“We are so used to disguising ourselves from others that we end up by disguising ourselves from ourselves.”
— François de La Rochefoucauld, Maximes, 119
| Art. 26. Que les imaginations qui ne dépendent que du mouvement fortuit des esprits, peuvent être d’aussi véritables passions que les perceptions qui dépendent des nerfs.
Il reste ici à remarquer que toutes les mêmes choses que l’âme aperçoit par l’entremise des nerfs lui peuvent aussi être représentées par le cours fortuit des esprits, sans qu’il y ait autre différence sinon que les impressions qui viennent dans le cerveau par les nerfs ont coutume d’être plus vives et plus expresses que celles que les esprits y excitent : ce qui m’a fait dire en l’article 21 que celles-ci sont comme l’ombre ou la peinture des autres. Il faut aussi remarquer qu’il arrive quelquefois que cette peinture est si semblable à la chose qu’elle représente, qu’on peut y être trompé touchant les perceptions qui se rapportent aux objets qui sont hors de nous, ou bien celles qui se rapportent à quelques parties de notre corps, mais qu’on ne peut pas l’être en même façon touchant les passions, d’autant qu’elles sont si proches et si intérieures à notre âme qu’il est impossible qu’elle les sente sans qu’elles soient véritablement telles qu’elle les sent. Ainsi souvent lorsqu’on dort, et même (349) quelquefois étant éveillé, on imagine si fortement certaines choses qu’on pense les voir devant soi ou les sentir en son corps, bien qu’elles n’y soient aucunement ; mais, encore qu’on soit endormi et qu’on rêve, on ne saurait se sentir triste ou ému de quelque autre passion, qu’il ne soit très vrai que l’âme a en soi cette passion.
| Art. 26. That the imaginings that depend only on the fortuitous movement of the spirits may be passions just as veritable as the perceptions that depend on the nerves.
It remains to be noted that all and the same things the soul perceives through the nerves may also be represented to it through the fortuitous course of the spirits, with no other difference but that the impressions that come into the brain through the nerves are normally more lively and more definite than those produced there by the spirits — a fact that led me to say in article 21 that the latter are like a shadow or a picture of the former. It must also be noted that sometimes this picture is so similar to the thing it represents that one may be misled thereby regarding the perceptions that relate to objects outside us, or even regarding those that relate to certain parts of our body, but that one cannot be misled in the same way regarding the passions, in that they are so close and so internal to our soul that it is impossible for it to feel them without their being truly as it feels them to be. Thus often when one sleeps, and sometimes even while being awake, one imagines certain things so vividly that one believes them to be before oneself, or to feel them in one’s body, although they are not there at all; but even if one is asleep and dreaming, one cannot feel sad, or moved by any other passion, unless the soul truly has this passion within it.
| Art. 27. La définition des passions de l’âme.
Après avoir considéré en quoi les passions de l’âme différent de toutes ses autres pensées, il me semble qu’on peut généralement les définir des perceptions ou des sentiments, ou des émotions de l’âme, qu’on rapporte particulièrement à elle, et qui sont causées, entretenues et fortifiées par quelque mouvement des esprits.
| Art. 27. The definition of the passions of the soul.
After having considered whereby the passions of the soul differ from all its other thoughts, it seems to me that one may define them generally as those perceptions, sensations, or emotions of the soul, which one particularly refers to it, and which are caused, maintained, and strengthened by some movement of the spirits.
| Art. 28. Explication de la première partie de cette définition.
On les peut nommer des perceptions lorsqu’on se sert généralement de ce mot pour signifier toutes les pensées qui ne sont point des actions de l’âme ou des volontés, mais non point lorsqu’on ne s’en sert que pour signifier des connaissances évidentes. Car l’expérience fait voir que ceux qui sont les plus agités par leurs passions ne sont pas ceux qui les connaissent le mieux, et qu’elles sont du nombre des perceptions que l’étroite alliance qui est entre l’âme et le corps rend confuses et obscures. On les peut aussi nommer des sentiments, à cause qu’elles sont reçues en l’âme en même façon que les objets des sens extérieurs, et ne sont pas autrement connues par elle. Mais on peut encore mieux les nommer des émotions de l’âme, non seulement à cause que ce nom peut être attribué à tous les changements qui arrivent en elle, c’est-à-dire à toutes les diverses pensées qui lui viennent, mais particulièrement parce que, de toutes les sortes de pensées qu’elle peut avoir, il n’y en a point d’autres qui l’agitent et l’ébranlent si fort que font ces passions.
| Art. 28. Explanation of the first part of this definition.
One may call them perceptions as long as one employs this term generally to signify all the thoughts that are not actions of the soul or volitions, but not if one employs it to signify only evident knowledge. For experience shows that those who are the most strongly agitated by their passions are not those who know them best, and that the passions are numbered among the perceptions that the close alliance between the soul and the body renders confused and obscure. One may also call them sensations, because they are received into the soul in the same way as the objects of the external senses, and they are not otherwise known by the soul. But one would do better to call them emotions of the soul, not only because this term may be applied to all the changes that occur in the soul, namely to all the various thoughts that come to it, but particularly because, of all the kinds of thought that the soul may have, there are no others that agitate and disturb it so strongly as do these passions.
| Art. 29. Explication de son autre partie.
J’ajoute qu’elles se rapportent particulièrement à l’âme, pour les distinguer des autres sentiments qu’on rapporte, les uns aux objets extérieurs, comme les odeurs, les sons, les couleurs les autres à notre corps, comme la faim, la soif, la douleur. J’ajoute aussi qu’elles sont causées, entretenues et fortifiées par quelque mouvement des esprits, afin de les distinguer de nos volontés, qu’on peut nommer des émotions de l’âme qui se rapportent à elle, mais qui sont causées par elle-même, et aussi afin d’expliquer leur dernière et plus prochaine cause, qui les distingue derechef des autres sentiments.
| Art. 29. Explanation of its other part.
I add that they refer particularly to the soul, so as to distinguish them from other sensations that one refers, ones to external objects, such as odors, sounds, colors; the others to our body, such as hunger, thirst, pain. I also add that they are caused, maintained, and strengthened by some movement of the spirits, in order to distinguish them from our volitions, which one might also call emotions of the soul that refer to it, but which are caused by the soul itself, and also in order to explain their ultimate and most proximate cause, which distinguishes them anew from other sensations.
|― René Descartes, Les Passions de l’âme, Première partie||― translated by MZ|
The lexical approach may seem safest. Practitioners of the example-based approach run the risk of considering too narrow a range of cases. The theory-guided approach, in its typical manifestations, relies on commonsense explanatory hypotheses that may be misguided: even if ordinary folks are good at identifying hypothetical cases of self-deception, they may be quite unreliable at diagnosing what happens in them. In its most pristine versions, the lexical approach relies primarily on a dictionary definition of “deceive.” And what could be a better source of definitions than the dictionary?
Matters are not so simple, however. There are weaker and stronger senses of “deceive” both in the dictionary and in common parlance. Lexicalists need a sense of “deceive” that is appropriate to self-deception. On what basis are they to identify that sense? Must they eventually turn to representative examples of self-deception or to commonsense theories about what happens in instances of self-deception?
The lexical approach is favored by theorists who deny that self-deception is possible (e.g., Gergen 1985; Haight 1980; Kipp 1980). A pair of lexical assumptions is common:
1. By definition, person A deceives person B (where B may or may not be the same person as A) into believing that p only if A knows, or at least believes truly, that ~p and causes B to believe that p.
2. By definition, deceiving is an intentional activity: nonintentional deceiving is conceptually impossible.
Each assumption is associated with a familiar puzzle about self-deception.
If assumption 1 is true, then deceiving oneself into believing that p requires that one knows, or at least believes truly, that ~p and causes oneself to believe that p. At the very least, one starts out believing that ~p and then somehow gets oneself to believe that p. Some theorists take this to entail that, at some time, self-deceivers both believe that p and believe that ~p (e.g., Kipp 1980, p. 309). And, it is claimed, this is not a possible state of mind: the very nature of belief precludes one’s simultaneously believing that p is true and believing that p is false.5 Thus we have a static puzzle about self-deception: self-deception, according to the view at issue, requires being in an impossible state of mind.
In fact, assumption 1 does not entail that in all instances of deceiving, there is some time at which the deceiver believes that ~p and the deceived person believes that p. In some cases of interpersonal deception, A has ceased believing that p by the time he causes B to believe that p. Imagine that the vehicle for A’s attempted deception is a letter. In his letter, A attempts to deceive B into believing that p by lying to him: p is false and his assertion of p in the letter is a lie. When he sends the letter, A is confident that ~p, but he comes to believe that p by the time B receives the letter. If A’s lie is successful, A deceives B into believing that p in a way that provides confirmation for assumption 1. But there is no time at which A believes that p and B believes that p (see Sorensen 1985).
A theorist inclined to believe that there is a basis in “the concept of deception” for the claim that self-deceivers simultaneously believe that p and believe that p need not be undone by the preceding observation. It may well be true that in stereotypical cases of of interpersonal deceiving there is some time at which A believes that p and B believes that p. And it is open to a theorist to contend that self-deception is properly understood only on the model of stereotypical interpersonal deception.
The claim that self-deception must be understood on the model just mentioned produces a further puzzle about the state of self-deception. In stereotypical cases of interpersonal deceiving, there is a time at which the deceiver does not have a belief that p and the deceived person does have a belief that p. If self-deception is strictly analogous to stereotypical interpersonal deception, there is a time at which the self-deceiver both has a belief that p and does not have a belief that p — a perplexing condition, indeed.6
Assumption 2 generates a dynamic puzzle, a puzzle about the dynamics of self-deception. On the one hand, it is hard to imagine how one person can deceive another into believing that p if the latter person knows exactly what the former is up to, and it is difficult to see bow the trick can be any easier when the intending deceiver and the intended victim are the same person. On the other, deception normally is facilitated by the deceiver’s having and intentionally executing a deceptive strategy. If, to avoid thwarting one’s own efforts at self-deception, one must not intentionally execute any strategy for deceiving oneself, how can one succeed? The challenge is to explain how selfdeception in general is a psychologically possible process. If self-deceivers intentionally deceive themselves, one wonders what prevents the guiding intention from undermining its own effective functioning. And if self-deception is not intentional, what motivates and directs processes of self-deception?7
A theorist who believes that self-deception is a genuine phenomenon may attempt to solve the puzzles while leaving assumptions 1 and 2 unchallenged. An alternative tack is to undermine these assumptions and to display the relevance of their falsity to a proper understanding of self-deception. That is the line I pursue.
5. It is assumed here (and hereafter) that the substitution instances of both occurrences of p are represented in the same way. I forgo discussion of Kripke’s puzzle about belief (Kripke 1979).
6. For a brief review of some literature on this puzzle, see Mele 1987b, pp. 4, 8.
7. One response is mental partitioning: the deceived part of the mind is unaware of what the deceiving part is up to. See Pears 1984 (cf. 1991) for a detailed response of this kind and Davidson 1985 (cf. 1982) for a more modest partitioning view. For criticism of some partitioning views of self-deception, see Johnston 1988; Mele 1987a, ch. 10; and Mele 1987b, pp. 3-6.
Davidson, D. 1982. “Paradoxes of Irrationality.” In R. Wollheim and J. Hopkins, eds., Philosophical Essays on Freud, pp. 289-305. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Davidson, D. 1985. “Deception and Division.” In E. LePore and B. McLaughlin, eds., Actions and Events, pp. 138-48. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Gergen, K. 1985. “The Ethnopsychology of Self-Deception.” In M. Martin, ed., Self-Deception and Self-Understanding, pp. 228-43, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.
Haight, M. 1980. A Study of Self-Deception. Sussex: Harvester Press.
Johnston, M. 1988. “Self-Deception and the Nature of Mind.” In B. McLaughlin and A. Rorty, eds., Perspectives on Self-Deception, pp. 63-91. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kipp, D. 1980. “On Self-Deception.” Philosophical Quarterly 30: 305-317.
Kripke, S. 1979 “A Puzzle about Belief.” In A. Margalit, ed., Meaning and Use, pp. 239-83. Dordrecht: Reidel.
Mele, A. 1987a. Irrationality. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mele, A. 1987b. “Recent Work on Self-Deception.” American Philosophical Quarterly 24: 1-17.
Pears, D. 1984. Motivated Irrationality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pears, D. 1991. “Self-Deceptive Belief-Formation.” Synthese 89: 393-405.
Sorensen, R. 1985 “Self-Deception and Scattered Events.” Mind 94: 64-69.
— Alfred R. Mele, Self-Deception Unmasked, Princeton University Press, 2001, pp. 5-7
“For the worst of all deceptions is self-deception. How can it help being terrible, when the deceiver is always present and never stirs from the spot?”
— Plato, Cratylus 428c