Poetry Madness

Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, March 14th, 2004


Faking It

by William Ian Miller

To be, or to appear to be?

A review by Mark Rowlands

The delicious irony involved in writing (or for that matter reviewing) a book whose central premiss is that we are all faking it much more than any of us would care to admit, is the extent to which one can write (or review) such a book without faking it. Indeed, even to describe the predicament in terms of the concept of irony introduces the possibility of fakery, since it suggests a less than full immersion in one's allotted role -- a distancing of oneself from the self that is doing the writing. And this, in essence, is what Faking It is all about: the distance that often -- indeed, inevitably -- exists between the self that is engaged in a performance of some sort, and the self that acts as a commentator, an often cynical and disparaging commentator, on that performance. William Ian Miller's fascinating book argues that this distance between self and self, and the constant possibility of fakery it introduces, is not a pathological feature of the morally less than salubrious, but a fundamental and necessary feature of human nature.

The book provides a detailed exploration of those of our activities, such as praising, apologizing, worshipping, having sex, declaring one's love, where, Miller argues, fakery is likely to be our constant companion. The subject matter might suggest an immersion in the results of empirical psychological studies of our faking strategies, but this is not the case -- hardly Miller's fault given the dearth of such studies. His strategy is anecdotal and personal rather than empirical. He combines, in descending order of importance for his purposes, literature, Erving Goffman-style sociology and (to a significantly lesser extent) philosophy. His concerns are partly those of conceptual analysis, partly of moral psychology.

To see how Miller's approach works, consider his analysis of praise, and its fake counterpart, flattery. Part of Miller's concern is conceptual. What is the difference between praise and flattery? Flattery, like praise, can be both sincere and true. Flatterers can sincerely believe what they are saying, and what they are saying can, in fact, be true -- as when I flatter an attractive person by telling them how good-looking they are. Perhaps, then, the difference lies in the speaker's intention. For example, is my praise untainted by flattery if I do not praise for the purpose of getting rewarded for my praise? But, as Miller points out, how naive would I have to be to not know that praise is often rewarded? Indeed, often this is the entire point of the praise: to get other people to do what we want them to do in the future.

Think about praising your children or dog for doing something of which you approve. Perhaps, then, the difference between praise and flattery is to be found not in facts about the individual but in facts about the social context in which that individual acts? For example, perhaps my praise is genuine only if its recipient is of an inferior social position to myself? Again, it's difficult to make this suggestion work. A vast difference in power between praiser and praised does not entail that the praiser has nothing to gain from the praise: "flattery from the high often prompts the low to love in return". Miller eventually opts, cautiously, for the position championed by La Rochefoucauld: praise is simply a sophisticated form of flattery.

This result, an outcome of what is, in effect, a process of conceptual analysis, then feeds into what seems to be Miller's primary concern: moral psychology. Why do we regard praise as good and flattery as bad? Again, La Rochefoucauld is broadly correct: "Sometimes we think we dislike flattery, but it is only the way that it is done that we dislike". Praise is distinguished from flattery not by way of its content -- which may be identical for both cases -- nor by any facts about the individual's psychology or social context, but by way of its character. It is the lack of subtlety involved in flattery that disgusts us, and our disgust, here, is as much aesthetic as moral.

Faking is, Miller argues, a pervasive and tenacious feature of much human activity. But it is not necessarily a bad thing. This stems from the nature of faking. Sometimes I fake so well, I can, in effect, fake myself out. In such a case, I am, as Miller following Hamlet puts it, hoist with my own petard. But being hoist with my own petard can be a positive thing as well as a negative.

If I am a seducer who fakes love so well I actually fall in love, then I am, admittedly, hoist with my own petard in a bad sense, at least if this love is unrequited. But, in this case, the negativity stems from the goal of the fakery rather than the fakery itself. And just as faking can be employed in the service of deceiving others, so too can it be employed in the service of deceiving myself -- sometimes in positive, life-enhancing, ways. If I fake a role long enough, I slowly transform into an adept -and whether this is a good or bad thing depends entirely on whether it is a good or bad role to begin with.

This reconstruction of Miller's project and approach simply does not do justice to the subtlety and sophistication of his investigation, nor the fluency, elegance and charm of his writing. It also suggests a more systematic approach than Miller has in fact taken. Miller's book is unstintingly unsystematic: issues of conceptual analysis are not always clearly distinguished from issues of moral psychology; issues pertaining to the nature of the self are not always clearly distinguished from those pertaining to one's sense of self, and so on. I'm not sure that this is a bad thing. The unsystematic character of his investigation may be entirely appropriate to its subject matter; it may be a necessary condition of doing justice to that subject matter. It would be difficult, to use the above example, to work out how praise differs from flattery without also working out why praise is a valuable thing and flattery (allegedly) deplorable; and vice versa.

William Ian Miller is both a professor of law and an authority on the Icelandic Sagas and, accordingly, every page of this book shows an interesting, innovative and extremely original mind at work. Given his methodology, some may question whether Miller's observations reveal basic features of human nature or simply the idiosyncrasies of an unusually acute and self-aware consciousness. In the end, you will be convinced by Miller's book perhaps only if, on each new page, you find staring back at you the uncomfortable realization that your schemes, scams, stings, cons, bluffs and manoeuvres have at last been "found out". Personally, I am more than convinced.

Mark Rowlands's most recent books, "Externalism: Putting mind and world back together again" and "The Philosopher at the End of the Universe", were both published last year. He is a Reader in Philosophy at the University of Exeter.

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