What do I really want? Why it is so hard to think about yourself

If you enter a restaurant, you might find yourself with recurrently revised decisions. Let’s take the table in the corner. Oh, no, actually I’d prefer the one by the window! The same difficulty might go for choosing career options or partners. Should I really study philosophy? And what will I miss out on if I start going out with this guy? ­– Now, I won’t tell you what the answers to these questions are. But I can tell you why it is so difficult to think about such issues. Perhaps this might help in finding ways of dealing with thoughts about decisions.

I guess what we want to figure out in asking (ourselves) such questions is what is part of our real selves or what will make us happy or prevent us from running into the next failure. When we think about such questions, we usually fall back on two kinds of related tools: we have language and images. When thinking about a job, for instance, you have a set of words that describe what you would do. When thinking about a partner, you will have a stock of images that you can place your (future) self in. So you might hear the word “freelance” ringing in your head. Or you might have a wintery image of a family scene by a fireplace. You might like or dislike the sound of this word or the stereotypes that these images carry along. But whatever you feel, you can always ask yourself whether that’s really what you want. This means that this kind of questioning doesn’t lead to a satisfactory answer. My hunch is, rather, that such words or images are never going to determine an answer to the question of what you want.

What’s going wrong here? My point is not that it’s wrong to think about your life and to do that in words or images. Rather, my point is that we often misunderstand what these words or images do for us. That means, we misunderstand how they work. Let’s begin by looking at how we commonly think such items work: When we think about something (be it in words or images), we tend to assume that we’re interested in the content of our thoughts. So we wonder something like this: What does “freelance work” mean? Then we might think of a number of criteria and wonder whether we will like having to fit into those. Likewise, we might think about the family scene and wonder whether we like being in that scene. So we might ask: Am I the kind of person who likes this sort of thing? – Now, what’s wrong here? Well, it’s that these words and images don’t have the function we assume they do. They don’t work (primarily) by depicting some content, e.g. some (future) states of affairs. Rather, they work by being items in the interaction with other people. The crucial aspect about the word “freelance” is not what content it makes you think of, but how it allows you to interact with others. That means, the word (or the scene by the fireplace) allows you to interact with others in a certain way: Being a freelancer means something in relation to other people, your friends, the tax office and your customers. Being surrounded by family at a fireplace depicts you as a certain type of character, and it makes demands on the people who surround you, for the kind of context in which you move around etc. Thinking about yourself in certain ways allows you to enter into certain transactions with people (while denying other kinds of transactions). To coin a term, then, words and images don’t work on the content model but on the money model. The point of money is not to inform you about numbers (or some kind of content); it’s about entering transactions with others. (So you might say that wanting to find out about yourself by thinking in language and images is like wanting to find out about things by finding out how much these things cost.)

So when you think about yourself, what you actually think of is not so much what you are or want to be. Rather you think about what kinds of transactions or dealings you want to have with other people. The reason for this is that language and images don’t work (primarily) by being related to some content, but by being embedded in interactions with others. To return to an example of my last post: When you cry, the question that arises is not “what kind of pain do you really feel” but “will someone console me”. When we use words or images in thinking about ourselves, then, they don’t have meaning in virtue of relating to some content; they have meaning by making (imaginary) others respond to them. So when we think about the question of what we really want, we don’t want to uncover an unknown self; we want to figure out what kinds of relations or transactions we want to enter.

Whether you’re a freelance person is not about who you are, deep down, but about the transactions you want to enter with the tax office and your customers. Whether you like that fireplace image about yourself is not about whether you, deep down, like fireplaces or to sit by them, but what kind of interactions you want to enter into with your family and whether you like others to see you as belonging to the bourgeoisie. According to the money model of thinking, it’s not about whether you like the content of your thoughts; it’s rather whether you like the kinds of transactions that they allow you to enter.

Now how does all this affect the question of what you really want? First of all, you don’t have to hope for uncovering a buried self. Rather, it’s what you like about interacting with others. But now you might wonder whether you can really know what kinds of interactions you prefer. Well, no. You can’t figure that out by yourself, precisely because it involves not just yourself but others. (With some people it’s nice by the fireplace, with some it isn’t.) Moreover, it means that you can’t really figure out things by trying to focus on the things as such. Rather, you have to see them embedded in interactions. That’s why we can’t know beforehand whether we actually like the table we chose. We have to choose it and actually sit down to figure out whether we like it or not. In other words, most choices don’t work by thinking about whether we like them. We have to act them out in order to see whether we like them. Thinking (whether it’s about ourselves or about other stuff) is less about the things or content than about the interactions that this thought can make us enter into. This is because the language we use to think about ourselves is not made to think about ourselves. It’s made to interact with other speakers, even when we use it to think about ourselves.

3 thoughts on “What do I really want? Why it is so hard to think about yourself

  1. Two questions: 1. Is there a difference between thinking and acting? Or is thinking itself already an action? I remember discussions we had about this topic – and it seems to me that you slightly changed your mind about this.
    2. If “the” language we use is always and only to interact with other individuals – do you have any proposals regarding a special, personal language (or a similar thing) that can be used (or is used unconsciously) to think about ourselves (or even talk to ourselves)? What could it be?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, great points! Ad 1: Yes, I think of thinking as an action. Or let me put it it this way: language is a medium of action. So thinking in language (and to some degree in images) is *internalised* action. (So yes, I have changed my mind about this.)

      Ad 2: I’m working on this right now… I hope that I can begin writing about this issue in my next post. While I doubt that we have a personal language, I do think that we can develop a “personalised” version of our public language. This topic leads on tricky grounds because it has been either dismissed or neglected.
      The common view seems to be that there can be no such thing or – if there could be – it wouldn’t matter for what our thoughts are about. Now I begin to think that this is a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water…
      So yes, I think now that we do have a personalised code that enters into personal discourse with friends, with ourselves, perhaps also with parents etc. It’s been neglected because it probably doesn’t figure much in our more public exchanges. – Still, neglect doesn’t rule out that such personalised languages exist. If we look for traces, it might be good to look at relations between language and music, linguistic-musical rituals (such as prayer and meditation), the development of language use in children etc etc. – The rediscovery of this topic makes me feel like a beginner though.

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