Self-Knowledge in an Age of Science

Above the entryway to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi — one of the most renowned sites of classical antiquity and the spiritual center of Greek civilization — two lines were inscribed: “Know thyself” (γνῶθι σεαυτὸν) and “Nothing in excess” (Μηδεν αγαν). The famous Oracle of Delphi, in response to a leading question, affirmed that Socrates was the wisest man in Greece, implying that Socrates embodied these Delphic imperatives to self-knowledge and moderation (as well as a number of other, less well known, Delphic maxims) to an unusual degree.

Socrates, a simple stonecutter in Athens, but sufficiently mesmerizing to attract the brilliant and aristocratic young Plato to his circle of informal students, was the most famous practitioner of self-knowledge in ancient Greece. It was Socrates who was supposed to have said, “The unexamined life is not worth living” and “I know that I know nothing.” We might call this epistemic modesty, and Socrates delighted in pointing out the absence of epistemic modesty among Athenian blowhards. Of his questioning the claims to knowledge made by others, and finding these claims wanting, Socrates said (with perfect understatement), “There is amusement in it.”

While for us Socrates represents the fons et origo of Greek philosophy, teacher of Plato, who was in turn the teacher of Aristotle, Socrates in fact represented a “turn” in Greek philosophy. Pre-Socratic philosophy was naturalistic and aimed at understanding the natural world. This was the sort of philosophical thought that was ridiculed by Aristophanes in The Clouds, where Socrates is depicted as running a “think shop” and being held up in a basket so that he could better study the clouds. Apart from Aristophanes’ outright slander of Socrates, the poet was simply wrong in his depiction (no wonder Plato wanted to ban all poets from his ideal republic). The Ionian philosophers were interested in natural phenomena like the clouds, but Socrates was interested in humanity and human society.

In the wake of the devastation of the Peloponnesian War, and the humiliation of Athen’s defeat and subsequent rule by the “Thirty Tyrants” installed by Sparta after the war, the atomists and natural philosophers began to give way to other currents of thought, and Greek philosophy began to look inward at the soul, rather than outward at the world. Socrates, who himself had run-ins with the Thirty Tyrants, was part of this shift in focus of Greek philosophy. Socrates offered no speculations on the clouds or any other meteorological phenomena, he propounded no cosmology, and was innocent of metaphysics (except that put in his mouth posthumously by Plato). Socrates devoted his life to the pursuit of virtue and to understanding the human condition. It was Socrates’ focus on moral philosophy that led him to the challenges of self-knowledge.

The imperative of self-knowledge is still with us today, but under changed social, scientific, and philosophical conditions. If we are to know ourselves today, how are we to go about knowing ourselves? In other words, what is the epistemology of self-knowledge? We can no longer simply set aside science, because science is integral with the economic infrastructure that keeps more than seven billion of us alive. We must know ourselves in and through science, which is the paradigm of knowledge today, and which constitutes the method by which we must today pursue self-examination.

Socrates, in saying that the unexamined life is not worth living, implied that self-examination is the Socratic approach to the epistemology of self-knowledge. While knowing that one knows nothing implies that one also knows nothing of oneself, hence one is lacking in self-knowledge, one can nevertheless consistently engage in self-examination and still fall short of knowing oneself fully, fulfilling the Socratic imperative while also making no unsustainable claims of knowledge. And while this sounds almost nihilistic, it is in fact fully accord with science, which embodies epistemic humility throughout its practice, and which consists not of scientific truths, but of a scientific method, not unlike the Socratic method, though it interrogates nature rather than persons (although persons are now understood to be included within nature, and therefore a proper object of scientific study).

In an age of nascent scientific civilization, self-knowledge can take on novel forms: scientific ways of knowing imply the possibility of a scientific epistemology of self-knowledge, and I think that there is an important insight to be had in this reflection. Moreover, scientific knowledge of the self and of humanity is a difficult knowledge to bear: it is difficult to arrive at, because our anthropic biases often prevent us from seeing ourselves as we are, and, no less than Socrates’ pursuit of self-knowledge, it is a morally difficult knowledge to bear, because it tells us things about ourselves that do not flatter the human ego.

Scientific knowledge is not what ancient philosophers meant by “knowledge,” which latter was certain, apodictic, a prioristic knowledge derived from first principles. The changing world admitted of no knowledge that met the Platonic criterion of knowledge, but admits only of opinion. The post-Platonic epistemology of science no longer maintains this Platonic paradigm of knowledge, but rather seeks knowledge in empirical evidence and inductive derivations from this evidence. We can apply this same mode of reasoning to ourselves, though it can be every bit was painful and as unwelcome as Socrates questioning fallacious claims to knowledge in the marketplace, as others looked on and laughed.

Our knowledge now, in the scientific paradigm, is statistical knowledge, and this implies the possibility of a statistical self-knowledge. What is statistical self-knowledge, or what ought statistical self-knowledge to be? Statistical self-knowledge is knowing when one lies in the center of the bulge of a bell curve, and knowing when one is a statistical outlier; it is to know where exactly one falls on a distribution curve, and how this relates to others who fall at other points along the distribution curve.

To possess a knowledge of oneself equal to a double blind study would truly be to possess scientific self-knowledge, and it is likely that this ideal of self-knowledge is no less demanding and no less difficult than the original Socratic ideal of self-knowledge. As Spinoza said, all noble things are as difficult as they are rare.


Socrates was condemned to death for questioning the knowledge claims of others.