Socrates and Self-Knowledge



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Socrates and Self-Knowledge. By Christopher Moore. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. 294.
Christopher Moore traces Socrates’ reception of the command to “know thyself” (ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ, henceforth “GS”) inscribed at the temple of Apollo at Delphi. M. sets the stage by discussing what (little) evidence we have regarding the pre-Socratic meaning of the Delphic inscription. He argues that the common interpretation of the inscription as enjoining recognition of one’s merely mortal status—I’ll call this, the humility reading—is not supported by the accounts of it we find in ancient authors (Plutarch, Plato, Xenophon, Diogenes Laertius, Diodorus Siculus, Proclus). The best piece of evidence M. presents against the humility reading is Platonic: at Charmides 164c-165c, Plato has Critias offer an idiosyncratic account of the GS as a phrase of greeting akin to “χαῖρε” (hello). The fact that Critias does not see the need to dismiss the humility reading suggests that no such meaning was, at that time, widely accepted. Indeed, as M. points out, the unapologetic strangeness of Critias’ story leads one to conclude that the GS was, by the dramatic date of the Charmides, already shrouded in mystery.
Having, as it were, cleaned the interpretative slate, M. is free to take the Socratic account of the GS on its own terms. M. discusses early (Charmides), middle (Phaedrus) and late (Philebus) Platonic dialogues, and dialogues which many (Alcibiades I) or most (Rival Lovers, Hipparchus) would hesitate to ascribe to Plato, as well as Xenophon’s Memorabilia 4.2. There is also a brief but excellent discussion of Aristophanes’ Clouds (pp.11-12): M. argues that Aristophanes was the first to associate the GS with Socrates. In this large and varied textual material he identifies a single account of self-knowledge as self-improvement, or, as he calls it, “self-constitution.” He understands the call to know oneself as an injunction to acquire a (real, stable, consistent) self, a self that can become both an object of knowledge and a source of moral responsibility. He pairs this aspirational reading of “know thyself” with a social understanding of the mechanism of such self-knowledge: we come into ourselves through conversation, self-knowledge being therefore inextricable from knowledge of others.
Let me give a brief overview of the book. After his introductory chapter, M. turns, in chapter 2, to the Charmides. He argues that the dialogue’s negative conclusions regarding self-knowledge—that it is impossible to achieve, and, even if it were possible, useless—should not be read at face value. The negative arguments serve but to expose Critias’ impoverished conception of self-knowledge. When integrated into a reading of the dialogue as a whole, one which pays special attention to Critias’ odd analysis of the GS, mentioned above, they point to an alternative, social, progressive conception of self-knowledge. In chapter 3, M. reads Socrates of the Alcibiades as encouraging rather than inhibiting Alcibiades’ desires and ambitions: he suggests that Alcibiades’ best route to getting what he wants will be to examine himself through conversation with Socrates. Chapter 4 is about the Phaedrus. M. takes Socrates’ description of myth-rectification as a model for his own life-long process of self-rectification: correcting his beliefs and desires, one by one, with the help of his interlocutors who function, as the lover does to the beloved, as a kind of sounding board. M.’s discussion of the Philebus in chapter 5 focuses on the importance of knowledge for pleasure: he takes Socrates’ insistence on the worthlessness of pleasure without knowledge to be a way of marking the importance of pleasure-ownership: the person with self-knowledge is able to ascribe his pleasures to himself, acknowledging them as his own. Xenophon’s Socrates is usually taken to gloss self-knowledge as simply the knowledge of one’s own powers. In chapter 6, M. reveals another layer to Xenophon’s Socrates through a detailed analysis of a line in which Socrates compares self-knowledge to horse-buying. He draws on the self-ownership claims of the previous chapter to connect the concerns of the Xenophontic Socrates to those of Plato’s Socrates: both are concerned with the process by which one’s attitudes become truly “one’s own.”
M.’s book locates in each text a picture of self-knowledge as rational self-cultivation, a focus which often proves unexpectedly interpretatively fertile. For instance, consider Socrates’ concern, in the Phaedrus, over whether he is like the monster Typhon (230a). M. plausibly analyzes this, by way of Aeschylus’ description in Prometheus Bound, as a doubt about his own susceptibility to self-cultivation: Typhon represents the possibility that the self is unchangeably unsuited for knowledge. And, as mentioned above, M. is in a position to make something of Critias’ baffling analysis of the GS. Critias analyzes the GS as a greeting, and M. connects the act of greeting to the process of self-cultivation embodied in the conversation promised by such a greeting. Complementing and supporting his detailed attention to the text are some perceptive freestanding phenomenological discussions, for instance of greeting. M. notes that greeting signals openness to communication, which contrasts neatly with the reception Charmides encounters at the opening of the dialogue: when he enters, the assembled company fails to greet him. They are so struck by his beauty that they do cannot recognize a common conversational project. Thus greeting someone contrasts with objectifying him.
M. has a flair for capturing the experiential qualities of the phenomena Socrates is describing, and showing the relevance of his intuitive descriptions not only to the topic but even the language in which Socrates couches his arguments. Consider his elucidation of the problem of the eye seeing itself, an image that shows up, in one form or another, in several of the dialogues he discusses: “were the eye looking at itself in a mirror never to have seen itself before, it would have to seek itself out. It would not know what on the reflective surface—various facial features the face itself, the body, background objects—corresponds to itself.” (p.152) He is thus able to construe the eye’s seeing of itself as a temporally extended project; and thereby to connect the various discussions of “sight seeing itself” that show up in the Charmides, Alcibiades and Phaedrus. This is but one of a number of such connections: for instance, he ties the concern with self-location of pleasure in the Philebus to the conception of self-knowledge as self-ownership that he finds in Xenophon. In this way, he often finds the means of making sure that his nice observations are not stranded but woven together into a larger story that spans multiple dialogues. With all of this said, I want to raise two concerns with the framework he uses to tell the story.
The first is that M.’s real topic is not Socrates and self-knowledge, but Socrates and self-investigation. As M. in at least one place acknowledges, the activity corresponding to the command GS—as least, on Socrates’ interpretation of that command—is that of inquiry (skopein/zetein, see e.g., p.84, 163). Such inquiry, as he conceives it, includes both an examination of what one currently believes, and a determination of whether one ought to have those beliefs; which activity results in the possession of beliefs that are truly “one’s own” as opposed to merely absorbed from one’s environment. (p.147) The result of such an activity might be self-knowledge, but the process itself can at best be self-coming-to-know. Knowledge is not a process but a state (hexis); and self-knowledge presupposes the existence of a self, which is merely nascent through the process M. is describing.
I believe that much of what M. has to say would remain standing if we were to replace every instance of “self-knowledge” in the book with “self-investigation” or “self-cultivation.” The terminological shift would matter most to those places where the texts themselves suggest or require a distinction between the process and the product. Let me use first the Philebus and then the Charmides to illustrate this point.

When Socrates, famously and problematically, claims that the person who is pleased without phronēsis does not know whether he is pleased (Philebus 21b7-9), M. reads that not as a claim about the person’s unawareness of his pleasure, but rather about his inability to locate himself as the seat of the pleasure. This is a promising new avenue of interpretation, but one that is confused by his gloss on the argument as describing a process of “integration of pleasure into one’s life” (p.52), and by his importing into discussion of the passage the descriptions of self-investigation from other texts. For what is described in the Philebus argument, if M. is right, is not the process by which the pleasure comes to be one’s own, but the successful conclusion of that process. The Philebus argument would, on this reading, be about (the successful attainment of) self-knowledge, rather than the self-investigative process that is elsewhere M.’s focus.


Recognizing his topic as self-investigation would also be a corrective against the harsh language (“abdicated his humanity,” “dehumanized” p.213) M. uses when he goes on to describe the self-ignorant person who is the butt of comedy at Philebus 48-50. Given that self-knowledge is a process, we are all, to some degree, self-ignorant. We shouldn’t think of ourselves as being at the end point, only as being (perhaps) further along than the object of comedy. Identifying the Socratic activity as one of self-investigation rather than self-knowledge mitigates our tendency to demonize the self-ignorant.
The terminological shift I propose would, I think, be of greatest benefit to M. with reference to his reading of the Charmides. For it would relieve some of the pressure to dissolve the skeptical conclusions of that dialogue. Those conclusions really are about the possibility and usefulness of self-knowledge understood as knowing what one knows, τὸ εἰδέναι ἃ οἶδεν, (167b2-3), rather than self-investigation or self-inquiry. To my knowledge, Socrates never explicitly casts doubt on the latter. Doubts about the possibility or usefulness of self-knowledge do, of course, bleed over into doubts about the process directed at them, but the shift nonetheless opens interpretative space: for perhaps the endpoint of the process is only properly understood and valued by those who, unlike Socrates and Critias, have arrived at it. Thus, the fact that Socrates and Critias cannot articulate the value or even the possibility of self-knowledge does not show that they should not strive for it (cf. Meno 86bc). M. would still be required to show that the arguments of the Charmides do not decisively tell against the value or possibility of self-knowledge, but this is a smaller interpretative task than that of identifying a particular, positive, alternative account hiding, as it were, in the shadows of the dialogue.
And this would, in turn, put M. in a position to remedy what strikes me as a missed interpretative opportunity. The centerpiece of the Charmides is the definition of sophrosune as self-knowledge to which Critias moves after the failure of the definition of sophrosune as minding one’s own business. The latter was originally mooted by Charmides, who ascribed it to Critias. Critias disowns it, but does attempt to defend it; upon its collapse, he proclaims that what he really thinks is that sophrosune is self-knowledge. But is that definition really Critias’ own? M. assumes so, and reads its collapse as dependent on Critias’ abstract, impersonal, and non-conversational picture of self-knowledge. The confusion with which M. faults Critias here stands in some tension with the insight he wants to attribute to Critias in discussing the latter’s interpretation of the GS as a greeting. M. argues persuasively against the prevailing interpretation of that passage as mere sophistical display. On M.’s interpretation, Critias’ account of the GS as a kind of greeting reflects a genuinely Socratic insight about the relation between conversation and self-knowledge. How, then, can it be that Critias’s conception of self-knowledge misses this very point?
M. is driven to see Critias as making some obvious anti-Socratic mistake because he is on his guard against the fact that Socrates’ refutation of that definition seems like an embarrassment to his project: the one Socratic dialogue about self-knowledge sheds doubt on its existence and possibility. Armed with the distinction between self-knowledge and self-investigation, we can acknowledge the dialogue’s aporetic ending, and entertain the possibility that Socrates is the origin of the definition of sophrosunē as self-knowledge. (Compare Laches, in which Laches gives, and Socrates refutes, a “Socratic” definition of courage). This would add an interpretative layer to the dialogue quite favorable to M.’s thesis: the view of self-knowledge that Critias helps Socrates investigate and finds wanting is Socrates’ own. Read thus, the Charmides would vindicate rather than threatens to undermine M.’s conception of Socratic philosophy as self-investigation.
My second concern is about M.’s description of Socratic self-cultivation as “self-constitution.” M. draws on Korsgaard 2009 (as well as Frankfurt, Moran, and Schapiro (p.36-40) not only for the term, but for the associated account: a person constitutes herself by adopting a critical reflective distance from her beliefs or desires to select some for endorsement and reject others. He speaks of “judging which of one’s commitments are worthiest of acknowledgement, and making those, rather than others, the commitments on which one acts,” (p.158) “determining which commitments to retain” (p.178) and says that “self-knowledge winnows and integrates one’s beliefs and desires.” (p.187) In one place (p.100), ge goes so far as to say that what Socrates is after is “second-order knowledge.” This picture of reflective winnowing and endorsement—which I’ll abbreviate as “reflective endorsement,”—is not, I think, ideally suited as a model for the process of self-investigation he finds in the Socratic texts.
If we take the process of self-investigation to be reflective endorsement, it must be distinguished both from a process by which we come to be acquainted with ourselves (so as to discover which attitudes we have) and a process by which we converse with others (so as to figure out which attitudes to winnow/endorse). The first would have to be preparatory for self-winnowing, the second instrumental to it. So, before I decide which beliefs and desires I want to ‘keep’ I have to investigate myself to see which ones I have. This investigative process would lay the groundwork for the winnowing/endorsing process, which I might use conversation to facilitate. The problem is that M. wants both self-inspection and the conversational process to be, rather than to be ancillary to, Socratic self-cultivation. In one place (131-2) he describes investigation of, conversation about and unification of one’s desire as “three faces” of one process—but he does not tell us how these faces are themselves unified, and if the reader tries to take her cue from the reflective self-endorsement model, she will be inclined to understand them as three faces of three different things.
So, for instance, he wants to deny that one’s beliefs and desires are unproblematically available for introspection; rather, he holds that the process of self-cultivation is precisely what makes them ‘visible’. The self at the end of the process is the one that can be known; once it has been made visible, no work of winnowing or endorsement remains to be performed. And, though he is at times inclined to instrumentalize Socratic conversation, reducing “conversation and reciprocal testing” to the status of “the most effective way” to come to know oneself (p.100), I take it that his considered view is represented by passages in which he says that we “require someone else’s help even in making sense of the request” to know ourselves (p.112).
When M. is at his best, immersed in the details of some passage, he transcends the confines of the reflective endorsement framework. Consider two examples. In his discussion of the Alcibiades, M. rightly emphasizes, against other interpreters, both the fact that Socrates amplifies rather than tamps down Alcibiades’ desires, and the value of his doing so. (Note the lack of fit between the idea of self-amplification and the reflective endorsement model, on which the self seems only to shrink or condense around “core commitments.”) M. is attuned to the way in which Socratic inquiry must plug into the person’s antecedent motivations in such a way as to extend them rather than to step back from them: “Admonishing Alcibiades to seek self-knowledge means urging him to grow into his desires, making those desires realizable.” (p.133)
In his analysis of the Charmides, M. deftly traces the changes in Socrates’ formulations of self-knowledge to Critias. Socrates begins by characterizing such knowledge as akin to geometry and housebuilding in terms of being the knowledge of an impersonal “something” (ti 164c5). He moves to point out that the something known is “oneself” 165c7, and, finally, to characterizing the person who has it as knowing what one knows and does not know (161a7) (pp.86-88; here I simplify M.’ six stages into three). M. notes that the final reference to ignorance personalizes the knowledge: knowledge of “something” could refer to a science picked out without describing its possessor; ignorance, by contrast, has to be someone’s ignorance. It is not quite right to say that Socrates is ‘testing’ Critias’ beliefs, in the sense of helping him see what he does or should commit to; rather, he seems to be unraveling the thread of Critias’ own thought, displaying for him the idea of self-knowledge that was his from the start.
I have levied these criticisms precisely because I am so persuaded by M.’s insight into the GS as a description of what Socrates was doing when he was talking to people. The texts M. discusses mostly lie outside the mainstream of Socratic studies, either because they are simply neglected, or because, like the Phaedrus and the Philebus, they are considered too late to serve as the best sources for understanding the character or motivations of the historical Socrates. Perhaps failure to attend to them explains the fact that some counterpart of what I have called the humility reading of the GS underlies a common way of thinking about Socrates’ conception of himself and his philosophical activity. M. makes a significant contribution to the field of Socratic ethics by showing us that when we read these neglected texts with the GS as our guiding thread, they reveal to us a Socrates who is not, in the first instance, ironic, self-doubting, elenchtic, or skeptical, but an ambitious, brave and optimistic striver after knowledge: of himself, of the good, and of others.

Agnes Callard,

The University of Chicago


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