Norbert Elias, The Court Society (1984):
On this level of self-consciousness where people, when thinking about their thought processes, can already detach themselves enough from these processes to perceive objects as something independent of themselves, and especially from their affects, and in this sense as autonomous, but where they cannot yet distance themselves sufficiently from themselves and their own thought processes to include the structure of this distancing as itself a basic element in their conception of the subject-object relationship, such questions are ultimately insoluble. (254)
“Such questions” include the doubts, familiar since the time of Descartes, about the reality of everything outside the mind. All of modern skeptical philosophy, in short, together with the bone-chilling alienation that has afflicted artists and intellectuals for more than two hundred years.
Norbert Elias was a German sociologist who believed something very unusual: that human consciousness is altered by changes in social structures. The passage that I’ve quoted, which, I admit, is not the easiest reading in the world, is embedded in Elias’s discussion of the internalization of social imperatives — learning to do the proper thing without being told to do it, a process sometimes called “socialization” — that swept through European elites in the wake of Renaissance state-formation and the convulsions of the Reformation, and that has since become unconsciously familiar to most inhabitants of the nations of Europe, North America, and other European outposts.
Prior to the “distancing” that set in with the Renaissance — more about that in a minute — human beings naively projected their feelings about things directly onto those things. If you disliked something, it must be bad (or, if the something in question were virtuous, you must be mad). Behavior was generally spontaneous, as we can see in the records from Genesis and Homer to Livy and Suetonius, even to Augustine, and beyond, into the medieval legends of warrior knights. After the Renaissance, men and women, at least those with much to lose, learned to play their cards closer to their chests, and violence gave way to disputation. A friendly courtier might have ulterior motives — indeed, he almost certainly did. Low-grade suspicion became the hallmark of intelligence. The new scientists taught the same lesson on a cosmic plane: the sun did not, as it appeared to do, revolve around the earth. On the contrary!
What Elias is writing about in the quoted passage is the stage in the development of human consciousness (now quite tediously familiar to one and all) in which it is generally understood that things are not always what they seem to be — but in which it is not understood, generally or otherwise, is that the apparent abyss that opens up when I regard the world with skepticism, the distance between my closed-up mind, locked in its skull, and what is really going on in the world, that this structural hiatus is itself no more actual than my impressions of the world. It is a statement about me, not about how things are; it is the condition of my consciousness. Unaware that this is the case — unaware that my alienation from the world is a feature not of the world or of its reality but only of my consciousness — I labor in vain to distinguish the true from the misleadingly apparent. If I’m really rigorous, I retreat to Descartes’s tiny corner, and confess that I know no more than that I am conscious. The rest I leave, as Descartes did, up to God, who may not exist but who better had.
There are signs, fugitive enough, that David Hume was one of the first men to reach the next step of consciousness, in which skepticism itself is understood to be a phenomenon like any other, and not a marker of some essential difference between ourselves and everything else. For we learn, in this new stage, that we are in fact, just like everything else, not always what we seem to be. Secrets aside, we don’t really understand ourselves, in any natural way, any better than we understand anything else. This is the relentless trumpet flourish of the cognitive revolution. Daniel Kahneman is here to tell us that most of our “reasonable” conclusions about things are actually irrational, that the premises from which we reason are not axioms and fundamental truths but dogs’ breakfasts of prejudices and misinformation. We now understand socialization to be not the tyrannical oppression of the natural, unspoiled self but the self-discipline necessary to ensure a minimum of social cooperation and to prevent the collapse into anarchy, than which there is no greater human horror.
Well, some of us understand this. It can’t be denied that many ostensibly educated people remain locked in the conundrum that Elias describes in the passage above. Permit me to try a more colloquial rendering:
The undertaking to distinguish truth from “mere appearance” is doomed to vanity so long as the faculty of judgment is believed to occupy a different plane of reality from that of the things being judged. Judgment is no more (and no less) real than a tree or a rainbow or a lover’s smile. We are still obliged to make judgments, but we must be aware that we have no special, privileged toolkit for judgment. Everything comes down to experience and practice. Nothing is for sure, but experience and practice tend to lead us toward the more likely.
Don’t ask me why, but I hear the scurrying of mice in the background — the vermin of something called relativism. Relativism, to hear people talk of it, is a failing that only other people are afflicted by. The critic who denounces relativism knows better (says he or she). What is relativism? It is the delusion, which quickly follows the loss of respect for the absolute truth of some revelation or other, that the good and evil in things is a relative matter that depends on the circumstances. For example, a relativist might hold that it is not as bad for a starving man to steal a crust of bread as it is for an accountant to indulge in a course of insider trading. A relativist might even believe that it is perfectly okay for the poor man to steal the crust of bread! Absolutists know better. They know — doesn’t it say so in Scripture? — that it is right for the poor to suffer on earth and await their heavenly reward. Absolutists of certain denominations also know that some superior people are entitled to an earthly reward as well, and that their property interest in this reward is sacred, not to be interfered with by the state or by the less fortunate.
Absolutists are not skeptics, of course, but they share the skeptic’s eagerness to distinguish the truth from the merely plausible amidst the complications of mortal reality — from which they are, however, just as cut off, “distanced,” as the toughest skeptic.