Know Thyself (Kantian Style)

Owen Ware’s essay on the problem of self-knowledge in Kant can be found online here on his page. Here’s an abstract:

Kant is well known for claiming that we can never really know our true moral disposition. He is less well known for claiming that the injunction “Know Yourself” is the basis of all self-regarding duties. Taken together, these two claims seem contradictory. My aim in this paper is to show how they can be reconciled. I first address the question of whether the duty of self-knowledge is logically coherent (§1). I then examine some of the practical problems surrounding the duty, notably, self-deception (§2). Finding none of Kant’s solutions to the problem of self-deception satisfactory, I conclude by defending a Kantian account of self-knowledge based on his theory of conscience (§3).

Ware does a good job discussing the paradox that I have often referred to in terms of Kant’s vision of ethics: one ought to act only for the sake of the duty and never for the sake of any inclinations, yet once the decision is made to act in a certain way, one never knows exactly what the motivation is (was) that propelled one to act this and not that way. Ware writes:

As noted, the limits Kant places on self-knowledge are rather strict and wide-ranging. Not only does he limit the knowledge we can have of others, he also limits the knowledge we can have of ourselves. “Indeed,” Kant writes, “even a human being’s inner experience of himself does not allow him so to fathom the depths of his heart as to be able to attain, through self-observation, an entirely reliable cognition of the basis of the maxims which he professes, and of their purity and stability” (R 6:63–my emphasis). I cannot know, for example, whether my particular actions arise from conformity with the moral law or from some hidden self-interest.

This “hidden self-interest” is what cannot be known due to the limitations that Kant imposes on our ability to know things that are outside of the possibility of experience – would it be fair to suggest that something like “unconscious” could very well be such “hidden interest”? Kant and Freud – surely there’s plenty of research here, is there? I remember Adorno has something to say about Kant and Freud on art in Aesthetic Theory.

The essay is full of great formulations that show deep knowledge and appreciation of the subleties of Kant’s argument, even if in the end one might argue against some of Ware’s readings. I do like the style though:

My speculation, in short, is that knowledge of our inner humanity could have something of a looping effect with our moral feeling for the law. Even if moral feeling constitutes our receptiveness to duty, cultivating our understanding of humanity’s moral vocation could help incite that receptiveness, thus serving to keep up our spirits while we traverse the path of virtue. Reminding ourselves of our dignity, and the dignity of others, could thereby enliven our resolve to improve ourselves.


Still, introducing the concept of conscientious self-judgment raises more questions than it solves. We might first ask whether the notion of an “inner judge” is even intelligible, for how can I truly condemn myself? If I am responsible for issuing the verdict on my life as a whole, wouldn’t I be tempted to deceive myself, to render my life acquitted even if an impartial judge would render me guilty? Intuitively, we often associate a judge’s impartiality with his distance (both emotional and physical) from the accused. And yet, at the most crucial point in his argument, when the agent’s assurance in her restoration is at stake, Kant seems to have fallen victim to an odd form of optimism. He has effectively entrusted the question of the agent’s assurance in her own hands, so that she herself—and no one else—is responsible for judging her life.

This last quote reminded me of Shahar’s old and profound argument that self-imposed deadlines are not, properly speaking, deadlines at all as there is no real external authority that would enforce them. Ware has a whole section on the “inner court” – it’s a fun read, give it a go.

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