Know thyself, blog thyself: Socrates and the internet

Claire Creffield

In a moving essay on the relationship between philosophy and literature, Richard Shusterman1 suggests why the philosophical project of “knowing oneself” cannot be an austerely solitary exercise, but must embrace the joy and beauty of carefully expressed communication with others. Solitary introspection – “digging into oneself, this straight, violent descent into the pit of one’s being,” in Nietzsche’s words – is not only psychologically dangerous, it is also a flawed and limited investigation. We need our self-examination to be conducted in terms that allow and encourage the participation of other people.

At its most basic, this is simply the claim that introspection requires language; it requires us to make more or less precise verbal representations of ourselves in the medium of shared and public meanings. But more than this, on Shusterman’s account the commitment to expressing oneself in language moves us rapidly to acknowledge the value of criticism. “What seems right in one’s interior thinking may ring false and inadequate once it is actually said or written down,”  he says. We  achieve a valuable critical distance from ourselves by the project of rendering ourselves in words, one that allows us to refine or transform the terms in which we think of ourselves. And this distance is also a space into which criticism from others must be invited. When I put down some words in the hope that they convey something truthful and important in the project of coming to self-knowledge, I will typically assess them in terms of the sense they might make – or fail to make – to others. I imagine a reader, and her reactions. Without that regulative ideal, the project of rendering oneself in words has no adequately independent standard of success.

And if an imagined reader is of such value, how much more valuable must an actual reader be. Her actual reactions to my words will be a sterner sort of criticism than my imagined version of her reactions. Or perhaps a kinder sort of criticism. At any rate they will have more of the robust autonomy that the concept of critical distance commits us to. And more than that, a reader, a real reader,  might be a source of support, advice, encouragement, consolation, in the difficult project of self-examination. In Shusterman’s words:

This need for a dialogical friend in the pursuit of self-knowledge and self-improvement is already clear in Plato’s Alcibiades, where Socrates not only uses his external perspective to show his interlocutor’s lack of self-knowledge and need for self-cultivation, but also repeatedly frames his exhortation to undertake this pursuit by underlining his enduring love for Alcibiades and assuring him of his faithful, affectionate support in this self-ameliorative struggle: “[S]omeone who loves your soul, will not leave you as long as you’re making progress” (Alcibiades 131d).

Now think about the forum in which one reveals oneself to a reader. In the literal “forum” of the urban spaces in which classical Socratic dialogues took place, we can imagine that there was amongst the participants a very strong commitment to making the greatest possible effort at frank and insightful self-revelation, and a strong faith that such efforts would be met with acceptance and reciprocation. This face-to-face conduct of shared introspection, says Shusterman, evolved during antiquity into a practice of philosophical letter-writing, in which , because “there is no fear that one might have to face an embarrassed, bored, or disappointed look from one’s interlocutor at the very moment of one’s self-expression … self-exposure can be freer still.”

Think about the forums for shared introspection that we have today. Online forums. At their best (and I am talking here only about our best experiences of online discourse: we know too well the mediocrity or worse that predominates), online forums have two wonderfully creative characteristics: they have all of the immediacy, all of the intimacy of Socrates’ marketplace conversations with his friends, but they also have some of the distancing characteristics of an exchange of letters.

The creative distance from our thoughts that the best online forums can give us is quite easy to formulate. Even in the fastest-moving online exchanges we tend to be able to take a little time to achieve a critical distance from our thoughts, compared with what tends to happen in face-to-face discourse. We craft our responses to make them as clear as possible; we have the time to reflect upon them in ways conductive to truth-seeking. If we are lucky there is a shared enjoyment of the written word, a joint project of clarity. Moreover, we need not fear “an embarrassed, bored, or disappointed look” (except perhaps in emoticon form) when our conversational partners are hidden by the vast intervention of technology.  We and they might  be further hidden by anonymous usernames. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth” (Oscar Wilde). In this way, distance, separation, makes the challenging commitment to frank exchanges of difficult truths a little easier.

But this enriching distance is not at the sacrifice of intimacy. A conversation in which all of the concrete particularities of one’s interlocutors are suppressed – in which one is in conversation merely with usernames, and their age, sex, ethnicity, dress sense, accent, etc., are all absent, so that the exchange can seem at first almost like an unpeopled flow of ideas – can be one in which all of the inessential barriers between self and other are miraculously dismantled. My first experience of online conversation reminded me strongly of my first experience of reading Russian literature. Thanks to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, I found myself directly inside the heads of people very different from myself. If I showed up in nineteenth-century Russia I would be overwhelmed by difference, by the foreignness and impenetrability of countesses and criminals so unlike me that I would be in a very poor position to share their wisdoms and perplexities. But excellent novels abstract from differences to give us a (nonetheless highly textured and engaged) account of shared experience. Similarly, I am capable of being overwhelmed by the difference, the foreignness and impenetrability of my nearest neighbours, of allowing their high heels, or the crucifix round their neck, or their youth, or their age – or the possibility of their similarly prejudiced judgements of me – to dim my perception of their wisdoms and perplexities. By hiding these differences, the internet, like the novel, puts our deepest selves in direct communion with one another.

On top of this abstraction from difference, online conversation breeds a further intimacy: the shared experience of the forum itself, its particular conventions, and the history of the enriching conversations had there.   And that allows intimacy to grow and deepen, even when we come to lift the veil of mutual ignorance a little and meet – sometimes in person – the actual particular individuals with whom we have been talking.

For all these reasons, I have found online conversation an immense resource in the development of my thoughts.

There is quite widespread endorsement in our culture of the practice of journal-writing as a means of achieving better knowledge of ourselves. Often these journals have been very private affairs, published only incidentally or not at all. But the essentially social nature of self-examination that I have been thinking about here clarifies the limitations of private reflection. What’s needed, then, is journal-keeping plus publicity, plus the unique combination of intimacy and distance facilitated by online forums: which equals … blogging.

Blogging might seem (has always seemed to me) like a hideously public way of conducting personal reflection, but its saving grace is its joyful acknowledgement of the inescapably communicative nature of thought.  Blogging puts into practice a recognition that, if a private language is an impossibility, so, too, it is impossible to pursue self-knowledge by means of a wholly private use of language.

One good thing about coming through the above reflections to an awareness of the value of blogging is that, although it involves acknowledging the conceptual need to reach out to a reader, it can survive the actual absence of that reader (which is the fate, as I understand it, of the majority of blogs). As well as actual exchanges of letters, philosophy has been conducted through fictional exchanges. Augustine, for example, directed his Confessions to God, addressed “ as a dialogical partner … an intimate, loving, caring, attentive (though infinitely superior) friend with whom one could share one’s deepest secrets, struggles, and hopes for self-knowledge, self-improvement, and salvation, and who provides the sturdiest support for this pursuit of the good while also being the ultimate judge of its success.” Perhaps there is a God, but more than likely there is not. Perhaps my blog might have a reader, but more than likely it will not. Either way, the imagined eyes of another, sympathetic but critical, intimate but distanced, are an aid to careful reflection.

1 Richard Shusterman, Philosophy as Literature and More than Literature. In Garry L. Hagberg and Walter Jost, A Companion to the Philosophy of Literature. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, pp. 7–21. All quotations in this post are from this work.

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8 Responses to Know thyself, blog thyself: Socrates and the internet

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  3. I’ve just read a very interesting blog post by psychologist Charles Fernyhough on the dialogic nature of private thought, and the ways in which talking online — on Twitter to be precise — can enrich creative dialogic features of private thought. It seemed to be consonant with what I have been speaking about in this post — the essentially communicative, social nature of thought about oneself.

    Charles Fernyhough says:

    “Philosophers such as Andy Clark have argued that we extend our cognitive resources by offloading some of our processing demands onto external entities. We use notepads, for example, to record and structure our thoughts, the results of which then feed back into our thinking. For some of us, Twitter is one such medium for thought. The fact that there are people at the other end, seeing our musings bubble up into their own timeline, means that we are constantly being offered the possibility of another perspective: a fruity riposte, a piece of confirming evidence, an agreement or note of dissent. Twitter is full of arguments, as any user will know. Its form is dialogic, which for me is an important characteristic of thinking, accounting for the flexibility and open-endedness of our cognitive processes. ”

    (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-child-in-time/201102/twittering-out-loud)

    Apparently Goethe was a great one for this rendition of thought in dialogic terms:

    “Being accustomed to spend his time preferably in company, he transformed even solitary thinking into social conversation, and in the following way: namely, when he found himself alone, he would summon up in spirit some person of his acquaintance. He would ask this person to be seated, pace up and down by him, stand in front of him, and discuss whatever subject he had in mind. The person would occasionally answer him …”

    Interestingly, this is written by Goethe himself, in the third person — so it is in itself an example of bringing a notional ‘other’ in to his thought about himself.

    (The source for the Goethe qutoation is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in From My Life: Poetry and Truth, trans. Robert R. Heitner, ed. Thomas P. Saine and Jeffrey L. Sammons (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 424.)

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