Friday, September 10, 2004

On Projection and Autobiographical Posts

Here is part of an e-mail from Dennis Mangan:

And then I got to thinking about other life experiences. Funny how often one assumes that others are essentially like oneself. So I'm considering some bio type posts. I lived on a kibbutz in Israel almost a year. I've lived in London (6 months), Sierra Leone (1 1/2 years) as, of all things, a medical missionary; I've worked in factories and on farms, studied for a Ph.D., been married twice. Blah blah blah, maybe its not all that interesting.


Psychological Projection

I have found in my experience that it is dangerous to assume that others are essentially like oneself. Psychologists speak of projection, and as I understand it, it involves projecting into others one's own attitudes, beliefs, and values. A pacifist, for example, may assume that others deep down are really like he is: peace-loving to such an extent as to avoid war at all costs. A pacifist might reason as follows: since everyone deep down wants peace, if I throw down my weapon, my adversary will do likewise. By unilaterally disarming, I show my good will, and he will reciprocate. But if you throw down your weapon before Hitler, he will take that precisely as justification for killing you: since might makes right on his neo-Thrasymachian scheme, you have shown by your pacific deed that you are unfit for the struggle for existence and therefore deserve to die, and indeed must die to keep from polluting the gene pool.

One mistake I have made, more than once, is to assume that since I value truth above many other things, others do as well. But there are plenty of people who do not value truth at all, or else assign it a rather low priority. There are many, for example, who value human feelings over truth. That makes no sense to me; to me it is self-evident that, although both are values (to be precise: things that ought to be valued), truth is a higher value, if not the highest value.

There are other people for whom truth counts for nothing, but power for everything. They interpret every type of interpersonal transaction as a power struggle. Thus if you calmly try to persuade such a person of the truth of some proposition by appealing to facts and reasoning correctly from them, he will interpret that as nothing but an attempt to dominate him psychologically. Such people are utterly blind to the fact that truth can sometimes be attained by dialectical means. They project their own lust for power into everyone else interpreting everything that is manifestly not a power-move as latently a power-move.

There are plenty of leftists like this. Taking their cue from Nietzsche, they assume that everything is power at bottom. Die Welt ist der Wille zur Macht und nichts anders! "The world is the will to power and nothing besides!" Supported by this assumption, they set out to unmask (deconstruct) phenomena that manifestly are not power-driven, for example, attempts to state what is the case. Compare my comments on Stanley Fish in Of Truth and Fish. Power-mad themselves, these leftists project lust for power into everyone and everything. It is a curious pars pro toto fallacy: one takes a phenomenon one finds in oneself, lust for power, and then interprets everything else in terms of it.

I once had a superficial colleague who, motivated by a neurotic need to advance himself socially and economically, scribbled a number of articles. Once, when I had published an article, he told me that my motive was to see my name in print. This is a classic case of projection: he could not understand me except as being driven by the same paltry motives that drive him.

Autobiographical Posts

I love reading them for the same reason that I love reading biographies, autobiographies, and journals. I am fascinated by the different ways different people negotiate the world, find their niche in it, and move forward day by day. Cataloging the wild diversity of adaptive strategies is a rich source of intellectual pleasure.

So let's hear about your experiences Dennis, and what you have learned from them. As I used to tell my students, there are no boring topics, only bored students. Nothing is boring except that bored boneheads make it so. Or, as a philosopher might put it, the property of being boring is not intrinsic but relational: it presupposes a dyadic relation the fundamentum of which is a bored bonehead, and the relatum of which is a chunk of subject-matter.

So blog on, pressing the wine of wisdom from the grapes of experience taking care, however, to discard the sour grapes and the grapes of wrath.