Most people think of self-knowledge in terms of the ancient Greek aphorism ‘know thyself’: knowledge of your deepest fears and motives, of your positive and less positive aspects. This question focuses on who you ‘really’ are and how you can organise your life accordingly. It concerns a kind of self-knowledge that is difficult to obtain and easy to lose. Often it is also unclear whether you even have this kind of self-knowledge.
Contemporary philosophers deal with a different kind of self-knowledge. A well-known example of which is when I think ‘It’s raining!’, then I also immediately know that I think it is raining; I know it for sure, and this knowledge is easily obtainable.
This second kind of self-knowledge does not seem very spectacular, but it plays an important role in our daily lives. If you say that you feel like coffee, are tired, or are thinking of resigning, then I would usually take your word for it. I ascribe a certain authority to you: in normal circumstances I would not ask you: ‘How do you know you are in the mood for coffee and not tea?’; and I would not correct you with a comment like: ‘You don’t want to resign at all, you want to go on holiday.’
Ascribing this kind of authority is based on the idea that other people know their own thoughts and feelings best. The same assumption may also be the premise of a political institution like the right to vote. The idea is that people can best decide for themselves whether to vote for the Christian Democrats or the Liberals, because they know best themselves.
Drunk or depressed
An important proposition in my dissertation is that philosophers should be less fixated on the procedures that enable self-knowledge, and more concerned with the circumstances in which this knowledge comes into being. If you are drunk or depressed, you can introspect or deliberate as much as you like – thus follow a certain procedure – but it often will not result in much self-knowledge. It seems a trivial point, but it does not yet seem to have been taken on board in philosophy.
My dissertation is a first step in researching the circumstances relevant to obtaining self-knowledge. That is: the presence or absence of physical conditions such as hunger, thirst or pain; emotional factors such as anger, joy, relief, stress or infatuation; and socio-political conditions such as freedom of speech, and deception caused by propaganda, or oppression. As such I reject what I call the prevalent ‘atomistic’ approach to self-knowledge, which is focused on the correctness of procedures such as introspection or deliberation, and thereby loses sight of the context in which that knowledge comes into being.
Philosophy has become too far removed from everyday reality in the debate about self-knowledge. This is due, among other things, to over-specialisation in academic research. The discussion about self-knowledge illustrates this point: it is conducted almost entirely within the confines of epistemology. Other relevant disciplines, such as ethics, philosophical anthropology, sociology and psychology are hardly involved in this discussion.
‘I hope to give my field a therapeutic boost by bringing the philosophy of self-knowledge closer to insights from everyday life.’
Philosophy also makes too little use of insights from our daily lives. Take our considerations about someone’s thoughts and feelings. Even if people are sincere in what they say, that does not mean that they really feel or think this. ‘That depends,’ we say, and then refer to the person’s circumstances. He was depressed, she ‘couldn’t do otherwise’, or he was simply echoing his father. I hope to give my field a therapeutic boost by bringing the philosophy of self-knowledge closer to these kinds of insights.
In my current research I delve more deeply into these everyday insights, namely the conviction that we should let people go their own way as much as possible because they know best what is good for them. I want to find out exactly how self-knowledge and freedom are connected. It would seem to me an urgent question. Influenced by authors such as Daniel Kahneman, known for his bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge, there is a widespread view that people have less self-knowledge than we usually assume.
Suppose this is indeed the case, what would the ethical or political consequences be? Does a lack of self-knowledge mean, for instance, that we should be more sceptical of people’s opinions or will? Or could it imply an even more extreme consequence – that institutions should influence or direct people more often? I personally think we should be cautious. Suppose that someone has no or insufficient self-knowledge in some situations, this is not in itself a legitimate reason to deprive this person of certain liberties. But this insight does oblige us to clarify what exactly the relationship is between liberalism and self-knowledge, if there is one.