Know Thyself

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The expression “γνῶθι σεαυτόν,” or for those of you whose Greek is a little rusty, “know thyself,” was one of the Delphic maxims inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. We typically associate it with contemplation, introspective reflection, even meditation, in which we close ourselves off from the distractions of the external world, retreat inwards, and try to find out just what is in there. Who am I, really? As someone with a predilection for philosophy, I could hardly criticise reflection and contemplation (even meditation, to the extent that it remains free from suspicious metaphysical, religious, and supernatural elements), but when it comes to knowing thyself, these methods have received far too much attention. This article is an attempt to balance the scales.

The Obstacle to Knowing Thyself

The Oracle of Delphi thought this injunction so important that it was one of only three maxims inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo. This suggests that it is either something not easily attained or something we typically ignore, perhaps in favour of the latest instalment of The Walking Dead or catching up on recent social media trends.

Most people, I think, start from the position that the one thing, the only thing, we can know through and through is ourselves. After all, you have complete and total access to your entire life, right? And not just your ‘overt’ actions and behaviours but also all of the ‘covert’ thoughts, feelings, and desires that lie underneath the surface. You are an open book to yourself. It might be difficult to get around to reading that book, you might have to overcome certain natural obstacles (like external distractions, or a tendency to minimise your, shall we say, less magnanimous traits), but with a little effort and focus, ‘you’ are there waiting to be discovered. Let’s put this idea to the test.

As I’ve already intimated, it should suffice for our purposes here to separate out two broad aspects or dimensions to the person you are; what I’ll call the ‘covert’ and the ‘overt’ I. The first of these, the ‘covert’ I, is obviously an important part of who you are. Whether you believe all sinners are destined for hell and an eternity of torture, whether you like the idea that all sinners are destined for hell and an eternity of torture, whether you believe in the death penalty or believe abortion should be banned, whether you secretly want to be an actor or to have an affair with that intern at work, whether your first thought upon hearing about a friend’s misfortune is to selfishly wonder how this is going to affect your life; all of these things are important in knowing who you are. Irrespective of whether any of these beliefs, desires, or thoughts lead to concrete action or influence your behaviour in any way, they are central parts of your character. Moreover, these are things that are open to you and only you. No one has access to any of these things unless you choose to reveal them. Further, they are all things about yourself that you can uncover with a bit of honest introspection and self-reflection. I’m not saying this is necessarily easy, just that it is possible.

What about the ‘overt’ I; your behaviours and actions, the things you say and do? These are also, obviously an important part of who you are. Are you a kind person if you think about helping a stranger, or if you actually help them? Are you a violent person if you only think about hitting someone who pushes in front of you, stopping yourself before you actually go through with it? If you look at a woman with lustful intent, have you already committed adultery with her in your heart? (You can thank Jesus for setting that last bar way up there, by the way). Fine, actions matter, but the bigger question is: Is the ‘overt’ I something that I can know? Wait. Did I just say what you thought I said? Can I know my own behaviours and actions?! Of course, I can. Not only can I know them, everyone can! True… kind of.

I’m actually guilty of conflating two things that aren’t quite the same, which we will distinguish now; the ‘overt’ I, and your behaviours and actions. The latter are discrete, isolated facts, equally knowable to you and anyone else who happens to be in your vicinity at the relevant time, but the former is a whole, a totality greater than the sum of its individual behaviours and actions. Merleau-Ponty might call it a ‘style,’ Bergson a qualitative multiplicity. Either way, it is something distinctive that escapes a mere quantitative tallying of objective facts. (Note: this doesn’t mean that it is fundamentally mysterious; an essence hidden in some Platonic realm of forms or a transcendental noumenal realm.) I’m not suggesting that the objective facts (the individual acts and behaviours) are irrelevant; on the contrary, there can be no totality without them, but they aren’t sufficient to grasp the total person they comprise; what I’ve been calling the ‘overt’ I. It’s a bit like looking at a painting (an analogy I know I’ve used countless times on this blog, but it’s just so good…). A painting of a landscape is nothing without the individual dots of paint that comprise it, but you will never see the landscape if all you focus on are the dots. The landscape only comes into view when you step back and ‘see’ all of the dots ‘in one go,’ as it were.

So, to return to the main thread, it’s fairly uncontroversial to say you can know the individual, objective facts that are your behaviours, deeds, and spoken words. I say ‘uncontroversial’ precisely because they are objective facts (obviously, the issues surrounding misremembering or cognitive biases are irrelevant here – the point is that the facts about your behaviours are available to you in exactly the same way they are available to other people). No special interpretation or perspective is required. You either helped that old lady across the street or you didn’t. You either shouted expletives at the guy who cut you off in traffic or you didn’t. However, the ‘overt’ I is a different story. Different because it is something that must be grasped as a whole, which means capturing the ‘overt’ I does require a certain perspective (in the same way the landscape could only be seen from a certain perspective; namely, one in which there was some distance between you and the dots of colour on the canvas). This perspective (unsurprisingly) is one that requires you to step back from yourself in order to see all of your behaviours/actions ‘in one go;’ i.e. from a third-person viewpoint. In other words, in order to know the ‘overt’ I, you need to see yourself as others see you, but here’s the rub (and this is surprising), this is precisely something we can never do. We can never get outside ourselves to see ourselves as others see us. While you know the specific acts/behaviours you have performed (the dots of colour), you can’t get outside of yourself to see your own ‘overt’ I (the landscape). Ironically, our closeness to ourselves, the very thing that made it possible for us to know ourselves as ‘covert’ I, is precisely the reason we can never know ourselves as ‘overt’ I. It would be like trying to know the shape of your glasses while you’re wearing them. If you take them off, you can’t see their shape because you’re blind as a bat without them, but neither can you see their shape if you’re wearing them because in that case they’re no longer in your field of vision; instead, they create your field of vision.

OK, on the off-chance that you aren’t fully convinced just yet, let me run a quick thought experiment by you which I think demonstrates that it is, in fact, impossible to see oneself from the outside, the way other people see you. One way to get a handle on your ‘overt’ I might be to simply imagine how others see you. Imagine someone asked your best friend what you are like. What would they say? Now imagine that same person then asked your worst enemy what you are like. What would that person say? While this exercise can prove illuminating in its own right, instead of succeeding in seeing yourself the way others see you, you’ve just succeeded in imagining how you think other people see you. The starting point is still you and your thoughts about yourself, yourself from an inside, first-person perspective. All you’ve done is filter your thoughts through your imagination of another person, and no matter how vivid you think your imagination is, the ‘self’ you grasp hold of this way will never rise above an abstract image that, while it may be accurate in certain respects, will always be a pale simulacrum in relation to the concrete reality. What if, instead of thinking about how others think about you (which is, as we’ve seen, an intellectual exercise that yields abstract propositions rather than a lived reality), you actually try to see yourself from someone else’s perspective. Really try to put yourself in the shoes of someone meeting you for the first time. Imagine meeting yourself as a co-worker or a classmate. What would that experience be like? What would you think of this person before you? What they look like. How they move. What they say. How they look at you. Would you instantly like this person? Would you find them open, generous, pushy, stand-offish? If you approach this thought experiment in good faith, I think you’ll find that the extent to which you actually succeed in ‘seeing yourself’ from the outside is actually the extent to which you end up reverting to an image mediated through your own thoughts of yourself. It must be this way. The very fact of us being the conscious individuals we are entails that we lack a frame of reference for seeing ourselves from the outside, the way others see us.

Before we leave this first section, let’s take a quick look at what we’ve established thus far. There are two ‘aspects’ of yourself; what I’m calling the ‘covert’ I and the ‘overt’ I. The former concerns your inner thoughts, feelings, beliefs, desires, etc. The latter concerns your outward behaviours, actions, words, etc. The ‘covert’ I is (unsurprisingly) something only you have access to, while the ‘overt’ I is (surprisingly) something other people have access to, but you yourself can never experience. So far, so good.

Getting out of Thyself to Know Thyself

Let’s begin this section with the ‘overt’ I. I’ve argued that we can never directly know the ‘overt’ I, but this doesn’t close the door on indirect methods at our disposal. This will, however, require that we venture outside the inner sanctum we usually imagine holds the key to all things ‘thyself.’

Sartre – The Circuit of Selfness

In just a few pages in Being and Nothingness, Sartre outlines what he calls the circuit of selfness, a notion which explains precisely how the for-itself (consciousness) is able to project itself towards possible future selves. The basic idea is that while the for-itself is pre-reflective (always consciousness (of) — and therefore only ever a presence-to-self, rather than a self), there is a secondary reflective movement which produces what Sartre calls selfness. This ‘selfness’ is not the “…pure presence to itself of the pre-reflective cogito”; rather, it is the “…possible which I am”. Sartre calls this an absent-presence because it can only be present to us as something absent; that is, as a lack, something towards which I must project myself.

Where this overlaps with my ‘overt’ I is in the way that Sartre’s reflective ‘selfness,’ the possible for-itself which I am (as an absent-presence), can only be apprehended through existence in a world. As Sartre says, quoting Heidegger, the world is “that in terms of which human reality makes known to itself what it is”. In other words, we know our (secondary) selves only by getting out of the closed loop of our own reflection-reflecting, pure presence to ourselves, and venturing out into a world before circling back to ourselves. This voyage out into the world and back to itself again is precisely what Sartre calls the circuit of selfness.

Now, I don’t want to overstate the connection here because Sartre’s main goal in making this point is to show that the world, rather than being an objective assemblage of ‘things’ that exist independent of me, exists only as the correlative to the for-itself. Nevertheless, the circuit of selfness does entail that one must get out into the world in order to know one’s self(ness), so to that end, albeit with that caveat in mind, I eagerly appropriate it.

———-          ———-

So, although I can’t truly see myself the way others see me, I can catch indirect glimpses of this person (the ‘overt’ I), although not by shutting out the external world and retreating to my inner sanctum to be alone with myself. On the contrary, the ‘overt’ I can only be glimpsed by turning my gaze outwards, by undertaking the journey of the circuit of selfness, a voyage which holds the promise of giving me back to myself as a reflected image in the mirrors with which the world surrounds me. There seem to be two broad categories of mirror here: other people, and the situations I find myself in.

Emmanuel Levinas – The Other

Emmanuel Levinas was a French, Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Sartre who developed a unique philosophy in his magnum opus, Totality and Infinity, that was entirely centred on other people, whom he, perhaps following Sartre, and somewhat ominously, called the Other. The premise of Levinas’ philosophy is that, as separate, isolated individuals, we initially think we are absolutely free, but because this existence lacks any reference point outside of ourselves, what we took to be absolute freedom is actually an arbitrary, unjustified, meaningless mode of existence. It is only with the appearance of the Other; that is, a being who is an absolute alterity with respect to me, with whom a relation is possible (Levinas calls this the encounter with the face), but a relation in which I will never be able to traverse the infinite distance that separates me from him or her, that reason, truth, meaning, objectivity, even time, become possible. Besides being a pleasant alternative to the other better-known existentialist accounts of other people, which tend to emphasise conflict and oppression, this also ties in nicely with the idea I am developing here.

The Other, as pure transcendence, whose very presence before me exceeds any idea I can have of him or her, appears to me as a moral summons, a judgement that calls me to account, putting the “I” I believe myself to be, a separate being, content in my own interiority, into question. The Other precipitates for me a reference point beyond the boundaries of my own interiority, thereby making possible a movement from an arbitrary, meaningless, subjective existence to the truth of being.

———-          ———-

Although that last sentence is probably a little grand for my purposes in this article, you get the idea. We can catch glimpses of the ‘overt’ I through our encounters with other people; particularly in their reactions to us. It is all too tempting, particularly in the West, which has made a bit of a fetish out of the individual, to, if not completely ignore other people’s reactions to us, at least see them as unimportant distractions. It is considered a virtue to be able to do what you want and not worry about how other people see you. The most important thing is how you feel about yourself, that you “live your own truth.” If others don’t like it, well, that’s their problem. Fine. My point is not to criticise this here. I’m simply noting that, if you want to “know thyself,” this approach is not going to get you very far. Ignoring, or diminishing the importance of, other people’s opinions of you – family, friends, associates, enemies – and turning a blind eye to the way they react to you, is to overlook a significant data point, one you cannot get on your own through introspection.

The other indirect glimpse we have of our ‘overt’ I comes about through the situations we encounter in our daily lives. There is obviously an overlap between this and my last point, but the two are by no means the same. Situations reveal who you are through the way you find yourself reacting to them. A friend is thirty minutes late to meet you. Is your first reaction anger (“Why do they bother setting a time, if they never stick to it!”) or indignation (“This is such a waste of my time!”) or understanding (“I guess they got held up.”)? Whether your anger or indignation is ‘justified’ is less important (in fact, whether you think it is justified or not tells you something else about yourself!); the point is that it is only in situations like this that your ‘overt’ I is revealed, and as with our observation about other people above, this is something you could never know through introspection alone.

Before wrapping up this section, I want to briefly revisit the ‘covert’ I. The last thing we said about this is that it is made up of our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, desires, etc., and that it is something we, and only we, have complete access to.[1] At first glance, this would appear to be the perfect example of a place where we can indulge our wildest fantasies regarding introspection and meditation peeling back the mental layers and clearing away decades (or maybe lifetimes!) of accumulated psychic debris to uncover the ‘true’ you buried somewhere within (even, or perhaps especially, if this ‘true’ you turns out to be pure emptiness). Before you count those chickens though, consider this. What exactly are all those thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and desires, on which you are so assiduously introspecting, about? They’re about a world that exists external to you. Remember that list I ran through earlier? Here it is again: “Whether you believe all sinners are destined for hell and an eternity of torture, whether you like the idea that all sinners are destined for hell and an eternity of torture, whether you believe in the death penalty or believe abortion should be banned, whether you secretly want to be an actor or to have an affair with that intern at work, whether your first thought upon hearing about a friend’s misfortune is to selfishly wonder how this is going to affect your life”. Every single one of those items refers to a world outside you. It turns out then that even in the inner realm that is the domain of the ‘covert’ I, the place where you are the most isolated you can ever be, the whole edifice, accessible only to introspection, actually rests on an external foundation.

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve come down pretty critically on introspection and self-reflection in this article. The reason is not that I’m against them per se (as I said earlier, I wouldn’t be much of a philosopher if I were), just that I think they receive far too much press, particularly when it comes to the injunction to know thyself. I see this as a holdover of millenia of philosophical/religious thought which has consistently valorised the inner over the outer, the mental/spiritual over the physical/corporeal. The culmination of this in philosophy was perhaps Descartes’ strict metaphysical division of the world into two substances (three if you include God), res extensa and res cogitans; and in religion, maybe the notion that you can sit alone on a mountaintop for a decade and somehow discover yourself (perhaps it’s no wonder these sages came back down to tell us they found nothing there – I mean, if you spend years deliberately detaching from, and purging yourself of, all things external, what else would you expect to find!). Few things have been so deleterious to our understanding of ourselves as the notion that we are isolated beings (cogitos, emptiness, souls) first, and only secondarily social, communal, and engaged in an external world. Introspection and self-reflection are obviously indispensable to any serious philosophical or spiritual endeavour to know thyself, but they become red herrings if they cause us to forget our external roots.


[1] I’m setting aside issues surrounding how accessible one’s own subconscious is.

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