Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Know yourself!

This grand instruction was apparently on display at the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi; it is also a very important part of what passes for contemporary wisdom. Be acquainted with yourself. Know who you are.

There is wisdom in this little catch-phrase. Self-knowledge is vitally important. Problem is, according to at least one strand of the western philosophical tradition, it is also impossible. I have in mind mainly Hume (who denied being aware of any self - just bundles of perceptions), Kant (whose doctrine of the transcendental ego cannot be delved into here, but involves the implicit barring of self-knowledge) and Wittgenstein (who points out that the self is that through which we view other things, and as such cannot be viewed in itself). The basic point is: because I am always the subject of my perceptions, I cannot also be the object. Even in introspection, I am still the one doing the looking, and so it cannot be I that I am looking at - or at least, not entirely. It's like trying to look at your own eyes - and without the benefit of a mirror.

We know this in experience - often others know us better than we know ourselves, and we are sometimes shocked when a close friend has to tell us an uncomfortable truth about what we are really like. Problem is, other people don't see us completely; they see only the externals, only our actions and the thoughts we choose to put into words. There are depths they do not see.

Is knowledge of God a pre-condition of knowledge of self? God knows me - really knows me - in a way that I cannot know myself and no-one else can know me. His knowledge of me is exhaustive and unbiased. I am object to him in a way I can never quite be to myself. So only he can really tell me what I am like.

If I am to know myself, that knowledge will come from above, not from within. But do I want to know what he might say about me?


  1. loving this.
    Paul Tillich seems to hear Heidegger/Wittgenstein & move on from there by his "method of correlation", established post hoc. In other words, now that I'm being remade in Jesus, I find I now understand, under the impact of the answers, the questions implied by my life in Adam (eg shame, guilt, fear, hiding in creation, death...)

    here's some taster quotes:

    "God answers man's questions and under the impact of God's answers man asks them"

    The Christian message provides the answers to the questions implied in human existence. These answers are contained in the revelatory events on which Christianity is based and are taken by systematic theology from the sources, through the medium, under the norm. Their content cannot be derived from the questions, that is, from an analysis of human existence. They are “spoken” to human existence from beyond it. Otherwise they would not be answers, for the question is human existence itself.

    problem is, Heidegger has a strange view of fallenness which is like Lacan's alienation of subject from object, certainly not what we mean by fallen, so I'm not sure where I might need to be wary of Tillich - he's hardly touted round in Stott's circles...but then again CS Lewis picks it up in "Joy"...I dont know, just stumbled over it once and made the connection! Nice though innit!

  2. here's two more

    "It belongs to man’s essential being, to the unity of his finitude with the infinity in which he is separated. …A symptom of both the essential unity and the existential separation of finite man from his infinity is his ability to ask about the infinite to which he belongs: the fact that he must ask about it indicates that he is separated from it."

    "Whenever man has looked at his world, he has found himself in it as a part of it. But he has also realized that he is a stranger in the world of objects, unable to penetrate it beyond a certain level of scientific analysis. And then he has become aware of the fact that he himself is the door to the deeper levels of reality, that in his own existence he has the only possible approach to existence itself"

  3. What's the book your quoting from Chris? Sounds like I'd like to take a look...

  4. Er... that would be "the book *you're* quoting". Man, I'm illiterate today.

  5. I stumbled across it because it's one of the readings in Alister McGrath (ed.), the Christian Theology Reader (Blackwell, 2nd ed.)

    It's really from Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology vol. 1 (University of Chicago Press, 1951), 59-64

    I'm not sure how to take it yet, seems him & Torrance's might show a healthy way forward from Barth, but i havent got the time to read his Systematics. John W Cooper's got a book I really want to read called Panentheism: the other God of the philosophers and he devotes a whole chapter to Tillich.

  6. had an interesting chat with John Risbridger while in Exeter about this stuff. He said in the 90s he struggled with a resurgence of neo-Barthian suspicion of

    - progressive revelation
    - apologetics
    - ethical engagement

    I'd have loved to hear him further on that, so if you come across him, he'd be really helpful to ask, I'm sure. Anyway, I'm off to eat some shoots and leave.