Peeling the Fuzzy Onion: On Philosophizing, Denial, and Anosognosia
“I had tweeted my definition of a stupid person. A stupid person is a person who treats a smart person as though he is stupid.”
-Errol Morris, on his inspiration for writing on anosognosia. While I take issue with Morris’ quote above for many reasons (particularly the barely hidden power dynamics), it encapsulates much of problematic he’s trying to articulate in regard to the issue of the relation between knowledge, non-knowledge. and, for me, at least, self-questioning curiosity.
Why do we philosophize? What is this odd practice we engage in, in which we attempt to stretch a set of terminological lenses so that they can be used to explain all that we’ve ever experienced, and all we dream we could ever experience? Or is that what philosophy is? After the challenges of post-structuralism, deconstruction, and the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ provided by Freud, Hegel/Marx, Nietzsche, and Darwin, does philosophy really concern itself with universals, or universal knowledge, or even knowledge at this point? Do we produce ‘truth’, or is philosophy, as Nietzsche has argued, simply a collective attempt by a society to ‘ward off depression’? And what does any or all of this have to do with truth or knowledge?
As Nietzsche famously argued in his ‘On Truth and Lies in an Extra-moral sense’:
Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. _One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life.
Nietzsche tasks philosophy with understanding this thought. How are we doing?
Which brings me to the main substance of this post, namely, the relation of unknowing to philosophy as practice. Errol Morris has a really fascinating New Yorker style ‘think-piece’ essay in five parts over at the New York Times that is really work checking out. Its called “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong, But You’ll Never Know What it Is” Anosognosia is a neurological condition in which a person has a dysfunction in a certain part of their brain (ie: paralysis of a limb), but other parts of their brain dysfunction prevent them from knowing this is the case.
As anyone who has read in the history of neuroscience, the textbooks are full of examples in which brain damages of various sorts caused all sorts of selective forms of non-knowledge – the ability to know qualities but not objects, for example, or to remember only long-term but not short-term events. The tragic case of Phineas Gage, the most famous case in perhaps all of neuroscience, gives us a full description of the manner in which the inability to know can be much more specific than what is commonly thought.
What’s fascinating is that Morris expands his analysis of anosognosia into to an entire disquisition on what it means to not know something, and the implications of this for knowledge in a more general sense. Morris weaves biological cases with those which could be called forms of everyday denial, and the blurring between the examples he gives is where the real payoff comes about.
All of which makes me think about the ways in which denial is related to questions of epistemology, an issue which he only touches on in the briefest of fashions in his article. But our philosophical literature is littered with accounts of thought experiments in which an abstract subject attempts to know various things, and to plumb the limits of human knowledge. Think of Descartes radical doubter, Kant’s categorical self-questioner, Hegel’s subject of history, Locke’s tabula rasa-ist, so many ‘conceptual personae’, as Deleuze would have it, imagined figures with which to think.
On Denial and its Pleasures
But what of the denier? Freud gave us the represser, or as Lacan would have it, the Freudian ‘subject of the unconscious.’ But denial is in some ways a more slippery beast. Because while repression assumes that we really don’t know what we know, denial is based on the fact that we sort of know what we know. Of course, this is lurking within the paradoxes of repression as well, but denial is repression’s more disturbing younger brother, it would seem. We are much more responsible for what we sort of know.
And yet, denial also has key benefits. Many theorists of fiction, whether in novels, theater, or film, have argued that the pleasure of these works comes about from the simultaneous knowledge that these are fictions with an attempt to forget this fact to immerse ourselves, if temporarily, in the world of the fiction. In film theory, this is known by the psychoanalytic term ‘disavowal’, essentially, a close cousin of denial. Might life be more pleasureful if we weren’t so worried about truth?
Perhaps denial about certain things is what makes life bearable, and certainly this is related to Nietzsche’s solution to the problem of knowledge, in which he advocates not ‘the will to truth’, linked with cruelty, but rather, the attempt to find the right lie. For as Oscar Wilde famously said, “Those who tell the truth will oneday be found out,” or, to quote Lacan, “truth has the structure of a lie.” Wilde and Lacan are Nietzschians here, in that they both believe that anyone aiming for the truth is clearly lying, but for those who aim to lie, there are forms of lying which are better and worse to the given needs of a situation. But is this simple denial? For Nietzsche, the point is to transvalue values, to create a new meta-ethics of sorts, hardly denial in any traditional sense. Denial implies a truth that you don’t want to know, while Nietzsche’s approach is to shift the very terms of the terrain to one of the philosopher as artist, as one who creates new ways of life, regardless of the truth of these. For is art ever concerned with truth?
But back to epistemology for a moment. Let’s assume, at least for now, that our knowing subject acts in ‘good faith’ in their attempt to know what needs to be known, thereby giving rise to the huge set of assumptions inherent to any attempt to pose questions to some sort of ideal ‘subject of epistemology.’ Morris has an extended discussion with some experimental psychologists over how they’ve tried to create experiments based on (unprosecuted but most likely war-criminal) Donald Rumsfeld’s much lampooned but actually quite smart quote from the earlier part of the decade (as described by Cornell social psych prof David Dunning):
Donald Rumsfeld gave this speech about “unknown unknowns.” It goes something like this: “There are things we know we know about terrorism. There are things we know we don’t know. And there are things that are unknown unknowns. We don’t know that we don’t know.” He got a lot of grief for that. And I thought, “That’s the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year.”
Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns” quote occurred in a Q&A session at the end of a NATO press conference. A reporter asked him, “Regarding terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, you said something to the effect that the real situation is worse than the facts show…” Rumsfeld replied, “Sure. All of us in this business read intelligence information. And we read it daily and we think about it, and it becomes in our minds essentially what exists. And that’s wrong. It is not what exists.” But what is Rumsfeld saying here? That he can be wrong? That “intelligence information” is not complete? That it has to be viewed critically? Who would argue?
And here’s Morris’ quite astute analysis:
A “known unknown” is a known question with an unknown answer. I can ask the question: what is the melting point of beryllium? I may not know the answer, but I can look it up. I can do some research. It may even be a question which no one knows the answer to. With an “unknown unknown,” I don’t even know what questions to ask, let alone how to answer those questions.
But there is the deeper question. And I believe that Dunning and Kruger’s work speaks to this. Is an “unknown unknown” beyond anything I can imagine? Or am I confusing the “unknown unknowns” with the “unknowable unknowns?” Are we constituted in such a way that there are things we cannot know? Perhaps because we cannot even frame the questions we need to ask?
Philosophy has much to learn from this. Thomas Kuhn has famously argued that scientists think in paradigms, and these paradigms determine which questions are seen as worth asking, pursuing, what constitutes legitimate research, etc. Deleuze and Guattari make much of this approach in What is Philosophy?, building on the work of John Dewey and the process of ‘problematization’, by arguing that a problematic has a similar role in philosophy. If you read philosophy from another tradition, or another time period, what is often the most fascinating is not what people believed, but rather, the very questions they found pressing. In the middle ages, for example, debates raged on whether or not ‘the intellect’ was ‘active’ or ‘passive’, and the ramifications had to do with how you viewed the nature of God. Today, the very debate is, well, just in many ways uninteresting.
Paradigms, Problematics, and the Unthought
Philosophy is, I think, in many ways an attempt to develop a relation to the ‘unknown unknowns’ in a situation. This is what Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot, and Deleuze following them, have often referred to as the ‘unthought’ at the heart of thought. Or to phrase this in Heidegerreanese: What are we not yet thinking?
According to many, there is always a constitutive unthought at the heart of all thought, an absolute unthought, perhaps. But it then seems there must be relative unthoughts (to use Deleuzian language here) layered on top of these. The unthoughts of our scientific or philosophical paradigms, our cultural assumptions, our time period, our personal biases. And if we return to the question of denial for a moment, then the questions we know we should ask, but would rather not. Not to even mention the answers!
Philosophy often serves to take chains of logic to their extremes to ferret out the latent contradictions that only counterfactuals could bring to light. If we never left planet earth, barring physical catastrophe, we’d think the strength of gravity a universal, but it turns out that the moon and in fact every object in the universe has a different degree of gravity, as proportional to its mass. It is only by going into counterfactual situations (‘what if I were no longer on this planet?’) that we start to get closer to the realm of the unthought. We start to unlayer the onion of the unthought, but at some point we are not sure what sort of new counterfactuals to even pose. We can imagine differences in gravity, but could we imagine a universe without it?
Counterfactual situations are essential to philosophy, because it is only when we can imagine situations in which one of our primary assumptions is not the case that we start to get a sense of what is invariant in our situation. Philosophy requires that we attempt, sometimes in thought and sometimes via experiment (physical or mental), to know what is constant when we start to vary parameters.
But how to differentiate that which is part of the situation, and what is a parameter? This is often precisely the dilemma. You can’t vary something if you don’t see it as a parameter which can be varied in the first place, and even if you do, that does not mean you’d really have a sense of what it could mean to vary it. For example, while we can think the thought of perspectiveless observation, this does not mean we can imagine what it would be like.
Why do we philosophers attempt to know that which is universal, and that which varies, and how these relate to each other and the situations in which they present themselves? Of course, these days it is very unpopular, after the advent of post-structuralism, to speak of anything universal. But as many have argued, this is not to dispense with universals, but simply alter our relation thereto. If one were to follow Badiou, we could even argue that the only universal is the lack of universals, in the ‘infinite potential of thought’. But while I admire Badiou’s axiomatic conviction of this, I’d like to know, could we ever know if this were the case? And if not, what would be the point of making such a claim? Does this shift the claim from one about knowledge to one about belief, about the way the world ‘should’ be rather than how it ‘is’? And are perhaps all epistemological claims about universals, if subject to limitations of our own knowledge in a limited universe, then in some sense prescriptive and ethical as much as epistemological?
What’s more, why do we as philosophers attempt to question what must be the case for ‘all rational subjects’, or some such, by means of counter-factual situations (ie: non-human or differently structured forms of rationality), if we’ve never come upon these? It would seem that we are trying to develop a deeper rapport with some layers of the unthought. For if something is unthinkable, its not really interesting. But the not yet thought, or the potentially thinkable, that’s where things get really interesting. The world is made of such fuzzy distinctions, rarely is nature ever hard, fast, and precise, and philosophy is hardly an exception. Which is why these days we see the limitations, for example, of the Kantian project, and its denial of certain forms of complexity that perhaps a less threatened relation to the world might bring to the fore.
But does philosophy really deal with issues such as denial or fear? Does psychology really influence the sorts of answers, questions, and methods at work in construction of philosophical arguments?
Then again, why do we even care? Why are universals interesting, or important? Perhaps evolutionarily we are wired to perhaps think this way, to try to take into account situations which we have not yet encountered but might. There’s a high survival benefit to that. But then to universalize these attempts to predict the future? I wonder if this doesn’t provide us more comfort than knowledge . . .
And maybe comfort is worth thinking about. Morris relates a conversation with neurologist V.S. Ramachandanran about patients with medical anosognosia:
V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: Denial that a body part, in this instance, an arm, belongs to her. It’s part of the same spectrum of disorders. So the wonderful thing about her is that she has a great sense of humor and was really articulate and intelligent. So I asked her, “Can you move your right arm?” and the usual list of questions, and she said “Yes, of course.” I said, “Can you move your left arm?” She said, “Yes.” “Can you touch my nose?” “Yes, I can touch your nose, sir.” “Can you see it?” “Yes, it’s almost there.” The usual thing, O.K.? So far, nothing new. Her left arm is lying limp in her lap; it’s not moving at all; it’s on her lap, on her left side, O.K.? I left the room, waited for a few minutes, then I went back to the room and said, “Can you use your right arm?” She said, “Yes.” Then I grabbed her left arm and raised it towards her nose and I said, “Whose arm is this?” She said, “That’s my mother’s arm.” Again, typical, right? And I said, “Well, if that’s your mother’s arm, where’s your mother?” And she looks around, completely perplexed, and she said, “Well, she’s hiding under the table.” So this sort of confabulatory thing is very common, but it’s just a very striking manifestation of it. No normal person would dream of making up a story like that. But here is the best part. I said, “Please touch your nose with your left hand.” She immediately takes her right hand, goes and reaches for the left hand, raising it, passively raising it, right? Using it as a tool to touch my nose or touch her nose. What does this imply? She claims her left arm is not paralyzed, right? Why does she spontaneously reach for it and grab her left arm with her right hand and take her left hand to her nose? That means she knows it is paralyzed at some level. Is that clear? 
ERROL MORRIS: Yes. Presumably, if she didn’t know it was paralyzed, she wouldn’t try to lift it with her right hand.
V.S. RAMACHANDRAN: And it gets even better, she’s just now told me that it’s not her left arm, it is her mother’s arm, so why is she pulling up her mother’s arm and pointing it at my nose? What we call belief is not a monolithic thing; it has many layers.
Ramachandran has used the notion of layered belief — the idea that some part of the brain can believe something and some other part of the brain can believe the opposite (or deny that belief) — to help explain anosognosia. In a 1996 paper , he speculated that the left and right hemispheres react differently when they are confronted with unexpected information. The left brain seeks to maintain continuity of belief, using denial, rationalization, confabulation and other tricks to keep one’s mental model of the world intact; the right brain, the “anomaly detector” or “devil’s advocate,” picks up on inconsistencies and challenges the left brain’s model in turn. When the right brain’s ability to detect anomalies and challenge the left is somehow damaged or lost (e.g., from a stroke), anosognosia results.
In Ramachandran’s account, then, we are treated to the spectacle of different parts of the brain — perhaps even different selves — arguing with one another.
So, perhaps we have one part of our brain that works real hard to make up excuses for other parts. Many philosophers have argued that answers are often implicit in their questions, and this is precisely what the notion of a ‘paradigm’ or ‘problematic’ is used to describe, the fact that certain types of answers, a fuzzy family grouping of possible answers, exist virtually within any procedure for answering them. You can’t answer a multiplication problem with an answer like “green,” the result is simply non-sensical. Paradigms and problematics are simply extensions of this same notion. During the middle ages in Christian Europe, the fact that it said in the Bible that god stopped the movement of the sun at one point was considered evidence enough that the sun moved, not the earth, and it took quite a while to convince folks that telescopes presented the world as it was, and didn’t make matters worse, thereby providing what was slowly now coming to be considered worthy evidence against the Biblical claim of the earth’s movement rather than the sun’s.
According to Merleau-Ponty, and following Freud, we come up with decisions first, and only rationalize them afterwards. Many adherents to the ‘mesoscopic theory of consciousness’ now argue that in fact we don’t decide at the level of consciousness, but we are only ‘presented’ with decisions made elsewhere on our universal ‘desktop’, so to speak. Might our relation to the questions we post in the realm of philosophy be subject to the same limitations? Perhaps we only ask the questions we want to hear, and only produce the problematics that bring us comfort?
A lof of this has to do with the philosophical community as well. Morris describes in his article the notion that a ‘smart’ person (a term I as an educator have huge issues with) is one who ‘knows what they don’t know’:
Dunning and Kruger argued in their paper, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine.”
It became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect — our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence.
I don’t like the idea of ‘competence’ at all, since of course, it is always those who ‘have competence’ who get to decide precisely what is competent and what is not, and thus, this is really as much a question of power as anything else. But it does raise the issue of curiosity.
George W. Bush: Curiosity and the question of Evil
Was President George W. Bush (another unprosecuted war criminal) incompetent? Perhaps the best way to frame this is that his lack of curiosity about the world beyond the picture of it that he was convinced is true is precisely his incompetence. This would also go a long way to explaining why it is he always seemed like he was lecturing those of us who ‘just didn’t understand’ the way the world was. His refusal to even wonder why others might have different points of view was precisely was what made him incompetent, and do things like invade Iraq, a move which even his ideological supporters view as a massive strategic blunder.
Which of course brings us to the question of evil. Was George W. Bush evil, and if so, how? Was his lack of curiosity, and his eagerness to impose his own convictions on others, an evil act? Certainly if he was more curious, he might want to know more about what the consequences would’ve been for imposing his worldview, with its characteristic lack of curiosity, on others.
But if you’re curious, you may be presented with facts or perspectives which may force you to question your own convictions. Lack of curiosity is often intertwined with stubbornness, defensiveness, paranoia, etc. Perhaps Mr. Bush could’ve used a good therapist (and many have argued the same with other violent world figures, an entire line of argument for another time), because psychotherapy starts with an attempt to instill curiosity into the analysand about the origins and effects of their behaviors. Is anyone ever truly evil, or just in need of a good shrink? Perhaps its those who don’t take responsibility by getting a good shrink, those who pursue an incurious approach to the world willfully, and without care for the potential consequences on others, that engage in evil acts. Mr. Bush was certainly someone who didn’t want to know anything he already didn’t, and didn’t care if others thought he should.
This would also lend some credence to Morris’ definition of ‘a stupid person’ (another term I refuse to use) with which I started this post. Here’s how I’d rephrase it. I don’t believe in ‘stupid’ or ‘smart’ people, and I say this as someone who has taught everything from piano lessons to philosophy to writing/composition to math and science, teaching one on one, in small groups, in different parts of the country, in different socio-economic groupings. I do, however, believe in smart and stupid ways of dealing with the world. And I think the smartest thing a person can be is curious, and have the courage that real, not simulated, curiosity requires. An ethics based on the opposition of paranoia and curiosity, perhas.
And I think lack of curiosity is one of the biggest things which create what others may call incompetence, stupidity, stupid behavior, etc. Not so much even when you don’t know something, or don’t know you don’t know something, but when you don’t care if you don’t know something.
The Dangers of Groupthink, and the Immanent Ethics of Sync
Morris’ essay ends by discussing how even curiosity can be short-circuited by the slight of hand produced by ‘groupthink’:
DAVID DUNNING: Here’s a thought. The road to self-insight really runs through other people. So it really depends on what sort of feedback you are getting. Is the world telling you good things? Is the world rewarding you in a way that you would expect a competent person to be rewarded? If you watch other people, you often find there are different ways to do things; there are better ways to do things. I’m not as good as I thought I was, but I have something to work on. Now, the sad part about that is — there’s been a replication of this with medical students — people at the bottom, if you show them what other people do, they don’t get it. They don’t realize that what those other people are doing is superior to what they’re doing. And that’s the troubling thing. So for people at the bottom, that social comparison information is a wonderful piece of information, but they may not be in a position to take advantage of it like other people.
ERROL MORRIS: But wait a second. You’re supposed to benefit from feedback. But the people that you’ve picked are dunderheads. And you lack the ability to discriminate between dunderheads and non-dunderheads, between good advice and bad advice, between that which makes sense and that which makes no sense. So the community does you no damn good!
Our paradigms and problematics are defined, from science to philosophy to everyday life, by the community of those whose feedback we trust. Certain approaches to ‘research questions’, be these in science or philosophy, are simply dismissed as ‘out there’, and never pursued, not so much because they might not have something to them, but that even following up on them would require a massive reorganization of the schemas we use to structure our lives. In the world of the everyday, we’d say they were thrown aside because they violates ‘common sense.’
Is philosophy that within culture that works to constantly keep ‘common sense’ at bay, or rather, is it that which defends ‘common sense’? I’d love to hope it were the former, but I think there is a really slippery slope at work here. A fuzzy onion, so to speak. In class, I often tell my students, particularly those who have never encountered theory or philosophy before, that my job as a teacher is to ‘mess up what they know’, but when you know something, you don’t think about it, knowing is the opposite of thinking. I think there’s a lot of truth to this.
These are some things I think about when I question precisely what we are doing when we ‘philosophize’. I’m not sure universal truth has anything to do with it. I do think that working to ‘sync’ our actions with the lifeworld in which we find ourselves – cultural, historical, natural, everyday lifeworlds, layered and nested within each other – is a lot closer to the way things, what, ‘really’ are? Sure, let’s go with that, for now. Perhaps denial and truth aren’t so much the issue. Which brings us back to the creative potential of what those so preoccupied with truth will often call fictions. But perhaps the purpose of philosophy is to be creative, and by means of this, to enhance our chance of coming into sync with the immanent structure of what is. Certainly this is what the Taoists, as well as the Roman Stoics, and their ‘modern’ inheritor, Baruch Spinoza, would argue, and I think there’s a lot to say for this sort of immanent ethics of that which lies potentially beyond knowledge and error, but not beyond the sort of curiosity needed to continually problematize, and to encourage the development of a society that collectively does the same.
Here’s how Morris’ finishes it all up, with parables:
Alas, by definition one can never be aware of one’s own anosognosia. It takes someone else to point it out, and confronted with that diagnosis, the anosognosic will deny it. Here is at least one instance where it doesn’t take one to know one. Quite the opposite. But what does this have to tell us about how the world works?
For years, I have had my own version of the story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In my version, God appears before Adam and Eve, and tells them that they have disobeyed Him. He admonishes them, and they will have to leave immediately. Everything will be completely grotesque, grim, ghastly and gruesome outside of Eden. God spares them no detail. Adam and Eve, both crestfallen and fearful, prepare to leave, but God, feeling perhaps a little guilty for the severity of his decision, looks at them and says, “Yes, things will be bad out there, but I’m giving you self-deception so you’ll never notice.”
So just what is the anosognosic’s dilemma? Is it like Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns but much worse? An unknown unknown that must be forever unknown. An unknowable unknown. A disease that masks its own existence — one with pitiful and even tragic consequences, as McArthur Wheeler’s and Wilson’s examples show. If you have it, then you can never know you have it. It is something that must always be beyond our ken.
There are optimistic versions of this. There is the idea that there are no unknowable unknowns — but rather an endless parade of unknown unknowns — of one scientific and intellectual advance leading to another. A recent version of this appeared in a Freeman Dyson article in the New York Review of Books. Dyson is taking Steven Weinberg (a physicist and Nobel laureate) to task for his claim that someday we will be able to know everything. “Our ape-brains and tool-making hands were marvelously effective for solving a limited class of puzzles. Weinberg expects the same brains and hands to illuminate far broader areas of nature with the same clarity. I would be disappointed if nature could be so easily tamed. I find the idea of a Final Theory repugnant because it diminishes both the richness of nature and the richness of human destiny. I prefer to live in a universe full of inexhaustible mysteries, and to belong to a species destined for inexhaustible intellectual growth.”
Indeed. What on earth would make us believe that “our ape-brains and tool-making hands” could give us access to certain knowledge? Or to absolute truth? We pursue truth but have no guarantee of finding it. As Noam Chomsky has written, “We are after all biological organisms not angels . . . If humans are part of the natural world, not supernatural beings, then human intelligence has its scope and limits, determined by initial design. We can thus anticipate certain questions will not fall within [our] cognitive reach, just as rats are unable to run mazes with numerical properties, lacking the appropriate concepts. Such questions, we might call ‘mysteries-for-humans’ just as some questions pose ‘mysteries-for-rats.’ Among these mysteries may be questions we raise, and others we do not know how to formulate properly or at all.”  
And so, here’s another parable to go with the expulsion from the Garden — an even more pessimistic account. (Or optimistic, if you prefer, because it puts a limit on human suffering caused by an awareness of the futility of our situation.) When God created man (and woman), he gave them the ability to perceive the world, but withheld from them the ability to understand it. We could come up with one cockamamie theory after another, but real understanding would always elude us. It was mean-spirited on God’s part. And to make matters even worse, God gave us the desire but not the wherewithal to make sense of experience. One might easily foresee that this would lead to unending, unmitigated frustration and suffering. But here’s where self-deception, anosognosia and the Dunning-Kruger Effect step in. We wouldn’t be able to make sense of anything, but we would never be aware of that fact.