Discover more from New Work in Philosophy
Katalin Farkas (Central European University), "The Lives of Others"
Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 97 (1), 2023: 104-121.
Open Access at https://doi.org/10.1093/arisup/akad009
In this paper, I mention two films to make two points about the second person perspective; i.e. the perspective we have on others when thinking of them as “you” in a reciprocal communicative encounter.
The first film is ‘The lives of others’ (2006, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmack). It is set in East Germany in 1984 and narrates how a Stasi secret agent called Wiesler becomes deeply involved in the life of a writer he has under surveillance. Wiesler listens to some of the writer’s most revealing and personal conversations and comes to genuinely care about him. It is a powerful movie which makes the increasing absorption of the agent in the lives of others utterly believable. (An aside: I still didn’t like the movie. The main character, Dreyman, is portrayed as a celebrated star of the regime who seems at the same time a thoroughly decent person. Affected by a friend’s suicide, Dreyman gets gradually disillusioned with the system. To my ears, the idea that in the year 1984 there could be a person who is both a decent person and a protegee of the East-German regime felt utterly incongruous. Having grown up in another communist country, I find it incredible that in 1984 such a person could have any illusions about the system. The film has undeniable virtues: the performances are powerful, the direction is excellent, and if it were about a completely fictional situation, it would work. But given its connection to actual events, to me, it felt disturbingly dishonest.)
Anyway, I use the movie to make a point about the epistemic status of the second person perspective. It is customary to claim that I can get to know my own mind in a way that no-one else can. Thus the first and third person perspective on people’s mental states seem epistemically different. I want to claim that the second person perspective doesn’t add anything special. In “The lives of others”, the agent, Wiesler, never has a second-person encounter with a person he keeps under surveillance. Yet from a purely epistemic point of view, his knowledge, both in terms of its content and its matter of acquisition, doesn’t seem to be any different from knowledge acquired in a second person encounter. There is of course a crucial difference between listening to the interactions, and being part of them, but the difference is not epistemic, but rather emotional or social.
It's also true that we need second person encounters to get to know people in the interpersonal knowledge sense: the sense in which I know eg. my brother but I don’t know Florian Henckel von Donnersmack. In another paper, I compared interpersonal knowledge to another sense of “know”, namely, knowledge in the biblical sense (or “carnal knowledge”). Knowing someone in the biblical sense means having had sex with that person. I argue that interpersonal knowledge, just like knowledge in the biblical sense, is not strictly speaking knowledge, and its proper study is not epistemology, but the study of social, personal and emotional relationships.
The other film I mention is 1999 movie The Matrix (directed by the Wachowskis). I’m not sure if philosophy students still watch The Matrix – I can understand if they don’t, I never liked it. But it’s undeniably suitable to make various philosophical points. As many readers will know, in The Matrix, people live in a virtual world sustained by evil machines, not realizing that they are bodies floating in tanks and being harvested for energy. Only a handful of rebels managed to escape, move around in their bodies, and interact with real things. The spartan world of the rebels lack many of the comforts of the virtual world in the ‘Matrix’; for example, the rebels feed themselves exclusively with a nutritious but quite disgusting looking mush.
There is a memorable scene when a character named Cypher re-enters the virtual world of the Matrix after nine years spent with the rebels. Cypher is sitting in a (virtual) restaurant and is contemplating a piece of perfectly cooked steak speared on his fork. ”I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?” He puts the meat in his mouth, chews, closes his eyes in visible enjoyment, and answers his own question: ”Ignorance is bliss”.
The last comment doesn’t make much sense. Cypher knows perfectly well that the steak is virtual, and yet this fact doesn’t seem to interfere at all with his thorough enjoyment of it. So why should he wish he was ignorant? He would not enjoy the steak more if he thought it was real.
The lesson is rather that when it comes to things like steaks, their main point is how we experience them, and this approach can be extended to large part of the furniture of our lives. However, the situation seems very different when it comes to other people. While I’d take a virtual steak over a non-virtual steak any time (in fact, I’d prefer the former, since it would not require killing any animals), the thought that my friends or my family could be simply created by a computer program is thoroughly disturbing. We have second person encounters with many people whose life matters this way to us, but the lives of others can touch ours not only through second person encounters.
The upshot: second person encounters have tremendous emotional, social and ethical significance. Only people whom we encountered second personally can have certain distinctive values for us, and the relation we have with them also carries a distinctive value. But second person encounters are neither epistemically, nor metaphysically distinctive.
Thanks for reading New Work in Philosophy! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.