Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

User-Friendly Self-Deception

  • Amelie Oksenberg Rorty (a1)

Since many varieties of self-deception are ineradicable and useful, it would be wise to be ambivalent about at least some of its forms.1 It is open-eyed ambivalence that acknowledges its own dualities rather than ordinary shifty vacillation that we need. To be sure, self-deception remains dangerous: sensible ambivalence should not relax vigilance against pretence and falsity, combating irrationality and obfuscation wherever they occur.

Hide All

1 One variety of self-deception: X is self-deceived about p when (1) X believes that p at t (where t covers a reasonable span of time); (2) Either (a) X believes not-p at t or (b) X denies that he believes p at t; (3) X recognizes that p and not-p conflict; (4) X denies that his beliefs conflict, advancing an improbable ad hoc reconciliation, making no attempt to suspend judgment or to determine which belief is defective. Since conditions (1) and (2) are parallel to (3) and (4), the attribution of self-deception is regressive. It is typically justified by an inference to the best explanation, an account of what X would normally believe, perceive, notice, infer. For more elaborate formulations of these conditions, see Leon Festinger, Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford, 1957) and B. McLaughlin, ‘Exploring the Possibility of Self-Deception in Belief,’ R. Audi, ‘Self-Deception, Rationalization and Reasons for Acting,’ and Rorty A. O., ‘The Deceptive Self: Liars, Layers and Lairs,’ in Perspectives on Self-Deception. B. McLaughlin and A. Rorty (eds) (University of California Press, 1988).

2 After having raised the paradox of analysis in the Meno, and come to the brink of scepticism, Socrates says, ‘... we shall be better, braver and more active if we believe we should inquire than if we believe we cannot discover what we do not already know. That is something for which I am ready to fight in word and deed to my utmost ability.’ (86B)

3 See ‘Persons and Personae,’ pp. 27–98, Rorty A. O., Mind in Action (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988) and A. Mele, Irrationality: An Essay on Akrasia. Self-Deception and Self-Control (Oxford, 1987) and his ‘Recent Work on Self-Deception’ APQ, 1987; D. Pears, Motivated Irrationality, Oxford, 1984;M. Martin, (ed.), Self-Deception and Self-Understanding; (Kansas, 1985);Haight M. R., A Study of Self-Deception (Sussex, 1980) and Jon Elster, Sour Grapes (Cambridge University Press, 1983.)

4 Ordinary language is Protean in this area: it has incorporated the terminology of psychoanalysis and popular cognitive science. And as it becomes increasingly cosmopolitan, it adds ‘mauvaise foi’ and ‘false consciousness.’ We can expect that considered judgments derived from French (‘Je me trompe’ for ‘I made a mistake,’ ‘Je Mind′en fiche’ for ‘I don′t care’) would not coincide with those influenced by languages that are less generous with reflexive pronouns

5 Cf. ‘The Two Faces of Courage,’ Mind in Action, (Boston: Beacon, 1988) p. 301.

6 Ruddick Cf. W., ‘Social Self-Deceptions,’ and R. Harre, ‘The Social Context of Self-Deception’ Perspectives on Self-Deception.

7 See Annette Baier, ‘Ignorance and Self-Deception,’ Deception, R. Ames and U. Dissanayake (eds), forthcoming and M. Johnston, ‘Self-Deception and the Nature of Mind,’ Perspectives on Self-Deception. Since many pre-intentional activities can sometimes function in a fully intentional form, I prefer to speak of protointentional rather than subintentional activities.

8 Following the model of analyses of justified belief, analyses of selfdeception typically specify necessary and sufficient logically distinct conditions– reified as independent psychological states–whose conjunctive presence constitute cases of self-deception. If the conditions of justified belief can be condensed in one activity, so can those of self-deception. ‘The same liberty may be permitted to moral, which is allowed to natural philosophers; and ′tis very usual with the latter to consider any motion as compounded and consisting of two parts separate from each other, tho′ at the same time they acknowledge it to be in itself uncompounded and inseparable’ Hume, Treatise 493.

9 Wilshire Cf. B., ‘Mimetic Engulfment and Self-Deception,’ Perceptions on Self-Deception

10 Murdoch Cf. Iris, ‘The Idea of Perfection,’ The Sovereignty of Good, (London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1970).

11 See Sartre, Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, (London: Methuen, 1962); Existentialism and Humanism, Anti-Semite and Jew, (Grove Press, 1948).

12 James Cf. William, ‘The Will to Believe’; Pascal, Pensees; Bas van Fraassen, ‘The Peculiar Effects of Love and Desire,’ Perspectives on Self-Deception.

13 Bas van Fraassen, ‘The Peculiar Effects of Love & Desire’ in Perspectives on Self-Deception

14 Cf. ‘Some Social Uses of the Forbidden,’ Psychoanalytic Review, 1972.

15 Since they do not involve beliefs in propositional form, such conflicts are not, of course, technically speaking contradictions. (Cf. R. Marcus, 'Moral Dilemmas and Consistency,' in C. W. Gowans, Moral Dilemmas (Oxford, 1987). Other essays in this volume provide a useful background for understanding some of the motivation for self-deception. See also L. Festinger, op. cit.

16 See T. Burge, ‘Individualism and Psychology,’ Philosophical Review, 1986 and ‘Intellectual Norms and the Foundations of Mind,’ Journal of Philosophy, 1987. Burge argues that the individuation of intentional states essentially refers to social practices. See also A. Goldman, ‘Varieties of Cognitive Appraisal,’ Nous, 13, 2238 for a useful discussion of the variety of criteria by which beliefs are assessed.

17 See Freud, ‘Repression,’ ‘The Unconscious’, SE 1915 and ‘Splitting the Ego in the Service of Defence,’ SE, 1938; R. Schafer, A New Language for Psychoanalysis, New Haven, 1976; D. Sachs, ‘On Freud′s Doctrine of the Emotions,’ Freud, R. Wollheim (ed.), (New York, 1974);H. Kohut, The Restoration of the Self, (New York, 1977);R. Wollheim, The Thread of Life, (Harvard University Press, 1984).

18 Dennett Cf. D., ‘ Three of Kinds of Intentional Psychology,’ in Reduction, Time and Reality R. Healy (ed.) (Cambridge, 1981); articles in H. Kornblith, (ed.) Naturalizing Epistemology;D. Davidson, ‘Paradoxes of Irrationality,’ Philosophical Essays on Freud, J. Hopkins and R. Wollheim (eds) (Cambridge University Press, 1982) and ‘Deception and Division,‘ reprinted in Action and Events, E. LePore and B. McLaughlin (eds), New York, 1985; M. Johnston, ‘Self-Deception and the Nature of Mind,’ Perspectives on Self-Deception; S. Stich, ‘Beliefs and Subdoxastic Systems,’ Philosophy of Science, 1978 and Fragmentation of Reason, MIT Press, 1990. See also footnote 9, in ‘The Deceptive Self,‘ and pp. 217–219 in Mind in Action.

19 For an account of the distinctive aspects and features of identity, see Alfred Schutz, Collected Papers, esp. 16–18, 221–2;Head G. H., Mind, Self and Society, esp. 144–5, 149–52, (University of Chicago Press, 1934);Rorty A. O. and D. Wong, ‘Aspects of Identity and Agency’ in O. Flanagan and Rorty A. O., Identity, Character and Morality, (MIT, 1990).

20 See Mark Johnston, op. cit. and Brian MacLaughlin, in Ames and Dissanayake, Deception for discussions of the presumed incoherence of self-deception as incoherent and its reduction to other-deception.

21 See Adam Morton, ‘Partisanship’ in Perspectives on Self-Deception

22 Elster Cf. Jon, Sour Grapes.

23 Cf. ‘Fearing Death,’ Mind in Action, pp. 202–207.

24 Sorensen Cf. Roy, Thought Experiments (Oxford University Press, 1992). Sorensen remarks that the standard modes of argumentation have their short-comings as well as their strengths. He recommends what he calls a ‘diversified portfolio’ of argument forms.

25 An early version of this paper was delivered at colloquia at the East- West Center and at Williams College. I am grateful to Annette Baier, Brian McLaughlin, Sam Fleischacker and Steven Gerrard for comments.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
  • URL: /core/journals/philosophy
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 5 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 139 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 19th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.