Second Thoughts on Whether Self-Knowledge Is Overrated

In my recent post “Is Self-Knowledge Overrated?,” I cast doubt on what I called the Socratic principle, the notion that self-examination in the broadest sense—contemplating not just your life but life in general, the human condition–leads to happiness and virtue. In this post I’ll offer additional thoughts on this topic.

I concluded my previous post by asking: If delving deeply into the human condition cannot make us better people or yield definitive answers, why bother? I see several reasons to bother, which are not mutually exclusive. If you’re lucky, talented and hard-working, being a professional investigator of the human condition—whether philosopher or psychiatrist, anthropologist or novelist–can lead to a high-status career, tenure and possibly even fame and glory.

If your goal is moral and spiritual self-improvement, you have a shot at that, too. In fact, the path you choose—stoicism, Buddhism, psychoanalysis, cognitive science, psychopharmacology—matters less than your sincere desire to be a better person. Just remember that empirical studies of meditation, psychotherapy and other paths suggest your gains will probably be modest.

The loftiest reason to bother studying the human condition is to help others understand themselves. Who knows, you might end up becoming the next Descartes, Kant, Austen, Marx, Dickinson, James, Jung or Nussbaum. If your work contributes, even a little, to humanity’s self-awareness and moral progress, you had a good life, even if you were a miserable grouch who died penniless and friendless.

In my own case, intellectual inquiry has always been more compulsion than choice. Life baffles me. I haven’t gleaned any insights that make life less mysterious (quite the contrary), or that make me nicer or happier, or that make the world a better place.

I’ve nonetheless managed to construct a career of sorts out of thinking, reading and writing about life’s mysteries—and talking about them to students. I do this for its own sake, because I enjoy it. I even get paid to do it! This work has given me lots of satisfaction, which, I suspect, makes me nicer than I used to be (although that’s not for me to judge).

I would never insist, as Socrates did, that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” or that the examined life is the “greatest good.” But there are worse paths. Contemplating life’s meaninglessness can make for a meaningful life. It can even be fun.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings, which is part of the College of Arts & Letters. This column is adapted from one originally published on his ScientificAmerican.com blog, “Cross-check.”