Sit Down and Get to Know Yourself
Epistle 10. Posted on 2019-03-23. Edited on 2019-03-26.
Socrates felt strongly enough about the pursuit of wisdom through questioning and logical argument that he reportedly said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Before Socrates, “Know thyself” was inscribed on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. This article introduces the topic of introspection as performed in philosophical counseling at Stoic Therapy.
Introspection is a self-examination of conscious thoughts and feelings, and of concepts and definitions. When someone asks you how to define a chair, and you attempt to develop a definition without using an external source, you are introspecting because you are attempting to develop a definition of your own concept of a chair, based on retrievable memories of your experiences to date of chairs.
When you are trying to fall asleep at night and instead you reflect on events of the day, and you wonder why you did something, you are introspecting. When you wonder what something means to you, you are introspecting. When you wonder what is the right thing to do in a dilemma and you attempt to answer it yourself, you are probably introspecting. We introspect all the time, engaging in self-exploration, seeking self-discovery and self-understanding. This article is about logical introspection, which is to say the application of formal reason to such questions.
Many people think that introspection is not — or cannot be — scientific, but I beg to differ. As with anything, the reasonable answer depends on your definitions. The blog article entitled The Scandal of “Science” presents well my position. In short, absolute truth is unknowable, and the best we can do is to apply formal reason to our own experiences. For example, if you are looking at a wall, realize that you have never had any direct experience with that wall, even if you touch it, because any information about that wall had to first go through your senses, which are fallible. Likewise, if you read about gravity and that very solid physics theory agrees with your experience of the world, you can never have absolute knowledge of any of it, but agree with it because of your reason and your experiences. The dividing line between the absolute and the appearance of it is our senses. Likewise, the dividing line between science and pseudoscience is whether or not induction is included — which is pseudoscience — or only deductive logic is used. Take careful note that most of the “science” you are told about involves induction, and therefore circular reasoning; anything fraught with circular reasoning should not be regarded as science.
It is noteworthy that logical introspection, done properly, also involves an epistemology; it is this aspect, the development of knowledge, that allows logical introspection to be capable of being scientific. Nonetheless, epistemology is beyond the scope of this article, and is overlooked for the sake of brevity.
Introspection, as with science, begins with a question. I may wonder: “What am I doing with my life?” To be methodical, we note the concepts that are involved, and then define those concepts. To learn the basics of developing your own such definitions, consider the blog article entitled Definitions. In this example, I would begin with the concept of “doing” and the concept of “life.” Of course I would need to be more specific about what I mean here by “doing,” and clearly a dictionary will not help. It may turn out that I am questioning a job, a relationship, or a pursuit.
Exploring the definitions of the main concepts involved in my query is certainly helpful, but will not alone usually answer the question. Sometimes, these questions have long-term importance, and the same question will resurface repeatedly in the future. Whether it is a short- or long-term question, the next steps vary with the particular question.
Sometimes, it is important to explore a concept beyond its definition, to get at the essence of the concept, which is to say its (necessary) qualities. Someone may develop a definition of fire, and later note that any fire necessarily generates heat. If it is conceptually impossible for a fire not to generate heat, and it should be, then generating heat is part of the essence of fire, though it is not necessarily part of its definition. Used in this way, to say that something is essential is just a technical term for saying it is a necessary quality, and its use will hold up to logical and scientific debate.
To question what I am doing with my life may very well be answered to my satisfaction by elucidating the essence of one of the related concepts. Or, the answer may require connecting one or more of those concepts to other concepts, such as fire having a necessary connection with heat. After all, a clear and necessary connection is the purpose of the following conditional: “If something is a fire, that thing generates heat.”
Sometimes, it is all about context within the bigger picture, in the sense that the answer lies not in a concept of a thing itself, or in a related predicate, but in the connection of a concept to a purpose, such as the purpose of your life.
Self-discovery may result from connecting concepts that you did not previously regard as connected, or discovering that you falsely regarded concepts as connected when you lack sufficient grounds to make that claim. Self-discovery also results from falsifying assumptions, and from resolving contradictions that emerge from self-exploration. Both the falsification of assumptions and the resolution of contradictions occur often when developing and refining definitions, and so there will be much practice along the way.
I have years of experience with logical introspection, and have found it to be incredibly helpful. In hindsight, it seems that life was misspent without it. Even though I am using developments that took place after Socrates and therefore I am not exactly using his approach to the discovery of knowledge, I have come to agree with his dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” which I regard as a statement of the profound importance of disciplined self-exploration leading to self-discovery, then self-understanding, and finally to self-improvement.
In philosophical counseling, I may primarily assist a client with learning how to conduct logical introspection, or I may recommend that we regard the interest of the client as a specific application of the topic of introspection. The former emphasizes the method, and the latter emphasizes one particular question.
Logical introspection is a skill that takes patience and practice. It is never too late to begin to “know thyself.” I look forward to the opportunity to guide your self-discovery.
Vale (pronounced WAH-lay is Latin for “Farewell”),