Harry Frankfurt’s ideas


I like Harry Frankfurt and his ideas. If I have understood him correctly then they are these. Humans, especially intelligent humans, are not spontaneous. We reflect on things and become pre-occupied with ourselves and then reflect on how we should be better. All this reflection makes us anxious, unsure of ourselves and less spontaneous than animals. However, this reflection also enables us to reason things through and also to care about things. Without reflection we would be moved only by our immediate impulses and desires.

We often find it hard to accept ourselves as we are. We want our thoughts, feelings, choices and behaviour to be coherent and to make sense but they rarely do. We want to feel we are in control of our actions and not simply passive beings at the mercy of our animal desires. We would rather be guided by reason and love than by mindless biology.

Reflection is the ability to interrupt the flow of consciousness of our immediate surroundings and to step back and look at what we are doing. This introduces a separation in the mind and since no one is perfect, the part of the mind that is looking inwards is often left a little dissatisfied and disappointed with it finds there. Even so, we can’t stop introspecting because, just as there was no way back to the Garden of Eden for Adam and Eve once they had lost their innocence, so there is no way back to a unified self once we have taken a step back and become conscious of ourselves.

Although introspection divides us internally and leaves us less spontaneous and anxious, the fact that it allows us to reflect and reason gives us a freedom to choose that animals don’t have. Being able to reason means we are no longer at the mercy of our impulses and can choose to go against them.

In Harry Frankfurt’s view, although returning to an animal-like spontaneity is not an option, regaining psychological unity is. This is done by the reflective self accepting the spontaneous self. If your reflective self is constantly nagging your spontaneous self then the two parts will always be at war. But if your reflective self can learn to accept and follow the spontaneous self, inner unity is largely restored.

There may be things you don’t like about yourself but taking responsibility for the whole bundle, the good and the bad, is the only way to feel less at the mercy of your primary desires.


A couple of years later. I have just come across a piece of writing by Blaise Pascal and by substituting the words ‘my nature’ for ‘God’ reason can be made to sound like it is subordinating itself to one’s nature and in doing so unifying the two. I doubt that Harry Frankfurt would condone a simple ‘follow your instinct’ creed but it is one way to feel less conflicted. And unless you are an evil person, why not trust your nature? And if you are an evil person, your reason probably won’t stop you from doing bad things. Reason generally only helps you get what you want:

I ask you neither for health nor for sickness, for life nor for death; but that you, my nature, may dispose of my health and my sickness, my life and my death, for your glory … You alone know what is expedient for me; you are the sovereign master, do with me according to your will. Give to me, or take away from me, only conform my will to yours. I know but one thing, my nature, that it is good to follow you, and bad to offend you. Apart from that, I know not what is good or bad in anything. I know not which is most profitable to me, health or sickness, wealth or poverty, nor anything else in the world. That discernment is beyond the power of men or angels, and is hidden among the secrets of your providence, which I adore, but do not seek to fathom.


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