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Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2002) 354-368

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Davidson, Self-knowledge, and Autobiographical Writing

Garry Hagberg

AMONG THE NUMEROUS THINGS that make any autobiographical undertaking so interesting is the fact that there exists no one-to-one correlation between a person's belief, intention, preference, desire, hope, fear, expectation, and so forth (through a list including many of the diverse things philosophers now tend to group together as propositional attitudes) and that person's behavior. Were there such a relation, our knowledge of others would be far more transparent than it is, and autobiographical writing would prove straightforwardly simple: for each remembered action there would be a determinate mental event that stood behind it, and a recording of the past action by the autobiographer would entail the parallel reporting of the mental predecessor, or indeed cause 1 articulated in terms of the content of a single propositional attitude, of that action.

Of course, this simple dualistic schema has been subjected to various forms of scrutiny: Nietzsche decried what he generically termed the "antecendentia of action," 2 referring to the explanatory dreamland many philosophers and other theorists have happily but confusedly occupied, wherein the explanations of "outward" human actions proceed in what we will then call prior inward mental determinants. Focusing on the alleged temporal separation of antecedent and consequent action, Nietzsche with characteristic rhetorical force ridicules the [End Page 354] misled many who attempt to explain something in some cases so complex, and in other cases so immediate, as human intentional action. Ryle, focusing on the dualistic separation of inner and outer in any such explanatory schema, famously argued against the very conceptual substructure of the "ghost in the machine" 3 ; the ensuing behaviorism argued against the inner world of mental machinations, yielding a picture of selfhood that was in retrospect fairly close to and anticipatory of one variety of reductive monism, or "animalism," now argued in some quarters. 4 On any such behavioristic-reductionistic view, the project of the autobiographer would precisely be just to recount past actions, show their relations to other actions both before and after, and give an overarching narrative that displays the shape of a life over time—all without explanatory recourse to ghostly prior causes standing behind, and invariably dualistically linked to, the actions being recounted.

Wittgenstein's conceptually reorienting remarks avoided the Scylla of dualism and the Charybdis of behaviorism, 5 and although any summary statement of his position is instructively impossible, it can be said that he showed that the language-games of intentional action are intricately, and with an irreducible complexity, interrelated with the language-games of human behavior and—to speak too generally—action-description. 6 Equipped with the view, or rather overview (Wittgenstein's übersicht), that we might gain of those myriad interrelations between language-games as a result of a consideration of cases (of precisely the kinds psychologically mimetic literature affords), we might outlive our desire to thematically encapsulate the (mythical) unitary nature of the relation between intention and action, and correspondingly free ourselves of a misbegotten picture of autobiographical writing, i.e., the very picture of one-to-one action-causation, and hence of autobiographical truth, mentioned above. But deliverance out of the grip of any such picture, to reemploy Wittgenstein's resonant phrase, is not easily won; it is most assuredly not a simple matter of deciding not to think that way anymore, or of being permanently relieved of any such dualistic misconception as a result of reading a few memorable remarks. The impulses to posit Nietzsche's antecedentia, to believe in Ryle's despised ghosts, to cling to a partially submerged belief that autobiographical writing will, with whatever local variations, fit the generic dualistic mold Wittgenstein labors to undercut, is no more the kind of thing one simply leaves behind any more than one simply drops, upon recognition that it is such, what a Freudian calls a repetition-compulsion. [End Page 355]

Thus Donald Davidson writes—and (leaving aside what "truer" means) truer words are rarely spoken—that "there is a picture of the mind which...


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