How self-knowledge is possible

I pick up where I left off in the last post. Recall, first of all, that the picture of the mind as a some ‘place’ or ‘substance’ that contains important things (ideas, faculties, images, conceptions) deep within me is a mistaken picture of minding. Recall, second of all, that the question which springs from the picture of the mind as ‘having’ deep inner contents is this one: ‘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?’ It is wrongheaded, I have held, to insist that knowing myself involves undertaking forms of ‘deep introspection.’ Indeed, the entire edifice seems to be a systematic way of our never knowing ourselves. Looking in the wrong place, we continue asking the wrong questions with the result that we are endlessly perplexed.

Let us stop the digging. A new starting point, then. I have argued (following Alva Noe and the phenomenological tradition) that minding involves the mutual, complex interaction of brain, body, and environment and also that minding just is the array of ongoing types of activities such as thinking, believing, willing, promising, etc. A simple way to begin would be to ask this question (which, to be sure, rests on a number of unstated assumptions):

If I want to know myself, then what sorts of things do I often think about and live out in my thinking?

A sketch of a possible answer would be quite broad. Here is a provisional one:

Self-knowledge would begin by grasping what way of life I actually inhabit. A way of life would be constituted first and principally by the telos or teloi–the final aim or aims–and by the salient set of virtues and vices. Second, the aspirant of a certain way of life would occupy one of three states: exile from this fullness (this final aim); on the way toward it; being with this fullness. Third, the aspirant would be susceptible to certain things in this way of life (cf. temptations). Fourth, he would develop a certain ethical disposition. Lastly, his thinking would generally unfold in certain patterns.

One example:

Suppose someone seeks to lead a bourgeois way of life. Then, he lives for the sake of securing the ordinary goods of comfort, respectability, and health. The virtues he would cultivate would be industry, reliability, trustworthiness, temperance, frugality, orderliness, cleanliness, resoluteness (cf. Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography). The vices he may adopt would be the contraries of these (e.g., sloth, unreliability, disorderliness, etc). Depending on a combination of circumstances, luck, and effort, he may have achieved these aims (fullness), may be on the way to doing so (say, by starting his own business), or may be in exile from it (e.g., filing for bankruptcy). Along the way, he would be susceptible to increasing efficiency for its own sake, to busyness (overdoing it), and to flatness (ennui, anomie, existential boredom). His disposition would be (variously) harried, hurried, abrupt, matter-of-fact, opportunistic, well-prepared, guarded (or fearful), apologetic, and so on. Most of the time, his thinking would be occupied with any or all of these: regrets (if only I had done X, then Y…), worries and anxieties (that he doesn’t have enough of the ordinary goods or that the ordinary goods are bound to perish), envy (that others have more than he does), greed (that he would like to have more than he does), and anticipation (that life will be better when X is the case).

If John wants to know himself and if it is the case that he is leading a bourgeois life, then knowing himself just means leading a bourgeois life. Doubtless, his mental activities would ‘track’ this form of life.

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