How self-knowledge became necessary yet impossible

The idea that the mind is a substance-like thing or an executive set of functions (a dashboard of sorts) residing in the head will lead to perplexities. I have already held that the mind is not ‘substance-like,’ that it does not reside in the head, that it does not contain a suite of activities, and that it doesn’t have a residence in anywhere. One of the many dangers inherent in this conception arises out of the literal belief in the metaphors of ‘inner’ and ‘outer,’ ‘internal’ and external.’ Believing in these, one finds it necessary to investigate each on its own (what is the inner? what is in the inner? what is the outer?) and then to connect one up to the other.

The commonest perplexities are centered upon the problem of other minds, the problem of representation, and the problem of self-knowledge. The problem of other minds: ‘How can I know another person when his inner contents are not accessible to me?’ Because of doubt, I may come to a general sense of mistrust of others as well as a particular distrust of my friends and lover. The problem of representation: ‘How can I know the world when it is ‘out there’ beyond the reach of my thoughts which are invariably ‘in here’?’ So, I may become cosmically lonely, trapped as I seem to be within the ‘inner’ circle of my own consciousness.

Now, we turn to stating the problem of self-knowledge: ‘How can I know my mind when, being inner contents deep within me, it is neither observable nor perceptible?’ Worse yet, ‘How can I know myself when these deep inner contents are, as Freud sought to show, well beyond the grasp of the conscious mind?’ For most people, the demand to ‘know thyself’ in some fashion or another has remained even though it has become impossible, given these terms, to ‘know thyself.’ This modal conflict–something’s being necessary yet impossible–gives rise to perplexity. It is a perplexity that cannot be resolved until we have cleared the ground.

We cannot do well without coming to an answer regarding ‘knowing thyself.’ In the next post, I will consider how to put this picture aside and how to re-address–from the right standpoint on minding–the vital question of self-knowledge.