Just the Booze Talking

I still think,contra many agency theorists, that when you act and feel that it’s not really you acting, as happens when you think “it’s the anger talking, not me”, when you feel passive with regard to your action, “possessed” by some alien motivation – that feeling, however disturbing, doesn’t mean that your action is in any way not yours. Or less yours. Or less deeply yours. Or not a full-blooded action. It offers no deep insight into agency. It’s just…a feeling.

Does everyone experience this feeling, sometimes called “alienation”, salient to eminent philosophers from Harry Frankfurt on? No, some people assure me that don’t, and I

myself experienced it very few times, though when I did it was unmistakable. Don’t get me wrong, you can perform lot of actions of which you disapprove without feeling alienated from them, and I sure disapproved of many of my actions and motivations. You can experience akrasia or weak will without feeling possessed by an outside entity, thinking not “it’s the anger talking”, say, but rather a frustrated “here I go again”. For that matter, you can be so much in the habit of seeing yourself as some weak-willed sinner that you feel alienated from actions of which you do approve, experiencing them as divine intervention or as “someone more rational taking over”.

Even if one is acting out of a mental disorder, alienation doesn’t always appear. When I volunteered at a chat room for people with mood disorders I heard a lot of people confessing to feeling quite weird about being told, regarding some of their actions, that they are a result of a disorder, exactly because the actions felt like “just me doing something” (though I also met people who felt their depression was a separate “beast” or “demon”). Even some people with Tourette Syndrome feel that they “do” their tics. Nor does drunkenness always come with alienation. Some of my undergrad students, back in Michigan, when I talked to them about agency theory, informed me in no uncertain terms that they didn’t feel alienation from their actions while drunk, during or after, even though some of these actions felt stupid even at the time. They didn’t feel like it was “the booze talking” but rather than they were their “real self” when they were on alcohol. So you can act out of akrasia or weak will, a mental disorder or even neurological one, or do stupid things under the influence of a drug, but still not feel alienation.

What, then, is needed for alienation to occur? My suggestion is that whatever in ourselves we feel alienated from stands in sharp contrast with our visceral self-image. By visceral self-image I mean something different from what you would, upon reflection, think about yourself. For example, for many years it felt weird when I looked in the mirror and saw the white hairs on my head. These hairs did not feel mine. That’s because my visceral self-image was, as is customary, comically out of date. I have gotten accustomed to thinking of myself as raven-haired and it took a while for that to stop.

Similarly, to go with the example of anger, suppose you have a deep tendency to think of yourself as sweet, harmless, and mellow, a “good girl” perhaps. Then, when you feel sharp anger and say aggressive things, you’re likely to feel like something possessed you, or that “it wasn’t me, it was the anger talking”. That is true even if your self-image as sweet and harmless is quite inaccurate and in fact you get angry often, and even if you “theoretically” know that you get angry often. Unless you come to “own” being a sometimes-angry person – that is, integrate it into your self-image – you will again feel surprised by your angry actions and feel “passive” with respect to them.

Are the angry actions not yours? Surely the fact that they don’t go with your self-image is no reason to think that. My white hairs were always mine. Are the angry actions less than full-blooded agency on your part? I don’t see why. My white hairs are not “less” mine than the dark hairs. Are they less “human par excellence?” I don’t see how.

So anyway, if you don’t feel alienation, or you experience only mild, no-big-deal instances of it, maybe your visceral self-image is realistic, or flexible, or just tentative. Or maybe, more dramatically, you feel, like Whitman, that you contain multitudes, or, like Terentius, that nothing human is alien to you. I’m not saying alienation is boring. It can be psychologically or moral-psychologically fascinating. It’s just that I suspect it is not the stuff of metaphysics.

5 thoughts on “Just the Booze Talking

  1. You get the phenomenology of ordinary drinking exactly right, I think. (I wonder a bit about those reports of people moving through the world doing things but in blackout (or, anyway, they report later that they have no recollection of some period of time.) Two thoughts about “visceral”. (1) The literature on consciousness of motor control I think suggests that sometimes the system is sufficiently out of sync that bodily movements can seem like “not one’s own”. (I’m not fresh on this literature, so I may be imagining this.) (2) I’m a bit more fresh on implicit bias (eg the Saul and Brownstein anthology). There is a phenomenon in which one finds oneself saying something that upon reflection reveals a kind of racist attitude that one is shocked to discover one has and shocked to see it revealed in conversation. If Bryce Huebner (and others) are right, perhaps an explanation for this is that there is more than one “system” involved in bringing concepts into play for guiding speech and action, and that in a case like this, perhaps some “faster,” “older,” system overrides one’s better self. —But even here, I think I would agree with you, that one will feel (better: I have felt) that it was in fact oneself, just deplorably so.


    1. Interesting! I only have a fuzzy idea of the “hardware” angle on this but I want to look into it at some point (got to do normative ethics first, I suspect).


  2. Nomy: fascinating as always.

    Suppose that your motor neurons were being controlled by malevolent strangers, bent on your humiliation. They might cause you to move your body and vocal chords in all sorts of odd ways, and you would experience this behavior as not yours. In such a case, your experience would be veridical.

    It seems to me that the more ordinary cases that you describe are cases in which an agent has some such experience, but it is not veridical. The experience, in such cases, is a kind of self-deception, perhaps the result of some priming effect.


    1. Thanks! I don’t really think you need to posit intentional self deception in many of these cases (though I’m sure it exists in some) Alienation isn’t always flattering to the agent – I have tried to get people to “own” their goodness or competence before. Sometimes it’s just plain surprise. Think of non-agency cases: something happens to you which you thought you happens only in movies and it feels like it’s not really happening. Also see the comments right before you: it can even be a hardware thing. People with some neurological problems suffer from an unbearable sense that a part of their body isn’t theirs.


  3. I really like this, Nomy, because I’ve experienced alienation from my actions in the past, but from actions that I whole-heartedly ratify after the fact. Anger used to be very hard to access for me, because I tried so very hard to never be angry as part of a way of keeping myself safe from any kind of reprisal. On a handful of occasions, though, the anger would flare up and I would react “without really thinking,” and it felt very much as though some alien force had taken me over and was speaking through me or acting through me. Of course, I did not literally think that was what happened, but the feeling was, as you say, unmistakable. The most memorable experience, though, my action taken in anger was something “out of character” but that I feel very proud of myself for doing, now. The idea that the feeling of alienation arises because the behavior is borne of some part of yourself that you’ve failed to integrate into your self-image seems very right to me.


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