Knowing Oneself

From Richard Marshall’s “End Times” series of interviews:

[RM]: You’re interested in the connection between psychoanalysis and philosophy. One starting point is to try and understand the Delphic command: ‘Know thyself.’ How do you think this is best understood? Is it about a particular epistemic attitude or about avoiding self-deception?

[Richard Gipps]: No doubt there are many useful facts to learn about yourself – for example, I now know not to do the washing up in the morning, since at that time of day I’m clumsy and likely to break something. However I rather doubt that in this I would’ve made the Delphic Oracle proud.

Truly ‘knowing oneself’, as I see it, instead has largely to do with undoing what, since Freud, we call our ‘defence mechanisms’. Knowing oneself is often not so much about introspectively discovering facts about oneself, but instead about relinquishing self-thwarting habits which place a kink in our world-relations…. I may well come to know something about myself – that I run certain defences, have certain repressed feelings, etc. – but this knowledge will most likely not, if it remains only of a ‘knowing about’ form, be truly mutative [i.e. tending toward mutation].

What I need instead of factual knowing is to relinquish my short-termist, anxiety-avoiding tendencies which stop me truly becoming who I latently am. Having achieved this I can ‘body forth’ spontaneously, enjoying direct and emotionally alive relations with others – rather than be caught up in some self-stultifying reflexive self-relation.

Knowing oneself is also about becoming more what we call ‘self-possessed’ – a term which indexes not some relation of oneself to oneself, but rather the absence of certain self-thwarting relations to others. She who isn’t self-possessed is inclined to unthinkingly go along with the preferences and values of others (real and imaginary); she doesn’t know how to follow the maxim ‘to thine own self be true’. Becoming self-possessed is a lifetime’s work, and involves a lot of what psychoanalysts call disidentifying from the superego – i.e. learning to spot and challenge and dismantle the fear-derived inner critical voice which disables healthy assertiveness.

Sometimes people think that when they leave a psychoanalytic treatment they will have learned all sorts of things about themselves. What surprises many an analysand is that, after a successful analysis, they often recall very little of the analytic process or the discoveries they made along the way. In fact they will – unlike the characters Woody Allen scripts for himself – altogether be thinking rather less about themselves than they did previously. Instead they find themselves enjoying less inhibited and less preoccupied relations with others: they’ve become less neurotic.