A revolution in our sense of self


Nick Chater writes:

At the climax of Anna Karenina, the heroine throws herself under a train as it moves out of a station on the edge of Moscow. But did she really want to die? Had the ennui of Russian aristocratic life and the fear of losing her lover, Vronsky, become so intolerable that death seemed the only escape? Or was her final act mere capriciousness, a theatrical gesture of despair, not seriously imagined even moments before the opportunity arose?

We ask such questions, but can they possibly have answers? If Tolstoy says that Anna has dark hair, then Anna has dark hair. But if Tolstoy doesn’t tell us why Anna jumped to her death, then Anna’s motives are surely a void. We can attempt to fill this void with our own interpretations and debate their plausibility. But there is no hidden truth about what Anna really wanted, because, of course, Anna is a fictional character.

Suppose instead that Anna were a historical figure and Tolstoy’s masterpiece a journalistic reconstruction. Now Anna’s motivation becomes a matter of history, rather than a literary interpretation. Yet our method of inquiry remains the same: the very same text would now be viewed as providing (perhaps unreliable) clues about the mental state of a real person, not a fictional character. Historians, rather than literary scholars, might debate competing interpretations.

Now imagine that we could ask Anna herself. Suppose the great train slammed on its brakes just in time. Anna, apparently mortally injured, is conveyed in anonymity to a Moscow hospital and, against the odds, pulls through. We catch up with Anna convalescing in a Swiss sanatorium. But, as likely as not, Anna will be as unsure as anyone else about her true motivations. After all, she too has to engage in a process of interpretation as she attempts to account for her behaviour. To be sure, she may have “data” unavailable to an outsider – she may, for example, remember the despairing words “Vronsky has left me forever” running through her mind as she approached the edge of the platform. However, any such advantage may be more than outweighed by the distorting lens of self-perception. In truth, autobiography always deserves a measure of scepticism.

There are two opposing conclusions that one might draw from this vignette. One is that our minds have dark and unfathomable “hidden depths”. From this viewpoint, we cannot expect people to look reliably within themselves and compile a complete and true account of their beliefs and motives. Psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists have long debated how best to plumb the deep waters of human motivation. Word associations, the interpretation of dreams, hours of intensive psychotherapy, behavioural experiments, physiological recordings and brain imaging have been popular options.

I believe, though, that our reflections should lead us to a different conclusion: that the interpretation of real people is no different from the interpretation of fictional characters. If Tolstoy’s novel had been reportage, and Anna a living, breathing member of the 19th-century Russian aristocracy, then, of course, there would be a truth about whether Anna was born on a Tuesday. But, I argue, there would still be no truths about the real Anna’s motives. No amount of therapy, dream analysis, word association, experiment or brain scanning can recover a person’s “true motives”, not because they are difficult to find, but because there is nothing to find. [Continue reading…]

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