Knowing me…

The next two blogs will focus on the nature of two aspects of personal knowledge, namely, knowledge of oneself and knowledge of others. What the psychologist Howard Gardner described as Intrapersonal and Interpersonal knowledge. Of course, the entreaty to ‘know thyself’ is an ancient one, it can be found first in Egypt and then at the heart of Socratic philosophy as well as, among others, in the writings of the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tze. The latter wrote, “mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.” Quite how one achieves this mastery and to what purpose should be an important part of any TOK exploration of personal knowledge and in particular the methods for attaining it and the potential for its applications.

‘Know Thyself’ commanded the inscription found in the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Easier said than done might be the reply of many a philosopher, for, they would say, the task of achieving self knowledge is dependent of what one means by the self and what one understands to be the means by which this may (or not) be achieved. Neither issue, you will not be surprised, is in any way settled philosophically (and is not likely to be ever, one might add). For a start one has to accept that there is indeed something to be known, a self, and from Buddhism to modern Neuroscience there is no shortage of those who would deny the very existence of a self. If there is no ‘self’, there is therefore nothing that can be known, ‘know thyself’ is therefore nothing more than an inquiry into a delusion. Should one still cling to a concept of a real self, the first challenge is to identify what the self is. In broad philosophical terms, Eastern and Western thinkers have tended to approach the question from varying perspectives. Eastern thoughts has tended to see the self primarily in relational terms (i.e. the self cannot be understood independently of our relations to the world and others), whilst Western thinkers have tended to identify the self primarily as an autonomous ego which is best understood in terms of its distinction from others.  Assuming one has satisfactorily settled the previous issue, it is assumed that self knowledge is that of our sensations, thoughts, beliefs and general mental and physical states. Presumably this only qualifies as knowledge if one is able to identify what information has been gained, the sources of it, its reliability and justification. Unsurprisingly, philosophers are not of one mind when it comes to agreeing as to the nature of self knowledge, the means of attaining it and the ways in which one can determine its status as genuinely knowledge. Not a promising start for the committed self-knower.

Assuming self knowledge can indeed be achieved, to what use should it be put and for what purpose?  “The unexamined life is not worth living” claimed Socrates. It seems that for the father of Greek philosophy self knowledge was a person’s first duty as it alone could give our lives value and meaning. Clearly, self knowledge would bring understanding of one’s true nature, of one’s origins and destination, one’s strengths and weaknesses, one’s relationship to the world and to others, and all this seem highly desirable things to possess. Indeed, to demonstrate superficial knowledge of a myriad of trivial things whist at the same time exhibiting no evidence of genuine self knowledge was to expose oneself to likely ridicule. For many commentators the entreaty to know thyself is primarily a moral one, by knowing oneself one is able to identify one’s place in the world, one’s limitations and most importantly, how one should conduct oneself depending on the circumstances. Knowing oneself was therefore the beginning of real wisdom, which means understanding when to make use of one’s knowledge and how. Self knowledge therefore enables one to feel secure and comfortable in one’s skin (and mind), to know what and who one is, to be clear about where one stands and why, and importantly not to be at the mercy of ever-changing fashions and fads. Maybe, self knowledge is also the necessary foundation for self love.

To know oneself is and should be a lifelong challenge, life will lead us into plenty of circumstances where our sense of self is challenged and when the gaps in our self knowledge will be exposed. Reflecting on significant experiences will often be the main way in which we will learn something new about ourselves and this should help us in understanding how we may go forward. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was in no doubt as to the value of self knowledge, for him to know oneself was to know all others; the extent to which this may be correct will be the subject of the next blog, ‘Knowing You…”

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