Mirrors: psychoanalysis & two routes of self-knowledge

Mirrors, when they appear in a story, can symbolize something very interesting: namely, a special way of knowing something about a person. What makes it special is that others can know this about us, whereas we ourselves may not know it.

(I started with that idea as a thesis, and thus far we have seen it applied to symbolic ‘mirrors of the soul’ such as in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray and Neil Gaiman’s wedding story; now we are in the middle of exploring its more complicated application to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s stolen mirror image.)

Let’s see if we can explicate the idea in a non-symbolic manner: can we give an account of this special type of self-knowledge without recourse to a story (where it would be expressed symbolically)? What sort of knowledge is it, and why are mirrors an apt metaphor (or symbol) for it? And what is its connection to psychological interpretations of stories? After all, this seems to be the kind of self-knowledge such interpretations deal with, and perhaps we can learn something about the relationship between psychological notions and how they are reflected symbolically in narratives.

1. We can borrow from recent research literature; in particular: philosophical discussions of self-knowledge. For starters, let me introduce some of the terminology of the trade.

Suppose that I expect to take a walk this evening. Now to say of me that I have this belief (that I will take a walk this evening) is to make an ascription of this belief. And there are different ways in which such an ascription might happen: I can ascribe it to myself, and someone else can ascribe it to me. Traditionally, these are called first-person ascriptions vs. third-person ascriptions of belief, respectively.

a) first-person ascription: Leif says that he believes [X]

b) third-person ascription: Lara says of Leif that he believes [X]

(Where [X] is the belief that Leif will take a walk this evening.)

If we look more closely (and introspectively), however, we can distinguish between two forms of a first-person ascription. For one, I can believe that I will take a walk because I intend to do that. (Perhaps I noticed during the day that I have been sitting on my desk for too long, and that I urgently need the exercise.) I am firmly resolved to do it (let’s say). That’s how I know it will happen: I’m going to make sure it will. (My health is that important to me.) In contrast, suppose taking a walk is just a mindless habit of mine: I do it every day, and that I will do it today is nothing I really decided, but something that I predict, almost in a detached way, as one might predict it of a neighbor (“I see him do this everyday, I just expect it will be the same today”). The belief here comes from observation and inference, not from an exercise of the will.

This is of course G.E.M. Anscombe’s famous distinction between knowledge in intention and knowledge from observation.

But obviously, expressing an intention in such a case is only possible for the person themselves: it can only be done in the first person. It’s a sub-distinction between first-person ascriptions only, not between third-person ascriptions.

Following Richard Moran and Georges Rey, I will call these first-person ascriptions avowal vs. reporting of belief, respectively. Thus

a.1) first-person ascription: Leif avows that he believes [X]

a.2) first-person ascription: Leif reports that he believes [X]

b) third-person ascription: Lara says of Leif that he believes [X]

(Where [X] is the belief that Leif will take a walk this evening.)

It is important to note that what the ascribed belief is — in this case, the belief that I will take a walk this evening — is not different in all these cases: the ascribed belief is the same whether it is ascribed by a third person, or whether it is either avowed or reported in the first person. What is different are the ways of acquiring the belief: we arrive at an avowal on one route, and at a third-person ascription or a report-style first-person ascription on another route.

If I say I am going for a walk, someone else may know that this is not going to happen. It would be absurd to say that what he knew was not going to happen was not the very same thing that I was says was going to happen.

G.E.M. Anscombe, Intention, 92 (§52)

Thus here we have two routes at arriving at self-knowlegde from the first-person point of view — one of which is structurally identical with how one would arrive, at the same content, from a third-person point of view.

2. And there is more. Although we may arrive at the same bit of knowledge from a first-person or from a third-person point of view, it is a fact of life that sometimes (in rare, but recognizable circumstances), other people will arrive there from external observation (i.e., from the third person point of view) whereas the person themselves does not (from the first-person perspective). Needless to say, such circumstances are typically of the problematic and dangerous sort: they indicate a person’s defective relationship with themselves.

Thus, Moran notes, “It is virtually definitive of psychoanalytic treatment […] that it does not begin by taking first-person declarations as necessarily describing the truth about the analysand’s actual attitudes.” (Authority and Estrangement, 89) Such treatment rather starts from the observation that the self-knowledge of the subject can be defective, i.e. self-deceptive. In other words, the treatment aims at showing the subject something, as though in a mirror, which the subject fails to notice about themselves. Ideally, the subject will then come to see this themselves, of course, from a first-person point of view. And it is important that they arrive at this self-knowledge, when they do, not on the route of first-person reports (merely intellectually, i.e. by observation and inference), but by first-person avowals. But that is the end result. The starting point is precisely in mediating something to the subject, something that can be more easily seen from the outside than (as things stand at that point in the treatment) from the inside.

We can understand psychotherapeutic treatment, seen this way, along the lines of the mirror metaphor. The analyst would realize that the analysand, for some reason, is blocked from self-knowledge along the avowal route, and thus the treatment makes use of the fact that there is a second route, accessible both from the third person and from the first person, on which it is possible to connect — and then the treatment would aim at restoring the second route to the patient, too: “what it to be restored to the person is not just knowledge of the facts about oneself, but self-knowledge that obeys the condition of transparency [i.e. an avowal of how one thinks and feels].” (Authority and Estrangement, 90)

3. But it doesn’t always need a psychoanalyst; the ordinary social world can fulfill the same function of holding up a mirror to people. This aspect is clearly developed by Jung when he discusses how unconscious elements become integrated in a subject’s personality.

In Jung’s system, anything a subject does not know about themselves is assigned (by definition) to the unconscious, and he points out repeatedly that this can be expected to be a signficant portion of the subject’s psychology. This may include personal qualities (and, we may presume, behaviors); and those may well be observable by others, while at the same time remaining unconscious, i.e. unobservable by the subject themselves.

Das Gesamtbild der Persönlichkeit müßte [alle dem Subjekt unbekannten respektive unbewußten Züge] einschließen. […] der unbewußte Anteil […] ist, wie die Erfahrung zur Genüge dartut, keineswegs unbedeutend; im Gegenteil sind oft geradezu entscheidende Qualitäten unbewußt und können nur von der Umgebung beobachtet beziehungsweise müssen sogar oft mit Kunsthilfe mühsam eruiert werden.

GW IX/II, §7 (my emphasis)

This would be equivalent, in the terms of our metaphor, to the use of the mirror by a social environment or a therapist. Then what would it look like when such a route becomes impossible?

This would happen according to Jung when projections from the unconscious take over and lead to an inflation of the ego: an artificial and (consciously) unmanageable enrichment of the subject’s psychology by archetypal patterns. Such an inflation goes unnoticed by the subject — i.e., there is no first-person avowal. But as long as the mirror is available, there is still the third-person route.

Man ist sich dieses Zustands [i.e. der Inflation] überhaupt nicht direkt bewußt, sondern kann bestenfalls dessen Vorhandensein aus indirekten Symptomen erschließen. Dazu gehört auch das, was die nähere Umgebung über uns zu befinden hat.

GW IX/II, §44

But it may get more difficult: if the inflation progresses, the subject, in addition, no longer takes in third-person knowledge (this is the “loss of the mirror image”):

je mehr wir vom projektionsbildenden Faktor assimiliert werden, desto mehr wächst unsere Neigung zur Identifikation mit diesem. Ein deutliches Symptom hierfür ist die dann eintretende Abgeneigtheit, die Reaktionen der Umgebung wahrzunehmen und zu berücksichtigen.

GW IX/II, §44 (my emphasis)

4. In Hoffmann’s story, it works the same way: as long as Erasmus Spikher, the protagonist, is integrated in the social world, he retains his ‘mirror image’. This means that he is open to other people telling him (more or less directly) things about himself which he might not realize. There is an inherent function of correcting people’s behaviors and self-interpretations in a functioning social circle. Having lost this — in the course of a passionate romantic affair, as in the case of Hoffmann’s protagonist — means to have forfeit this benefit of being integrated in a social environment. And that is what the ‘loss of the mirror image’ symbolizes.

So now we have arrived at an account, and we can easily see the contrast with the type of interpretation I sketched in my previous post. Those interpretations associate the players in the narrative — such as the protagonist, his social circle, and the demonic forces in the story world — with a subject’s consciousness vs. unconscious drives. I have expressed doubts about this line of interpretation: it does not fully cover the complexities and subtleties of Hoffmann’s setup.


By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.