Yes, I’m still concerned with “Knowing What One Wants”; what can I say? I write slow, especially when I write one or two days a week at most (and not for very long on those days, even). So! Recall, or learn hereby: Lawlor starts by describing three views all of which hold that “in normal cases, if one knows one’s own desire, that is the result of a constitutive, not a cognitive, relation between the attitude known—the desire—and the reflective attitude involved in knowing about it” (55). “Normal” cases means, roughly, cases where (as I’d like to put it) the knowledge can be self-ascribed first-personally; it excludes, e.g., taking one’s therapist’s word that one wants something. But, per Lawlor, in fact “[k]nowing what one wants can be a cognitive accomplishment, in the sense that one finds out about an independently constitute object of knowledge (one’s desire), through means that are routinely epistemic (namely, through inference)” (56).
This post is pretty long (and not very well organized!), so...
It’s important to note that the desires Lawlor thinks we find out about through inference are not supposed to be unconscious desires. The theorists she uses as foils would be willing to admit that we learn of our unconscious desires that way, though at least some of them would distinguish between the type of knowledge inference yields (expressed via an attribution) and the type of knowledge had in the normal case (expressed via an avowal). I personally am unfriendly to the idea of unconscious desires period (and I think that e.g. Moran and Finkelstein should be as well), but that’s a pretty minority position; that there are unconscious desires and that we learn about them via inference or hearsay or any of the other ways we learn external facts about ourselves or internal facts about others is pretty noncontroversial, even among those who think we have a special, constitutive way of knowing about our conscious desires. So Lawlor is making a pretty strong claim.
The route to establishing the claim, somewhat surprisingly, through “attention to the experience of getting (and trying to get) self-knowledge of one’s desires”, specifically by working through several ways a hypothetical Katherine, contemplating having a second child, might work out how she feels about the idea.
It actually wasn’t obvious to me how much the argument rests on this example, but the section in which it’s given ends with “[i]n sum, it seems that causal self-interpretation is a routine means by which we know what we want” (60), strongly suggesting that that claim is supposed to have just been established. The fact, however, that Lawlor doesn’t, as far as I can tell, say what she takes the distinction between a conscious and an unconscious desire to be leaves me somewhat at a loss: I would have thought that anything that required the process Lawlor details, something inaccessible to thought in that way, was ipso facto unconscious, even if it occasionally protrudes into conscious thought (as when Lawlor imagines Katherine, leaning over her child’s crib, suddenly subjected to the thought “have another”).
Here, in brief, are my quibbles: (i) it seems as if the constitutivist can acknowledge most of Lawlor’s description of Katherine’s coming to a conclusion about the state of her desires, merely by stating that she’s learning about an unconscious desire, and it’s unclear what Lawlor has to say against this; (ii) this is possible because the process she describes does not, in fact, seem to culminate in learning anything by inference; (iii) Lawlor moves too quickly from her descriptions of Katherine’s thoughts and behavior to the conclusion that an already existing desire underlies them. In particular, I think that even after everything Lawlor says on her own behalf, it is still, as she says prior to laying out her argument, “open to the defender of self-intimation to insist that one does not have the relevant desire until one has the relevant self-knowledge” (57). One need not even insist; one can offer some reasons—and even with reference to Lawlor’s own descriptions.
She goes on:
But this seems an inaccurate description of our experience of searching for self-knowledge. And, for the moment, it is our experience I am interested in. Often one feels that one does in fact want or not want some particular thing Katherine, for instance, may feel that there is a fact of the matter about her desire for another child. (57, emphasis added)
Well, perhaps—I’m actually not convinced that this is how our experience often is. But even were it the case, our experience having a certain character wouldn’t mean that the character was accurate; this is one of the points my previous post attempted to make. So as we follow Lawlor following the paths of reflection Katherine may tread, the question is not “would it seem to a person so reflecting as if there were an independent fact of the matter regarding her desires?”. The question is whether the description, presuming it to be accurate, compels the conclusion that there is indeed an independently constituted desire. A different way of taking the descriptions comes from a footnote of Lawlor’s own:
we often don’t face questions about what we want until we wonder about what to want, or what end to aim at. This fact marks what might seem a surprising reversal of the expected order of self-discovery. Often the question of what one’s ends are to be is not settled by prior knowledge of what one wants, but by one’s opportunities. As Aurel Kolnai notes:
Of course we do not form purposes out of nothing However, for all the constants in our mental and affective outlook which make us receptive to some kinds of stimuli and unresponsible [sic] to others, our actual purpose-formation is largely contingent on occasions and suggestive influence which happen to cross our path.
(71; Lawlor’s “sic”)
Lawlor means to be drawing a distinction between two kinds of self-knowledge, where she takes Moran to be identifying them: wondering what to want, we may well discover what we do, or rather, did all along, want, and these are different. There is, to be sure, a plain enough sense in which my sense of what to want can diverge from what I take myself in fact to want, though not necessarily in a way that impinges on Moran,1 But I wish to focus on the “did all along”.
Brought to wonder, for whatever reason, what to want, we pose to ourselves the question “what do I want?” (and we should take care—I’ll return to this below—not to invest this form of words with too much significance) and begin a course of reflection. A course: it could take several, and will be influenced, more or less, by its initial conditions. Occasions and suggestive influence happeneth to all, including the path reflection takes.
Of the views Lawlor surveys initially, Taylor’s seems most compatible with this alternative, since emotions and desires are bound up with our own interpretive efforts: “our understanding of them or the interpretations we accept are constitutive of the emotion” (in “The concept of a person”, quoted by Lawlor on 51; my emphasis). (The emphasized “accept” finds echoes in Lawlor’s talk, not explicitly motivated, of a self-attribution “sticking”.) And it seems best able to handle the phenomena Katherine captures in her deliberative journey, as she’s confronted by inarticulate urges, somewhat more articulate fantasizing, scrutinizing and testing out of various options in part by articulating them, and measuring possibilities against each other. For that simply is a description of hermeneusis.
Suppose one attends a play, and, afterwards, says something like: “I’m not sure what I think of that”. Perhaps there’s some specific sticking point: an important part of the action seemed out of character or out of keeping with the rest, or the manneredness of the style was obtrusive, or something like that. We speak of unconscious beliefs as well as unconscious desires, but in this case, but while we might be inclined to think, about matters of major significance, that we do have real desires already, and must discover them, here I take it that there is less of a presumption that the one already has an opinion, and merely doesn’t know what that opinion is. “I’m not sure what I think of that”: I have a confused mass of competing reactions, and I’m not sure what to make of them—it is simply an inner-directed version of “I’m not sure what to think of that”, which might be glossed as: it is a confusing mass of competing elements, and I’m not sure what to make of them. Not: among my confused reactions is one that isn’t confused, which I mean now to recover.
In thinking these things through, attempting to arrive at an assessment with which one is satisfied (an assessment that sticks!), one will formulate tentative opinions and see how they hang with other, more secure judgments, will “try on” different takes on the matter (not so different from imaginatively inhabiting the consequences of one decision or another, imaginatively made in light of desires one might be trying on). Perhaps the acting is mannered for this reason—does that satisfy? What would that mean for other things that seem to be going on in the play? For one’s judgment of the play? Is it a tendentious reading? (Is one inclined to it anyway?) This process is certainly richly cognitive, and will involve “means that are routinely epistemic”, including inference (if this thing’s role is x, doesn’t that conflict with what just supposed that thing might be doing?). But that does not mean that at its conclusion, when one says, say, “you know, I think it just doesn’t work, on its own terms”, or “now that I see it like this, I like it much better”, one has inferred to that conclusion. A hermeneutic view has the added advantage that interpretation is not unconstrained: even if one does not believe that meanings inhere in the interpretanda and are discovered by the interpreters, the interpretations ought to make satisfying sense of the interpreted material, are captive to it to some extent. (This is true even when the question one attempts to answer isn’t “what does this mean?” but the more superficially subjective “what do I make of this, how do I feel about it?”. One may throw up one’s hands and say “well, I just do/don’t like it, full stop”, but that is less satisfying than a reaction that articulates why.)
Many of the specific things that Lawlor describes Katherine doing or undergoing fit this interpretive mold: “Now that the question has been called he catches herself imagining, remembering, and feeling a range of things” (57): but these things don’t have to piont to an already existing desire, fully fledged; Katherine can coherently ask herself not “what, in the light of all this, do I (already) want?”, but “what am I to make of this?” She does not yet make anything of it, but notices, now, these internal promptings; supposing she does not put them from her mind, she will likely attempt to come to some conclusion about them. Or she may not! Lawlor introduces one point with the condition that “if Katherine’s provisional self-ascription doesn’t settle the question, but she still feels there is an answer to the question that has been called” (58, my emphasis); she may not feel there is an answer, or may not feel the question needs answering, may not feel the range of things she felt as strongly or frequently, or may dismiss them when they come up as idle daydreams. But as long as the question is live for her, then we can accommodate Lawlor’s suggestion that there’s some pressure for her to come to some kind of conclusion, without giving in to the idea that what she’s doing is discovering something already there.
We can perhaps illustrate this by looking at a less vexatious, less freighty case, which will also allow us to examine the significance of this wide range of possible behaviors. Supposing Katherine finds herself simply uninterested in pursuing the question further, or feels there’s no answer: is the worm still at work? If the desire pre-existed the question’s being called, it can post-exist it too.
So consider not the question “do I want another child?”, but the question “do I want to buy these shoes?”, which Lawlor also mentions. This question is interesting to me because—unlike the question regarding a second child—it takes some work before I can see how the question could sincerely be intended as reflecting ignorance regarding the questioner’s desires. (Lawlor calls the child question “a difficult case”, but as far as motivating her thesis, I think it’s actually an easy case. It’s not insignificant that people concerned to establish the existence of unknown or unconscious desires occupy themselves with the portentous.) Does it mean something like “I’m unsure how much I like these shoes (their style isn’t quite mine; or, they’re appealing now but would I really wear them; or, I like the look but not the fit; or, I like the look but not the construction; or etc.)”? In such a case one asking the question seems apt to be saying: “I like the look, but they seem not to be made well (to take a specific example), but I still want them, so I’m not sure if I should buy them”. Or it could simply be: “I want to have them, but they’re expensive and I haven’t the money, so I don’t want to buy them precisely, but that doesn’t rid me of my possessive desire, so ”. One wishes to say: you know what you want, you just can’t have what you want, so you don’t know what to do. Or: you don’t know what, of the things you can have, you might (come to) want, or be happy or satisfied with, and any of them would involve settling for something other than what you (actually) want right now, hence would involve at least imagined disappointment. But simply to be ignorant of whether you possess the desire to buy (or perhaps more straightforwardly to own, since the desire to buy is somewhat rarefied) a pair of shoes—perhaps we need a scenario like this: the shoes in question are really rather remarkable, out of line from what one ordinarily wears, such that it’s hard to imagine oneself actually wearing them, but one catches oneself imagining them or thinking about them often. The whole scenario is becomes more coherent, to me anyway, if one associates the new-style footgear with a broader style of living, a self-conception, that one has hitherto rejected or at least considered foreign. But then the question has become about something more than whether one desires certain furnishings for one’s feet; the shoes are proxy for wonderment about the kind of person one takes oneself to be. That might seem fodder for the position that the desire pre-exists its recognition as such (we supposedly have here an unacknowledged or suppressed desire that can’t be recognized until a broader shift in worldview is carried out), but the persistency of one’s thoughts about this particular stimulus-to-revaluation could also be explained by, for instance, new susceptibility to revaluation in general. But now we really are getting away from what was supposed to be a relatively simple question.
Suppose one doesn’t buy the shoes. Something else catches one’s attention instead, or one just stops thinking about them. One might well have chosen wrongly, in not making the purchase, in that one actually did have a desire to have them—then the desire will not have been satisfied, with apparently no effect on the satisfaction of the agent. Imagine that the question is actually between shoes A and B, and you buy A, but wanted B (without knowing it), but are perfectly happy with A. Then you are both content with what you want, and want a different pair. Of course one could construe the situation as one in which you settle for A, and your desire for B evaporates accordingly. But that sort of settling seems better suited to a situation in which you know of the desire and consciously decide to go for something else, for some reason, in the first place; in the second, there’s no reason to think that must be what’s happened. Why should the unknown desire for B go away, just because you’re content with what you got?—I’m saying “content” here because I want to suggest that as far as you know you no longer have any relevant desires. You’re both satisfied (as far as you know) and unsatisfied. It’s an odd case.
I want to look at some of the specific steps of Katherine’s reasoning, along with the frequent recurrence to the idea of a self-attribution “sticking”. So: Katherine has been startled by the thought of having another child, and “Starts noticing her experiences and thoughts imaginaing, remembering, and feeling a range of things. Putting away her son’s now-too-small clothes, she finds herself lingering over the memory of how a newborn feels in one’s arms.” (57). She begins entertaining these things deliberately, sounding herself:
Some of Katherine’s active self-questioning and prompting permits her to discover further imaginings. For instance, she may notice that her imaginings are all about having a child just like the one she’s already got. On noticing this, she might find herself with the fantasy of freezing him in time, and hanging on to his childhood. These images will suggest a different desire—it’s not really a second child she wants, but this one all over again. So she’ll say, “what I really want is to have him all over again”. (58)
Why is she saying this? (She might also have said: what I really want is to freeze him in time.) She’s trying the thought on, maybe, doing that whole does-it-stick thing. But this seems to me like a creative interpretation. Her initial prompting was just the sudden thought of a second child impinging on her while observing her first and only—she’s bringing a lot of richness to this process beyond what was, as we might say, given in the initial interpretandum. It sounds more as if she’s pointing herself in a particular direction here, trying to conceptualize what’s happening in a particular way. She has a lot of freedom in this conceptualizing process, and she’s using it.
The use of imagination here strikes me as creative and, if informative, counterfactually so, but Lawlor as informative of the current state of affairs:
Katherine’s imaginings may be rehearsed, both actively and possively: she may passively experience repetitions of imagined scenes, but she may also actively rehearse them, noting details and seeking to direct their content. she may, even when not directly experiencing them, recall their flavor and content. For instance, she imagines a newboarn, imagines its cries, and waking in the night for feeding. These imaginings she finds pleasing to linger over. she recalls the experience of imagining these things, and notes how she felt in rehearsing them. (58)
Katherine is in a somewhat advantageous position because her imaginings here can recruit rememberings. But it’s surely worth pointing out, regardless, that the fact that one finds an imagined scene pleasing to linger over is not only no reason to think that one would find the reality pleasing to experience, it’s perfectly compatible with believing that the reality would be displeasing. This could just mean that one wants something that, for various reasons, is associated with things one doesn’t want (as one might imagine the view from atop some peak with pleasure, but not particularly want to undertake the hike that would permit one to take it in) but could also simply witness the fact that not everything one likes to think about is something one would like to do. So there’s something a little odd about taking pleasant imaginings of φing as a sign of a presently existing desire to φ. Still, we need not insist on infallibility here; imaginings can be imperfect and still provide guidance and clues.
But we should wonder whether the question we’re getting guidance on is “do I actually want this right now, unbeknownst to me?” or “how would I feel if I were doing this?”. The answer to the latter question will likely feed back into our present desires: if I imagine the mountaintop breeze and the landscape arrayed before me with rapture, I might decide it’s worth the trudge. Unsurprisingly, I think the relevant question is the latter, that asking “what do I really want here?” isn’t concerned with what’s on the list of my present desires, but is more like the open-ended question “what would make me happy?”. I imagine myself thus, or thus: is that a pleasant way to be?
The work of imagination has another dimension as well, one that I think corresponds to Lawlor’s references to “sticking”. E.g., “She’ll say to herself, ‘I think I want another’, and see if it sticks—does she resist the self-attribution or not?” (57); “In the best case, after making a self-ascription, Katherine will experience a sense of ease” (59); and the related “living with a provisional self-ascription for a time is another means we have of finding out what we want” (59); and the issue of reconciliation embodied in the contrast between those for whom “the first self-ascription they make is the one they try to live in accord with” (58–9) and those who “never feel certain, in light of possible alternative self-ascriptions, in calling an impulse a desire of theirs” (59); later we have reference to “certain characteristic changes in one’s imagings [which] count as one’s having ‘settled the question’ (62). Imagination is a proxy for the attempt to live with a course of action, and that’s something we do not simply to answer the question “what are my present desires” but to reconcile ourselves to one of several possibilities.
“After one makes a provisional self-ascription, one may try the attitude on, both in imagination and in action” (59); why? It tells one, or is intended to tell one, that one can live with that course of action, and is in part a work of reconciliation, where what one is reconciling oneself to is not pursuing the other options. The result of this process (if it’s purely imaginative) is, I take it, not knowledge of the desire one already had to φ, but a newly had desire to φ: I can see myself doing this, it is pleasant, I do not mind not doing not-φ: I’ll φ.
(Here’s a parallel case. David Hills once, in a handout that I probably still have in hard copy but not, alas, in electronic, and thus not available to me as I now write, suggested that we class some utterances—which one might think of as bullshit-adjacent, it now seems to me—not as performative or informative or passionate (per Cavell) but oracular, and gave as an example the utterances about home from Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man”:
‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’
‘I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’
“Oracular” because it comes as it were from the god through the speaker, as he speaks, then perhaps to be assessed: is this what I think “home” is? Try it on, see how it fits, even though it came from you. One way of taking this kind of articulation is to think that one already has, inwardly, an articulate but obscured belief about home, and the utterance externalizes it somewhat and allows one to test various formulations against oneself, probing around what one cannot discern in oneself, discerning its outlines. Another is that Bigfoot is blurry, one has only an obscure, inarticulate understanding, but saying something lets one think about it more and more clearly—because one ends up saying something relatively clear, not blurry—and orient oneself in thought, as when one has a dim idea about how to proceed with a math problem and starts writing things down to see if doing so spurs one on. It’s an occasion for thinking, not the result of hidden thoughts.)
I think this is far truer to Lawlor’s own descriptions of Katherine’s reasoning, and the caveats about different psychological types she makes, than Lawlor’s conclusion, which is that having found ourselves at home in a particular imaginative route, we draw the inference that the reason we were at home is that we already wanted to take that route. For one thing, the official goal of all this rigmarole, the inference, results in knowledge in a very wan way. It’s a falling-back from a richer state one already occupied, one that is important for talking of full-bodied knowledge of desire.
Causal inference would result in knowledge no better or richer than that had by trusting a friend or professional who gave one to believe that one’s desire was to φ. That would put one in the position to self-attribute that knowledge, but not, to use the going jargon, to avow it. The mere inference, like the report, doesn’t do any reconciling work, for instance; need bring with it no sense of ease; need not “stick”. But for all that one can call it knowledge—can’t one? If knowledge of desire can be had in either of these ways, why not in the other? One may not trust one’s own causal inference without this richer structure built up around it, but perhaps one finds one’s analyst trustworthy from the get-go. And isn’t what one does in the talking cure a lot like what Katherine’s doing by herself? The analyst infers similarly to her. Admittedly the analyst, in attributing a desire to Katherine, doesn’t do something similar to what we do in self-attributing desires in the paradigm cases, but it seems very much as if Katherine, in attributing a desire to herself on the basis of an inference, also isn’t doing that.
I think the “sticking”, the “characteristic changes”, all that, is supposed to make it seem as if there’s something more to the account than an ascription only adventitiously to oneself, one of the same kind that another could have made. (It’s a oneself-as-another–ascription, to recycle a “joke” from facebook.) And there is something more happening, it’s just mischaracterized.
Why should “characteristic changes” in one’s mental life “count as one’s having ‘settled the question’’? It’s telling that the changes don’t count as a sign that one is on the right track; telling too that the contrast with those who try to live in accord with their first guess are those who “never feel certain in calling an impulse a desire of theirs”. One reason would be: those characteristic changes mark the onset of the desire, and one experiences a “sense of ease” not because one has identified a desire but because one feels a desire, whereas before one had been casting about. If a tentative conclusion fails to “stick”, that, I take it, is because one actually does not feel the desire one has attributed to oneself. (What else would “sticking” be? Why else would “sticking” matter? That isn’t a normal feature of inferences.)
I see no reason to think the desire one then feels is one that one had had all along, now properly surfaced—though even if it were, it still wouldn’t be the case that one had found out about it through inference, rather than imaginatively working through the effects of its promptings. After one has come to feel the desire, the inference is otiose.
If for instance in thinking about what to eat I find that I desire something grossly unhealthy, and think that I should not want such things. The latter thought, though, is a complicated one, and could mean that I want (more or less earnestly) to be the sort of person who not want such things.↩