Know thyself

Lecture 5.  September 4 and 10.

Afterthoughts.  “Know thyself” was an ancient Greek motto, attributed to many thinkers and oracles.  For psychology, it’s the most important Greek saying.  As touched on in earlier lectures, a key goal of this course is questioning those beliefs and practices we take most for granted — so much for granted that we don’t know they are there.  We have now met the Greeks who began this Western tradition, in metaphysics with the difference between Being and Becoming, in epistemology with the distinction between Appearance and Reality, and we have seen how these distinctions helped lead to the first theory in psychology, the representational theory of perception, which was meant not only to be an account of perception but a defense of empiricism, Emedocles’ Way of True Seeming.  We have also learned about the very tight connection between Greek democracy and the birth and maintenance of the critical tradition in philosophy and science.

A decisive turn has now been made by the Sophists, who brought Greek skepticism and self-inquiry into the social realm itself, questioning the connection between human nature (physis) — the object of psychology — and nomos — the structure of society.  The Sophists were the first Greeks to refuse to take social beliefs for granted, and to wonder what, if any, social arrangement is most conducive to human happiness, or eudaemonia, human flourishing, as the Greeks then understood happiness.  Their concerns broaden the scope of disciplined inquiry into the human mind to include social and motivational factors as well as cognitive ones.

Forethoughts.  Although Socrates will reject the Sophist’s separation of human physis and nomos (they claim that human nature can flourish in any society and he will not), he, more than anyone, inaugurates the Western tradition of reflexivity, of knowing — and, more important, being able to justify — one’s beliefs and actions.  In the next Lecture we will see how Socrates does this and the immense implications of his approach and assumptions on the project of self-knowledge and psychology, and how Plato tries to answer Socrates’ provocative questions.


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