” ‘Know thyself’ is not just silly advice: it’s actively dangerous”, so reads the title of an essay from Aeon Magazine (Found here). The accusation is that you can not know yourself because you change over time, and therefore to know yourself is a mistaken notion. At most, you can only know who you were at one point in time. Therefore, concludes the author, trying to define who you are is a bad idea because you will be acting as the person you imagine you are, not the person you really are.
I believe that Bence Nanay makes a few mistakes in this article. The first is that they believe you make decisions based on who you think you are.
Let’s take an everyday example. You go to the local cafe and order an espresso. Why? Just a momentary whim? Trying something new? Maybe you know that the owner is Italian and she would judge you if you ordered a cappuccino after 11am? Or are you just an espresso kind of person? I suspect that the last of these options best reflects your choices. You do much of what you do because you think it meshes with the kind of person you think you are. You order eggs Benedict because you’re an eggs Benedict kind of person. It’s part of who you are.
I’m not sure this assertion needs a deep analysis to falsify it. Try and imagine yourself going into the coffee shop, observe your mental state when you decide your order. Why did you choose what you chose? I bet it wasn’t because you identified the drink you chose as being congruent with the person you believe you are. You chose it because you wanted the drink you ordered.
His confusion arises because of the fact that we do indeed identify ourselves to the world through our tastes. We are ‘black coffee kind of people’, we are ‘red wine kind of people’, we are ‘jazz and blues kind of people’. we define ourselves in terms of our likes to the outside world. We do this so as to establish connections with other people. We gather common ground between ourselves and other people so that we can establish grounds for discourse and make connections. Our personal choices aren’t governed by our self image, however. They are decided by our moods. One day we may fancy a black coffee, another day we may fancy a cappuccino.
The key factor is that when we make a choice, we draw a conclusion based on a form of self identification. Nanay posits that this happens by identifying our choice against the sort of person which is prone to make this choice, I.E. our self image. I argue that when we make a choice, we do so by identifying the choice process against an identification of our moods and urges. To testify this, we often hear ourself say ‘I’m an espresso kind of person’. However, we also hear ourself say ‘I used to be an espresso kind of person, but I much prefer a milkier coffee now’. We do have an established idea of who we are, but we change that idea as we change ourself quite comfortably. Why? Because we don’t identify ourself as a finished unit, we identify with what we are at the moment we identify.
Nanay says that
The problem is this: if we change while our self-image remains the same, then there will be a deep abyss between who we are and who we think we are. And this leads to conflict.
I hope we have established that our self image does transform over time. It is true that there is a gap between our constructed self-image and who we are, but is it really as big as the article claims? Our capacity for personal growth by observing our feelings attends to the issue of our personal growth by observing our notion of our self. He then state the following problem:
What is true of espresso is true of other preferences and values in life. Maybe you used to genuinely enjoy doing philosophy, but you no longer do. But as being a philosopher is such a stable feature of your self-image, you keep doing it. There is a huge difference between what you like and what you do. What you do is dictated not by what you like, but by what kind of person you think you are.
The real harm of this situation is not only that you spend much of your time doing something that you don’t particularly like (and often positively dislike). Instead, it is that the human mind does not like blatant contradictions of this kind. It does its best to hide this contradiction: a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance.
I think, as I have said, there is a small gap between what we would like to do and what we do. Is this a question of how we’ve falsely identified ourselves though? It’s commonly stated that we are creatures of habit. We do something because we’re used to performing that action, and therefore do it again. After a certain number of repetitions, the habit of performing a certain action becomes unconsciously ingrained in us. It stands to reason that a confusion has emerged over what we see as part of our self, and what we are simply in the habit of doing. We do not identify ourselves with our habits, we simply do them. Many times we are actively aware that we dislike our personal habits, and refuse to identify with them, yet carry on doing them because they are automatic to us. (I’ve written extensively on the self previously HERE)
Some work needs to be done on what exactly constitutes a person. Specifically, to what degree do our self image and our habits effect, or count towards, who we are. If we are honest with ourselves, it doesn’t seem logical that habits and self images are exact correlates of the constituent of our identity, at most, they are products of our capacity to represent, experience, or create. We are not espresso drinkers, we merely drink espresso when we choose to have one.
He concludes that
If you know thyself to be such-and-such a kind of person, this limits your freedom considerably.
I agree with this. However, there is a degree to which we must accept a limitation of freedom. If we have no consistency whatsoever, then living with long term goals and projects would be impossible. What we must do is decide how much freedom we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of our projects occupying time. At one end of the spectrum, we can entirely reject a self image, and refute the idea that we are consistently the same person from one moment to the next. At the other end, we can accept an immutable self image, which we live by from the moment we decide on it. This, to my mind, isn’t about us mistaking our self image for who we are, it’s about how we choose to live usefully in the world.
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Thank you for reading.