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Don't Live In Your Head
Introspection is dangerous. Plus: one year on Substack!
Who could possibly be against the Socratic maxim?
Well, the ever-insightful Goethe, for once.
He argued that it is only through others that we can hope to gain insight into what is going on with us, not through introspection. We are simply too messed up to be our own judge. He wrote:
Here I confess that the great and so important sounding task: "Know thyself!" has always seemed suspicious to me, as a trick of secretly conspiring priests who wanted to confuse man by unattainable demands and to lead him from the activity towards the outside world to a false inner contemplation. Man knows himself only in so far as he knows the world, which he becomes aware of only in himself and only in it. Every new object, well looked at, opens up a new organ in us.
In other words, our first order of business is to observe the world as it really is, which in turn gives us access to new insights, new capabilities, new inner lights.
However, it is not primarily material objects we should be concerned with, but other people:
But the most supportive are our neighbors, who have the advantage to compare us with the world from their point of view and therefore to gain a closer knowledge of us than we can gain ourselves.
In mature years, I have therefore paid great attention to the extent to which others would like to recognize me, so that I could become clearer about myself and my inner being in and through them, as through so many mirrors.
The people around us serve as mirrors that we should take seriously. If done right, this is the exact opposite of narcissism: whereas the narcissist projects his own grandiose image outwards and then enjoys looking at this false projected image, Goethe looks at the real image of himself as reflected back from the truthful mirror provided by trusted friends.
This means our task is to distinguish between distorted mirrors and truthful mirrors: between those people who are honest and well-intentioned and those who are dishonest and don’t want the best for us, and between our own projections (what we want to see reflected back) and truthful reflections.
Adversaries do not come into consideration, because my existence is abhorrent to them, they reject the ends according to which my actions are directed, and the means to this end they consider to be just as much a false endeavor. I therefore reject them and ignore them, because they cannot advance me, and that is what everything in life depends on; from friends, however, I let myself be as much conditioned as guided to the infinite, I always look to them with pure trust for true edification.
There’s really nothing I can add to that, except pointing out that distinguishing between “adversaries” and “friends” can be very tricky indeed.
Substack as Goethe’s “So Many Mirrors”
I completely missed the first anniversary of this Substack on 10 April—but I wrote a Note the other day that sums up my experience nicely:
Hegel’s quip about Schelling shouldn’t obscure the fact that educating yourself in public can be extremely valuable.
Yes, there’s a time for sitting alone at home and think; but there’s also a time for coming out with your ideas and looking in the mirror of the feedback you get.
I remember quite a few exchanges I’ve had here that changed my mind about certain things—and most importantly, made me better at understanding other people, how they express things in their own ways, and my own emotional reactions to them. As Goethe realized, these two are clearly related: to know myself, I must know others, and others’ reactions to me, and my reactions to them.
This is not just about “realizing when you are wrong,” but about getting to know your own mind, character, and background through a careful reading—”an object well looked at”—of other people’s reactions to your thoughts and behavior.
Why does this dynamic seem to work so well here on Substack as opposed to many other platforms? I can think of a few reasons:
Grifting doesn’t work so well here: the quality of posts and comments is so high that every attempt to sell stuff via commenting or to cause outrage for fame stands out like a sore thumb.
Skin in the game: many prolific commenters are writers themselves. This means that even if they are anonymous, they have a reputation to uphold. Shitposting and fist fights in comment sections are of no real benefit to most.
The gullible masses won’t see it: unlike on Twitter or other mass social media platforms, you can’t hope that stirring up the pot will get your posts in front of millions of people. It doesn’t work here.
Micro communities: there are many different informal sub-communities on Substack. While some say this produces echo chambers, it has the advantage that it minimizes the incentive to get “gotchas.” If you destroy your opponent in another micro community’s bubble, nobody among your potential audience will see it.
Smaller numbers and long-form content: you get to know people on a deeper level when you read their articles and interact with them frequently. This is especially true for small to mid-sized substacks that form “guilds” of a sort (hello, Tonic Seven at Deimos Station!).
It’s sad that so much of social life these days takes place either online or in semi-anonymous contexts even in real life.
There’s just nothing that beats what Goethe described: being around friends that you deeply trust. They will reflect your true self back to you, even without saying anything explicit. You will know your strengths and weaknesses, your status in different contexts, the roles you can play, even your destiny. Not to mention how full of crap your head is most of the time.
But digital communication isn’t all bad and has its advantages, not least the creation of a global playing field. There are many other online communities beyond the usual Social Media channels these days, but Substack so far has proven to be an extremely valuable place for honest exchange and getting to know others—and thereby yourself.
Anyway: these are my belated one-year-on-substack reflections. Enough with that introspection business already ;)
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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Berliner Ausgabe. Poetische Werke [Band 1–16], Band 16, Berlin 1960 ff., online available here:
Translation mine (enhanced DeepL)