In the previous section I have introduced Emma and Frank, two people engaged in a rationalising conversation. One of them, Emma, reports a change of mind.Footnote 4 Whereas she initially intended to meet Frank this afternoon, she now wants to cancel their meeting. Frank asks her whether this is what she really wants, which is not a narrow epistemological question, but primarily an invitation to engage in a joint deliberation. That is, Frank’s question is primarily an expression of Frank’s entitlement to expect Emma to give him her reasons for not keeping her appointment. Emma, therefore, does not merely need reasons to justify her change of mind to herself, but she also needs reasons that are strong enough to expect Frank to grant her this change of mind even though this may be a disappointment to him.Footnote 5 Although the situation is obviously not heavily moral, it seems to fit the moral scheme of Emma owing Frank an explanation that he might have reason to consider unsatisfactorily.
This scheme of one person owing another person an explanation will prove useful to elucidate the structure of the self-relation characteristic of self-knowledge. To that end I shall introduce two alternatives of Emma that differ in their inclination to examine the limits of their agential space, that is, the scope of their commitment to take responsibility. For reasons that will emerge from my discussion I shall call them Evasive Emma and Truthful Emma.
Remember Frank’s uncomfortable question:
— I see. But, Emma, when we made this appointment last Friday you knew of course that it is your son’s birthday tomorrow. So why didn’t you plan to buy his present earlier? What went wrong?
Now this is how Evasive Emma responds:
(EE) — Well, I did plan to buy the present yesterday. But a colleague at work needed my attention. She was a real pain in the ass, absorbing all my time. That wrecked me. I just couldn’t reach the shopping mall before closing time.
And this is Truthful Emma’s response:
(TE) —Well, buying the present was on my mind yesterday. But I had a bad day. A colleague complained about my work, and I guess she was right, which was rather embarrassing. It took away all my energy, so I went home early. I’m sorry.
I am aware of the fact that the possibly poor quality of these fictional replies and their specific details might be an obstacle to the force of my argument. But I take this risk because the argument needs the context of ordinary life and of commonplace excuses.
Evasive Emma does not seem inclined to acknowledge that she has an obligation to apologize for her change of mind. She appeals to an externalizing story that tells itself as a sequence of events, events that happen to her and that simply overrule her willingness to meet with Frank. Despite her good intentions, the world just does not cooperate with her on this occasion. Evasive Emma invokes a quasi-objective perspective that seems to suggest that any reasonable person would have come to the same conclusion. There is nothing special or noteworthy about her. It is only to be expected that Frank will agree that the balance of reasons constrains her in this scenario: there is simply no other option available to her but to cancel their appointment. Evasive Emma suggests that the way the world is gives her a compelling excuse for her change of mind, as if she is really precluded by outside forces from meeting with Frank. She made up her mind, but she did so in this purely outward-looking way by paying attention to the rational force of the salient features of the scenario she found herself in. It would be inappropriate for Frank to be disappointed about her. If he is disappointed he is bound to confirm that she will be disappointed too, disappointed about the world that did not offer her any degree of freedom. Evasive Emma’s story implies that it is futile to request her to take responsibility for her decision to cancel their appointment. She is obviously willing to do so, if pressed, but she had no choice. There was no reasonable option to do otherwise.
Truthful Emma’s story is different. She apologizes to Frank without trying to use the way the world is to excuse herself. She personally feels sorry and responsible for changing her mind. She has her reasons, but she definitely recognizes that Frank may find these reasons wanting. She offers her personal perspective on the scenario she found herself in. She acknowledges that her reasons have much to do with her take of things, not merely in the sense of her having to take responsibility for weighing these reasons but also in the sense of her being a sentient, emotional being who is affected by the way the world confronts her and who has limited resources. She feels rather confident that Frank will agree with her because the balance of reasons she considered seems to provide her with a pretty reasonable excuse to cancel their meeting. But she acknowledges that she changed her mind and that Frank may be disappointed. And rightly so. She seems willing to live with that. Truthful Emma seems to endorse her reasons as if they offer herself a justifying excuse, that is, an excuse she may grant herself, self-consciously, even though she acknowledges too that Frank doesn’t owe her to grant her this excuse.
I introduce Truthful Emma and Evasive Emma to explore opposite tendencies we may distinguish in Emma’s dedication to self-knowledge. That is, I introduce these alternatives in an attempt to identify different directions on a continuum between, in one extreme, Emma’s absolute commitment to know herself and, in the other extreme, Emma’s absolute attempt to mask, conceal or obscure herself. In addition to this argumentative artifice I should like to use the interpersonal conversation between Frank and Emma as a frame for Emma’s ‘conversation’ with herself, that is, for her reflexive endeavour to articulate and endorse the reasons she takes herself to have for justifiedly making up her mind the way she does. This means that the picture I should like to suggest is that in exploring the responses of Truthful Emma and Evasive Emma to Frank’s challenge I offer an elucidating analogy for Emma’s self-relation as either contributing to a growth of self-knowledge or to a decrease of self-knowledge. The argument, thus, invites you to imagine what Emma would think of herself if she, rather than Frank, would be the addressee of Truthful Emma’s and Evasive Emma’s replies to Frank’s questions.
Truthful Emma is paradigmatically motivated to know herself. That is, she is reflexively interested in knowing what makes her make up her mind in the way she does. Note the double level. Truthful Emma has her reasons, and she knows they count in favour of cancelling her meeting with Frank. But in addition to acknowledging the normative import of these reasons, Truthful Emma is interested in knowing what makes these reasons her reasons, or stated the other way around, what makes her appreciate these reasons as sufficiently accounting for her change of mind. This reflexive interest reveals that Truthful Emma is aware of the fact that in making up her mind she is relying on implicit assumptions about (1) the basic narrative of the life she lives given the kind of agent she is, (2) the rational requirements she and her interlocutors are inclined to respect, and (3) the salient features of the scenario she finds herself in.
What does this fact tell Truthful Emma about herself? How should she relate to it? What should she make of it? It is in responding to these questions that Truthful Emma will recognize that her reasons for self-love are crucial to her self-knowledge. Let me explain.
To begin with, Truthful Emma wants to own the decision to cancel her meeting with Frank. That is, she wants to identify herself asFootnote 6 a person who actively makes up her mind, who intended to meet with Frank but now wants to cancel their meeting. Emma changed her mind, but for Truthful Emma this is not just an event that happens to her. It is a mental act for which she is willing to take responsibility. It is a change of mind that she undertakes and that she should be able to give her reasons for. The point is a familiar one for the non-epistemic, deliberative accounts of self-knowledge such as Moran’s. A crucial feature of knowing one’s own mind is after all the awareness of the fact that the mind one is supposed to know is one’s own mind. And ownership is not merely a brute factual relation but a normative relation: it is a matter of the person having a certain status with respect to the mind in question. (Brandom 2000; Kalish 2005; Benson 2005) Whatever she encounters in her mind calls for a deliberate and reasoned response.
But in appropriating Emma’s change of mind Truthful Emma will have to acknowledge that she treats the implicit background narrative about her life as a rational agent as offering her an excusatory justification for her change of mind. The idea is this. Emma’s resources to rationally justify her change of mind are obviously limited. This is a global feature of her human condition, involving among other things her dependency on all kinds of physical and biological processes, her emotional vulnerability, and her cognitive, linguistic and communicative limitations. It is for Emma – as for every human being – simply impossible to fully rationally appropriate her own mind. Emma changed her mind, and she has reasons for it, reasons Frank might accept as sufficient. These reasons, however, consist to quite some degree in the recognition of Emma’s limits. Her limitations frame the background narrative of her life as lived by the kind of agent she is. In everything she does and in every rationalisation she undertakes she implicitly assumes this background narrative. She revises it, for sure, adapting and accommodating it to the scenarios in which she enacts her life, but in many ways it will remain implicit and will uncritically reinforce limits that apparently will never be rationally scrutinized. It is unclear, however, how much the mindless reinforcement of these limits can carry by way of rationally justifying Emma’s being in the state of mind she happens to be in. Truthful Emma will therefore know that she takes for granted that the background narrative of her life gives her an excusatory justification to conclude her rationalisations at some essentially contestable point. The existence of such a contingent limit is a crucial, defining feature of her being the kind of deliberating agent she is.Footnote 7
In the case at hand, for example, Truthful Emma recognizes that the complaint of her colleague took away all her energy. Well… that might be a fact. But it is unclear in which sense this is a fact that gives Truthful Emma a reason to cancel her meeting with Frank, or a reason to expect Frank to accept this fact as a sufficient reason for Emma’s decision to cancel their meeting. Truthful Emma could of course offer further support for her contention that the fact does indeed give her a sufficient justifying reason to cancel her meeting with Frank. But whatever she would add in support of her decision, there would necessarily come an end to her rationalisations. And having reached that end, Truthful Emma can only hope, trust or assume that the background narrative of her life will support her contention to treat her reasons as sufficient. This means, in the end, that Truthful Emma will have to accept that she cannot do more than she can. This does not necessarily mean that, in some absolute sense, she has done enough to justify her change of mind. Truthful Emma will have to acknowledge that in the final analysis the background narrative of her life as a rational agent might amount to nothing more than the bare excuse that, as Wittgenstein famously observed, “this is simply what I do.”Footnote 8
Embracing her limits in this way is not a leap of faith. Truthful Emma is not embarked on a narrow epistemic or merely theoretically rational enterprise. Taking responsibility for the endorsement that she is right as a rational agent to cancel her meeting with Frank, is not merely a matter of accepting a proposition as true. Even though Truthful Emma is paradigmatically dedicated to know herself, I have already argued in section 1 that self-knowledge involves much more than merely an epistemic relation between a knowing self and a known self. Part of what more is involved is highlighted by non-epistemic theories that stress that self-knowledge crucially is a matter of avowal, of making true what is claimed to be true by acting on the balance of reasons that present themselves in the scenario at hand. But this balance is not, as we have now seen, merely an objective feature of the scenario an agent such as Emma finds herself in. The balance of her reasons is importantly co-determined by the background narrative that she implicitly accepts in making up her mind. Appropriating her decision as hers, therefore, entails Truthful Emma’s acknowledgement that she accepts the responsibility to stand for an excusatory justification that her interlocutor, Frank, might have reason to consider insufficient.
Accepting this responsibility cannot be grounded in an impersonal and decontextualized set of reasons, but will be a matter of Emma’s capacity to lovingly identify herself as Truthful Emma. The reasons Frank is asking Emma for are, for Emma, not merely the reasons that make her change her mind. They are also reasons the appropriation of which shows Emma’s care for the person she could love to be. This is not a blind egocentric love. Truthful Emma’s ambition to know herself requires self-love, but it does not mean that she needs to proudly and narcissistically recognizes herself to be a lovely person, someone who it is a delight to know. Quite the contrary. Real love implies a warm and gentle kindness to welcome and embrace a person regardless of perceived weaknesses, flaws and imperfections. To be sure, these imperfections are not the reasons for Emma to love herself. They figure in her reasons to change her mind, and her appropriation of them as sufficient reasons for her change of mind discloses the self-love she needs to be true to herself about her imperfections. This is the kind of love Emma should be capable of, and it is the love Truthful Emma evokes by truthfully maintaining the delicate balance between being too kind and too harsh with herself, between being too easy in welcoming imperfections and too merciless in resisting them.
I have argued elsewhere that self-love essentially involves a concern for the quality of one’s own attunement as an agent to the normatively significant features of one’s environment. (Bransen 2006) I obviously cannot reconstruct this argument here, but hopefully a rough sketch of some of the highlights will do to explain the role of self-love in self-knowledge. Self-love is a feature of agents, living human beings that interact with their environment in ways that involve not merely the metabolic autopoiesis of living organisms but also a normatively structured self-regulation required for persons to maintain themselves in social and cultural environments. People’s deep and natural drive to care for themselves is a motivational state that is much the same as what Frankfurt has analysed as the volitional necessity that is characteristic of love. (Frankfurt 1994, 2004) We cannot but care for the things we love. But importantly, loving ourselves is not a matter of acting out of self-interest. After all, besides volitional necessity love is crucially characterised by a deep disinterestedness. It is the well-being of the object of one’s love that motivates the lover. Whatever it takes – the lover is willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the object of love. This creates special difficulties but also special opportunities in cases where the lover and the object of their love are one and the same person. Self-love, I argued, requires a rather peculiar kind of self-relation, one that implies the reflexive capacity to discern an alternative of oneself that presents itself as an alternative one is capable of loving. (Bransen 2006) The identification of such an alternative requires contrastive knowledge of the different ways of maintaining one’s agency in a world that need not cooperate. Self-love, I argued, entails the capacity to distinguish between different alternatives of oneself and the affective experience of one’s peace of mind in imagining oneself to be this rather than that alternative.
With respect to the argument of the present paper, this short sketch of self-love suggests that Emma, in responding to Frank’s questions, should try to figure out whether she is capable of loving Truthful Emma or Evasive Emma. Exploring such contrasting alternatives is a familiar feature of self-determination. Think of such attempts to imaginatively project yourself into the future, to use Catriona Mackenzie’s phrase, when you try to determine whether you want to pursue a career as lawyer or as musician, or whether you better think of yourself as a banker or a sheep farmer instead (Mackenzie 2008; Bruckner 2009).
In this section I have explored whether Truthful Emma evokes feelings of self-love in Emma, and I have tried to argue that she does. Truthful Emma is motivated to determine the contours of her responsible agency and this requires her to sincerely and open-mindedly investigate the limits of her own agency in a world that need not cooperate, a world that might ruthlessly reveal her weaknesses, flaws and imperfections. To know herself Emma should not shy away from facing her own limits and shortcomings as a rational agent. Emma therefore needs to love herself to appreciate Truthful Emma’s reasons as her own, that is, to determine the characteristics of her agency, which includes embracing her background narrative and its essentially contestable rationalising force.
In the next section I shall explore whether Evasive Emma is capable of self-knowledge without a warm and gentle kindness towards herself.