Fall 2023 Colloquium Series 29 September

September 29, 2023

Francy Russell, Barnard::"A Wedge-Shaped Core of Darkness": On Self-Knowledge, Self-Opacity, and Soul-Pictures
Friday September 29, 2023

Abstract: This paper explores the idea that forms of self-opacity—vicissitudes of self-consciousness, and disruptions of straightforward self-knowledge, registrations of dissonance and self-strangeness—need not be understood exclusively or necessarily as pathologies nor as brute psychological facts, but can be valued as part of a rich moral psychology and conception of selfhood.  I consider a prominent contemporary account of self-knowledge that situates self-knowledge in the context of philosophical moral psychology and analyzes self-knowledge as an achievement of “rational, responsible self-directed agency.”  While this model provides resources for understanding both self-knowledge and self-opacity, its broadly Kantian normative or axiological orientation means that forms of opacity tend to be framed as privations or pathologies of rational agency, in such a way as to leave us potentially cut off from the kinds of complexity, value, and significance that they might have for us.  I then turn to some suggestive remarks by Bernard Williams, Lionel Trilling, and a passage from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, that serve not only to indicate a way of thinking about the value of opacity, but suggest that attending to this value might call for imaginative and metaphorical forms of representation.  This is to say that attending to this particular topic—the significance of self-opacity—involves attending to questions of philosophical and aesthetic style.