Very often my patients would tell me that they would stop drinking to excess (or indulging in some other kind of patently self-destructive behavior) if only they understood why they did it. “What,” I asked them, “would count as an explanation? Give me an example.”They were never able to do so. Their very attempts died on their lips as they made them. Was it their genes, their peculiar biochemistry, their upbringing, their drinking environment, the price of alcohol?…Some algebraic combination of all these? No human being believes or can possibly believe this of himself, except perhaps for self-exculpatory purposes that he knows in his heart to be dishonest. It is possible to believe it only of others. The man who claims to understand himself in this fashion is like an army that declares victory and goes home.
Of course, intellectuals are as avid for fame and power as for truth, and deep skepticism or the acknowledgment of radical ignorance is not the way to create a following. Claims to total understanding, at least in outline, of human existence have not been lacking, most notably in the last century by Marxists and Freudians, with Behaviorists coming in a poor third. No human conduct ever puzzled a psychoanalyst, at least not for long, only until he had successfully fitted a few facts into the Procrustean bed of his theoretical presuppositions; likewise no Marxist possessed of the laws of dialectical materialism ever found any historical development surprising. And since the numbers of intellectuals in the last century desirous of a non-religious explanation of everything increased very rapidly, the number of people thinking that the heart had been plucked out of man’s mystery was greater than ever before. Meanwhile, of course, men continued to behave badly and history continued to produce its surprises.
The philosophers Paul and Patrician Churchland, among others, hope that one day such retrograde and primitive expressions as Juliet’s “Alack, alack, that heaven should practise stratagems/ Upon so soft a subject as myself” will be replaced, or at any rate be replaceable, with purely scientific terms in a strict physico-chemical denotation. They would prefer Juliet, or that organism temporarily occupying such and such a space on stage, commonly but no doubt inaccurately known as the actress playing Juliet (because personal identity is itself part of that folk psychology that is destined for the dustbin of history), to tell us that neuronal connections 39947474747, 58883883821, and 979333002842 of the brain of the actress are now firing. Then, of course, we should know precisely what was really going on, without all that blather about heaven practicing stratagems.
There is something irreducibly individual in human conduct, and once again we are left trying to capture water vapor with a butterfly net….Whether we like it or not, we live in a world of meaning irreducible to physical processes: even if, as with some regret I believe, we are merely physical beings.
Absolutely brilliant article! Easily one of Dalrymple’s best!
I agree, Malik. I have been re-reading this and giving it a lot of thought. Very profound, one of his most purely philosophical pieces, and definitely one of his best.