Welch 2010)). The second is the assumption of self-knowledge: individuals themselves know best what they believe, want and intend. Together with the fundamental principle of liberty, the assumption that individuals have self-knowledge and can speak authoritatively about their own attitudes, is assumed to justify, or provide the foundation for, the first, anti-paternalist, claim.
The self-knowledge assumption that Mill and liberalism in general relies on, can be understood in two ways: as an empirical claim, or as an ideal. If claims about self-knowledge are meant to describe an empirical fact about human beings, and this description turns out to be false, then one possibility is to conclude that certain forms of (paternalist) interventions are justified after all. Alternatively, if self-knowledge is an ideal, something to be aspired even if absent or incomplete, then the circumstances that potentially threaten people’s capacity for self-knowledge should be designed such so as to enhance people’s (capacity for) self-knowledge. For instance through education, societal support systems and changing the social infrastructure (Anderson 2009), so that paternalistic interventions such as ‘steering’ or ‘nudging’ citizens would not be required (Anderson and Honneth 2005; Christman and Anderson 2005). In this project, it will be assumed that self-knowledge is an ideal, that it has “human importance” and that it “matters in a practical or even a moral sense” (Cassam 2014).
2. Problem statement, research questions and aims
If self-knowledge is under treat, and self-knowledge is an ideal rather than an empirical fact about human beings, then it appears something fundamental to our self-conception is under threat. Second, if self-knowledge is a foundational assumption of liberalism, then this means liberalism itself may be under threat. The challenge is how these threats might be either disarmed or their implications accommodated into a new liberalist framework in which a novel theory of self-knowledge, which is scientifically and socially robust, has its place.
Surprisingly, the relation between the two fundamental liberal principles, self-knowledge on the one hand and non-interference on the other, have not received much attention (one notable exception, see Christman 2005). Though there is an increasing body of literature on the interrelation between autonomy and liberalism (see e.g. the collected volume by Christman and Anderson 2005), this larger body of literature does not systematically address questions of self-knowledge, either. And yet, self-knowledge is arguably necessary for a person’s capacity to make autonomous choices. On a relatively standard definition of autonomy, a person is autonomous when she is in principle capable of rationally reflecting on her own attitudes, which assumes that she knows what these attitudes are (Roessler 2015). But how exactly is self-knowledge related to autonomy, and, eventually, to liberalism? If we want to have a better grip on the relation between paternalism and liberalism, autonomy and e.g. nudge policies, then we need to get a better grip on self- knowledge, and the role it plays in these debates.
The proposed project aims to fill this theoretical lacuna. Specifically, the proposed project aims to address the following two questions:
• What sort of self-knowledge is assumed to form the foundational principle of liberalism?
• Is the self-knowledge assumption legitimate?
It intends to do so by drawing from two main sources of literature. First, it critically examines recent philosophical and psychological scepticism about self-knowledge (see Scientific Background, section 3); second, it examines the recent ‘socio-political turn’ in (feminist) epistemology and the philosophy of language, and explores the issue of ‘hermeneutical injustice’ as well as self-knowledge in the context of populism and propaganda (see Scientific Background, section 4).
These two sources of literature present two ‘threats’ to the self-knowledge assumption underlying most contemporary accounts of liberalism (but, for an alternative take, see e.g. Garnett ( 2013; 2014; 2015). The first is what I’ll call the ‘sceptical threat’ (see Scientific Background Section 3), the second is what I’ll refer to as the ‘socio-political threat’ to self-knowledge (see Scientific Background Section 4).
Scientific Background
3. The ‘Sceptical Threat’ to Self-Knowledge
According to the renowned psychologist Timothy Wilson, we are “strangers to ourselves”. We don’t know (i) who we are, (ii) why we do what we do, (iii) how we feel and (iv) how we will feel (Wilson 2002). The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel likewise claims that we “live in cocoons of ignorance, especially where our self- conception is at stake” (Schwitzgebel 2012; for other self-knoweldge skepticism see e.g. Snowdon 2012; Doris 2015). Despite the piles of books written on the topic of self-knowledge in philosophy and related areas of research, Schwitzgebel writes that “The philosophical focus on how impressive our self-knowledge is gets the most important things backwards”.
The conclusion that we are strangers to ourselves is supposed to follow, mainly, from a large body of empirical research in (social) psychology. As has become well-known ever since Nisbett and Wilson’s famous ‘stockings’ experiment, people often tend to ‘confabulate’, i.e. concoct a story, when they are asked why they chose one object over another. While we thought that people were introspecting, they are actually just making up a plausible story; they are telling us “more than they know” (Nisbett and Wilson 1977). Moreover, people can be wrong when they report their feelings. People think they’re nervous when they simply had too much caffeine, or think they’re sexually attracted to someone, when it’s merely the ‘adrenaline talking’ (Dutton and Aron 1974; Schachter and Wheeler 1962).
Most disturbing, perhaps, is the literature on ‘implicit bias’ or our unconscious, prejudiced (‘racist’ or ‘sexist’) beliefs (Schwitzgebel 2012; 2010; Holroyd 2012; Holroyd 2015; Cameron, Payne, and Knobe 2010; Sullivan-Bissett 2015; Vierkant and Hardt 2015; Huang, Frideger, and Pearce 2013; Greenwald et al. 2009). When asked whether all human beings are equal, people will, in all sincerity, say that they believe all humans are equal. But, without realizing, they don’t act like it. People tend to take more distance towards non-white people (Dotsch and Wigboldus 2008), and are more tempted to hire Larry rather than Sally or Muhammed when the CVs are in fact identical (see e.g. Moss- Racusin et al. 2012). If all this is true, then this is bad news: it will have great consequences for how we think about ourselves, our actions, our relationships. It will also have implications for the Millian idea that people generally know what they want.
If it can be shown, however, that the kind of self-knowledge that Mill was (implicitly) referring to is not threatened by the empirical studies such as those above, then liberalism can be left intact as is. Whichever way, either it needs to be shown how traditional formulations of liberalism are immune from these threats, e.g. by disentangling different types of self-knowledge, or liberalism needs to be formulated anew in light of (some of) the above considerations.
The hypothesis is that even though the sceptical threat cannot be simply ignored but should be taken seriously, it does not undermine the specific type of self- knowledge that is fundamental to the liberal principles articulated by Mill and others, and so more or less leaves intact the traditional model. The sort of self- knowledge that lies at the heart of liberalism, it will be suggested, is knowledge not of what one is currently conscious of, nor knowledge of one’s future actions, but knowledge of one’s intentions, one’s fundamental projects and/or life plans (cf. Rawls 1999). But this still leaves the second, socio-political, threat to self-knowledge.
4. The ‘Socio-Political Threat’ to Self-Knowledge
The second threat to self-knowledge comes from a recently emerged ‘social-political turn’ in (feminist) epistemology and the philosophy of language. This body of literature suggests that various forms of injustice and inequality, e.g. institutional racism, propaganda and/or populism, can and often do form obstacles to acquiring knowledge and/or being treated as a knower (Langton 1993; 1997; 1998; 2000; Fricker 2007; Stanley 2015; Medina 2013; Cudd 1994; Mills 2007).
This ‘socio-political threat’ arguably has implications for self-knowledge: if certain socio-political conditions can block or impede knowledge, then couldn’t they likewise impede or block acquisition of self-knowledge? For instance, in his recent book How Propaganda Works, Jason Stanley remarks that certain group identities that are co-created under a regime of propaganda “channel rational and affective streams in specific ways, creating obstacles to self-knowledge, as well as to the free flow of deliberation required in a healthy democracy” (Stanley 2015, 4). This seems prima facie plausible, but Stanley himself does not address the topic and relevance of self-knowledge any further.
If certain coercive or subordinating socio-political circumstances can undermine knowledge generally, as is claimed, then it’s conceivable that they undermine self-knowledge specifically. In that case, self-knowledge may require that certain socio-political circumstances be present or absent. This is especially plausible in two cases: self-knowledge in the context of ‘hermeneutic injustice’ and self- knowledge in the context of populism and propaganda. These will function as case studies for examining whether or not there is a socio-political threat to self-knowledge.
4.1 Self-Knowledge in the context of Hermeneutic Injustice
According to theorists that can be said to belong to the socio-political turn in epistemology and the philosophy of language, language is not just a neutral tool for conveying truths and falsehoods or to describe reality. Rather, language has a constitutive—self-verifying or self-fulfilling—role.
There are ‘good’ or ‘innocent’ cases of self- constitution through language. For instance, in The Secular Age and elsewhere, Charles Taylor suggests that language has a constitutive or what he calls a ‘poetic’ function (Taylor 2009, 757–61), such as being able to constitute our own emotions by expressing them in (new) vocabulary. But the constitutive role of language also has a much less positive, indeed much less innocent, side. A key example of the present day is how a flattened or hollow language about religion can obstruct people’s religious self-experience or self-constitution. For instance, negative ideas or statements about what it means to be Muslim are often based on uninformed and highly generalized conceptions of Islam that overlook the different varieties of religious experience. This, on its turn, can hinder a person’s self-understanding and/or religious identity formation (Slootman 2016). As a result, the stereotypical model of Islam may be left intact, given that its members lack the resources to express themselves properly and change the stereotype, causing a loop.
In the literature, an example of this kind is referred to as an example of hermeneutic injustice. Hermeneutic injustice occurs when someone has an experience that he or she isn’t in place to understand or articulate, because it’s not sufficiently shared in the local or global community, and/or the concepts required to properly understand it, are not accepted throughout social space (Fricker 2007). Due to hermeneutic injustice, both Muslims and non-Muslims fail to properly know what it means to be a Muslim, thereby creating serious obstacles to self-knowledge. In a slogan: there’s no knowledge where there should be knowledge.
4.2 Self-Knowledge in the context of Populism and Propaganda
Another example that is central to the socio-political model of knowledge, again particularly urgent in the present day, is how populism, ideologies and propaganda impact (social) knowledge, and so, potentially, self-knowledge as well. A common definition of populism is a (flawed) ideology in which a language is used to describe a bifurcated society of ‘us’, the people, versus ‘them’, the (corrupt) elite (Mudde 2004; Baggini 2015; Stanley 2015; Albertazzi and McDonnell 2015). This is done at least in part through what psychologists call the ‘framing effect’ (Pinker 2007; Kahneman 2013; Waite 2015).
Importantly, as is central to the socio-political knowledge-model, populists and demagogues do not merely describe a social world, but by their speech acts, they create and co-constitute that social world. They bring about the bifurcated ‘us-them’ society that they are said to describe, thereby forms a dangerously successful method of sowing fear. Normally, “opinion is in the business of conforming to truth” but at least in some cases, “truth may be in the business of conforming to opinion” (Langton 2009, 302). The main idea of the socio-political turn in philosophy applied to the case at hand is thus that language creates harmful (social) realities (Langton 2009, 305–9). Demagogues in some sense, ultimately ‘make it true’ and thereby come to have knowledge that there is an ‘us’ that is radically opposed to ‘them’, the elite. The slogan is now the reverse: there’s arguably knowledge when there shouldn’t be.
In this case, the potential threat to self-knowledge is more difficult and will require treading carefully. After all, there is no reason to think that adherents of extreme right-wing or populist parties would not have self-knowledge, i.e. know what they believe, and why they believe it. In this sense, those swayed by populism undoubtedly have an important type of self-knowledge, e.g. knowledge of what’s on their minds.
Therefore, what this project aims to examine specifically, is whether certain socio-political circumstances can threaten some specific types of self-knowledge. The hypothesis is the following: if it is plausible to think that in extreme cases of coercion or subordination, such as brainwashing or hypnosis, people cannot be taken at their word and cannot be said to have self-knowledge properly speaking, then this raises the question of certain absences of coercion might be necessary conditions for self-knowledge. The subsequent question, and the central one of this part of the project, is whether and if so how, populism and/or propaganda can be considered to be coercive, and so threatening with respect to such (types of) self-knowledge.
If the socio-political threat to self-knowledge is real, then it appears we are faced with something of a paradox. The paradox is that liberalisms rejection of intervening on individuals’ lives can no longer be defended by appealing to self-knowledge, as is ordinarily done, because self-knowledge itself requires the absence of specific sorts of interventions, or perhaps the presence of certain socio-political conditions that enhance people’s capacities for self-knowledge. In order for the subject to be the ‘authority’ or ‘to know best’ what it is she wants, feels, believes or intends, it might turn out to be a necessary condition that she is not brainwashed, subordinated, silenced, or the subject of propaganda, populism – perhaps it’s necessary that she is not ‘nudged’ by her government (Thaler and Sunstein 2009). But if self-knowledge itself requires the absence of certain interventions, then self-knowledge cannot, on pain of circularity, be invoked in order to explain why such interventions are illegitimate.
Philosophical, Scientific & Societal Relevance
If there are socio-political circumstances of self-knowledge such as those described above, then this potentially has far-reaching implications. First, if self-knowledge is under treat, and self-knowledge is an ideal rather than an empirical fact about human beings, then it appears something fundamental to our self-conception is under threat. The self-knowledge assumption plays a role not only in our mundane, day-to-day interactions where we normally presume that another’s self-expressions are true, but also in e.g. medicine and (economic) theories of rationality.
Consider for instance the hot dispute in the Netherlands regarding euthanasia. A basic principle in these discussions is that the subject has self-knowledge: she knows what she wants. Especially in cases of dementia, this assumption becomes problematic, because self- knowledge can no longer be assumed. Another example: the assumption of self- knowledge also appears to play a fundamental role with regard to notions of ‘self- management’ in healthcare, and the respective notions of eHealth, telecare, and so on. Notions of self-management and patient autonomy seem to rely at least in part on the more fundamental notion of self-knowledge. In order to govern oneself, one has to know what one wants, intends, and believes.
Second, if self-knowledge is a foundational principle of liberalism (see extended project description), then this means liberalism itself may be under threat. As we’ve seen, this possible implication forms the main impetus for this project. It either means that we need to rethink the basis or foundation of liberalism, or at least rethink the reasons that are normally given to justify various claims to non- interference and/or reasons against paternalism, or we need to find a way to neutralize the ‘socio-political threat’ to self-knowledge.
Moreover, in the long run, the proposed project can have an impact, more concretely, on policy issues such as nudge policies. For instance, in the recent policy on health issues delivered by the WRR, where certain nudge policies are advised, a great number of different types of knowledge get mentioned—knowledge of biology, ecology, institutions, society, and psychology—all except for self- knowledge. This is surprising, and in light of the above, may suggest something of a lacuna, especially given that nudges are weighed against individual’s capacity for autonomous decision-making, which is a capacity that itself is grounded on self- knowledge (see e.g. Christman 2005; Roessler 2015).