Why Philosophy? (4) Understanding Ourselves

by John Schwenkler

This is the fourth in a series of posts discussing different ways of pursuing philosophical understanding. The first three parts can be found here, here, and here.

A memento mori mosaic from excavations in the convent of San Gregorio in Rome, featuring the Greek motto gnōthi sauton. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

γνῶθι σεαυτόν, the inscription over the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is said to have read: Know thyself. The maxim has the form of a command, suggesting that what it describes is something we often fail to do, and moreover that this failure is no mere cognitive lapse, but something that willful effort is required to overcome. As the philosopher Ursula Renz explains in her introduction to a recent volume of essays on philosophical conceptions of self-knowledge through history, many philosophers have taken self-knowledge to be an important part of achieving wisdom:

Some … even claimed that the acquisition of self-knowledge is the very end of philosophical inquiry; to engage in philosophy, they thought, is to explore and thereby to ennoble the self. [This] concern with self-knowledge was immediately practical. Not only is self-knowledge constitutive of the kind of things we are, but it crucially matters for the individual persons we are or want to become.

To modern ears, the command to know oneself suggests a concern with knowing who one is, in a sense of this phrase that we connect with talk of self-discovery and of the forging of an individual identity that defines one’s lifelong pursuits. But this conception of the command reflects an understanding of human individuality that the ancients arguably did not share, or at least did not credit the same importance as many of us give it today.

Shorn of that assumption, the command to know oneself is as much a command to know who–or what–we are: that is, to understand what we sometimes call the “human condition”, not just abstractly but rather in a way that recognizes this description as applying to oneself. Such knowledge is also bound up with the kind of articulacy about ourselves that I described in my first post in this series: the self-knowing person is able not merely to “go on” in the way that we do, but also to say what it is that our going on in this way consists in, and justify why it is that we go on in this way.

If this is right, then the steps toward philosophical articulacy that I described in that post are also steps toward self-knowledge. When we reflect on what knowledge or justice or virtue consist in, doing so in a way that arises from our pre-philosophical understanding and aims to lay bare what it contains, we are not reflecting on knowledge or justice or virtue rather than on ourselves. Philosophical reflection on these topics is itself a way of coming to understand who we are.


But there is something paradoxical-sounding in this idea. For what answers to “we” in the description “who we are” is just a particular group of human beings: Americans, perhaps, or Athenians, or philosophers, or educated Westerners, or the readers of this blog. And to understand how such people are is surely a task for anthropology and the social sciences–that is, for disciplines that consider human nature, or the nature of certain human groups, from an objective standpoint and with the aim of describing what human life is like. If, then, we wish to understand who we are, isn’t it to those disciplines that we should turn? What special contributions does philosophy have to make to the description of human nature?

One answer to this question is that there are, in fact, many philosophers who have seen their work as centrally concerned with describing human nature in a way that is continuous with what today we understand as the scientific methodology of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and so forth. Many of these philosophers have made discoveries, or developed theoretical frameworks, that count as significant contributions to scientific progress, and indeed many of today’s specialized scientific disciplines used to be regarded as branches of philosophy. So there is no essential opposition between the philosophical project and that of understanding human nature objectively, and every reason to think that philosophy can be part of what advances this scientific progress.

On the other hand, there is something in the very idea of self-knowledge that makes it irreducible to the purely objective apprehension of general facts. A classic philosopher’s example, which I borrow from John Perry, will suffice to illustrate why this is. Imagine that you are pushing your cart through the grocery store, and notice a trail of sugar that runs down one of the aisles. Seeing the sugar, you think to yourself: “Whoever has that sugar in their cart is making a terrible mess.” And now suppose further that it turns out that you are the shopper in question: the sugar is in your cart, and you’ve been spilling it all around the store without noticing this. When you noticed the trail of sugar, you came to know something of the shopper who was spilling the sugar on the floor, namely that they were making a terrible mess. Moreover, the shopper whom you knew this about was no one other than you. But did you have self-knowledge in knowing this fact about the shopper? Of course not–because you had no idea at all of what you were doing.

This little example suggests that self-knowledge requires more than knowledge of facts about the particular human being one is. Applied back to our original question, the corresponding moral is that understanding ourselves requires more than knowing general facts about human beings. To see that as the beginning of wisdom would be bizarrely anthropocentric: of course we human beings are likely to be more interested in human nature than in the nature of frogs or spiders, but this is not enough for it to be an especially important thing for us to understand. Rather, the self-knowledge demanded by the ancients was a knowledge of ourselves as falling under the descriptions that we apprehend: as power-seeking and egotistical, perhaps; as prone to overestimate our own knowledge and virtue; as driven more by desire than by reason in the way that we live our lives.


We are, however, still somewhere short of the idea that there is any distinctively philosophical form of self-understanding. In the case we imagined, your knowledge that you are spilling sugar on the floor is something that you come to in the same way as you could come to know such a thing about anyone else: seeing the trail of sugar reveals to you that someone is making a mess, and a bit of further investigation gets you to the discovery that this someone is you. You learn something about yourself through a combination of observation and inference, much as you might come to recognize in yourself some of the human traits that are described by social scientists.

What’s needed to get us beyond this picture is the recognition that there is also a way of understanding ourselves that is internal to many human activities and social practices. When we form friendships, start families, play games, exchange ideas, create works of literature and art, and so on, what we do is not something that can be characterized sufficiently from the outside as a suite of behaviors with certain observable consequences. Rather, our actions aim at ends, and respond to normative demands, that can be understood only from within the perspective of one who does these very things. In his recent book The Exchange of Words, the philosopher Richard Moran calls this the characterization of a “participant’s perspective”, and he contrasts it with a “third-personal” or “outsider’s” perspective on human phenomena. As understood “from within” in the way that a philosopher will approach it, human nature is not just a set of tendencies, but also a source of norms–not just who we are, but also what we are to be. To recognize the first of these things in light of the second is to engage in philosophy: to explore and thereby ennoble the self.