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Know Thyself?

The problems and possibilities of self-knowledge

The inscription over the ancient Greek temple at Delphi read "Know thyself." While different interpretations of this statement have been given, in this and a short series of related posts I will set aside that debate and consider some of the problems and possibilities related to self-knowledge.

Philosophers, theologians, and contemporary psychologists have considered the value of self-knowledge as well as challenges related to truly knowing oneself. Socrates held that self-knowledge as so valuable that other pursuits are "laughable" unless one has it. John Calvin claimed that without knowledge of oneself, there is no knowledge of God. Contemporary psychologists are turning their attention to this issue as well. For example, Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia, in a recent publication, argues that "Self-knowledge is hard to acquire and is not always correct."*

Why is self-knowledge important? There are practical reasons which underscore the significance of self-knowledge to our lives.

First, it seems to me that while self-knowledge is not essential to happiness, it is conducive to it. For example, it would be wise to have some self-knowledge relevant to one's choice of career, whom to marry, whether and when to have children, and many other significant and life-altering decisions. The problem, however, is that our self-knowledge is not always genuine knowledge. That is, it is sometimes incorrect. This can cause problems when we base important decisions on our beliefs about ourselves.

Second, self-knowledge can benefit our emotional lives. For example, knowing what will motivate you to achieve a small or large goal can help you actually achieve that goal. Even small rewards that we bestow on ourselves can help us muster the willpower to achieve tasks which we otherwise might neglect due to procrastination or weakness of will.

Self-knowledge is important for human fulfillment, but it is sometimes difficult to acquire. However, there are steps we can take, informed by philosophy, theology, and psychology which can help us cultivate our capacity for self-knowledge. In the next few posts, we will look at some of these steps.

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*Perspectives on Psychological Science (2009): 384.

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