The face at the bottom of the well

The most important thing is this: what you experience, what you think, what you believe has no deep connection to what is real. Kant had this single truth exactly right: everything we think we know about the world is mostly a reflection of ourselves—psychologically, culturally, socially. As Leszek Kołakowski wrote, “In all the universe man cannot find a well so deep that, leaning over it, he does not discover at the bottom his own face.”

The explanation for this is straightforward. We only ever encounter the model of the world our minds have made, and each model bears the imprint of its maker, in thoroughgoing ways so pervasive and nuanced that we seldom see ourselves in it. Solipsism in this sense is inescapably true. We experience our own minds, for the most part.

But it’s also true that our models are disrupted by experience: we make mistakes, we are surprised, we get things wrong and we collide and break. So it would be wrong to say there isn’t a reality independent of us. But we cannot know it as it is in itself—that’s Kant’s point. All we can do is try to model it, with our sloppy cognitive engines, and over time we have become pretty good at it, if only within the narrow realm of our endeavors.

How do we come to know this fact, that we cannot know reality as it is in itself? Certainly not by looking at reality as it is in itself and comparing it to the cartoon that is in our heads. No, we know it from the inside. We make wrong predictions about the world, and sometimes come to see our predictions as wishful thinking. We observe what other people say and believe, and we see how closely it is tied to their own psychology. We study other societies, all of which plant themselves at the center of what’s important. and from all of these observations we formulate the general thesis that people paint themselves into their worlds, or more accurately: they paint the world with themselves, rather in the way John Malkovich sees everyone as John Malkovich when he enters into his own mind as a stranger in the film Being John Malkovich.

We know this to be true in dreams. In dreams every element is coming from within us—where else could it be coming from? But it is a short step from dreams to waking experience. In waking experience what we see are the judgments we arrive at, and those judgments are formed from sensations, yes, but also the same internal apparatus that gives shape to our dreams. Our minds are predictive engines, but the predictions we make gain their characters from our dream engines. Malkovich, in entering his own head, has supplied himself as input to the apparatus that makes predictions about his experience, and unsurprisingly he sees himself everywhere. Most of us who aren’t crippled by extreme narcissism don’t have this experience, thank god, but we still inject ourselves into our predictions, and thereby into our experience.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff, Metaphysical musings. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The face at the bottom of the well

  1. jackleo says:

    thought-provoking blogpost!

    When you say “what is real”, I presume you refer to whatever is outside our mind-model. But if we could not 100% know reality in itself, then this reference would make no sense, as we would never be able to conceive of anything outside our mental model. Why and how, then, can thought transcend it’s limits, or at least why does it always want to transcend its limits, like this?
    Why is it possible to think noumena?

    I think it gets even weirder when it gets meta. In one way, I can conceive something outside my mental model, as it is necessary for me in order to understand what you’re saying about the “in-itself” (even if your point is that it is substantially inaccessible), but in another way, I’m stuck in my own model, because I’m obviously importing my own presuppositions and life experience when interpreting your blogpost about the “in-itself”. This is one thing emphasized well in continental philosophy —you can always take any statement as transcendent or immanent (in-itself or for-itself)— you can always either straightforwardly interpret something as what the idea says, or you can show that the thought itself is thought by a subject who is a historical person with tons of egotistical motivations as you say. (“P” and “I think that P” are always the options). It’s true that many people don’t notice themselves within all of their thoughts like you are referring to— and these sorts of people are victim to genealogical or Kantian critique. But then a double problem exists, because for a Neitzche or Kant, it is thought who got their critique there, and thought that they took in the straightforward, transcendent “this critique is true” sense. But they were critiquing thought’s ability to do that!. Hence, noticing this about their critique, they either turn backwards to a confused and incoherent Humean skepticism, or they take it as a positive, and say yes, you can have true thoughts that *you* think, as evidenced by our critiques. But then if it is a positive, you have thought both transcendent and immanent (in and for itself), which was thought to be impossible, as typically people affirm one or the other, and the for-itself negating our knowledge is much more undeniable as we can know it from the inside as ‘the face at the bottom of the well’, as you say. (The negations all kind-of come in the form, That’s just *your* thought, in my opinion). Hence the paradoxical point that critique/destruction can bring about a positive, as you see in Marxists and Hegelians, and the whole Hegelian epistemic project.

    Plus, who’s to say representationalism is grounded? Do we trust the Cartesian picture? Why not, ironically following Descartes, doubt the picture, and thereby escape this notion of a philosophical problem? Maybe Wittgenstein or Heidegger or pragmatists are right and everyone from Descartes to Kant and Hegel wrong? How is the body involved in knowing?


  2. Huenemann says:

    Thanks for the comments, Jack! First off, I don’t think we can avoid positing some mind-independent reality, if only for the fact that we obviously, comically and tragically, make mistakes, and I can’t see any way to explain that without positing something beyond my experience. And we seem sometimes to not make mistakes. Is there any plausible way to understand this without some sort of representationalism?

    When you write, “you can always either straightforwardly interpret something as what the idea says, or you can show that the thought itself is thought by a subject who is a historical person with tons of egotistical motivations as you say. (“P” and “I think that P” are always the options)”, I’m not sure these are different options, since I don’t think it’s possible to interpret a claim without contextualizing it (either plausibly or implausibly). Of course many philosophers pretend they can examine ideas themselves in some non-contextual sense, but that’s a delusion.

    I’m not sure about the predicament you describe where Kant and Nietzsche both reach an impasse and have to become either skeptics or platonists (is that the right term for what you have in mind?). What about a position that says, “We don’t know the full truth, but we’re not totally ignorant, and it takes lots of hard work to figure out what’s right and what’s fantasy”? Even though in this post I am leaning hard toward the skeptical extreme, even here I have to admit we’re not always wrong.


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