Know Thyself?

I discussed this with my friend, and she said that this is depressing. I said, the more depressing thing is that if we cannot know ourselves, then we can less know anyone else. We are fundamentally alone.

Know thyself is a problematic proposition. It is not without value. Only that it cannot be taken as the end all and be all.

What are the traditional ways of knowing yourself? We have first Socrates engaging in the dialectic, constantly questioning himself and his interlocutors, in order to get at the bottom of things. And here we already arrive at the first proposition of the know thyself: To know that I know nothing. Knowing oneself is to first understand one’s ignorance, understand how irrational and vain one can be, how prone to error and how easily deceived. This is the epistemological know thyself.

There are further examples in the history of philosophy. In a brilliant section of the Phenomenology (VI. A. Ethical order) Hegel talks about how the ethical individual can only know itself through action, and only by plunging into action does he know who he is, what is his purpose, and why did he act. Similarly, in Descartes’ Discourse on Method belief and knowing that oneself believe is separated into two domains of knowledge: one can better observe someone’s belief by their action than their words. Nietzsche, too, criticizes Christianity for hypocrisy: that they say one thing and do another. The Knowing part of know thyself, then, is not a simple affair. To really cerebrally know who you are is difficult, or almost impossible to do. It requires, at the end, a reflexive jumping out of oneself to look at oneself and the entire epistemological framework (or, as Marxists would put it, ideology) that one is situated within. And then it is not only to be able to enumerate it in propositional form, but also to act it out as belief. You can’t have, on the one hand, a meathead’s brutal and thoughtless action, nor on the other hand, the academic’s masturbatory meditation in his castle.

But the object of knowledge is really what I am interested in. The ‘self’. What the hell is the self? This question really got going after, and in the criticism of Descartes’ Cogito (I think, therefore I am). Nietzsche analyzes the proposition, for example, and says: (I am paraphrasing here) Descartes, you idiot! You haven’t really questioned hard enough! If you did, then, tell me what is this I that you are referring in the Cogito?

The ‘I’ is other people’s expectations/actions towards me—I adapt how I act to different social situations, and I forge my identity through how other people reward or punish me for my different behaviors. The ‘I’ is also my gauge of other people’s expectations of me, and my adaptation of my behavior to other people in anticipation of their response/expectations. The ‘I’ is further my image of myself. But it is also what I really do no matter what I say.

Whenever I say ‘I’ I am being self-conscious. There is a splitting going on already, between the I saying the I and the I that is being referred to. The I is therefore not a stable entity (because in splitting there is already a dynamism). It is a thing in motion, constantly changing. When I say: “Know thyself”, I am already acknowledging a certain problem with the concept of the self, if only implicitly.

Plato and Aristotle were right to identity two different parts of the self, the rational and the irrational. But they excluded the irrational as something base, animal, something that is to be cleared for us to know ourselves. This is not really warranted—how can I say that reason is my essence when emotions (irrational and counterproductive ones particularly) occupy such great a portion of my life? Well, Freud went a step further in thinking the id, the ego, and the superego (which corresponds nicely to the Platonic splitting of the soul in the Republic by the analogy of the state). I am now all these desires and personality complexes and repressed thoughts. There seems to be no me per se, only a body that contains all of these different people who are vying for control. There is no one driving force behind my actions: I am not motivated by power, nor by love, nor by rage, or by rationality. I am motivated by one, and then the other, and then another. I can never know myself. I am nothing but a phantom, an image (in the Platonic sense of the apparent and the unreal) created to maintain my sanity.

I discussed this with my friend, and she said that this is depressing. I said, the more depressing thing is that if we cannot know ourselves, then we can less know anyone else. We are fundamentally alone.

This is of course against the whole Judeo-Christian worldview, of each individual person having an essence and a soul. There is something natural in this line of thinking. It is what we believe when we go around our normal day lives. I don’t think we can dispense with that. A theory of the self that cannot give it some stability, cannot tell one how to live, is ultimately a failed one. Therefore we have to move past the Freudian lack of the self (the identification of the self as ego is not enough; it is too weak).

——Well, before that, I’ll have to say that there is even a more depressing theoretical stance out there, that there is no self, no subject, at all. We have no agency. We are puppets of prejudices and ideologies and class interests and what have you. Though we can concede that we often live like this, I don’t think it is an acceptable stance. It may be unphilosophical to use the criterion of “acceptability”, but Kant used it in his transcendental deduction, so…—— (Philosophy has to be in service of life.)

What is the ‘me’, the ‘I’, the subject, then? I’ve rumbled on for so long investigating different theories of the self to avoid this question, really, because I don’t know. I believe that we have agency (though always limited). I believe that there is a possibility to be in touch with someone else (though unlikely). I believe that I can, to some extent, know who I am (though it is difficult). But I cannot give a why to any of these. Perhaps we are at the same time many personalities and conflicting interests playing against each other, but also a person with a spark of divinity who can be true to himself. I don’t know.

But you’ll have to admit that this is an interesting topic nevertheless.

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