Know Thy Self — Really
By Quassim Cassam | December 7, 2014
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Most people wonder at some point in their lives how well they know themselves. Self-knowledge seems a good thing to have, but hard to attain. To know yourself would be to know such things as your deepest thoughts, desires and emotions, your character traits, your values, what makes you happy and why you think and do the things you think and do. These are all examples of what might be called “substantial” self-knowledge, and there was a time when it would have been safe to assume that philosophy had plenty to say about the sources, extent and importance of self-knowledge in this sense.
Not any more. With few exceptions, philosophers of self-knowledge nowadays have other concerns. Here’s an example of the sort of thing philosophers worry about: suppose you are wearing socks and believe you are wearing socks. How do you know that that’s what you believe? Notice that the question isn’t: “How do you know you are wearing socks?” but rather “How do you know you believe you are wearing socks?” Knowledge of such beliefs is seen as a form of self-knowledge. Other popular examples of self-knowledge in the philosophical literature include knowing that you are in pain and knowing that you are thinking that water is wet. For many philosophers the challenge is explain how these types of self-knowledge are possible.
This is usually news to non-philosophers. Most certainly imagine that philosophy tries to answer the Big Questions, and “How do you know you believe you are wearing socks?” doesn’t sound much like one of them. If knowing that you believe you are wearing socks qualifies as self-knowledge at all — and even that isn’t obvious — it is self-knowledge of the most trivial kind. Non-philosophers find it hard to figure out why philosophers would be more interested in trivial than in substantial self-knowledge.
One common reaction to the focus on trivial self-knowledge is to ask, “Why on earth would you be interested in that?” — or, more pointedly, “Why on earth would anyone pay you to think about that?” Philosophers of self-knowledge aren’t deterred. It isn’t unusual for them to start their learned articles and books on self-knowledge by declaring that they aren’t going to be discussing substantial self-knowledge because that isn’t where the philosophical action is.
How can that be? It all depends on your starting point. For example, to know that you are wearing socks requires effort, even if it’s only the minimal effort of looking down at your feet. When you look down and see the socks on your feet you have evidence — the evidence of your senses — that you are wearing socks, and this illustrates what seems a general point about knowledge: knowledge is based on evidence, and our beliefs about the world around us can be wrong. Evidence can be misleading and conclusions from evidence unwarranted. Trivial self-knowledge seems different. On the face of it, you don’t need evidence to know that you believe you are wearing socks, and there is a strong presumption that your beliefs about your own beliefs and other states of mind aren’t mistaken. Trivial self-knowledge is direct (not based on evidence) and privileged (normally immune to error). Given these two background assumptions, it looks like there is something here that needs explaining: How is trivial self-knowledge, with all its peculiarities, possible?
From this perspective, trivial self-knowledge is philosophically interesting because it is special. “Special” in this context means special from the standpoint of epistemology or the philosophy of knowledge. Substantial self-knowledge is much less interesting from this point of view because it is like any other knowledge. You need evidence to know your own character and values, and your beliefs about your own character and values can be mistaken. For example, you think you are generous but your friends know you better. You think you are committed to racial equality but your behaviour suggests otherwise. Once you think of substantial self-knowledge as neither direct nor privileged why would you still regard it as philosophically interesting?
What is missing from this picture is any real sense of the human importance of self-knowledge. Self-knowledge matters to us as human beings, and the self-knowledge which matters to us as human beings is substantial rather than trivial self-knowledge. We assume that on the whole our lives go better with substantial self-knowledge than without it, and what is puzzling is how hard it can be to know ourselves in this sense.
The assumption that self-knowledge matters is controversial and philosophy might be expected to have something to say about the importance of self-knowledge, as well as its scope and extent. The interesting questions in this context include “Why is substantial self-knowledge hard to attain?” and “To what extent is substantial self-knowledge possible?”
Such questions are addressed by some philosophers — Eric Schwitzgebel, who teaches at the University of California, Riverside, comes to mind, and I often attempt to do so in my own work — but most have little to say about self-knowledge as a human concern. Self-knowledge in this sense has become an issue for psychologists and novelists rather than academic philosophers. By neglecting substantial self-knowledge philosophy is missing a trick. Questions about the sources, scope, and value of substantial self-knowledge are at least partly philosophical and philosophers of self-knowledge should be prepared to tackle them.
It wasn’t always the case that the philosophy of self-knowledge was so narrow in scope. The ancients certainly recognized the human importance of self-knowledge, and the injunction to “Know thyself” presumably wasn’t intended as the injunction to know that you are thinking that water is wet. So how and why did professional philosophy become so seemingly unconcerned with the questions about self-knowledge which non-philosophers find interesting?
The professionalization of the subject has made philosophers of self-knowledge far too comfortable with the idea that their job is to discover technical solutions to technical problems generated by background philosophical assumptions about the nature of knowledge and mind. They may insist that what is philosophically worthwhile can’t be decided by what non-philosophers think is worthwhile, and that it is of no consequence if their questions strike the uninitiated as odd. Philosophy has its own concerns, and all that matters is whether their concerns have a philosophical rationale. If it turns out that trivial self-knowledge isn’t special then that really would be a reason for downplaying its significance, but that is an entirely different matter.
This is just the kind of attitude that gives academic philosophy a bad name. Of course there are topics in philosophy where engaging with the concerns of the philosophically uninitiated wouldn’t be feasible but self-knowledge is not one of them. There has to come a point at which philosophy has to address wider concerns, and if self-knowledge is not the kind of thing which philosophers can think about in ways that resonate with the world at large then one fears for the future of the subject. It’s easy for professional philosophers to sneer at popular accounts of self-knowledge in self-help books, but philosophically curious readers of such books are entitled to ask what philosophy has to offer instead. The answer had better not be “Nothing.”
The challenge is to develop a philosophy of self-knowledge for humans, that is, a philosophy of self-knowledge that both engages with some of the questions about self-knowledge which human beings outside academia actually care about, and operates with a realistic picture of what real human beings are like. Few philosophers have risen to this challenge, but when they do they are likely to find that substantial self-knowledge is of greater philosophical interest than many of them suppose. In any event, the challenge of addressing a wider audience is one that academic philosophy can’t and shouldn’t try to duck indefinitely.
Quassim Cassam is professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick, UK. His most recent book is “Self-Knowledge for Humans.”