Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.21 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.21

Ursula Renz (ed.), Self-Knowledge: A History. Oxford philosophical concepts.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 2016.  Pp. xvii, 329.  ISBN 9780190226428.  $35.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Christopher Moore, Pennsylvania State University (

The present book under review, Self-Knowledge: A History, is the eighth entry in the Oxford Philosophical Concepts series. Books in this series aim “to identify problems [that their target] concept was originally supposed to solve, and to investigate how approaches to them shifted over time, sometimes radically”; alternatively, they “tell a story about changing solutions to its well-defined problem.” This suggests that the concept “self-knowledge” is to be taken as an evolving solution to a (“well-defined”) problem.

Below I discuss whether this volume fits the framework. First I note its greatest strength: the stunning breadth and density of its history. Starting with Socrates, it has chapters on Plato, Aristotle, Late Stoicism (Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius), Plotinus, Augustine, Scholasticism (Aquinas, Matthew of Aquasparta, Dietrich of Freiburg), Medieval mysticism (Meister Eckhart and many others), Early Modern (Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Shaftesbury; and further, Calvin, Jansen, Nicole, Rouchefoucauld, Esprit, Mandeville, Butler, Hume, Rousseau), Kant, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Freud, Husserl, Hermeneutics (Dilthey, Heidegger), and analytic philosophy (Castañeda, Evans, Anscombe). Admittedly this is an episodic history: contributors virtually never cross-reference, not even to the previous chapter. But still, the reader gets a delightfully broad exposure to an issue whose centrality to philosophy is often forgotten. The volume’s protreptic effect has particular power: a shared topic of fascination that every century of philosophy’s history shares comes across as worth engagement.

The importance of this diversity across continuity is that it forces a reader to justify her idiosyncratic construal of the self-knowledge problematic: hers is sure to be only one among many possible formulations. In scholarship this justification rarely happens more than perfunctorily. Much contemporary analytic philosophy of self-knowledge assumes only two, polar-opposite formulations – an undefined but difficult obedience to the gnôthi sauton (question: how do we get a certain sort of hard-won knowledge?), contrasted with the well-defined and automatic knowledge of one’s first-personal occurrent beliefs (question: how can we account for its status as epistemically vaunted knowledge?), where only the latter formulation calls for urgent response. But one wonders: why call “self- knowledge” what only certain people in professional-journal-interlocutions now study, and why grant their assumptions about what, accordingly, fails as an account of self-knowledge or as an important account of self-knowledge? Renz’s book is the most salutary and accessible recent response to this question, one that answers “We shouldn’t!”

Self-knowledge seems important, but discussion falters when ambiguity about the object of that knowledge goes unacknowledged, as is usually the case. We must always ask, to what does “self” refer (or what does “self-” mean)? In her Introduction (1-18), Ursula Renz does not explicitly address the question of selfhood. But she does observe that, because self-knowledge is “a justified true belief p… that [is] de se about the subject who holds p,” it can pertain to “a whole bunch of phenomena,” and she does a useful service in going on to identify four potential objects of self-knowledge:

1. one’s actual occurrent states (known in an irreducibly first-personal way);
2. one’s standing attitudes/values (not always conscious) (one’s ongoing relation to which “may be crucial for the person one is”);
3. one’s dispositional properties/traits (not subject to epistemic privilege);
4. one’s being subject to the human condition (general facts applicable to oneself).

Renz then asks some provocative questions about this list (though not about its exhaustiveness), and itemizes other questions one might have about self-knowledge: its logical or conceptual structure, moral impact, connection to knowing one’s body and bios, relevance of second- and third-person perspectives, and possibility of attainment. But another question she never explicitly addresses is parallel to that of the referent of “selfhood” or denotation of “self-” – namely that of “knowledge.” She refers to the gnôthi sauton, but does not go on to taxonomize gignôskein as “acknowledge” or “recognize” or “understand” or merely “take note”; nor does she query knowledge as, perhaps, “knowledge how,” an epistemic state not perspicuously reduced to justified true belief. Nor does Renz give much attention to recent literature in practical rationality, in which self-knowledge becomes crucial for any sort of agency (not just epistemic), and where authors make productive use of ancient and early-modern conceptions of self-knowledge (e.g., Korsgaard, Larmore, Lovibond).

Nevertheless, the Introduction does make a range of valuable distinctions, not least of them a concept Renz calls “Socratic self- knowledge.” She defines it apart from Socrates himself, in an open and contextually defined way, as “the self-knowledge which is considered an achievement and a prerequisite for wisdom.” Socrates’ actual case (as presented in Plato’s Apology) apparently counts as a sub-type. For him to understand the Oracle’s claim that he was wisest of the Athenians or wiser than the other Athenians (4-8; actually, Plato has it as no Greek being wiser than him, and the Apology makes much of this precision), he must “(i) grasp the conceptual distinction between belief and knowledge, (ii) know the anthropological fact that people, when thinking of their own convictions, tend not always to draw the aforementioned distinction properly, (iii) hold that he himself is not particularly knowledgeable, and (iv) notice that he himself can easily fall prey to the aforementioned human disposition to take his beliefs to constitute knowledge.” Renz might have said that here she is elaborating the common view that Socrates’ self-knowledge is a knowledge of his ignorance, if that is what she is doing; if it is, it is an interesting hypothesis worth testing, and worth squaring with other analyses of the value of knowing one’s ignorance. Nevertheless, getting precise about Socrates is not Renz’s goal; she wants rather to treat him as the framer of much future philosophical thinking about “knowing yourself” as an ethical or self-constituting imperative.

I, for one, agree with that, finding Socrates’ thinking about self-knowledge to be a crucial moment in the history of philosophy. Many of her contributors were good enough sports to address Socratic self-knowledge in their own chapters. I will turn to them in the next paragraph. I want first to make a final critical remark about the Introduction. Renz says that the Delphic injunction, variously interpreted, “was a common inspiration of many philosophers as well as of artists and poets” (18). This is true. But she says repeatedly that, originally, it “was meant to remind the reader… of his belonging to the category of merely mortal beings” (13, repeated at 152, 154; contrast 26). This would be an important point if true, since any difficulty in obeying it would be a difficulty in accepting one’s mortality – a deep question for philosophy if there ever was one, though far afield from much self-knowledge studies. But as evidence about the injunction she only cites Walter Burkert’s claim in his Greek Religion; yet none of his own citations there support his claim (p. 148 in the English edition), and the earliest references to the gnôthi sauton in Greek literature do not support it either. The point is that we do not know what gnôthi sauton first meant: maybe edifyingly, it seems that the Greeks of Socrates’ era were as ignorant as we are.

Anyway, many of the contributors to Renz’s volume mention the general category of Socratic self-knowledge, and sometimes even the historical sub-category. The first substantive chapter, Rachana Kamtekar’s “Self-Knowledge in Plato” (25-43), addresses an apparent contradiction in Plato’s portrayal of Socrates, as both having and not having self-knowledge: one kind is knowledge of one’s states, the other of one’s capacities. Kamtekar ranges over familiar territory in the Charmides, Alcibiades, Republic and Phaedrus and makes incursions into many other dialogues; she practices a scholarly minimalism and could be more direct about her equation of “self” with “soul” and about the distinction between “complex” and “simple” souls. While the river of questions and solutions make Socratic self-knowledge appear a fascinating topic for interpreters of Plato, I wonder how incisive she makes it seem for those who do not care about the dialogues (an issue any scholar of Classical philosophy must confront).

Christopher Shields’ “Aristotle’s Requisite of Self-Knowledge” (44-60) notes Aristotle’s general lack of interest in Socratic self- knowledge and then finds an exception: his analysis of friendship. Whereas Magna Moralia 2.15 makes self-knowledge dependent on friends, and Nicomachean Ethics 9.9 makes friendship dependent on shared goods, Eudemian Ethics 7.12 makes the goods of friendship dependent on self-knowledge (55-9). Shields frames the chapter as a response to Rylean worries about the mind’s reflexivity, but it more naturally suggests an intriguingly ambivalent relationship between Aristotle and Socrates’ moral epistemology. He might also have given closer attention to the means by which Aristotle might think someone actually gets self-knowledge, and what precisely the object of that knowledge is.

Marcel van Ackeren’s “Self-Knowledge in Later Stoicism” (61-77) usefully observes the ways in which Zeno and Epictetus took up Socratic commitments, especially to the eradication of belief-inconsistency, and the ways they and other Stoics “depart” from them, including in matters of self-sufficiency, self-awareness in the theory of oikeiôsis, and in the concept of hupolêpsis. The bulk of the chapter addresses the “self-dialogue” of Marcus Aurelius; the last two pages finally articulate provocative questions about the “self” in that term.

Probably the clearest and most rigorous chapter of the volume, Pauliina Remes’ “Self-Knowledge in Plotinus: Becoming Who You are” (78-95), mentions Socrates only in the first paragraph (including for the unsubstantiated claim that he believes self-knowledge “is a prerequisite for other kinds of knowledge”), but shows appealingly how a Platonist can see self-knowledge, self-cultivation, and knowledge of forms as wholly coinciding goals.

The paper on Augustine by Johannes Brachtendorf (96-113) outlines important continuities with Plotinus, and develops the idea that “the mind is like the divine Trinity.” The chapter on the Scholastics by Dominik Perler (114-30) tries, in the closing page, to redeem as quasi- Socratic his authors’ focus on the apparently non-practical epistemic and metaphysical questions: he observes their belief that we can vaunt self-knowledge only having first discerned its possibility. Whether Socrates would agree remains a question; but Perler’s paper is quite well organized and motivated, focusing on three medieval authors’ interpretation of Aristotle’s remark at De Anima 3.4 that thought can take thought as an object. Christina Van Dyke’s paper on medieval mysticism (131-45) brings up good points about embodiment, though it does end up focusing more on attitudes about selfhood than on self-knowledge itself.

Because of limitations of space, I cannot summarize the papers from the modern period, but I do want to single out Dina Emundts’ chapter on Kant (183-98), John Lippitt’s on Kierkegaard (205-22), and Charles Guignon’s on Heidegger (264-79) as powerful studies of Socratic self-knowledge in some difficult authors. I would assign them, given their attractions and readability, to students at any level.

Now to the question with which I opened this review: how this book fits the framework of the series. Self-knowledge suffers from more indeterminacy as a concept than either selfhood or knowledge, even though it would seem simply to be the area of coincidence of those two. This is in part because of the indeterminacy of the Delphic injunction – and indeed, before that, the piece of commonsense ethical advice – from which the concept arises; in part because of the indeterminacy of “yourself” or “self-”; and in part because of the slippage between the Greek gignôskein, the rather broad Greek “epistêmê” and the English “knowledge.” Accordingly, though there may be one (and the book could have argued more forcefully for it), I do not know that there is a “well-defined problem” to which history shows dialectically developing and varying solutions, so much as a broad range of explicit, implicit, or even unknowing responses to the imperative “Know yourself.” This volume shows a constellation of assumptions, goals, aporiai, degrees of urgency, and methods connected to the term “self-knowledge,” not all of them straightforwardly consistent. So we have not so much a story of a concept (and certainly not a theory of the history of this concept) as a treasury of views. I appreciate it very much anyway. Some closing remarks. The chapters are relatively brief and light. They cite less secondary literature than might be expected. Citations and bibliographical entries have a number of mistakes, and there are visible typos. This is too bad, given how attractive otherwise the formatting of the volume is.

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