The Limits of Self Knowledge

24 June 2016

This week, we’re examining the limits of self-knowledge. That is, we’ll be asking how well we really know ourselves. There’s a long tradition in philosophy, of course, of thinking that we actually know ourselves quite well. Descartes, who has a reasonable claim to be the founder of this tradition, apparently thought that we had infallible and complete knowledge of everything going on in our minds. And he is certainly not the only philosopher to think that. Moreover, commonsense seems to agree with Descartes too. Suppose I want to know what I think or feel or plan do. I don’t have to consult some fancy expert or do some elaborate experiment. I don't have to consult some third party. I just need to do a little reflection and introspection.

Of course, Freud taught us long ago that it’s not that simple. Many of our beliefs and desires are hidden from us. They’re repressed, locked up in the unconscious. And it can take some pretty expensive therapy to ferret them out. No doubt, Freud’s theory of the unconscious has definitely had a huge influence in all sorts of fields, from psychology, to philosophy, to art and literature. There’s just one problem with it. It’s false -- totally unsupported by scientific evidence. However, although Freud’s particular view of the unconscious may be false, there’s a ton of evidence that we don’t know ourselves as well as we think.  

Take something as simple as our own moods. I’m actually in a pretty good mood now. I’m blogging for Philosophy Talk. Hopefully lots of people will read what I write and make some sharp coments. What could be better? And I know that I’m not just making that all up in order to put myself in a better mood. But although people are good at knowing what mood they’re in, but not so good at knowing why. Here’s a little experiment for you. Take a bunch a people and ask them to keep track of their mood changes over time. Then ask them to explain the causes of their mood changes. They’ll talk about their stress levels or workloads or the amount of sleep they got or the weather or day of the week. Now those may seem like perfectly plausible explanations. I know rainy days and Mondays do tend to get down. But when you do the measurements and gather some actual statistical data, it turns out there’s very little correlation between our mood swings and things like the day of the week or the state of the weather.

Now the claim isn’t that people just sort of make up explanations about the causes of their mood changes out of whole cloth. Sometimes, for example, we latch onto readily available cultural memes to explain ourselves. I just did that in the last paragraph. Citing these readily available cutlural memes makes us feel like we understand ourselves, even when we don’t.

Just to be clear, I am not claiming that people know absolutely nothing about the causes of their own moods. Think about how we know about the causes of other people’s moods. For example, I’m pretty good at predicting my wife’s moods and my son’s moods. I learned a long time ago to keep my distance from them in the morning, before they’ve taken their showers or have had a good breakfast. I obviously don’t know all that by means of intropection. Rather, I’ve lived with them a long time. Over the years, I’ve observed certain patterns. I approach them almost like a scientist would. I adopt a detached, third person, experimental point of view. And here’s some advice for knowing about yourself. Do the same with yourself. That is, look at yourself the way that an objective, outside, third-person observer would. It’s a little like Flannery O’Conner, who said “I don’t know what I think until I read what I write.”  

I know that may seem backwards – if you have to know what you think before you can actually write it, it might seem. But I think that O’Connor has a very deep point. We like to think that we know our own minds just by looking inwards, through the reflective gaze of introspection. But it just doesn't work that way.  

But once we admit that, we do seem to have a problem – a pretty deep problem. We live and experience our lives in the first person, not in the third person. Lived experience is about how we seem to ourselves. If the way we seem to ourselves is so out of synch with how we really are, doesn't that mean that we’re mostly being buffeted about by forces over which we have no real control, and into which we may have no real insight? That’s why it matters whether we really know ourselves.

So why not listen in this week and help us figure out exactly how wide the gap between the way we appear to ourselves and the way we actually are, really is.

Comments (9)

Guest's picture


Tuesday, October 8, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

When I was much younger and

When I was much younger and did not think about self-knowledge, none of that mattered. Later, in my twenties and thirties, there were glimpses of what might be beyond the indiscretions of youth. Around about age 55, my brain finally began to grow, and thinking about realities beyond the BMW and partisan politics finally settled in. Self-knowledge has some limitations---most of which are self-imposed. If we cannot grow beyond the expectations of family and peers, self-knowledge is limited to those boundaries. I suppose the knowers such as Descartes are worth reading. But, they are dead now. And the world is far different, don't you think?

MJA's picture


Wednesday, October 9, 2013 -- 5:00 PM


Out of love One day I reduced myself down to just I and found that I was no different than a river, Nature, or the Universe. I found that I as is Nature is truly equal and immeasurable or One and the same.
And as the Universe is infinite, the knowledge of I am too.

Fred Griswold's picture

Fred Griswold

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Discussions like this always

Discussions like this always seem like a mass of unrelated details to me. You never get a sense of how the self holds together, even though the self must be a little more coherent than that. Maybe you're wrong if you believe that rainy days and Mondays get you down, but that doesn't tell you much. If the self is really so scattered and disorganized, if we could be so wrong about our own motivations, then how could the species be so evolutionally viable?

Guest's picture


Thursday, October 10, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I recall reading a long time

I recall reading a long time ago that a study of thousands of traffic accidents in a certain county revealed that 75 percent of the accidents happened at a time when barometric pressure was decreasing (a relatively small portion of the time available). I'm not sure sure to what extent mood or weather conditions played the major role but the statistic struck me as remarkable.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Wednesday, October 16, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Sorry folks - we had to reset

Sorry folks - we had to reset our website this week, so any comments made after Sunday were lost.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, October 23, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Descartes was a down-right

Descartes was a down-right fool, he didn't know what he was going on about.

Guest's picture


Saturday, October 26, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

We can think about a thought

We can think about a thought we just had. Then, we can think about that thought we just had about that thought we just had...... How long have we been able to do this?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, June 28, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

There has been much

There has been much psychobabble regarding the quantity known as CONSCIOUSNESS over the last 10-15 years or so. As many of us who are interested in this know, Daniel Dennett wrote something titled Consciousness Explained. Subsequently, Allan Combs penned: Consciousness Explained Better. Others delve into the somewhat murky waters and try to enlighten us further on the subject. Now, I do not pretend to know whether mind springs from brain or was there, in the ether somewhere, before brain ever existed in its corporeality. What seems likely to me, however, is that brain provides the platform upon which mind may develop and achieve its full potential (in those of us who place value upon that eventuality). CONSCIOUSNESS, then, and in its turn, enables us to recognize that self-knowledge may be possible, even desirable. That is where our journey begins and where we begin to ask all the kinds of questions that would have been irrelevant, had we never been conscious enough to ask them. It is forever interesting, disturbing, baffling, frustrating and delightful---being human. And that's what its all about. Are there truly limits to self-knowledge? Or have we merely convinced ourselves that there must be?

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, June 29, 2016 -- 5:00 PM


Or, Consciousness Explained Away*. Oddly, you can't infer the ethos of a community by looking for it in its individuals or in specific groups of individuals. Same problem with mind. It's precisely because we can't locate it that we can know it. Not so great an enigma, really. The only mystery is why we ignore this.