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Fr. 581

December 3, 2014

If the big questions traditionally tied to substantial self-knowledge have been largely consigned by philosophy to psychology, literature and the self-help rack, philosophy would stand to benefit from a renewed engagement with those big questions. Moreover, there is further motivation for this reengagement, aside from mere human interest. Although Cassam does not voice this point, it seems to us that a strong case could also be made for the special status of substantial self-knowledge. Certainly, self-knowledge of this kind requires evidence like most other forms of knowledge. The fact remains that, unlike questions of fact which are more or less easy to establish on the basis of real-world states and relations, self-knowledge resists such simple resolution. Indeed, the nature of the enquiry is such that we have need of a rather more penetrating and thoroughgoing kind of justification, one which can appeal to obscure and sometimes difficult-to-establish aspects of inner life, history, environment, personality, etc.

In addition to the nature of the enquiry, the object of the enquiry itself stands apart from that in questions of fact. In contrast with objects of fact, the object of self-knowledge is difficult to pin down once and for all. As a construct, it is continually subject to change. If, via empirical psychology and case studies, we can maintain that there is an object worthy of observation, there is also thereby ensured its possibility for change following observation. In this way, a dual case can be made for the special character of “substantial” self-knowledge over and against trivial self-knowledge, one which highlights the philosophical interest of the former.

In the space that remains, Cassam turns his attention to the broader difficulties plaguing the academy while approaching these through the lens of the case of self-knowledge illustrated above. He attributes this problem largely to the professionalization of the discipline in the past century:

The professionalization of the subject has made philosophers of self-knowledge far too comfortable with the idea that their job is to discover technical solutions to technical problems generated by background philosophical assumptions about the nature of knowledge and mind. They may insist that what is philosophically worthwhile can’t be decided by what non-philosophers think is worthwhile, and that it is of no consequence if their questions strike the uninitiated as odd. Philosophy has its own concerns, and all that matters is whether their concerns have a philosophical rationale. If it turns out that trivial self-knowledge isn’t special then that really would be a reason for downplaying its significance, but that is an entirely different matter.

This rejoins our theme from recent months, on the possibility of a public philosophy. Be this under the form of philosophy journalists, professional philosophers or academic philosophers, there seems some consensus in the discipline concerning the need to branch out to a new audience. Where philosophers differ is precisely on the place, manner and agent of diffusion. To this, Cassam adds the subject of diffusion. Like Neumann, he recognizes that certain topics drawn from philosophy may simply not lend themselves to diffusion to a broader audience. Yet we need not conclude from these limitations the need for complete silence:

This is just the kind of attitude that gives academic philosophy a bad name. Of course there are topics in philosophy where engaging with the concerns of the philosophically uninitiated wouldn’t be feasible but self-knowledge is not one of them. There has to come a point at which philosophy has to address wider concerns, and if self-knowledge is not the kind of thing which philosophers can think about in ways that resonate with the world at large then one fears for the future of the subject. It’s easy for professional philosophers to sneer at popular accounts of self-knowledge in self-help books, but philosophically curious readers of such books are entitled to ask what philosophy has to offer instead. The answer had better not be “Nothing.”

Cassam’s discussion concludes with a last appeal to philosophers to change their ways in hopes of reaching a broader audience and reestablishing public engagement with rational inquiry. For Cassam, the way forwards lies in a self-knowledge for humans, which accepts and makes sense of all the ways in which real human beings fall short of rationalistic ideals and standards for self-knowledge:

The challenge is to develop a philosophy of self-knowledge for humans, that is, a philosophy of self-knowledge that both engages with some of the questions about self-knowledge which human beings outside academia actually care about, and operates with a realistic picture of what real human beings are like. Few philosophers have risen to this challenge, but when they do they are likely to find that substantial self-knowledge is of greater philosophical interest than many of them suppose. In any event, the challenge of addressing a wider audience is one that academic philosophy can’t and shouldn’t try to duck indefinitely.

If Cassam’s article remains light on details as to the specific role of the new “public” philosopher, as well as her mode of discourse, this takes nothing away from the persuasive case made therein regarding the need for a new role. Whatever form that role may take, Cassam’s intuitions are largely in line with our own, both on the need to return to self-knowledge and to open academic philosophy to new audiences and rhetoric.

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