In what follows we describe the second of the project’s three sub-themes: Self-knowledge. We identify its distinct characteristics and discuss its relation to the project’s general aims.
Second, when Plato offers rational deliberation as the key to personal autonomy and liberation from internal coercion, this is done in terms of self-knowledge. The Socratic-Platonic demand to care for one’s self highlights acknowledging its preconditions. According to the priority of definition (PD), one must know the object first in order to know anything about it. Self-knowledge becomes acute for any inquiry into ethics, because only the one who understands her own motivational structures and inclinations has a chance of discovering the proper treatments or therapies. Only the one who knows the contents of her own belief-set has a chance of getting rid of internal conflicts within that belief set, and thereby of becoming a unified agent capable of full responsibility.
Self-knowledge is a sine qua non for rational autonomy on at least three levels in the Platonic context. Understood as an epistemic phenomenon, (a) knowing about one’s own mental states – or in antiquity, activities – is a necessary condition of rationality. In order to critically scrutinize their beliefs and desires, agents need to have access to them. This requirement also functions as a basis for the therapeutically and philosophically central Socratic claim for a priority of self-knowledge (PS-K): the idea that an examined life is the only one worth living. In the context of the so-called early or Socratic dialogues this is a call for (b) the recognition not only of one’s overt or occurrent beliefs, but of one’s whole belief-set, including also covert or dispositional beliefs and moral values. Some of Plato’s dialogues, like the sometimes spurious considered First Alcibiades, propound a connected, but more ontologically loaded self-realization: the self is identified as only one part of the soul-body-compound: the rational soul. As is well known, particularly the longer, sometimes entitled “mature”, dialogues of Plato enrich this picture by inclusion of psychological motivations other than reason. This more inclusive understanding would seem to enlarge also the object of self-knowledge: a therapeutically useful self-knowledge (c) ought to reveal to the agent also her desires, emotional dispositions, shortcomings and weaknesses.
One of the central tasks of this part of the project is to inquire into the extent that Plato recognizes this to be the case. If self-knowledge, as Plato seems to have it, is the result of a process of rational self-scrutiny, what significance has personal and emotional self-understanding? Can emotions of self-assessment – such as pride, shame or guilt (Taylor 1985) – be useful in this framework? Directly relevant for an inquiry into the exact type of moral realism and rationalism advocated by Plato, these questions also expand into a wider worry: How much in the realization of moral properties relies on exclusively theoretical uses of reason, and what is the role of practical reasoning and sentiments in this realization?
As already emerges from this rough outline, in Plato, the moral aspect of self-knowledge is intricately connected with epistemological concerns. Such a connection can be seen, for instance, in the idea of epistemic humility. Motivation for epistemic development is grounded in a realization of the limits of one’s knowledge. And only the one who can properly assess the limits of her knowledge can acquire the basic epistemic humility needed for realizing right her own possibilities of moral (and political) influence.
Epistemic and moral considerations, then, cohere in the Platonic framework. Through the context of self-knowledge we see just how fundamental a link exists between the two. When Plato, as well as his later Platonic commentators, raises the question of how we access our own mental activities, this may seem to happen in broadly observationalist terms: I can, as it were, look at my own beliefs and psychological dispositions (Charmides; First Alcibiades; Plotinus, Enneads I.6.9). Such a direct observability of our own mental activities is however questioned in a range of important contexts; and the kind of self-relationship suggested resembles much more contemporary rationalist-constitutivist theories of self-knowledge (like that of Burge 1996). In these theories – both ancient and contemporary – self-knowledge is not only a condition of morality. It is itself a normative phenomenon: Knowing one’s mental states is a matter of being able to critically assess and reform them, that is, of having rational authority over them.
In both theories, moreover, the objects of self-knowledge are treated, not as given or observed, but as constituted in the act of coming to know them (Moran 2001; Bilgrami 2006). A variant of constitutivist models of self-knowledge would seem to emerge especially in late ancient Platonism, where the Socratic-Platonic demand to engage in the critical process of self-scrutiny turns into normative, first-personal introspection and a process of forging a normatively ideal selfhood. For the Neoplatonist Plotinus, personal autonomy is one of the most important results of this process of appropriation (Remes forthcoming).
The co-existence of the observationalist and constitutivist approaches to self-knowledge in Platonism is largely unthematized and understudied. Here, contemporary debates can aid in raising a crucial question: Does there have to be introspective or observational access to some given mental activity to subject this activity to critical revision? Or is the critical engagement constitutive of, and simultaneous with, the access itself? The fact that both contemporary (as argued by Gertler 2011) and ancient constitutivists encounter similar problems of ordering the primacy of epistemic and normative questions (e.g. Cassam 2014) signals an interesting place for future research.