Home > Emerson R. W., Philosophy > Self-knowledge and selective genius

Self-knowledge and selective genius

Ipsa scientia potestas est, Francis Bacon once wrote. If knowledge is power, then self-knowledge is power over oneself. How, then, do we acquire self-knowledge?

A useful strategy when dealing with a phenomenon so elusive as self-knowledge is to liken it to somewhat more familiar. Perhaps self-knowledge resembles our knowledge of other objects. We may have a theory of ourselves, how we operate. We may know what it is we are doing, as we are doing it. We may know where we are heading, how we are to develop, etc. We have a theory of ourselves much as an English professor might have a theory of Shakespeare—the difference being that our theory of ourselves informs our actions, while the English professor’s theory does not help Shakespeare become Shakespeare. With the exception of that—important—difference, however, all that makes self-knowledge of this sort self-knowledge is the happenstance identity of the one who possesses it.

Emerson, in “Spiritual Laws”, offers a critique. The first is disguised as a critique of education. He writes, “It is natural and beautiful that childhood should inquire, and maturity should teach; but it is time enough to answer questions when they are asked. Do not shut up the young people against their will in a pew, and force the children to ask them questions for an hour against their will.” (308) Questions are to be asked and answered when they arise. Questions are not to be imposed for their own sake. Yet this is just what happens when we form theories of ourselves, when we take “know yourself” to impose that sort of obligation. Then self-knowledge becomes knowledge for its own sake, which satisfies only an idle curiosity and not the active individual. To act, to live, no theory of yourself is needed. “Could Shakespeare give a theory of Shakespeare?” (307) This conception of self-knowledge rests, then, on a poor model of the educative process.

Moreover, this sort of self-knowledge may inhibit activity in other ways. “Our moral nature is vitiated by any interference of our will.” (306) Too much knowledge of one’s own virtue and we start not to manifest it but to perform it. I am reminded here of Zarathustra’s advocacy of a private virtue, a nameless virtue—hence a virtue which denies its possessor knowledge of it. Better genuine ignorance than dishonest but knowledgeable action. “We love characters in proportion as they are impulsive and spontaneous. The less a man thinks or knows about his virtues, the better we like him.” (306)

To this critique, I add my own. Mine stems from the epistemology of experiment. Emerson hints at when he writes, “The great man knew not that he was great. It took a century or two for that fact to appear.” (317) Constructing a theory of Shakespeare is precisely the task of the English professor who comes after Shakespeare. A theory of the great man’s virtue is recognized by later centuries. This is as it should be, because a theory should account for the results of experiments. But life itself is to be lived experimentally, and self-knowledge should thus be what is needed for experimentation on oneself. These experiments yield the results on which a theory of Shakespeare is to be based—but the life must be lived before it can be theorized. Otherwise, there is nothing for the theory to latch on to.

Here I must combat a myth about experiment: it exists to fill in the gaps in theories. A theory is incomplete in some fashion—say the value of a parameter is undetermined—very well then, fill in that blank with a well-designed experiment. This is a perfectly adequate description of certain activities that we call “experiments”, but what I mean when I say that life is experimental is aligned not with this but with the conception of experiment in which experimentation and laboratory work is largely autonomous and self-vindicating (to use Hacking’s phrase).

Theorizing is a form of history. It is a summarizing of the past. Now there is a use for history, as Emerson well knew. My past does not simply recede from me into nothingness. I do not live in an eternal present. I must have some relation to my past self, though this relation is fraught with dangers (see my post on the philosophy of experiment, linked above). And, because of this, some theory of myself may, at times, prove useful to me. But that is not properly called self-knowledge, if self-knowledge is something essential and omnipresent. It is a mere tool, to be used as needed and then discarded.

“The great man knew not that he was great. It took a century or two for that fact to appear. What he did, he did because he must; it was the most natural thing in the world, and grew out of the circumstances of the moment.” (317) The great man is one who operates by a sort of local necessity, reacting to the demands of the moment. Self-knowledge is what is required to do this. But what knowledge is that?

Operating in accord with local necessity is not mere passive obedience, for the individual must actively work to select or create that environment in which such necessity arises. Emerson likens great individuals to pipes: “There is less intention in history than we ascribe to it. We impute deep-laid, far-sighted plans to Caesar and Napoleon; but the best of their power was in nature, not in them. […] It is even true that there was less in them on which they could reflect, than in another; as the virtue of a pipe is to be smooth and hollow.” (306-7) Power resides not in the individual but in her relations to her environment, and the true act of genius is to place oneself in the right environment. Nietzsche speaks well, in Daybreak §326: “We can estimate our powers but not our power. Our circumstances do not only conceal and reveal it to us – no! they magnify and diminish it. One should regard oneself as a variable quantity whose capacity for achievement can under favourable circumstances perhaps equal the highest ever known: one should thus reflect on one’s circumstances and spare no effort in observing them.”

Self-knowledge, then, is my knowledge of my relation to my environment. Genius is selectivity about one’s environment. “A man’s genius, the quality that differences him from every other, the susceptibility to one class of influences, the selection of what is fit for him, the rejection of what is unfit, determines for him the character of the universe. A man is a method, a progressive arrangement; a selecting principle, gather his like to him, wherever he goes.” (311) The genius tends to her environment and to herself, looks after them, inquires into them—thus she gains self-knowledge that allows her to better select her environment.

What is the goal of better selecting one’s environment? If it is some particular action, specified in advance, then we are simply back were we began, at self-knowledge as a theory of oneself. But that is not the case. When I select the right environment for myself, I do not know what will happen—it is an experiment and yields results. Experiments do not precede all knowledge: I must have a sense of the object on which I am experimenting if I am to design an experiment that is informative and fruitful. That is what self-knowledge is, that feeling for oneself and one’s environment that is required for experimentation on the self.

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All citations but one in this post are to Emerson’s Essays & Lectures, published by the Library of America.

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  1. 2013/12/08 at 17:35

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