Perspectival fever: On being shot through with philosophical desire

ipse se nihil scire id unum sciat

I

I have a recurrent experience where something I’ve done, or something I am, appears to me to be better than I know it to really be. I pause and try to break through, to see it from the outside, but I can’t.

When I write, what I’ve written often seems to me to be really good. Only I know it isn’t, at least not usually, because the kind of “really good” I’m aiming for means moving people and changing minds. I have made over 170 posts, and done plenty of self-promotion, if what I was doing had the power to move a lot of people, I’d have a lot more than 100 daily readers by now. Tempting as it would be to write this off as market failure in the bazaar of ideas, I know it isn’t.

I finally worked out the trick though- the source of the illusion that makes it very hard for me to see my writing as it really is. It reads so good to me because what I’ve written vibrates in harmony with what is in me at the time I wrote it. The insights feel fresh and powerful because they’ve just impressed themselves upon me. The metaphors seem choice because, almost by definition, I must have been in the mood for that metaphor when I cooked it. The only time I can see what my writing looks like to an outside observer is weeks after I’ve published it, when I reread it. In that moment I see it as sometimes pale, sometimes gaudy, sometimes obscure, sometimes basic, but never quite singing the harmonies I recall. This is not because the notes have changed but because my mind is no longer harmonizing with it.

I often feel that if I could just grasp what I’d written from a wholly different perspective, from many different perspectives, I’d be a long way to being a better writer. Don’t misunderstand me, I have the ordinary capacities for empathy, but I crave extraordinary capacities.

Could I reverse the process? Take a mediocre (though not bad) piece of text and think myself into the state the author was in when they wrote it, making my thoughts ring in harmony with it till it reads like a model of brilliance? I’m very interested to try. If you’ve written something you think is mediocre, but which at the time felt brilliant, let me know in the comments. I’ll see if I can’t bridge my way to where you were standing.

II

Writing is not the only time I have this experience.

When I was overweight and I looked in the mirror, my stomach seemed big, but my face never seemed pudgy. However I knew it was pudgy from the testimony of others. But stranger still than that contradiction, I noticed that when I took pictures, my face seemed pudgier in the still image than in the mirror. I took thousands of selfies of myself over a decade, not out of narcissism, but because the discrepancy between the two was maddening. I wanted to understand by seeing myself as a stranger, to become a neutral object for analysis.

It’s not always a matter of my intuitive reaction being more positive than what I know to be warranted. When I suffer very bad fits of OCD- the kind of fits that make some psychologists suspect the disease is related to schizophrenia- I find myself maddened by a paradox. On some level I know it’s all false, because it’s all turned out to be false so many times before yet I cannot fully see the world as one who thinks its false. It’s not just a matter of aliefs- the bits don’t click together right at the level of belief either. I try to see myself from the outside, but I can’t escape my skin. As it once occured to me in a daydream, there is a storm, there is a boat, I am the storm, I am the boat, and there is no way I can sail free.

I call this clash between feeling and thinking, combined with a maddening desire to harmonise- perspectival fever.

III

Here’s another interesting type of perspectival fever. A woman, who I will not name because she has already endured more than enough public shaming, wore black face to a Halloween party. This was a confused attempt to parody Megan Kelly’s denial that there is anything racist about wearing blackface to Halloween party. While her gesture was, by all accounts, intended to be anti-racist, it missed. As far as anyone can tell, she had no idea how poorly her choice of costume would be received until she turned up, at which point it was too late. Two years later (???) the Washington post ran a story about her transgression, apparently in an effort to cover their ass about something.

I used to wonder if maybe most serious transgression and crime was like this woman who somehow didn’t realise she was going to get canned for blackface. People just sort of forgetting that a certain course of action was rude and/or unethical and/or illegal till it was too late. “I’m a murderer? Huh well I never thought of it like that, but now that you put it that way…”

I call the mental state of being unaware that you are about to do something transgressive when it should be obvious, moral blindness. Perspectival fever about the possibility that we have, or will, suffered moral blindness is pretty common- among the highly religious, in the anxious, shifting enclaves of this age and in various mental illnesses. However it is little discussed, because people are afraid of coming off as wicked.

IV

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that someone with these strange derangements of mine would come to be obsessed with the following thought experiment.

Someone, call her Jiang, fell into a deep sleep, and woke up proclaiming that they had experienced all of it. All of human history. All hundred billion lives, or approximately three trillion years of experience. The weeping of Alexander as he saw there was nothing left to conquer. The passion and fear of the suffragette Emily Davision as she fell under that horse. The moment calculus first clicked for Newton. The plight of Pocahontas in England. Above all of these though, the nameless and numberless of history and their unending days. A day can be a long time, she has experienced over a quadrillion days.

Jiang- and who knows how much of her remains after this experience, but we will assume she retains her identity- establishes her credentials. She then announces that she wishes to address the world. As she mounts the podium for a speech that will surely be watched by more people than any other in history she opens her mouth and…

Do you think you know what Jiang will say? Not about everything of course, but maybe you think you know what part of the message is? Stranger still, do you have a hunch that Jiang will contradict some particular belief of yours? If so, how can you possibly justify your belief? Maybe I’m just uniquely thick, but I sometimes suspect I know what she might contradict me about.

Is the question of what Jiang would say even meaningful? The human mind as constituted isn’t capable of processing that much data. Perhaps asking what Jiang would think, absent specifying how she would be modified to make it possible for her to process this total experience, is meaningless. Nonetheless I find myself longing, almost painfully, to know what the sum (?product) of all human experiences would be- perspectival fever on a total scale.

V

Another related question that entertains and torments me. By “grand convocation” I mean a hypothetical process in which all the people living in a polity were gathered to decide how a polity would be governed henceforth. Somehow there is allotted for them infinite time to speak and debate, and their capacity for boredom is removed. Each of them can address the whole as much as they like. Do you find yourself fascinated by the unknowable question of what they would decide? What if we vary it- for example, by binding them all to truth in their deliberations, or by greatly enhancing their intelligence (but keeping the same underlying value function).

(Surely you must relish the thought of what they might sweep away?)

Or what about a grand convocation of Jiangs? What if every person in the assembly experienced the life of each other person? All approximately 330 million Americans (or substitute any other state, or substitute the whole of humanity) living the lives of the approximately 330 million Americans, on top of their own and then- and only then- hammering out a consensus on how the US should proceed.

VI

Here’s another philosophical fantasy for you, this one more exhibitionist than voyeuristic. Have you ever dreamed that you present your whole self to others? To give them a copy of a biography of yourself written by G-d or a Culture Mind or something? Something that tells the whole story? Or maybe just have the magical ability to make others know you are telling the truth when you are, in fact, telling the truth- so you could tell them everything and answer their questions with complete confidence they would believe you.

Is it a fantasy of forgiveness? Of letting others see you have done wrong, but showing them so much of yourself that they can’t help but see it in context? Or is it a fantasy of connection? Of releasing the ache of a loneliness so deep you had forgotten it was there? It’s all of these perhaps, but it’s also perspectival fever- the desire to be seen through other eyes is, at least in part, the desire to see yourself through other eyes.

3 thoughts on “Perspectival fever: On being shot through with philosophical desire

  1. Amazing, the first section reads like something straight out of my head. The passion I have for writing comes from the temporarily belief that I’m about to publish something amazing. It’s a Sisyphean struggle.

    Re: “perspectival fever,” the first thought that comes to mind is “tip of your nose”-delusions, as referenced by Philip Tetlock

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  2. Love the section about Jiang, and the idea of presenting all of yourself. I’ve often had that image; that desire, to be seen entirely for what i am, and to see the same for others.

    The thought experiment about the polity starts to get close to an area I’ve been focused on for a long time: the human experience is heavily shaped by computational limits. If we all had infinite time in which to think, and processing power, we’d be very very different than we currently are.

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  3. I’ve always thought more writers would enjoy their own writing (maybe I only talk to the ones with low self esteem). Like you say, it’s a product of your own mind, singing in harmony with your feelings and outlook. I know myself well enough to tell stories that I enjoy; it’s the outside perspective that’s the hard part.

    Personally, I enjoy reading my writing a lot in the months after too. Maybe there’s something about the finality that frees my mind. I can go back to what I was feeling without having to worry about the writing at the same time.

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