Socrates famously asked the question 'know thyself'.

When I first read of this it impressed me. It seemed like an important question. What could be more important than knowing your own self? It seems like the ground from which one must or ought to begins from.

It also confused me. How can one begin to answer this question? I was at a loss. For how is it possible that one cannot know what one is? Surely your own self is that which is most closest to you - being closer than your own jugular vein.

If one knows anything then one knows ones own self. I do not need to think about how I pick up a cup, I reach out and I pick it up. No knowing goes on there. Or rather that knowing was learnt in childhood and now forgotten. Knowing the capacity of ones own mind and body is a game children play, and they play it innocently. That is they are not self-conscious of this self-learning. They do not reflect upon it.

As a man, with childhood dismissed and forgotten. It seems self-knowledge is something already known. That the self is self-identical. But Jimenez, the Spanish poet demurs at this characterisation. He writes:

I am not I

-- I am this one

walking beside me whom I do not see

whom I sometimes manage to visit

and whom, at other times, I forget

It seems that one might ask the question: how can or does one know another, but not your own self - unless it, as Jiminez puts it, is an other. One might begin to describe what this means by asking what can I do, or think, or hope for; that is to ask what are the potentialities and actualities of what it is to be my own self. And to be my own self is not to find myself alone but to find myself in a world with many, many things and persons with their own capacities and actualities.

Heidegger described Dasein as:

That being which in its very Being has that Being as a question.

Is Heideggers concept of Dasein an attempt to answer this very question?

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    Three short impulses towards the quote at the end, no guarantee for correctness: 1) a very complicated way to describe self-reference and -reflection as necessary and distinguishing feature of human existence (for other forms of being, the self is not an object, does not stand in question) 2) As Heidegger's main concern is the analysis of existence (last part of Being and Time), all he is able to contribute to "know thyself" is the answer to "In which mode of existence do I exist?" 3) Hence, Heidegger does not (as all too often) give a meaningful answer to the question beyond common sense.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 17, 2018 at 13:08
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    To say a bit more: Humans are able to reflect on themselves as in relation to their environment. They are therefore self-reflective in three senses: Their inner processes, their direct interaction with the environment, and their position and possible influence within their environment. This encompasses all aspects of their Being and goes far beyond what we know animals can do (so far). Scheler, Plessner, and Heidegger wrote about that almost simultaneously (1927/28) with differing systematic and philosophical rigour.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jan 17, 2018 at 13:22
  • Which very question? Can you please put it in a concise form?
    – ttnphns
    Jan 18, 2018 at 7:54
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    I'd ignore Heidegger's Dasein. He ended up endorsing Dr. Suzuki's Zen so it may be a good idea to see what Zen writers say about the self and self-knowledge, or you could go back to the Upanishads. Or there's lots of disussion on youtube by Rupert Spira and others of his ilk.
    – user20253
    Jun 5, 2018 at 10:46
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    It may be helpful to render the question as asking whether Heidegger is doing anthropology, i.e. an inquiry into a deeper knowledge of human nature (what Jimenez hints at; as opposed to mere self-awareness - which the gist of Socrates' sentence has to be sorted to), or rather a general ontology, i.e. metaphysics - three layers. This would allow for an answer that shows that it is this very distinction that he renders as impossible in Being and Time, maybe even showing him in the context of the philosophy of his time where this indeed became a common trope (because of Dilthey and Husserl).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 8, 2018 at 8:57

4 Answers 4


'Know thyself' was a Delphic inscription, not a question Socrates asked. For a start, it doesn't have the form of a question; and secondly it is brought in by Critias at Charmides 164d as the correct answer to the question, 'What is sophrosune [temperance, self-control] ?'

When elsewhere Socrates does claim self-knowledge the claim is limited to knowledge of his own ignorance ( Mary Margaret MacKenzie, 'The Virtues of Socratic Ignorance', The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 2 (1988), pp. 331-350 : 331):

I recognise in myself (sunoida emautdi) that I am not wise in either a small or a large thing (Apol.21b4)

I seem to be wiser than this man in so far as I do not think I know what I do not know (21d 6)

I recognised myself, so to speak, as knowing nothing (22dl) ... anyone who, like Socrates, knows that he is in truth worth nothing in respect of knowledge (23b3).

There is a touch of paradox here, as MacKenzie points out, since if Socrates knows that he is ignorant, hence he has some knowledge after all.

That aside, I suggest that while self-knowledge can proceed to the intellectual depths suggested in your question - depths which Heidegger may elucidate - Socrates' self-knowledge as he understood it was only the knowledge of his own ignorance. I don't read a great deal of depth into this, nor I think did Socrates. It had huge implications as a motivator for his philosophical enterprise but that is another matter.


Whether it's Kierkegaard, William James or Heidegger, they all were recruiting for the same idealism: remove the cultural beliefs and values supplied by the parents/culture to uncover your true self.

Kierkegaard/James's despair is equivalent to Heidegger's authentic mode of existence.

Here's how Ernest Becker (A reader of Kierkegaard and William James) sees the mater:

This, after all is said and done, is the only real problem of life, the only worthwhile preoccupation of man: What is one's true talent, his secret gift, his authentic vocation? In what way is one truly unique, and how can he express this uniqueness, give it form, dedicate it to something beyond himself? How can the person take his private inner being, the great mystery that he feels at the heart of himself, his emotions, his yearnings and use them to live more distinctively, to enrich both himself and mankind with the peculiar quality of his talent? In adolescence, most of us throb with this dilemma, expressing it either with words and thoughts or with simple numb pain and longing. But usually life suck us up into standardized activities. The social hero-system into which we are born marks out paths for our heroism, paths to which we conform, to which we shape ourselves so that we can please others, become what they expect us to be. And instead of working our inner secret we gradually cover it over and forget it, while we become purely external men, playing successfully the standardized hero-game into which we happen to fall by accident, by family connection, by reflex patriotism, or by the simple need to eat and the urge to procreate. (The denial of death, page 82)

Most people are living with a cultural self not with their own self.


"In his 1941 essay “Recollection in Metaphysics,” Heidegger declaimed, “The history of Being is neither the history of man and of humanity, nor the history of the human relation to beings and to Being. The history is being itself and only being!" [Exclamation point mine.]

Being and only being.

Above quote taken from this book review in "The Nation" "Heidegger made Kosher: Two New Books explore the work of philosophers Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Heidegger." Levinas, famous in his own right now, was one of Heidegger's students. https://www.thenation.com/article/heidegger-made-kosher/

We can say that certainly after WWII, even before really, the grand, or let us say original, style of German philosophy moved to France. This is a free book well worth reading I think. "Heidegger in France". https://archive.org/details/dominique-janicaud-heidegger-in-france

And by the way, this was probably good for Germany, and bad for France. I will stop at that before I get into trouble; only time will tell.

So man is not at the center with Heidegger, a critical point, it just so happens that we are the Shepard of Being in this world; we are the opening, we carry the light, but we are not not the center of it. Heidegger: not beings, but being.

"As a man, with childhood dismissed and forgotten." Who said this?

Repressed perhaps, but probably not forgotten.

Self knowledge is exactly what we don't have; the Id, which we may loosely deem the child, is repressed by the Ego, due to the influence of the superego (old tapes from our father and mother, particularly of the father, which tend to include the reactionary part from human history).

As Freud said..."where there is Id there will be ego".

In other words, where there is Id, when those urges rise up, then ego will repress them, and usually paper it over with rationalizations.

We are not transparent to ourselves imo, and the wise know this. In fact the best thing to know about ourselves is that we are not transparent to ourselves.

Not all books by Erich Fromm are good, but I think this is a good one. Erich Fromm, "Beyond the Chains of Illusion" (1962).


"Know thyself" is not a question. And Socrates' take on that old Delphic inscription according to Platon's Apologia amounted to "unreflected life is not the life of men" when it was suggested to him that he should just stop, well, annoying people with his take on philosophy and save everybody a wagonload of trouble.

I don't see that connecting to Heidegger's "Dasein" concept. Heidegger is talking about existence as such, Socrates about worthwhile existence or rather life.

Maybe you should either try to analyze your question outside of a reference to Socrates, or read up on Platon directly rather than treatises about his meaning: there are excellent translations of Platon available and quite a few of the dialogs, for all the philosophical meaning ascribed to them that may root in their respective punch lines, are fun reading.

I find that Platon is hugely over- as well as underrated at the same time by people revering him to a degree that they don't actually read him even in translation but instead are determining the tenets of his philosophy by hearsay, like the proverbial length of the nose of the emperor of China: asking people on the street and averaging.

Much of the Socratic dialogs basically boils down to "questioning everything is good", with the Apologia boiling down to "I'd rather die than quit questioning".

Apart from this emotic appeal, there is the Socratic approach to questioning, Platon's own political models, and of course the allegory of the cave. But all in all, the work is more about the love and art of questioning than a deep store of answers.

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    You mention that there are "excellent translations". Who were these translators? Do you have any references of philosophers who take a similar view to the one you are presenting? That would strengthen your answer and give the reader a place to go for further information. Jun 3, 2018 at 21:08
  • Most translations are actually based on the seminal Schleiermacher renditions in German. With regard to philosophers taking a similar view to the one I am presenting: how about Platon and Heidegger? What's wrong with reading what they wrote? Why do you need intermediaries?
    – user33634
    Jun 3, 2018 at 22:28

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