Why do I suffer?

Why do I suffer? In asking and answering this question, I may be mistaken with respect to the reasons for my suffering–for example, due to lack of knowledge, or to clever ways of deceiving myself. Yet, I can’t doubt the utterance. It’s there, expressed and alive.

In the book Self-Knowledge and Self-Deception, the philosopher Hugo Strandberg analyzes what we mean when we ask the question, “Who am I?” This classical question opens up the potential for a critical self-examination that is also a moral examination. For me to know who I am, I take myself as the object of my investigation, knowing, of course, that both “I” as the subject and “I” as the object will change during the process of living. The “philosopher’s knowledge,” he writes, “is then self-knowledge, and self-knowledge is not knowledge about just another object in the world but about my alleged knowledge of the world.” In other words, self-knowledge is knowledge about my relationship with (or relationships in) the world.

Therefore, by looking more thoroughly at these relationships, I may discover that there are things I don’t know. I might become aware of my lack of knowledge.

“Self-knowledge is not one thing,” the author states” (Strandberg 14). It’s a concept related with many other questions that emerge during my life. “Self-knowledge is a moral question” (24) It is a matter of befriending myself, as Strandberg writes, referring to Seneca. In other words, getting to know who I am is an ongoing dance between the two concepts of “self-knowledge” and “self-deception”. Self-deception, according to Strandberg, is a moral phenomenon, a mixture of knowing and not knowing, but always in a moral sense. To emphasize this point, he relates the idea of self-deception with remorse; if things “should” be seen differently, then “this ‘should’ is given by the perspective of remorse itself.”

The correlation of self-deception with remorse is quite innovative because it helps Strandberg to illustrate how “self-deception shows that I am morally split.” For this reason it is difficult to answer the question “Who am I?” The whole book is a reflection about what it actually means to answer this question.

For example, one question related to “Who am I?” would be to ask whether the self is something fixed, or something created that changes as one lives? The problem with the fascinating idea that we create our selves is, as Iris Murdoch is quoted for saying, “man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then come to resemble them” (67). So, it may be morally good if the picture I paint about myself is good according to the consensus, but I may still deceive myself in the process. Perhaps I am just suffering from group pressure; i.e., I do not have the courage to live out what I already know about myself.

Self-Knowledge and Self-Deception, while well written and engaging, is a scholarly work filled with references and requires close attention on the part of the reader. This is nice in a time where many books try to popularize concepts at the risk of losing scholarly rigor or precision. The chapter “The True Self” could be useful to study for all those in the self-help industry who wish to improve people’s self-image and sense of self-worth. Arendt, Descartes, MacIntyre, Kierkegaard, and Sartre–among others–show up. Personally, I enjoyed seeing Sartre back and being incorporated into the philosophical dialogue.

I believe that, ultimately, one asks “Who am I?” in relation to another question: what does it mean to live. For Strandberg, the answer is related to my will to pay attention or not pay attention to something specific (for example, living up to certain moral ideals or not). Contrary to the state of not paying attention (and the lack of awareness that comes with this), a well-developed attention allows the self to dissolve or become “who one is” with the world.  This leads Strandberg to suggest that the answer to the question “Who am I?” is answered by the way we live–perhaps the question is not even asked.

To return to the topic of remorse, Strandberg argues that remorse is the distance between self-knowledge and self-deception that can be reduced by love. To put this into romantic terms, it is when I am not following my heart that I experience moments of regret.

I began this review by asking, “Why do I suffer?” To answer this properly– following Strandberg–I need to be open to others and befriend others and myself with love and compassion. I may then realize that my suffering is related with my relationship with the world. The point is that “goodness constitutes me in a way badness does not, and when I treat someone badly this does not mean that I become, or some part of me becomes, fully evil, for that would mean that full moral badness would be possible, that is, that badness would be possible without self-deception. This goodness which constitutes me in a way badness does not is non-determinable, is openness to others, and is love and friendship, whereas badness could be said to be an attempt at determining me and these relations to others” (180).

The lesson is to not presuppose, but rather to be open and curious in your interaction with life.

Self-Knowledge and Self-Deception deals with a classical question: who am I? At times it’s a difficult book due to the amount of theories discussed, but in general the author is quite good at guiding the reader by being very explicit about what he aims at, noting how he differs from Socrates, and so forth. Still, the book requires philosophical knowledge. Students who have a certain level of mastery of philosophy and its concepts will enjoy this book, as will other philosophers who are grappling with similar topics. It’s a rewarding read, and one that’s quite complex–I have in this short review only touched briefly on some key issues. I admit also that I found it rather encouraging to read a philosopher who brings philosophy back to the terrain of ordinary life, and dares to speak about “goodness” and “love”.

This review was published in Metapsychology (Volume 20, Issue 17).

Finn Janning, PhD in philosophy, is a writer.


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