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McGinnC_4_selection - 60 SHAKESPEARE’S PHILOSOPHY As...

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Unformatted text preview: 60 SHAKESPEARE’S PHILOSOPHY As Hamiet iies dying at the ciose of the play, he exhorts Horatio (his faithqu interpreter and critic) “To tell my story.” is this a rather unbecoming concern with posthumous fame? Why is he so anxious to have his actions reported in this way? Why does he want an after- life in verhai form? I think it is because he sees how akin to fiction his life has been. He has created his character from nothing, like a playwright or noveiist, and with it the actions and consequences that have ensued. Hamlet is the author and architect of his own being. Thus his life has been a kind of freely created story—a result of his imagination and theatrical talents. Horatio must tell his story because of the storyliite character of his life. A play is a kind of story, and Hamlet has constructed himseif as a character in a play (rather as Shakespeare constructed him). Or better, he constructs many characters for himself in the comse of the play, ending as the aveng- ing hero he initially found it so difficult to. enact. He can act only when he is acting—that is, when he can conceive of himself in fic- tional terms. He can be only when he occupies a role. He is consti- tuted by his own story. noun ' Othello Persons of the Play Othello, the Moor of Venice Desdemona, his wife Michael Cassia, his lieutenant Bianca, a courtesan, in iove with Cassio Iago, the Moor’s ensign Emilie, Iago’s wife A clown, a servant of Otheilo Duke of 1Venice Brubenzz'o, Desdernona’s father, a Senator of Venice Graziano, Brabanzio’s brother Lodovico, kinsnaan of Brabanzio Senators of Venice Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman, in love with Desdemona Montana, Governor of Cyprus A herald A messenger Attendants, officers, saiiors, gentlemen of Cyprus, musicians Before i engage directiy with the text of Othello, it will be useful to itset out in some detaii the generai form of phiiosophical skepticism, and particularly the so-calied problem of other minds. This will set 'I I the stage (so to speak) for understanding the deeper themes of this 61 62 SHAKESPEARE’S PHILOSOPHY ogical anxiety Shakespeare’s concern with problems of knowledge, especially of the minds of others, is notably manifest in this story of deception and derangement. The character of Iago, in particular, is a locus of epistemological insecuw rity (even terror). Epistemologicai problems arise from the basic facts of human cognition. They are not just farfetched theoretical doubts dreamed up by pedantically scrupulous philosophers. Skepticism is not the tedious insistence that “you can’t be certain of anything in this world”; it is not merely excessive caution in the face of the necessity to believe. Rather, skepticism reflects deep structural truths about our faculties for knowing—particularly, the relationship between evidence and fact. Our reasons for belief can be alarmingly removed hat we believe in. In the case of beliefs about the past, say, our from w s relate to what is presently available in the form of memories but the fact in which we believe is tempo— rally remote from the present, sometimes very remote {as with our beliefs about dinosaurs or the Big Bang). How can we validly move from what is now the case to what was the case? Even more worrying, our supposed knowledge of the future involves a transition from what has been the case up to now to what will be the case: our rea» sons, again, concern times that are distinct from the times we have beliefs about. Thus Hume worried that we can never have any grounds for rational beliefs concerning the future, since all our evi— e future: we seem to be leaping in dence concerns times prior to th the dark in trying to divine the future from the past (Macbeth, as we will see, suffers from ignorance of the future).1 In the case of our knowledge of the physical world, our reasons seem to concern the rld appears to us—but experiences we havemthe way the external wo what we commit ourselves to are beliefs about the objects that (we those experiences. Again, we seem to be jumping play about error and epistemol reason and traces of past events; suppose) cause from one kind our own consciousness to convictions about objects external to our sness. The worry that it might all be a dream is simply a way eces- of thing to something quite distinct—from states of consciou essing the point that experiences themselves bear no n of expr you could sary, intrinsic relation to the world of real, physical things: Othello 63 principle have all these experiences and there be no physical world corresponding” to them (this is the skeptical possibility conjured up byA Midsummer Night’s Dream). in each of there cases, the skep« tic insists, we are rashly trying to exceed the bounds of the evi- 'dence—arguing from one kind of thing to something completely different. The point is not that we should be more cautious; it is that limitations of knowledge are built into the very structure of our cog— nitive faculties and our position in the world. In short, the facts we seek to know about transcend our means of access to them. We are condemned to make inferences, and these inferences are both fallible . and structurally suSpect. This kind of problem is nowhere more pronounced than in the case of our supposed knowledge of other people’s minds, the episte- mological focus of Othello. It is disarmingly easy—almost second nature—«to wonder how we can really know what is going on in someone else’s mind. People’s thoughts are not written on their fore- head for us to read, nor are their motives always apparent. I can - observe your outer behavior—what you say and (lo—hut I have to make an inference as to what is true of your mind. You tell me that ' yorrr intentions are honorable, but I have to take this on trust, since I can’t observe your real intentions. Again, l have to make a transitiOn from one kind of thing—a person’s outward behavior—to another kind of thing entirely—his inward states of mind. And this inference is fraught with difficulty: the inference is not just notoriously falli~ I ble, but it seems to be structurally flawed, since states of mind are re ~ )3 v . . private while outer hehavror is “public.” The mind is “hidden” from everyone except its possessor. No one (except perhaps God} can peer into your mind and discern what is in there. Other minds are essentially impenetrable, concealed, and unknowable. So the skeptic insists, noting the logical gap between evidence and conclu— sion. When I gaze at another person, however fixedly, i must be struck by the obvious fact that I am at an epistemological disadvan- tage compared to him: I have only his behavior to go on in figuring out his mental states, but he doesn’t have to follow this indirect routewwhe has “immediate access” to his states of consciousness. lago knows quite well what is on his mind, but Othello can only 64 SHAKESPEARE’S PHILOSOPHY guesswand consistently guesses wrongly. Knowledge of other peo— ple’s states of mind is frustratingly indirect and prone to error. We can look at this problem from both a first—person and a third— person point of view. From the third—person point of view, other peOple strike me as opaque: I look at them and sense their impene— trability—their minds hover somewhere out of my view. This is the way philosophers usually set up the problem. But we can also formu- late the problem from a first-person point of view, as when l reflect that my mind is hidden from you. I am aware of my own mind and its contents and I know that you have no such direct access to it. Thus I am aware of my impenetrability to others_as i am aware of their impenetrability to me. I can think, “You don’t know me,” as much as, “I don’t know you.” In my view, the first~person version of the problem is the more primitive and powerful, becausc in it I am most aware of the asymmetry between my knowledge of my mind and your knowledge of my mind. it is surely a momentous day in a child’s life when she realizes that her knowledge of her thoughts and feelings is not duplicated by other people’s knowledge of her thoughts and feelings (“My mind is not open for all to seel”): for in that moment the possibility of deception becomes temptineg appar- ent. iago is vividly aware that what is open to him is closed to others, and he seeks to exploit that fact. From the first—person perspective, i am aware of how much I am keeping back, how easy it is for me to mislead others, how privileged and exclusive my access to my own mind is. All they have to go on is my outward behavior, and that is at best an imperfect guide to my true state of mind. This gives me an extraordinary power—«my impenetrability is something I can exploit. I have to choose how much i shall keep inside and how much I shall show the world. Because of the gulf between outer behavior and inner conscious» ness, vast possibilities of concealment open up. These range from not boring people around me with everything that enters my head, to questions of tact and courtesy, to outright malicious lying in pur- suit of my own nefarious ends. The arena of the mind is a zone of potential concealment, and how much I conceal is subject to my will, at least in large part (there can of course be involuntary revelations Othello 65 of inner states). lfl have a lot of self—control, E can conceal much of what passes within; then I can trade heavily on mypsychological _ impenetrability. I might become disingenuous, dishonest, menda~ cious, a pathological liar (like iago)m~«all this arising from the very structure of human knowledge of other minds. Or, more positively, i - - might become someone who can keep a secret, be the soul of discre— tion, be able to withstand intense torture——i might use concealment for worthy ends. But all of this relies on the essential opacity of one human mind to others—the epistemological gap between the outer and the inner. The role of language in the matter of concealment is significant. ' _ On the one hand, language can seem like the solution to the problem of other minds, since I can simply tell you what’s on my mind: lan— guage vastly expands my repertoire for making my mental states ' known. Anyone who has ever tried to figure out what a cat wants when it meows Can see the expressive limitations of the language— less. And the better a person is at using language, the better he will be able to transmit his states of mind to others. But, on the other hand, language opens up the possibilities of deception tremen— dously; for now we have a startlingly powerful resource for mislead— ing others. We can speukfalsely. We can use language as a barrier, not a conduit, 3. means of deception, not revelation. Language facilitates active concealment, and the better a person is at using it, the better he becomes at deceiving others. Again, Iago shows himself a master of verbal dissimulation, and Othello is woefully susceptible to lin— guistic manipulation. Language magnifies the problem of other minds, as well as sometimes reducing it. It can as easily function as a device for falsehood as for truth, in the wrong hands. Again, when a child recognizes that speech can be used to lie, and thus to misrepre» - sent her actual state of mind, a milestone has been passed, and a Whole new moral universe opens up. And, of course, the possibility - of the lie can thwart the sincerest person’s desire to reveal the truth within: you may want desperately to reveal yourself to another, and yet your sincere statements be suspected of intentional falsehood, no matter how much you insist on your truthfulness (Desdemona is the ' - victim of this kind of opacity). it can be as hard to know that some» ...
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