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  • The Horror of Self-Reflection: The Concealment of Violence in a “Self-Conscious and Critical Society”

If one looks at recent developments, the repeated appearance of such themes as self-knowledge and reflexivity in the agendas of political philosophers suggests that some long neglected problems are gradually receiving attention.i The nexus between the mental and the political has suffered considerable neglect by philosophers all too ready to set the standards of reasonableness that people are expected to meet in a politically relevant course of action. Apart from a general preoccupation with the rationality of action and rational choice there is also an influential strain in modern political theory, well represented by Marx and Arendt, supporting a form of objectivism and materialism “that takes primacy over concern with intangible essences, ... denying the fundamental role that consciousness, thinking, inwardness, and subjectivity play in their theory” (Ring 1989: 443). Jürgen Habermas has acknowledged such “intangible essences” by pointing out that people can satisfy the normative expectations set by the specific roles they are required to play within a liberal polity only if they satisfy a set of given cognitive premises (Habermas 2005: 124 and 141ff.).ii A similar argument pursues the Wittgensteinean track, for which “if we are to maintain a liberal society, that is, one in which each member is free and equal in contributing to its structure and governance, we are obliged to make possible the conditions under which each member can achieve self-knowledge through intelligibly articulating her claims to the group” (Pohlhaus-Wright 2002: 821).

Politics does not refer merely to facts that take place out there in a distant world that hardly registers with us. On the contrary politics is the very domain of reflexivity, inasmuch as it concerns myriad conscious activities whereby people seek to adjust their conduct to circumstances. Such activities are, to be sure, normatively constrained, so long as they demand the reflective application of rules of reasoning that virtually nobody -- at least within a relatively narrow circle of neighbors -- would find unreasonable to apply.

Post-Rawlsian philosophy seems to have realized that the standard story of how morally sound political institutions are designed is a bit naïve. This story was essentially focused on standards of reasonableness, while it passed over other aspects of people’s mental life as, for instance, a reflective relationship with one’s own mental states, or the importance of practices of self-scrutiny, or the kind of suppression of inwardness that J.L. Austin indicated as the truest foundation of morality (Austin 1979: 236). That story failed to acknowledge the mutual implications of reflexivity and human sociability so much stressed by what Adorno called the “philosophy of immanence.”iii

Reflexivity is a key-feature of reason inasmuch as it refers to the faculty by which we fulfil the very nature of human rationality, namely, its open-endedness, the idea that we do not just have thoughts about facts of the world, but we also have “thoughts about our thoughts, and thoughts about our thoughts about our thoughts” (Pinker 2002: 336).iv Reflecting on reflexivity becomes especially critical when it comes to inquirying into the difficult relationship between people’s reflective habits on the one hand, and the ways that institutions are organized on the other. Reflexivity, admittedly, is deemed to be a good thing, insofar as institutions supporting people’s thinking reflectively about their own thoughts aim at minimizing “self-conceit” (Taylor 1989: 97). However, we tend to agree that

it is not foolish to believe that any social and political order which effectively uses power, and which sustains a culture that means something to the people who live in it, must involve opacity, mystification, and large-scale deception. Reasonable people can believe, contrary to the ideals of liberalism, that human beings cannot live together effectively, at least on any culturally ambitious scale, if they understand fully what they are doing.v

The ambition of this paper is to understand to what extent the principles of liberalism are compatible with strong demands for reflexivity. The works of political theorists of a liberal persuasion are replete with reminders that an open and reflective appreciation of the reasons we have to engage in ordinary social tasks leads by default to the strengthening of the social In the following I shall focus attention on writers who exposed the shortcomings of this view and showed that it is rather by repressing reflexivity that the social bond gets strengthened.

In section 1 I address the theme of the intelligibility of reasons as explored, with rather sceptical conclusions, in the writings of Philip Roth. His novels pulsate with characters who intuit that the circumstances of their predicament cannot be explained through recourse to reasons. In section 2 I explore the formation of delusional habits by which people suppress the awareness that their “malignancy” (in S.T. Coleridge’s words) is “motiveless.” I show that such habits are critical to the persistence of the social bond and I present, in section 3, the case of scapegoats as a typical expression of social dynamics that thrive on defective reflective processes. In section 4 I explain how those habits become constitutive of the psychological outlook of people. Writers who challenge the view that sound social arrangements demand high standards of reflexivity often resort to tales of social origins. Classical contractualist narratives hold that society builds on people’s ability to give and acknowledge reasons in principle intelligible to them. In section 5 I show how a number of writers whom I shall call “revelatory” challenge the core of the contractualist story, the situation of choice in which the prospective members of society arrive at a mutually agreeable system of rules. Section 6 builds on the notion of a “comedy of guiltlessness” to show how the non-rational origins of human society and culture are redeemed by a blatant denial of responsibility, suitably disguised as a bootstrapping mechanism that brings about reason and order.

I speak rather ecumenically of “revelatory writers” arguing that they share basic ideas on the unreflective nature of society and the disruptive effects of reflexivity. I think that it would be possible to trace some productive lines of influence between them and show their mutual commitments to a number of claims about human nature and society. For reasons of space, however, this is something that this paper does not do, perhaps leaving the (wrong) impression that the works explored here are not part of that ongoing intellectual venture we think of as a tradition.

The revelatory writers do not usually figure in the canon(s) of Western (political) philosophy. They, “contrary to the ideals of liberalism,” have insinuated a particular model of understanding into the nexus of self-reflection/politics. Contrary to the ideals of the philosophical tradition that has its origins in the works of Plato and Aristotle, they believe that self-reflection, instead of enhancing people’s commitments to equality and respect, can be responsible for dissolving the very structure of the social bond.

1. Arcady Hill Road

Agents are distinguished from other non-rational and non-reflective beings so long as “agents are creatures that have the general aim of knowing what they are doing. A reason for action is a consideration that makes it the case that, if one were to act, one would be knowing what one was doing” (Dancy 2004: 239). We are, according to this fairly classical case, introspectively aware of our thoughts, because what we do -- if intentional and not performed in some kind of somnambulistic state -- is in principle amenable to explanations by means of reasons, and reasons -- unlike other causal conditions that prompt us to do things for which we otherwise would disclaim agency -- can be acknowledged or chosen when we are in a conscious and intentional state. The link reason-action is very tight within our Aristotelian philosophical world, for this world is modelled on the assumption that actions “differ from performances that are merely behavior [...] in that reasons can be given for them” (Brandom 1994: 8).

If reflexivity, or “cognitive reflection,” is a “mode of knowledge” that enables us to gain an insight into reasons (Larmore 2004, see ch. iii, § 2), human beings can be said to be reflectively capable so long as they can articulate reasons. This view is largely dependent on a particular approach to human agency, the classical approach, for the assumption that agents are driven by reasons constitutes the distinctive and central case of human agency in the Western philosophical tradition. The classical approach can “be characterized as holding that the central type of human action is intentional action; that intentional action is action for a reason, and that reasons are facts in virtue of which those actions are good in some respect and to some degree” (Raz 1999: 23). According to this approach, facts which are credited with a “good-making” quality constitute reasons compelling people to act in a certain way. In our Aristotelian philosophical universe people tend to take for granted this way of construing human agency and generally accept the assumption that an action is always for a reason. Objections to the classical case (Hurstouse 1991) bear on those actions which “are intentional, but neither done for a reason, nor seen by the agent as good” (Raz 1999: 23). But according to the advocates of the classical approach, any such objections are doomed to fail, because even those actions which seem to challenge the classical case will contain, from an agent-centered perspective, valuable effects that make them eligible.vii

Reasons are open to reflective procedures aimed at verifying that the kind of conduct we think appropriate in a given circumstance is so because it suits the way we have explored the issue. Having reasons for action is part of what being rational entails, and people qua rational intuitively “reject the idea of harm done for no cause and without gain as anomalous” (Dumas 1996: 723).

This classical case has been spasmodically challenged by a number of writers, who have tried to disclose (non-Aristotelian) worlds in which actions without a reason can actually occur. According to these writers people can be prompted by what S.T. Coleridge, commenting on the character of Iago, called “a motiveless malignancy” casting about for occasion (Coleridge 1937: 172). People driven by this malignancy seem to abound in literature (but not only in literature), and Kafka’s novels often feature characters that can hardly make sense of their plight in a world in which the rational and wilful causation of events is always in doubt: they are either arrested “without having done anything wrong” (Kafka 1995: 1) or even if they have committed a crime, one senses that “nobody should be blamed for this” because “nobody could behave any differently” (Kafka 1998: 205). In the world imagined by these writers things happen, though it is uncertain whether such things be the outcome of the wilful action of a conscious, rational agent.

A case in point is Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral. This novel is all about the unintelligibility of reasons, a typical Rothian theme. Here a man named Nathan Zuckerman, a writer, tells the story of the “Swede,” a nickname for Sol Levov, an American Jew who embodies the virtues of temperance, hard work, and devotion to family and country. One day the Swede finds out that his daughter -- the child who was expected to fulfil a life of dedication to family and work -- has become a terrorist. The Swede and his wife struggle in the attempt to believe that nothing of what seemed to befall them is real. They try, in Roth’s words, to spend a “self-deluding harmless few moments” (Roth 1997: 122) back in the utopia of an American pastoral. These harmless moments, though, cannot last forever, and the pastoral is in fact interrupted by the “awakening [...] to the horror of self-reflection” (Roth 1997: 85), the state of consciousness which must eventually yield an acknowledgment of the “evil ineradicable from human dealings” (Roth 1997: 81), of the catastrophe -- sensed also by the family of the protagonist of Roth’s last novel, Everyman -- that will subvert “everyone’s sense of security” and will introduce “an ineradicable precariousness into their daily lives” (Roth 2006: 66). The final creeping of “the plague America” inside the pastoral (Roth 1997: 86) -- akin to the final disclosure of “the menacing realms of benighted American life” in The Facts (Roth 1988: 94) -- turns everything upside down and hurls the Swede’s world “into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counter-pastoral” (Roth 1997: 86). Once his rational utopia has collapsed the Swede confides this painful recognition to his brother Jerry, who obstinately sticks to the absurd belief “that things are connected” even though, as Zuckerman acknowledges, “there is no connection.” But the Swede reproaches his brother for surveying “causes, clear answers, who there is to blame. Reasons. But there are no reasons [...] Reasons are in books” (Roth 1997: 281).

The theme of the unintelligibility of reasons is, in the context of Roth’s novels, somewhat suggestive of a sort of Kafkaesque psychological predicament. In Roth’s universe a reason or motive is rarely the kind of intelligible fact that people appeal to in order to establish, over and above their natural inclination, a recognizably normative kind of relationship with the world. Here people either confess that “reasons are in books” or that a given motive “was ridiculous” (Roth 2006: 99) or that the motive was precisely “what’s left out” (Roth 1988: 170). It is the same universe in which Yakov Bok -- in Bernard Malamud’s novel The Fixer -- is subjected to a blind machinery of persecution, a universe where “there was no ‘reason,’ there was only their plot against a Jew” (Malamud 2004: 153). The same theme was explored in Saul Bellow’s second novel, The Victim, where a character named Asa Leventhal struggles to figure out a clue, something that he might have left behind in the attempt to make sense of what is going on in his life. But our sole impression as readers is that “there must be reasons, but they were beyond anybody’s ability to find out” (Bellow 2000: 26).

The illusion, or utopia, of a rational life feeds on the delusions of the young Philip in Roth’s The Plot Against America. His parents try hard “to set things right and explain away enough of the unknown to make existence appear to be rational” (Roth 2004: 228; italics added), so that when the “unknown” shows up in their lives, and people, including the young boy, behave as if they were “somebody else” (Roth 2004: 194), doing “things you don’t know why you do them” (Roth 2004: 151), “sleepwalking” (Roth 2004: 232), the only way to react is by trying to create again “the utopia of a rational existence.” The reaction of Philip to the allegations of his parents that “he didn’t know what he was doing” was adamant: “I was fully awake and my motivation never obscure to me” (Roth 2004: 232). Here the pastoral of the inherent rationality of human action is protected from the threats of self-reflection, so that the “horror” could be for a few moments averted.viii

But why the horror of self-reflection? And how is it possible to endure it or, possibly, extend the duration of the “self-deluding harmless few moments” to an entire life? People, according to these revelatory writers, manage to avoid the horror of self-reflection by means of razionalizations, just like some characters in Philip Roth’s great fresco of America, The Human Stain, where some “bastards” are said to have “humiliated and humbled and destroyed a man over an issue everyone knew was bullshit” (Roth 2000: 233). The perpetrators know that the motive was bullshit, they “know perfectly well that this is not the cause and yet [...] they willingly act as if they don’t [...]. No motive for the perpetrator is necessary, no logic or rationale is required. Only a label is required. The label is the motive. The label is the evidence. The label is the logic” (Roth 2000: 290). When Zuckerman remembers the words spoken by the person committed to justifying the persecution, he wonders “whether the rationalization could be an accurate description of his motives” (Roth 2000: pp. 311–312). Here self-reflection is said to be leading to the “horror” because it reveals the truth behind the human impulse to hate the very people we harmed: in Tacitus’ words, proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris.ix

But what are exactly these rationalizations? Joseph Raz calls them “explanatory reasons.” He writes that “an explanatory reason may exist even when there is no reason for the agents to do what they did (i.e., when they mistakenly believe that there is a reason for their action)” (Raz 1999: 23). We rationalize an action when we want to give it a ring of rationality. By rationalizing an action we concoct an explanation aimed at establishing that the action carried a “good-making quality” that made it under the circumstances eligible. Yet, an explanatory reason is a reason. The agent’s ability to supply an explanatory reason prevents the action from falling outside the conception of the normativity of reason defined by the classical approach.x

This definition of razionalization, though, fails to reckon with the social and interpersonal dimension in which the person rationalizes the action. We need therefore to return to the classical account of the notion of rationalization. Here the text of reference turns out to have been one of the main sources for the Freud’s notes on obsessive neurosis in the clinical case of “the man of the rats;” it is Ernest Jones’s essay Rationalization in Everyday Life: “no one” -- Jones writes -- “will admit that he ever deliberately performed an irrational act, and any act that might appear so is immediately justified by distorting the mental processes concerned and providing a false explanation that has a plausible ring of rationality. This explanation bears a special relation to the prevailing opinion of the circle of people who are most significant to the individual concerned” (Jones 1923: 13).

How is it that demands for social stability can coexist with these rigorous standards of self-reflection? In the case of rationalizations it seems as if people lose that kind of cognitive authority the regular exercise of which is part of what being rational entails. Rationalizations are expressions of people’s need to comply with the epistemic attitudes embedded in the social roles they are demanded to play.xi

2. Quid est veritas?

Let us hold on to Jones’ definition, that when people rationalize they speak on behalf of the community and endorse its fundamental beliefs as to, among other things, “causes, clear answers, who there is to blame.” Then we need to choose between endorsing the view of people whose opinion matters to us or take up a more independent epistemic stance and act like a character in Roth’s The Facts, for instance: one who is resolved to “react reflectively and run for his life” (Roth 1988: 84). We then commit ourselves to speaking the truth about our motives in the face of consequences that may turn out to be bad for us. Our commitment to speak the truth, indeed, has consequences for our relationship with the group, given the assumption that when people “act on behalf of a collective they are reinforced in their identity” (Pettit 2003b: 190). What the single individual fears most is suffering the cognitive solitude of the outsider and failing to participate in the practices of recognition by which she can acquire confidence about her own sense of identity as a person.xii The case of blaming the victim is particularly telling, for in this case a passionate endorsement of the authority of the community is often reciprocated by a gesture of recognition. Here, besides conveying mean-spiritedness this attitude towards victims “also expresses our need to trust the social order in which we live” (Shklar 1990: 39).

The case of blaming an innocent victim involves a blind release of epistemic authority. The attitudes and actions of the perpetrators cease to be the object of a critical scrutiny and “can be rhetorically imitated, either to feed our self-conceit or for even more sinister purposes, such as the defence of a discreditable status quo. Trite formulae may combine with the historical sham to weave a cocoon of moral assurance around us which actually insulates us from the energy of true moral sources” (Taylor 1989: 97). This flaw in the functioning of a self-conscious and critical society has attracted a fair amount of attention from several writers, who have focussed basically on people’s ability to give a truthful account of themselves, especially in those situations in which it is harder to rid oneself of some socially imposed delusions.

Bernard Williams has argued that people’s relationship with truth in general takes the form of a habit; it is not a spasmodic disposition to accuracy in one’s reports concerning internal beliefs or facts of the world but, rather, a “virtue,” characterized by consistency and continuity of application. Truthfulness in one’s epistemic attitudes and demeanour has therefore a constitutive character, for by professing sincerely what they believe people become the kind of persons they are. By professing our beliefs we provide other people with clues as to how to relate with us; but we should also expect them to keep track of our future choices and test their consistency with our avowed life-plans. Our commitments to consistency involve the effort to become the kind of person we have sincerely professed. At some point in our lives we accept as true that something is the case and shape our life-projects accordingly by professing what we have come to believe. On a number of matters we are no longer vague or unclear or reticent about our commitments and such commitments become apparent through our avowals. Our reasons to act, once made available to others, can be adopted by anyone committed to forming a tighter relationship with us. My reasons can be used by another person to make sense of actions and attitudes that would otherwise remain hardly intelligible. It is within this normative space in which people are taken to be expressing themselves sincerely about their motives that they eventually succeed in constituting their identities and shaping their social roles. Just like Archidamus in the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale -- “I speak as my understanding instructs me, and as mine honesty puts it to utterance” (Winter’s Tale I.i) -- the person committed to speak the truth about herself enters a space in which the roles she has been playing are “put to utterance” by a profession of commitment that others are bound to acknowledge. And it is this declarative dimension that opens up the distinctively normative space in which such attitudes as avowing and professing show for what they are, namely, not so much indicators of some hidden internal states of the individual as commitments to pursue consistency in one’s life-plans. Here a very high degree of reflexivity is involved, for a close scrutiny of our motives is needed in order to open them up to others, namely to people who may be wishing to rely on them.xiii When people’s reasons lose their intelligibility the inferential game they play by expressing commitments become useless and other actors, who wish they could rely on such expressions of commitment, withdraw within themselves. In Roth’s The Counterlife Zuckermann remains astonished before his brother’s dramatic conversion to a different life-plan and again is reproached by him for his efforts to make sense of what is going on in his life “and wouldn’t tolerate any attempt to investigate or challenge his motives” (Roth 1986: 104). Until the very moment when Zuckermann resolves to give up “searching for some appropriate set of motives that would make this metamorphosis look... less implausible” (Roth 1986: 132).

The decision to commit oneself reflectively to one’s life-plan is the upshot of what Charles Larmore calls a “practical reflection,” as distinct from a “cognitive” one.xiv Larmore, Moran, Williams and Butler have raised important concerns over the extent to which a person’s identity is connected with her commitment to speak the truth. Speaking the truth, so long as it involves consistency in one’s epistemic stance and is not an occasional performance, is actually constitutive of the person’s identity. Williams writes: “drawn to bind myself to the others’ shared values, to make my own beliefs and feelings steadier (to make them, at the limit, for the first time into beliefs), I become what with increasing steadiness I can sincerely profess; I become what I have sincerely declared to them, or perhaps I become my interpretation of their interpretation of what I have sincerely declared to them” (Williams 2002: 204; italics added). Butler, in the wake of Foucault, has explored this situation to its limit, showing that any personal attempt to challenge a given truth-regime is bound to produce a dramatic feed-back for the person herself: in Butler’s words, “to call into question a regime of truth, where that regime of truth governs subjectivation, is to call into question the truth of myself and, indeed, to question my ability to tell the truth about myself, to give an account of myself” (Butler 2005: 22–23).

What I am trying to argue, in the wake of writers who have questioned the idea of a capacity for reflexivity prior to people’s endorsement of the social roles that constitute them as persons, is that my access to ‘myself’ is always mediated by my own relationship to others.xv The philosophy of immanence has spread its influence especially through hermeneutics, and in one of the seminal texts of this philosophical orientation it is argued that the hermeneutical situation (hermeneutische Situation) of the single individual can never be made fully explicit: “the clarification of this situation... is not something that can be attained once and for all; and this unattainability is not due to a shortcoming of reflection but it is rather dependent on the very structure of our being historical beings. And being historical beings means never managing to make oneself fit to full-fledged self-knowledge [Sichwissen]” (Gadamer 1960: 285; italics in the original).

But, again, the truth at stake here is a truth that everybody is prepared to believe, something consistent with other people’s “shared values.” People sometimes do not really know that something is the case and their rationalizations are actually the sincere expressions of what they believe. It is as if they get to comply with the “imperative of social integration” (Habermas 2000: 346), so that all their epistemic authority gets transferred to the “general intellect” of the community, and what they come to profess is no longer different from what they have merely endorsed. It is by relying on the account provided by, in Jones’ words, “the circle of people who are most significant to the individual concerned,” that they have become the kind of persons everybody, including themselves, think they are. The situation is not one of bad faith or blatant concealment of one’s motives; it is rather a situation in which the forces of wishful thinking or self-conceit take over so powerfully that the agent’s “self-conscious pursuit of the truth” is held back (Williams 2002: 125).

It is, to be sure, contrary to the ideals of liberalism to indulge in this kind of reflective predicament as to our ability to survey things or facts whose truthfulness should matter to us. For it is one of the tenets of liberalism that no political order can be supported by consistent denials of the truth. As John Rawls has put it “the political order does not, it seems, depend on historically accidental or established delusions, or other mistaken beliefs resting on the deceptive appearances of institutions that mislead us as to how they work” (Rawls 1993: 68).

3. Job’s friends

If we hold on to the liberal standpoint we sense that such phenomena as blaming innocent people are substantive threats to the assumptions of honesty and truthfulness upon which social life is grounded. So long as victims are innocent the attitude of the perpetrators signals delusion, if not deliberate wickedness. According to liberals ‘scapegoating’ is a sort of primitive manifestation of human sociability that feeds on people’s irrational impulses. This view is challenged by writers who see scapegoating as one of the most powerful means available to groups to strengthen the social ties within the group, so that it is not just a privilege of ‘primitive’ societies. Some writers, in fact, seem to agree on a standard pattern: there is a group, a community of people, there is a victim whom members of the group deem to be responsible of some sort of evil, without, at the same time being capable of a full understanding of what they are doing. It is not primitive; it is rather the routine machinery of human societies. The same writers characterize scapegoating as a failure of the self-reflective function of social institutions; for scapegoats thrive when social institutions fall short of the standards of reflexivity required to qualify them as morally sound. Scapegoating then is the upshot of shortcomings in reflexivity, and scapegoats abound in situations such as when members of a community fail to retain a residual introspective and reflective capacity and yield to the pure imperative of social integration through mob behaviour. There is in fact more to be said about this phenomenon for, according to the writers who have challenged the classical view the concealment of innocent victims is the arch-rational political gesture.

The French anthropologist René Girard has devoted a lifelong scholarly career to investigating this issue, although his works have been paid little heed by political philosophers. There is no space here to detail Girard’s complex ‘mimetic theory,’ which involves a powerful conceptual shift of perspective in current theorizing about the springs of human discord. According to Girard, the notion of desire that has been handed over to us by a tradition that goes back to Plato has a clear egocentric bias. Whenever we describe the dynamics of conflict that arise from desires, we by default adopt the “egocentric model”, failing therefore to acknowledge the relational or alterocentric character of desire. Girard is committed to finding a way around the Western (Platonic-Aristotelian) model of “unsupported” or “celibate desire,” a desire which is centered on the subject. He seeks to deconstruct this tradition by revealing “the way most men are” (Girard 1991: 219), which is not the egocentric way we commonly adopt when we try to make sense of the ways people relate with the world. Girard seeks “to define the rival’s position within the system to which he belongs, in relation to both subject and object. The rival desires the same object as the subject, and to assert the primacy of the rival can lead only to one conclusion: rivalry doesn’t arise because of the fortuitous convergence of two desires on a single object; rather, the subject desires the object because the rival desires it” (Girard 1977: 145). But the conflict generated by mimetic rivalry is bound to become pervasive as its contagion hits virtually all members of the community. And the community is now bound to look for an outlet, and targets those random victims upon whom everyone will put all the blame.

Girard’s “mimetic theory” entails that mimetic desire is bound to generate dynamics of scapegoating so long as the people involved remain unaware of the mimetic, namely, non-rational and non-reflective nature of their actions. One of the key-assumptions of Girard’s theory is that “violence operates without a reason” (Girard 1977: 46), and that the mimetic, that is, non subject-based, impulses driving the mimetic rivals against each other have no cognitive access to the actual sources of their behaviour. Violence, therefore, seems to succeed in dissimulating its actual motivational springs. Furthermore, it does not feed on “reasons,” which will start playing a major cognitive role only after the people involved in the mimetic conflict have already targeted each other as potential rivals. So, again, in order for the mimetic violence -- and for the scapegoating process itself -- to be effective, the perpetrators must be utterly unaware of their cognitive predicament. Here, as well as in that splendid fresco of a society prey to a collective delusion that is Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, what we see at work is “a pathetic conspiracy of denial” (Ishiguro 2000: 162). Girard is actually very explicit on this particular dynamic: in his words “scapegoating becomes more and more effective as there is less and less knowledge, less awareness of it as a collective delusion” (Girard 1987a: 94).

Sometimes works of fiction reveal what would normally remain undisclosed and some writers in particular have succeeded in showing what social scientists have often left unacknowledged. In the case of blaming an innocent victim, members of the group participate in a sort of collective delusion and fail to differentiate between the truth of the victim and the truth avowed by the community. Here, apparently, “there are two truths” (Girard 1987b: 107), one according to which the victim deserves the blame cast upon her, and one challenging this perspective. One truth, however, tends to remain undisclosed, attaining the status of a “legend,” as in Kafka’s Trial. If we think of the people of Dogville, in Lars von Trier’s film, they remain convinced until the end that the excuses they adopt to humiliate their victim, far from being “bullshit,” are the only truth. And when Tom invites the victim to speak out her reasons before the community, their first reaction is to maintain that her case adds up to a pack of lies (see, on Dogville, Brighenti 2006). But the situation in which the victim herself is invited to conspire with her perpetrators is a situation in which “deceiver and deceived conspire with one another” (Williams 2005: 156), where it is difficult to establish who is actually the deceiver and who is the deceived. In Dogville, though, the truth of the victim seeks to challenge what Foucault (and recently Butler) called a “regime of truth,” namely an enduring epistemic condition in which some truth-conditions are stipulated in order to validate the discourse and moral conduct of those in power.

Girard has explored this important issue in a book on Job, the biblical victim of his people. What Girard was trying to emphasize here is that the perpetrators are always sincere when they, by rationalizing their behaviour, commit themselves to the truthfulness of their account of the facts. Just like Job’s “friends,” they “are perfectly ‘sincere’, but their ‘truth’ is the lynching of innocent people” (ibidem). In Roth’s novels, especially in The Human Stain, we see that the “motiveless malignancy” of the perpetrators bears on what counts as a truthful account of facts; here, each of them, just as Coleridge’s Iago, is “a bold partizan of a truth, but yet a truth converted into a falsehood” (Coleridge 1937: 176). And only self-reflection, the kind of self-reflection endured by the Swede, can open up the horrifying vision that there is actually a different truth to be told, and that what looks like the only truth is a falsehood.

Groups in which violence against innocent victims is successfully concealed require that their members agree on the causes of their retaliation. But their rationalizations must be subscribed by the victims themselves, whose assent, in fact, “is the most important of all” (Girard 1987b: 111). As in the case of Asa Leventhal everybody sincerely reaches the same verdict and even Asa’s friends tell him that he is the one to blame for Allbee’s misfortunes; everybody says “you lost him his job” (Bellow 1947: 104). And Leventhal is pressed throughout the novel to comply with the version adduced by his perpetrators and speak the “truth.” Leventhal understands that this is not actually the truth, for the perpetrators just need “to have someone to blame” (Bellow 1947: 70). Until the very moment when he decides to meet Allbee, the “victim,” and seeks to force him into seeing the utter inadequacy of his reasons: “you try to put all the blame on me... you did it deliberately, out of hate. Out of pure hate!” (Bellow 1947: 68).

4. Awakening to the horror

In Roth’s novel Operation Shylock: A Confession perpetrators eventually acknowledge that their reasons amounted to rationalizations. Their successful self-reflection leads to the full recognition of the shallowness of their case against their victims. Here an Israeli who is called upon to defend his actions against the Palestinian people may either “go wherever [he] feel[s] most blissfully unblamable” or stand a prosecution in which he will manifestly “have no defence to make for [him]self in the face of the Palestinian accusation.” He will either invoke as a justification “the millennial history of degrading, humiliating, terrifying, savage, murderous anti-Semitism,” although that would be a blatant rationalization of his motives, or he will tell his judges something like “I did what I did to you because I did what I did to you” (Roth 1993: 350 ss.). Here the perpetrator refers to his actions without identifying a sense-making and value-making perspective that would endow them with good-making qualities. The perpetrator is not saying that his actions depended on reasons that turned out, on closer scrutiny, to be insufficient, or bad, or inept. What he confesses is that there are no reasons. His confession bears a slight resemblance to the kind of self-reflection in which one realizes that he had “no reason to do something he thought he had reason to do” (Williams 1981: 104). But here reflection provides a clue as to the actual reasons that prompted a given course of action, whereas Roth’s case illustrates a situation in which what is being ascertained is a motivational vacuum.

In Operation Shylock the person who makes a confession falls short of his obligation to the Jewish precept of loshon hora, which commands unconditional loyalty to one’s group. His exposure is painful and its effects disruptive, for the confession violates a tissue of social conventions that work just so long as they resist reflection and critical scrutiny. Both Operation Shylock and The Facts explore the nature of the threat represented by the “triumph of individual will over institutional bias” (Roth 1988: 82).

Think here of the case of “an insensitive person” who does not “see what he is doing to others, the kind of suffering he is inflicting on them.” This insensitive agent seems wedged in a cognitive deadlock, and this “makes it impossible for him to allow the insights” that a more sensitive observer might try to press on him. Indeed “he cannot admit them without his whole stance towards these matters crumbling; and this stance may be motivationally of deep importance to him” (Taylor 1985: 38). What is at stake here is the person’s epistemic attitude toward himself. It is something more than just an intimate “need to trust the social order in which we live.”

The thing is that our relationship with whatever we hold as true is fundamentally constitutive, and it is by committing ourselves to the truthfulness of our beliefs that we become the kind of persons we are. This aspect of human rationality helps to explain why people in a number of circumstances do whatever they can “in order to avoid admitting the unjustifiability of their actions” (Scanlon 1982: 117).xvi People sometimes do not admit that their actions are unjustifiable, because this would jeopardize their overall epistemic attitude towards themselves, the very structure of what Freud called the “super-ego,” the set of moral imperatives that people internalize by becoming the kind of persons they are.

The notion of super-ego might be obviously mis-leading here, but it was used also by Adorno in a passage of Negative Dialectics in which he expanded on the “rage at the victim.” Adorno argued that “driven by an appetite for his opponent, the animal rationale, being already the proud possessor of a super-ego must find reasons [muss... einen Grund finden]. And the more thoroughly his actions follow the law of self-preservation, the less can he admit the primacy of that law to himself and to others: otherwise, his labouriously attained status of a zoon politikon -- as they call it -- would not be trustworthy. The creature to be devoured must be evil [muss böse sein]” (Adorno 1966: 31). Therefore, reasons must be given in order to prove the evilness of the creature to be devoured; and failure to provide such reasons eventuates in the “crumbling” of the general stance of the “proud possessor of a super-ego.” Here the subject’s super-ego generates reasons in order to conceal what sounds like a motiveless repulsion or malignancy, or a mere “appetite” for one’s opponent. This appetite, however, comes first, whereas the reasons given in support of the case against the opponent are mere a posteriori rationalizations needed to protect the perpetrator’s self-understanding as animal rationale.

The idea that reason comes first, and that viable and shared social arrangements follow suit, is the core idea of one of the most powerful means of legitimation of the classical view: the theory and narrative of the social contract. “State-of-Nature-Stories” (Williams 2002) were based on the principle of a default situation from which all possible departures could be imagined. They instituted a sort of general standard that philosophers have used to describe the genesis of political authority, moral obligation, and private property. But state of nature stories tended to hypostatize the subject as rational and reflective and capable of designing viable social arrangements out of a natural plight. Revelatory writers have challenged these tales of social beginnings. They argued against the nexus reflexivity/society embedded in our Aristotelian universe by showing how those tales of reflective origins relied on a concept of subjectivity that, to closer scrutiny, turned out to be a workable fiction amenable to political purposes. In what follows I shall focus on this concept of subjectivity and will show how the notion of pastoral, idyllic beginnings serves the purpose of strengthening our confidence in the view that, in Jonathan Dancy’s words, we “are creatures that have the general aim of knowing what they are doing.”

5. A universe of causeless events

The confession given in Operation Shylock, a confession about the vacuity of one’s motivational stance, is a radical form of reflection that shows that the reasons given in order to defend one’s status as “animal rationale” are mere rationalizations. The perpetrators maintained that their actions were driven by “causes, clear answers,” whereas here there are no causes, no reasons. In Operation Shylock Roth addresses the perpetrators by exposing their epistemic attitude towards themselves: “causeless events don’t exist in your universe” (Roth 1993: 79). But causeless events do actually exist and become visible once we abandon our Aristotelian world-view to enter a universe cleared of the language of agency, autonomy and responsibility by which we describe our normative outlook. It is this particular language that brings about the subject as the accountable originator of a deed (Butler 1997: 50).

If we admit that a given “regime of truth governs subjectivation” (Butler 2005: 23) it is by bidding farewell to a speech universe in which, by default, all propositions are true in which the subject possesses agency prerogatives, that we can escape the logical constraint of “subjectivization” and imagine a situation in which the subject or whatever medium we have is not the default originator of the deed. Some of Philip Roth’s novels have stressed one particular aspect of these dynamics of subjectivization in which an individual is bound to emerge as the subject of guilt. Roth deconstructs those dynamics by showing how the subject of guilt framed by the community, challenges its accepted story of individual accountability.

Roth’s subject of guilt tells a story of malice and malignancy replete with “causeless events.” For this subject the idea that everything that happens in this universe has a cause is grounded on delusions, on efforts aimed at “eluding and outlasting destruction, overcoming its mysterious inroads by creating the utopia of a rational existence” (Roth 1997: 122–123). But if rational existence is utopia, there is no way of grounding any sense of community on a truth accessible through self-reflection. Think of a passage in Hermann Broch’s trilogy of novels The Sleepwalkers:

Had he committed a murder? [...] He had no need to reflect upon it, nor did he do so. Had he done so, however, he might simply have said that his procedure had been quite reasonable and that anyone of the town’s prominent citizens, among whom, after all, he had a right to range himself, would have done exactly the same. For there was a firm line of demarcation between what was reasonable and what was unreasonable [...]. Huguenau did not think of what he had done, and still less did he recognize the irrationality that had pervaded his actions, pervaded them indeed to such an extent that one could have said the irrational had burst its bounds; a man never knows anything about the irrationality that informs his wordless actions; he knows nothing of the ‘invasion from below’ to which he is subject, he cannot know anything about it, since at every moment he is ruled by some system of values that has no other aim but to conceal and control all the irrationality on which his earthbound empirical life is based

(Broch 1945: 285).

Here, the opinion of the “town’s prominent citizens,” or -- in Ernst Jones’ words -- the “opinion of the circle of people who are most significant to the individual concerned,” is what determines the social behaviour of each individual. The psychological outlook of the individual depends on the degree of her embeddedness in this social milieu; it feeds on the system of values that society deals out to prevent self-reflection from exposing the motivational vacuum behind his actions.

Such values reflect the community’s general evaluative orientation in a world of facts in which it is always necessary to identify a ‘cause,’ an “accountable originator” (Butler 1997: 45), someone to blame. Here a motive or “label” is required and there is nothing more disruptive of the community’s internal stability than the “awakening [...] to the horror of self-reflection,” that is, the full disclosure of the irrational truth that we sought “to conceal and control”: that there is no reason, that the malignancy of the perpetrators is motiveless.

Tales of social beginnings feature rational and accountable ‘originators’ because these tales are in principle committed to legitimizing existing arrangements by telling a pleasing story of how they have come about. Through tales of reflective origins, in which nothing is concealed but rather everything is exposed and made public and liable to free scrutiny, communities seek to preserve their ‘pastoral’ self-image.xvii A number of revelatory writers have challenged the core of the contractualist story, the dynamic whereby people innocent of culture and society come to agree upon some basic conventions of communal existence. They have offered a dramatically different narrative of social beginnings, a story in which the arrangements that make up the communal bond are not grounded on a choice situation but rather on a collective crime. And the ensuing agreement among the parties is therefore not a social contract but a pactum sceleris, or, in Cavell’s words, a “conspiracy.”xviii

Freud’s theory of the primal “tumultuous mob of brothers” banding together in order to overcome and kill their father is the first example. Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power (published in 1960) is a response to Freud, where the origins of society are traced to a primeval gesture of submission (a “command”) aimed at gathering an embryonic crowd, a “pack.” Walter Burkert’s Homo Necans and René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred, both published in 1971, traced the origins of culture and sociality to an original sacrifice. According to Girard, this is the ritual reiteration of an original crisis generated by the convergence of group violence (“mimetic” violence) on an innocent victim, a “scapegoat.” These writers challenge the social contract tradition by asserting the non-rational origins of human society and culture. The idea that “society was based on complicity in the common crime” (Freud 1962: 179) or that “community grows out of general aggression” (Burkert 1972: 45) seems to suggest that moral norms and political authority fall short of any attempt at rational justification whatsoever.xix

Here the communal agreement between the social “originators” is not a product of reason, because in the universe imagined by the revelatory writers reason is less the spark that ignites the communal bond among rational beings than a specific cognitive performance that plays a role only after the deed and is essentially aimed at concealing these violent origins. A tale of origins in which reason figures as a workable strategy aimed at eluding reflection can help explain the machinery of denial and delusion illustrated in Roth’s novels. As when, in The Facts, Roth describes that particular stance he calls “Zuckermania,” when “you see your beginnings... as an idyll, a pastoral, allowing little if no room for inner turmoil, the discovery in yourself of a dark, or unruly, or untamed side” (Roth 1988: 169). Zuckermania, however, cannot be easily escaped, and our fundamental political commitment as proud possessors of a super-ego is to maintain or restore the circulation of asking for and giving of reasons within the group. But the reasons we give are primarily rationalizations aimed at concealing the truth, for Zuckermania is ultimately aimed at avoiding destruction, outlasting the disintegration of the super-ego of each member. This concealment of the deed has been described by Walter Burkert as Unschuldskomödie, a “comedy of guiltlessness” consisting in a public and ceremonious denial of responsibility. The communal bond is strengthened not so much through the mutual agreement of each member in a given choice situation, but “by means of a complicated and hence conspicuous concealment of violence [...], the so-called ‘comedy of guiltlessness’“ (Burkert 1996).xx

6. The comedy of reflective politics

Bernard Williams has pointed out that value pluralism is not just a fact about the modern world. “What is true is that the modern world is conscious of value pluralism” (Williams 2003: 117), and even though the question “whether self-conscious and critical societies are a higher expression of human nature” is doomed to remain unanswered, it is a fact that “we have such a society, and we have values associated with that, and there is no road back.” However, a number of writers have hinted at a ladder in the self-reflective fabric of the modern world. Immersed in our Aristotelian universe we fail to see that the nexus action/reason (i.e. the principle that actions are performed for reasons intelligible to the agent) is the metaphysical obstacle to the final disclosure of different truths about us. This Aristotelian bias is a key aspect of a philosophical outlook that supports the idea that all facts concerning human sociability are reflective facts.xxi

Revelatory writers have stressed the role of some “established delusions” in the making of the social bond and have deconstructed the role that reason plays throughout the process. They have shown how reason is deeply entangled with what is beyond reason, something that the philosophy of immanence was committed to suppress (Gloy 1996), namely, with “myth” (Adorno), or “power” (Canetti), or “sacrifice” (Girard). If according to Adorno the kind of enlightened reason that we praise as the upshot of a relentless struggle against myth is actually a product of myth itself, Girard’s “sacrifice,” by the same token, is not the opposite of reason but rather what makes reason emerge from a background of mimetic violence.xxii

One has to wonder whether people know the reasons they need in order to endow their actions with a viable rationale. Are they aware of the possibly injurious nature of the words and deeds they use when engaged in ordinary social practices? When in a given group injurious words or deeds or practices injure, they work their injuries precisely “through the accumulation and dissimulation” of their force (Butler 1997: 52; italics added). The revelatory writers revealed how the force of the injury is dissimulated, and how it is that society succeeds in establishing a silent rule on the ways those words, deeds and practices are concealed.xxiii These writers have shown that this “dissimulation of force” far from being a threat to the clarifying power of reason is rather its very genetic moment, so that reason is not so much what dispells the obstacles to self-reflection but rather what brings them about.

The claim that reflexivity is inherently anti-social shows that the “ideal of perfect introspectability” (Dennett 2003: 246) upon which contractualist narratives (incuding Rawls’ theory of “reflective equilibrium”) have built their cases is faulty.xxiv What looms in the texts of the revelatory writers is a general theory of politics that exposes the original nexus reason/violence. This theory shows that the relationship reflexivity/society, far from being a relationship of mutual implication and reckoning, is one of mutual exclusion, for selfreflection discloses what society conceals, namely, the horror of social beginnings, the dark, unreflective side of the stories of original consensus and reflective equilibrium with wide currency in our liberal universe. The revelatory writers believe that the the utopia of a rational existence that Western philosophy located up in “Arcady Hill Road” should be stripped of its ideological protections. The kind of final awakening they call for, namely, the full and final disclosure of the horror, is meant to signal the existence of those realms of human sociality in which the ultimate disconnection between reason and politics is disclosed.

The great upheaval against the “philosophy of immanence” was prepared by writers who subscribed to an “interpretation of human experience in which politics could be reduced to an epiphenomenal manifestation of psychic forces” (Schorske 1981: 183) and not as a manifestation of the allegedly rational and reflexive nature of our social dispositions. Freud, Kafka, Broch, and Adorno developed a novel understanding of the relationship between politics and the psyche. The works of Elias Canetti, Walter Burkert, and René Girard helped to unveil the violent and non-cognitive origins of human sociability. The novels of Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth have developed some important issues concerning the nature of our reflective habits and practices. Some of these writers have created fictional universes inhabited by “people who, by virtue of their outsider status, can tell truths about the political community” (Nussbaum 2002: 140), but truths that the canonical tradition of Western political thought strives either to ignore or to convert “into a falsehood.”xxv In the works of these writers the original disconnection between politics and reflexivity is finally exposed. The unveiling of this disconnection could possibly assist in replacing “institutions of deceit, mystification, and concealment” (Williams 2005: 162) with durable “institutions of freedom” (Williams 2005: 164).

Roberto Farneti

Roberto Farneti is an assistant professor of Politics at the Free University of Bozen/Bolzano, in northern Italy, where he teaches courses in political theory and comparative politics. He is author of numerous articles and chapters on a variety of topics in political theory. He is also the author of the book Il Canone Moderno: Filosofia Politica e Genealogia (Turin: 2002). He can be reached


An earlier version of this article was presented as a paper at the French-German Philosophy Colloquium on Normativity in Evian, on July 22, 2006. I would like to thank all participants for their time in discussing the paper. I also want to thank Robin Celikates, Kinch Hoekstra, Anthony Pagden, Patricia Springborg, and George Wright for their comments on earlier drafts.


i. See for example Goodin 2003, Larmore 2004, and, to some extent, Butler 2005.

ii. Christoph Menke pushed Habermas’ argument as far as it can go, raising questions about the extent to which “the much-told story of the emergence of the modern constitutional state would have to be reinterpreted in light of the idea of moral self-reflection” (Menke 2000: 107).

iii. In his Metacritique of the Theory of Knowledge Adorno argued that the philosophy of immanence, that is, Hegel’s philosophy, “should be credited with the discovery of reflection, of mediation, for it helped determine both the moment of knowledge as labour, and its carrier -- the logical-universal subject -- as society” (Adorno 1971: 27).

iv. This argument, concerning the paradigm-shift from rational choice to other, more flexible conceptions relying on a more comprehensive understanding of political psychology, has been detailed in Monroe 2001.

v. Williams 2002: 232; italics added. Evolutionary psychologists in particular seem to believe that political order must “involve opacity, mystification, and large-scale deception.” Matt Ridley, for one, has pointed out that “the first thing we should do to create a good society is to conceal the truth about humankind’s propensity for self-interest, the better to delude our fellows into thinking that they are noble savages inside” (Ridley 1996: 261).

vi. Rawls, for one, has described the dynamics of socialization whereby people “give reasons for their beliefs and conduct before one another confident that this avowed reckoning itself will strengthen and not weaken public understanding” (Rawls 1993: 68).

vii. These actions are said to be prompted by a reason insofar as the agent can defend a given course of action as conducive towards a goal desirable to her (Raz 1999: 24).

viii. On this notion of “horror” I subscribe to Stanley Cavell’s definition: “Horror is the title I am giving to the perception of the precariousness of human identity, to the perception that it may be lost or invaded, that we may be, or may become, something other than we are, or take ourselves for; that our origins as human beings need accounting for, and are unaccountable” (Cavell 1979: 418).

ix. Tacitus, Agricola 42.3.

x. This approach is based on “the assumption that reasons make actions appropriate by making their choice intelligible from the point of view of their agents” (Raz 1999: 27).

xi. However the construal of such roles is not merely psychological, for they feed, as I shall try to clarify below, on a network of commitments and other normative properties that cannot be found ‘inside people’s heads.’ I am inclined to think that reasons are facts or properties of the world and not “psychological states of ourselves” (Dancy 2003: 15). This thesis is not universally accepted; it is, though, consistent with the general reception of content externalism in contemporary normative thought.

xii. Daniel Dennett has elaborated on the ways “organized religions” confer “fitness benefits on those who practice them” (Dennett 2006: 178). The bonds of trust that permit groups of individuals to cooperate are based on control arrangements supporting the individual’s psychological investment in the existing social system even when that investment contradicts his or her own self-interest. But people are in principle capable of calling into question the control-arrangements of a given system. This happens “when a control system gets reflective” (Dennett 2006: 175), namely, when people manage to “create avenues by which to escape the default presumptions of [their] initial design” (Dennett 2006: 176).

xiii. These utterances “perform one of their most basic functions, to convey information to a hearer who is going to rely on it” (Williams 2002: 80; italics added). In Richard Moran’s words, by making explicit what we think about a particular person we produce “knowledge that can be told and thus transferred to another person who needs to know what he will do” (Moran 2001: 106).

xiv. This distinction is consistent with “a picture of self-knowledge as involving the ability to avow one’s state of mind and not merely to attribute it to oneself” (Moran 2001: 100).

xv. This is indeed the “essence of Hegel’s Wittgensteinean view of self-consciousness, which by contrast to a Cartesian view sees it as a social achievement” (Brandom 2004: 60).

xvi. It would be a mistake to characterize the behaviour of the person who acts without a reason as “irrational.” Davidson 1982 argued against the universal applicability of the notion of irrationality (calling it “a failure within the house of reason”). Roth himself has addressed the issue of whether the perpetrators are simply irrational in his novel Deception, where the “furious” and mindlessly enraged man the narrator and his friend Aharon Appelfeld had run into in Chelsea “was just eccentric [...] just some kind of lunatic” (Roth 1990: 108).

xvii. I am not talking about the American pastoral, but the pastoral as a genre, as explored in the tenth chapter of Girard 1991.

xviii. Rousseau, according to Stanley Cavell, believed “that our social bonds are not the realization but the betrayal of the social contract, in a word, conspiracies, so that there is among us no public thing at all” (Cavell 1979: 469). If Cavell’s reading of Rousseau is correct then Rousseau should be considered a precursor to Freud and Canetti: a revelatory writer.

xix. For some reason the English translator writes here “a sense of community arises from collective aggression,” whereas the German text makes no mention of “sense.” See W. Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), p. 35.

xx. Burkert takes this expression up from Meuli 1975: 1004. Meuli actually coined the expression Unschuldskomödie to refer to the perpetrators’ act of absolving themselves from guilt -- “das Abwälzen der Schuld.”

xxi. In Robert Brandom’s words “I cannot be properly self-conscious (recognize myself) except in the context of a recognition structure that is reciprocal” (Brandom 2004: 60)

xxii. On the sacrificial genesis of order, language and reason, see Girard 1994: chapters 1–3. Michel Serres, clearly in the wake of Girard, argued that hatred and reason are less polar opposites than coinciding essences: “raison pure, haine pure [pure reason, pure hate]” (Serres 1983: 15–16).

xxiii. Accordingly, Benjamin’s argument that “if the awareness of the latent presence of violence in a legal institution disappears, the juridical institution decays” (Benjamin 1977: 144) should be turned upside down, to read that if awareness of the latent presence of violence in a legal institution emerges, the juridical institution decays.

xxiv. Eric Schwitzgebel believes that people are poor introspectors, but what his approach seems to miss is that the major lacunae in our self-knowledge are not psychological. The implicit response my paper gives to Schwitzgebel is that people fail to gain a correct insight into the realm of reasons (which is a serious shortcoming in their capacity for reflexivity) not so much because of the natural limits of their insight but because they are social creatures, prone to yield epistemic authority (even in such intimate matters as their own thoughts) to the “town’s prominent citizens” (H. Broch) or to the “opinion of the circle of people who are most significant to [them]” (E. Jones).

xxv. This tradition, that one may like to characterize as ‘post-Freudian,’ is not the only tradition committed to questioning the achievements of the philosophy of immanence. Indeed, there is a ‘post-Nietzschean’ tradition too, drawing on § 1of the Genealogy of Morality, where Nietsche wrote that “we are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge -- and with good reason.” Although the latter seems to be more popular in a discourse in which the stakes are foundationalism vs. anti-foundationalism, especially in political theory, the former seems to me much richer and more nuanced. Probably the most remarkable heir of the post-Nietzschean tradition is Arnold Gehlen, who argued in his Theorie der Willensfreiheit that “the universal, abstract, everyday way to think and ‘mean’ things is bound to be destroyed by reflection” [das gewöhnliche abstrakte allgemeine Dahindenken und ‘Meinen’ wird zwar durch die Reflexion zerstört] (Gehlen 1980: 102).


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