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How We Know Ourselves: a. Limits

The Socratic maxim, gnothi seauton, “know thyself,” was originally intended to emphasize its importance, over time wasted on things like mythology. Understanding ourselves, knowing who we are, including acknowledging our limitations, is also likely to help us evaluate others, anticipate their behavior, and understand their foibles. It also means not only having a pretty good idea of how others see us, our reputations, but that those perceptions sometimes need to be revised. Since the very formation of a “self” to know is in no small part directly due to the responses of a “generalized other” to us, this should be no surprise. Nevertheless, given that much of our reputation is due to stories told about us, and that the very roots of having our own story may be in the stories told to us by significant others about ourselves, it is likely to be the case that their source in mythologies, personal and otherwise, might be worth our attention.

It is a commonplace of signal detection that there are two kinds of errors, a “false alarm” when one falsely reports something that is not there (as opposed to a “correct rejection”), and a “miss” when something that is actually present is not reported (as opposed to a “hit”). These Type I and Type II errors, with probabilities of α and β respectively, help us get an initial handle on varieties of self-knowledge, and its failures. But if you believe something about yourself that is not true of you, you aren’t simply wrong, as you may also have been deceived, either by others or by yourself. Similarly, if you don’t believe something that is actually true of you, you are misinformed, but again, due both to simple ignorance and also to deception by self or other.

There is also a second layer of self-consciousness. You may accurately “know” something about yourself, be aware of it and able to include it in your self-representation, the story you tell yourself (whether or not it matches what you tell others). Or you may not be aware of it, like things that you are bodily able to do, or even have done, but aren’t aware of them (including any number of habits which you didn’t always have, but have now forgotten that you do). There also may be things that you don’t know, or are wrong about, but believe that you accurately know. For years I believed that I had broken my brother’s collar bone, but I no longer think so. And there are, to be sure, many things which you do not know about yourself, both those that you are quite aware you do not know, whether or not you admit this to anyone else, and those of which you are entirely ignorant, about which you do not know you don’t know. I never imagined that “graciousness” was any part of my endowment, and never would have thought of it until a conference participant once said: “Everybody says how gracious you are.” I actually had to ask her to clarify, as I had no idea what she was talking about.

All of this also assumes that whatever we are--the self we and others see ourselves as being--isn’t constantly in the process of being formed, of changing, and that what we end up both being and seeing ourselves as being is as much a set of events being performed through time as it is some entity with varying degrees of stability through time. Some social psychologists have called this a “conversation of gestures.” This means that you perform some gesture with your intent as its origin, to be taken a certain way. Then there is how your audience actually receives it. (And these interactants make the same assumptions about their own gestures.) Finally, there is how you understand their evaluation. But who you select to interact with what circumstances affects the result. And you can break off or alter the resulting relationships, or seek a readier audience. Then there is the question of how well you read the actual responses of others, and with what interpretive blinders. And how you eventually take their responses, which all suggests that whatever performances you attempt, they are as much a drama whose main purpose is to convince yourself, what Anthony Greenwald has called the “totalitarian ego.” Any conversation with an adolescent negotiating their presence on social media can make this obvious, up to and including the conventions of authenticity under which such negotiating may occur.

We’re nowhere near figuring this all out, and this is not remotely an attempt to be at all systematic or complete. What I will focus on is not so much what we admit to not knowing, nor what is recognizably unavailable on the ocean of ignorance of which we are unaware (but of which the more we know, the more we seem to be aware of that which we are not). What I will focus on, mainly because I think I know a little about it is, first, the serious limits to “introspection” as a route to knowledge. That will be most of the remainder of “How We Know Ourselves: a” (or “alpha” -- how the Greek numbering system worked). A subsequent blog will address the kind of knowing we do through or with our bodies (much of which we have little or no conscious awareness), upon which all knowing may ultimately depend. Finally we will turn to the problematic arena of self-deception. This arena, as I see it, is primary to understanding the odd “mythic reality” that our very sense of ourselves is likely to be formed by a range of enaction primarily intended to fool others by fooling ourselves first. As a necessary and inevitable consequence, this logic entails that we will always have severe limits to knowing the truth about ourselves very well... beyond, perhaps, understanding how illusory that self-knowledge may be.