Cover image for The Self-Deceiving Muse: Notice and Knowledge in the Work of Art By Alan Singer

The Self-Deceiving Muse

Notice and Knowledge in the Work of Art

Alan Singer


$82.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03721-9

$35.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-04846-8

240 pages
6" × 9"
11 b&w illustrations

Literature and Philosophy

The Self-Deceiving Muse

Notice and Knowledge in the Work of Art

Alan Singer

“Raising the scandalous proposition that the ’self-deceiver’ should be seen less as the condemnable antagonist of Reason than as the perpetrator of the active imagination that gives rise to genuine aesthetic experience, Singer tests his claim with a series of brilliant arguments grounded in literary, philosophical, and art studies extending from familiar classics—Parmigianino, Tintoretto, Flaubert, and Hegel—to such moderns as Jeff Wall, Bill Viola, Gerhard Richter, and Peter Greenaway. The Self-Deceiving Muse should add significantly to contemporary debate on the relations between reason, aesthetics, and ethics in a language thoroughly conversant with recent critical theory.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Current philosophical discussions of self-deception remain steeped in disagreement and controversy. In The Self-Deceiving Muse, Alan Singer proposes a radical revision of our commonplace understanding of self-deception. Singer asserts that self-deception, far from being irrational, is critical to our capacity to be acute "noticers" of our experience. The book demonstrates how self-deception can be both a resource for rational activity generally and, more specifically, a prompt to aesthetic innovation. It thereby provides new insights into the ways in which our imaginative powers bear on art and life. The implications—philosophical, aesthetic, and ethical—of such a proposition indicate the broadly interdisciplinary thrust of this work, which incorporates "readings" of novels, paintings, films, and video art.
“Raising the scandalous proposition that the ’self-deceiver’ should be seen less as the condemnable antagonist of Reason than as the perpetrator of the active imagination that gives rise to genuine aesthetic experience, Singer tests his claim with a series of brilliant arguments grounded in literary, philosophical, and art studies extending from familiar classics—Parmigianino, Tintoretto, Flaubert, and Hegel—to such moderns as Jeff Wall, Bill Viola, Gerhard Richter, and Peter Greenaway. The Self-Deceiving Muse should add significantly to contemporary debate on the relations between reason, aesthetics, and ethics in a language thoroughly conversant with recent critical theory.”

Alan Singer is Professor of English at Temple University. His previous books include Aesthetic Reason: Artworks and the Deliberative Ethos (Penn State, 2003).


List of Illustrations



1 The Self-Deceiving Muse

2 Illusionism and the Self-Deceiving I

3 Learning from Self-Deception

4 Being Out of Character / Normativizing Self-Deception

5 Picturing Self-Deception

6 Spelling Out the Viewer

7 Shameless Self-Deception





The Problem

The Self-Deceiving Muse is an endeavor to rethink our relationship with an abiding character-type and ethical conundrum of life and art: the self-deceiver and the specter of irrationality with which such a character menaces our cognitive dignity. Typically, the self-deceiver is marked as an antagonist of reason. On this basis, self-deception is rendered stigmatic for characters in life and in the artistic fictions that purport to reflect lived experience. Judging in this way we assume that the self-deceiver knows better than he or she does. We fault his or her judgment. But our own judgment in this case may be the unintended consequence of an overly instrumental idea of reason. The idea that the self-deceiving character is simply and belligerently irrational is irresistible as long as we judge by the assumption that we know what right reasons are. But we might judge otherwise.

In The Self-Deceiving Muse I am not interested in stigmatizing the unreason of the self-deceiver. I do not for a moment deny that agents who act on reasons that have no correlation with their actual circumstance may do injury to themselves and others. But the flexibility of mind implicit in the self-deceiver’s disposition to reason beyond the most immediate recognition of his or her circumstances presents another prospect. This mental disposition might be a resource of rational agency worth cultivating. In other words I want to explore that dimension of the self-deceiver’s experience which prompts him or her to be especially sensitive to competing grounds of reason-giving. This sensitivity puts self-deception in league with active imagination and, I will show, consequently converges with aesthetic experience. In The Self-Deceiving Muse I thus strive to mitigate the mutual exclusion of moral and aesthetic choices that is typically prompted by the stigmatizing of self-deception. Instead, I want to take the phenomenon of self-deception as a crossable bridge between life and art—one that the artist and the ordinary rational man traverse in both directions. That is to say, the mark of self-deception need not be seen as the stigmata of an ethically burdensome irrationality so much as the discernment of human capacities for reasoning with which rationalist self-assertion has lost touch. We shall see how this might beneficently broaden the experiential reach of rationalistic character.

Philosophers have long asserted that the self-deceiver believes what he or she knows to be untrue: he or she knows that P but asserts that not-P. Hence the self-deceiver is tagged as an irrationalist. But one could point out that the self-deceiver is in fact a notorious and indefatigable rationalizer. It is a commonplace that self-deception produces rationalization and rationalization produces self-deception. Under these assumptions we can say that the self-deceiver is not just a person who believes what he or she knows to be untrue. Rather, the self-deceiver finds a reason to know something else, something more immediately self-explanatory with respect to the beliefs he or she must hold in order to be a self-preserving subject under the condition of changing circumstance. For this reason, one could argue, the self-deceiver is more conscientiously attuned to the possibilities for giving better reasons to buttress his or her beliefs than the already self-possessed believers who take their doxa to be self-evident. This is to say that the self-deceiver is an especially acute noticer of the circumstances in which he or she must avow the beliefs that guide his or her actions. In the course of time one can easily imagine that the self-deceiver is ever more anxiously aware that the reasons for his or her avowals of belief are increasingly inadequate to the changing circumstances of his or her existence. The more one attends to the available reasons for acting, the more one is conscious of the potential inadequacy of each of them. So the stigma, the mark of self-deception that arises from a suspicion of false knowledge, may in fact be the opening of a more capacious horizon of knowledge: unfolding in full proportion to the plot of agential existence. The stigma of self-deception might be mitigated by the transfigurative marking of time itself.

I am interested, therefore, in exploring the ways in which the self-deceiver’s heightened powers of notice might dovetail with the imperative to notice ever more urgently over time. I take this narrative imperative to be a key underpinning of artistic composition generally speaking, as well as a condition of everyday life. Artworks typically urge us to know more than we already surmise. By seeking correlation between self-deception and aesthetic activity, I will endorse the view that we ought to think of the preeminent rationale for art as an unremitting inducement to notice more. On this basis, we can persuasively distinguish self-delusion and the deception of others from self-deception. The former do not dispose the subject to seek better reasons for avowing the beliefs that instantiate its commitments to action. As we shall see, self-deception is on the one hand constitutive of rationalistic subjectivity because the subject considers the need to accommodate more reasons commensurate with the prospect for noticing more aspects of experience. He or she is thereby disposed to knowing more in a quantitative sense. Once again, this makes a striking contrast with the deceiver of others, whose knowing more typically gets expressed as an antagonistic ratio of power vis-à-vis the other, rather than as a self-consciousness about the authority of one’s own knowledge. So we can also say that the inherent lack of what Hegel might call self-certainty on the part of the self-deceiver is indistinguishable from the source of his or her potential wisdom. This follows a common Romantic belief shared by the English and German poets of the nineteenth century and post-Hegelian aestheticians: that the creativity of the artistic self constitutes knowing more in a qualitative sense because the becoming of the self is what is most conspicuously at stake in the act of creation. This is of course especially true if one grants a susceptibility to the ever more urgent promptings that experience might give to the subject’s power of notice. In other words, we do not need to choose between the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the self-deceiver’s wisdom.

It is within this context that we must be especially mindful that the history of artistic production is a record of how deeply ingrained the philosophical prejudices against self-deception are in the humanistic practices of representing human selves. It is indeed uncontroversial to say that the self-deceiving mind is a common theme of both literary and visual art. But I want to forestall the conclusion that self-deception is merely an artistic theme, subject to contemptuous philosophical moralizing about the incontinent nature of the self-deceiver. Rather, and more important, I want to consider the possibility that self-deception constitutes a crucial innovation in aesthetic practice that challenges the moral and practical opprobrium stacked against the self-deceiver according to standard views of rational normativity.

In order to mount this challenge to orthodox accounts of self-deception, I will examine the significance of self-deception as a form as well as a content of literary, painterly, filmic, and art-historical practice. My examples range from the first century to the present. But my point is not to confabulate a historical progress. Rather, these examples will shore up a theoretical framework for linking dynamics of aesthetic experience with dynamics of human self-understanding in the countless and inescapable situations where the human subject suffers a disjuncture between intentions and actions. The work will thus establish conceptual continuity between traditions of artistic practice and the philosophical traditions that treat the problem of self-deception as integral to the philosophy of mind in general. That mind, after all, exacerbates the post-Enlightenment antagonism toward self-deception that I seek to moderate here. I will therefore strive to illuminate artistic invention’s complicity with modes of self-deception and to illuminate self-deception’s centrality to the life of aesthetic production. The stake of self-deception in both realms will be seen as nothing less than the nature and fate of human character itself.

The Argument

Self-deception has been a thematic crux of literary art since the earliest classical tragedy in which plot reversal (peripeteia) forcefully figured the fate of the protagonist. One need only mention Oedipus, Don Quixote, Emma Bovary, and Humbert Humbert to realize the pervasiveness of the self-deceiving mind in the histories of the epic and the novel. The literary protagonists I have just named are seen to be self-deceived by virtue of their wishing to see more reasons than already suit their best sense of themselves as self-comprehending agents. This is, after all, an inescapable consequence of an Aristotelian reversal of fate. Similarly, painters conjure perceptual ambiguities and inducements to the perceptual uncertainty of the viewer that figure the reversibility of perspective. One might say therefore that the wish to see more is inextricable from the means of seeing that sustains the history of painting tout court. This has been the case since the notorious trompe l’oeil perpetrated in the contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius. It has been apparent since the advent of Roman illusionist painting, and since Cimabue and Giotto first depicted the movement of bodies in space. In all of these cases, literary and painterly, the confidence about what one knows redounds to a second-order knowledge of what one knows one doesn’t know. This is the knowledge that will count the most in the exploration that follows. Finally, it is worth considering that the theme of self-deception sketched out here makes the artwork a unique venue for examining the nature of the self without indulging the apocalyptic scenarios of post-Enlightenment disenchantment with the subject. By and large, these speculations have tended toward radical critiques of identity and selfhood that nullify human agency. Self-deception might then be characterized as a modality of human attention that is, at least potentially, agency-enhancing.

I am thus keenly aware of the counterintuitive nature of this enterprise. But I hope my reader will see that only by attending to the reasons why we stigmatize the self-deceiver, why we mark him or her as an unreliable witness, will we be able to expose the quality of heightened attentiveness that makes the self-deceiver such an interesting character in the first place. We have already noted how artworks that “treat” the hazards of human self-deception have served as vehicles for ethical admonition against the prospect of self-deception. Clearly I think too little has been made of the alternate possibility: that self-deception is not simply a moral flaw, the pretext for a cautionary that artworks perpetuate for the purpose of bolstering already authoritative belief systems. Self-deception might also, and more beneficently, be seen as a fulcrum of human learning. In that way it might also help us understand what constitutes formal innovation in artworks. After all, we commonly anticipate that new worlds of possibility for human action arise from the innovative artwork. It is on this basis that I wish to explore the possibility that the structures of experience that formally inventive artworks orchestrate for readers and viewers are coherent with the experience of self-deception. In other words I want to consider the prospect that what is most specific to the pragmatics of innovative aesthetic practice entails the kind of self-compromise epitomized in the circumstance of self-deception. For this reason, I have claimed that self-deception portends the kind of character transformation that is figured by Greek peripeteia in the forms of conventional emplotment. This challenge to intelligibility is part and parcel of what gives the innovative artwork its epistemic distinctiveness. We shall see, for example, in chapter 1, that a modality of self-deception is induced by Flaubert’s innovative deployment of free indirect discourse. Flaubert’s shuffling of perspectival horizons in this aesthetic gambit will remind the reader of better reasons for attending to the narrative actions that inform his or her authority as a reader. Such aesthetic practice intimates how much the stigma of self-deception might be a lever of insight rather than a blind spot of rational intent.

Because I will presume upon a close relation between our understanding of the dynamics of self-deceiving consciousness and the dynamics of aesthetic experience, I will have to demonstrate how—within both realms of inquiry—human frailty is a plausible site for linking aesthetic invention with ethical growth. By invoking ethical growth I am anticipating the necessary adaptation of character to circumstance. I refer to the prospect for sharing perspectives. Alternatively, our prejudice in favor of untroubled rationalist self-assertion risks isolation within what Hegel might call a deluded “sense certainty.” This denotes a kind of temporal shortsightedness or a blindness toward the exigencies of the ensuing moment. I would maintain that where there is ethos, there is a portent of change. The orthodox view of self-deception as a failure of reason makes what is undeniably a human frailty too reductively tragic. I will consequently report a significant shift in philosophical thinking about self-deception that supports my recuperation of self-deception as an unexpected strength of character with which we might thwart this fate.

As I have already said, self-deceivers have long been treated simply as people who seem to believe and disbelieve the same proposition at the same time, as if only one time of belief were relevant. The self-deceiver’s weakness would seem to be his or her capitulation to a time-induced logical contradiction. But more recent philosophical thinkers in this arena—Alfred Mele, Herbert Fingarette, Donald Davidson, Robert Audi, Amélie Rorty, and many others—support my challenge to the orthodox notion of self-deception as mere logical paradox. After outlining the thrust of more contemporary argument about the meaning of self-deception, I will offer a justification for seeing self-deception and rationalization as integral to, rather than antithetical to, each other. Insofar as the self-deceiving mind causes rationalization and rationalization produces self-deception, I will argue that reason-giving and self-deception are, in effect, reciprocating functions of mind. Self-deception is tantamount to the task of sorting out how to understand oneself through one’s errors. This sorting seeks an emphatically contextual knowledge. It entails something like the broadening of contextual parameters for comprehending the worlds that artworks are expected to foster. To use Herbert Fingarette’s terms, we might say that the self-deceiver “spells out” inferences from his or her experience that would otherwise go unnoticed and unconsidered as motives for action and belief.

Thus I am committed to advancing three counterintuitive propositions respecting self-deception as a feature of aesthetic production: (1) the self-deceiver—figured as a fictional character—knows that something more than sufficient reason for his or her action constitutes adequate warrant for that action; (2) the self-deceiver may thereby be characterized as possessing an anxious disposition toward the possibility of insufficient knowledge of the conditions for self-realizing action; and (3) as a consequence, self-deception is a condition for instantiating an unusually acute form of notice or vigilance with respect to the contingent circumstance of human action. Self-deception therefore entails an ever more perspicuous mustering of reasons that are incrementally responsive to conditions of change. As many recent theorists of self-deception make clear, such an account prompts us to see the possibility that the dispositions of the self-deceiver make him or her an exemplary character. The self-deceiver is an inherently compelling character because he or she is disposed to see what is not apparent. This makes the self-deceiver an unusually resourceful reason-giver. Moreover, the resourceful reason-giving of the self-deceiver helps explain what it is in the notion of character that makes Aristotle tie its ethical significance to action. Thus we are in a position to appreciate more fully why, in Aristotle’s view, the actions of characters are our most dispositive access to the meaning of mimesis. In action we discover the warrant for a self-transformative initiative.

I thus treat the notion of character conceived under the sign of self-deception as a means to the end of better understanding what matters to us as self-transformative agents in our experience of the work of art. Consequently, each of the chapters that make up this book reflect upon the work of art in terms that are unfolded from the dynamics of self-deception: spelling out, so to speak, a more richly responsive attunement to worldly experiences. Reciprocally, the character of self-deception will be examined as a stake of aesthetic experience generally—at least with respect to those features of the artwork which elaborate the characterological dimensions of the reader or viewer. I make no attempt to treat the art-historical spectrum systematically or sequentially. Rather, as I have already made plain, my first concern is how self-deception is an occasion for broadening the scope of aesthetic experience on the registers of notice, attentiveness, and attunement with discrepant aspects of worldly experience. It therefore stands to reason that the artworks I have selected for discussion here will be expressly representative of these experiential registers.


My argument unfolds as follows.

Chapter 1, “The Self-Deceiving Muse: Fiction and the Rationalistic Dictates of the Present,” reviews a wide range of contemporary philosophical thinking that revises orthodox moral judgments of the self-deceiver and tilts our understanding of self-deception in a more normative direction. This tilt correlates with novelistic representations that hold the idea of character accountable to a certain experience of present-ness, a state of acute responsiveness to changing experience.

I exemplify the philosophically inspired reorientation to orthodox moralizing accounts of self-deception by reading a literary text that only seems to reinforce the orthodoxy: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Flaubert’s text is especially apt and useful. Emma Bovary certainly typifies the morally judge-able self-deceiver and reveals the depth of our stake in character wherever we seek to judge self-deception. Typically, we condemn her self-deception as a willful blindness with respect to the immediate conditions of her existence. But this standard of self-deception is not reinforced by the formal orchestration of the novel. Flaubert anticipates precisely the good warrant for revising it. Such a revision of our thinking stands to enrich the prospects we can entertain for self-realizing character rather than depleting them. My reading of Flaubert, interpolated with new perspectives on self-deception and a view of their implications for theories of character in time, sets up the logic of the succeeding chapters. My interest in understanding how self-deception potentiates processes of self-realization will be seen as an opportunity for mapping a convergence of the philosophical stakes of rethinking self-deception with the ethical dimension of aesthetic experience. Ethos and aesthesis will be seen as joined in the rationalizing activity of the self-deceiver, much as they are joined in the protagonist of Aristotelian tragic plot.

Chapter 2, “Illusionism and the Self-Deceiving I,” develops the theoretical and practical framework for seeing how self-deception might be understood as an auxiliary rationality rather than as a definitive instance of the irrational. I begin with a discussion of Hegel’s “Notion,” positing a self-deceptive moment within the “negation of the negation.” Hegel’s Notion is the relation of essence to being: where essence is the first negation of being, being is necessarily an illusion. I take illusionism in the visual arts as a useful topos for expanding upon the Hegelian insight. I then draw upon the postulates of philosophical inferentialism, best represented for my purposes in the work of Robert Brandom. Inferentialism assumes that meaning is a give and take of linguistic usages, that concepts acquire their meaning through new perspectives of usage. By showing how inferentialism might be best appreciated as an exposition of the narrative nature of reasoning, I give more analytical framing to my earlier claim that our negotiations with illusionism entail a narrative rationality. All of this thinking, I argue, is coherent with what Harry Frankfurt has called a hierarchical model of agency: whereby we understand character to exist on a sliding scale of motivational biases. That is, the essence of character inheres in appreciating how our changing desires bear on our actions as a set of priorities to be constantly renegotiated. The chapter concludes with an account of how the inferentialist disposition and the shifting motivational biases that inform hierarchical agency fill out the experiential range of the self-deceiving character.

Chapter 3, “Learning from Self-Deception: Aesthetic Practices,” makes the connection between self-deceiving practices and aesthetic practices more explicit. Through a close reading of illusionistic effects in Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and then in juxtaposition with the American poet John Ashbery’s poem of the same title, I demonstrate how self-deception involves us in a quasi-Wittgensteinian game of giving and receiving reasons. This intimates a curriculum of learning to notice things aspectually. Such powers of notice, I argue, inhere in the concept of subjectivity that is the sine qua non of both literary and visual portraiture understood as an aesthetic practice. I then elaborate a view of the “portraiting” practices of Parmigianino and Ashbery by reading Caravaggio’s famous shield painting, Medusa. The three pieces are seen to work as an ensemble. They are all instances of portraiture conditioned by an appreciation of illusionism that enhances powers of notice. They reveal qualities of subjective experience that familiar conceptions of character depend upon but frequently do not articulate. They give us occasion to contemplate further the game of giving and receiving reasons as coherent with self-deception. Inasmuch as paintings and poems foster premature readings, they promulgate inducements to imagining better reasons for reading further. The negotiations of such gamesmanship are revealed ultimately to have direct bearing on the ethical rewards of treating self-deception as a normative phenomenon. The ethical rewards at stake here depend upon our seeing normativity as a counter of self-recognition for the reader/viewer. Normativity portends a learning process that is, however, not governed by purely causal principles.

Chapter 4, “Being Out of Character / Normativizing Self-Deception,” elaborates the relation between reason-giving and self-deception. Following from the premise that reason-giving is a source of normativity and from theories of rationality that are keyed to the aspect-dependency of human desires, this chapter explores the counterintuitive possibility that the paradigm of Enlightenment reason and the cultural “heroizing” of the Enlightenment character reveal, upon closer inspection, a furtive connection to self-deception. This prospect is exposed through an examination of how the Enlightenment character is a creature of plot. The temporal crises of narrative emplotment were already acknowledged to be a condition for the self-deceiving character in chapter 1. Chapter 4 reads three works of narrative fiction that are distinguished by their innovations of plot-making and their indebtedness to ideals of the Enlightenment character that would seem to obviate any interest in self-deception, except as a convenient whipping-boy of moralistic reason: Don Quixote, Rameau’s Nephew, and Lolita. These novels serve as reference points for a reconsideration of the autonomy of rational ego, a Western ideal that gets its animus from the practices of portraiture discussed in chapter 2. It likewise portends narrative mastery of the world in tandem with the rise of the novel in the West. The history of the novel is seen to blur the line between the subject of modernity and the objectified cultural forms of modernity that endow that subject with the truths of reason. The three works by Cervantes, Diderot, and Nabokov span, and arguably epitomize, the history of the modern novel. More to the point, however, they display the novel’s fascination with the self-deceiving character as a nemesis of Enlightenment reason. At the same time, they show how the novel gets much of its formal integrity from resources of mind that are attributable to this apparently flawed character type. So the self-deceiving protagonists of these literary narratives will serve to spell out how scenarios of human world-making and the frailties of the self-realizing Enlightenment ego reciprocate with one another.

Chapter 5, “Picturing Self-Deception,” picks up the thread of temporality that underpins the rationality of the self-deceiver. Where chapter 4 drew upon the narrative resources of the novel to engage a diachronic rationality inherent to self-deception, chapters 5 and 6 demonstrate a complementarity of experience and knowledge on the visual registers of painting, photography, video/installation art, and cinema. This chapter takes off from the earliest practices of visual illusionism in Roman wall painting. The argument is buttressed by E. H. Gombrich’s insight that illusionism is fundamental to an understanding of the visual image generally. This insight furthermore intimates how the visual arts both clarify and dramatize the stakes of the self-deceiver in rational processes. Gombrich’s idea that visual ambiguity is representable only in time, through a “switching” of the viewer from one visual system to another, furthers my account of the self-deceiver as possessed of enhanced powers of notice. It elaborates the ethical mandate I attribute to powers of notice in my earlier chapters. This ethical mandate is now revealed very starkly in the famous perceptual experiments conducted by Adelbert Ames during the 1940s and 1950s. It is given more specifically aesthetic grounding in visual readings of Tintoretto’s The Discovery of the Body of St. Mark and of light box installations by the contemporary Canadian photographer Jeff Wall. These analyses focus on the resources of the visual arts for grasping the experience of viewing in terms that reflect the epistemic conditions of self-deception. Once again, they show us the ethical promise implicit in self-deception. By putting us in multidimensionally unstable spaces, Tintoretto and Wall lead us to know ourselves to be at a loss for explanatory resources about our motivational biases. In this circumstance we might say that the self is both deceived and knowledgeable at the same time. That is to say, we are prompted to become knowledgeable—if only by a kind of vertigo—of a better footing yet to be found.

Chapter 6, “Spelling Out the Viewer,” carries the analysis of the viewer’s aesthetic experience forward with emphasis on the ethical mandate to maximize human powers of notice. By now this mandate is well identified with the experience of the self-deceiving character. Readings of the work of the photorealist painter Gerhard Richter, the video/installation artist Bill Viola, and the filmmaker Peter Greenaway will unite my account of how self-deception is in league with ideals of the Enlightenment character, with a spelling out of the historical responsibilities implicit in powers of notice. The works by Richter, Viola, and Greenaway are all, in one way or another, reflections on the tragic fate of Enlightenment subjectivity. They also establish a framework for imagining how works of visual art that are so richly imbued with the qualities of the self-deceiving character proffer means by which the project of Enlightenment might go forward. Indeed, they show how it might go forward in a manner consistent with the proposals of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment. In that influential text the authors anticipate a form of reasoning beyond instrumental reason. The visual artists featured in this chapter deploy perceptual strategies that depend upon the epistemic pathway paved by self-deception. The post-Enlightenment character that walks this path is arguably unencumbered by the Kant-inspired presumption that our performances are derived from a priori laws. Thus we will see that the dimensions of visuality revealed by Richter, Viola, and Greenaway are conducive to a mode of reasoning that is not co-opted by instrumentalist protocols of reason or deontological norms. The reasonings of the self-deceiver proffer a hope for a more humanizing rationalism.

Chapter 7, “Shameless Self-Deception,” concludes the argument of this book. It takes off from Jeff Wall’s identification with the Hegelian insight that self-consciousness is inherently self-deceiving: both shamelessly and productively so. This Hegelian attitude, first introduced in chapter 5, frames a discussion of how contemporary theorists of self-deception link this phenomenon to an anxiety about possessing the best reasons for one’s actions. By this means I am able to tease out an admittedly counterintuitive dignity that might be credited to the self-deceiving character vis-à-vis the egoism of the Enlightenment reasoner.

This rationalist underpinning of self-deception then keeps faith with the idea that self-deception will be best understood as a normative phenomenon. Normativity matters in this context on a special condition: that the emphasis falls on norm-production rather than norm-adherence. Under this condition we might imagine that self-deception brings into play resources of mind—such as attentiveness, alertness, and a disposition to notice more than one knows—that would not otherwise animate our experience. That is to say, these resources would not come into play without the encumbrance of an anxiety about possessing the best reasons for taking up commitments. Self-deception then is an arena in which the hermeneutic will to face interpretive problems is fortified rather than threatened by experiential contingency. I maintain that it is on the threshold of this experience that the artwork comes to matter most for us. It matters for us as compulsive reason-givers. But more important, it matters for us as contenders with reasons not yet available to us within the bounds of our already all too reasonable knowledge of the world.

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.