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This is a short paper I did for a class this past year in university. The assigment was to choose a word, phrase, or at most a sentence from one of our readings and expound upon it.

Self-knowledge according to Michael Novak

"To decide who I am is to decide what I think knowing is.” - from lines 10-11, page 62, of Michael Novak, “Philosophy as Self-Knowledge,” in Novak, Belief and Unbelief, New York: Macmillan, 1965.

In the sentence given above, Michael Novak is saying that making a fundamental assertion about one’s own nature is not only to create a self-description but also to decide on a personal ‘epistemology’. When a person makes the effort to put themselves under some deep introspection, they necessarily have to go down to the deepest level, that of the inspection of their own understanding. “Could I understand my understanding correctly,” Novak says, “I could understand myself.” To comprehend how one sees the world, to be able to step back from one’s own viewpoint and examine it, reveals to a person not only who they are, but also how they process what they take in through sensory experience, be it intellectual ideas/concepts, or otherwise.

Novak is saying that the experience of knowing is basic to what an individual is. When an individual person searches for his or her self by turning inward, that individual can’t escape looking at how he or she reacts to reality. In exploring that relation, one must divine the channels along which it flows from what is ‘exterior’ to what is ‘interior’. That is to say, one must know how one ‘knows’, or at least make judgments about the process that one can find somehow satisfying. Building an idea of one’s identity must begin with examining the viability of one’s position with relation to the world. If a person looks into his or her self and finds something about the way they process information and ideas lacking, that person would likely feel that a re-ordering of his or her life was necessary. One’s worldview (and I use the term here in the sense of the stance that shapes one’s actions, which can be different from the stance one professes and believes one holds) forms the reactions one has to ideas and events. How one reacts is conditioned by how one perceives. So, to perceive how one perceives is the first step in knowing oneself in that it allows us to understand the channel which is our only means of ‘sounding our inner depths’. One can only know oneself through one’s reactions to stimuli, whether they are intellected or directly sensed, but first one has to know how one knows. This way, one can find distortions, and hopefully begin to smooth them out.

A consequence of thinking this way about self-knowledge is that fixing on a personal identity and fixing on a personal epistemology must be simultaneous events. They’re interwoven filaments in the thread of the self-discovery process. ‘I am how I know’ is true in the sense that how we perceive shapes our identities, and our identities shape how we perceive. The circular interaction, one hopes, moves forward along some line of development from the simplistic and unsophisticated to the precise and thoughtful.

When I first read Novak’s statement, it seemed pretty radical to me. I couldn’t, at least on the surface, conceive of why in the process of getting to know myself I should have to come up with some kind of philosophy of knowing all of my own. It seemed like something outside the process. ‘I already know that I know!’, I may have said to myself. This, however, was missing the point, and further consideration of what I thought Novak was saying led me to agree with him.

Our knowing is so directly tied into who we are as persons. When I consider how I know, I can’t escape the fact that I live within a framework that conditions how I judge fact and value. When I test and evaluate that framework itself, it hits pretty close to home, so to speak. That is to say that I’m very attached to my way of seeing things, and to step out of that, to somehow see things differently, is a difficult process. In fact, when I do that, I think that it is only ever a partial process. I put myself in the situation of another, try to feel as they would feel, think as they would think, but ultimately it is still happening inside me. I can’t enter another person’s experience directly, so when I try to imagine another’s perspective, it is, at best, a really good guess, an approximation. I am still me, and if I wanted to fully gain someone else’s perspective, I would have to become them, in every way. Looking back on myself, my own perspective conditions everything about me, and vice versa. To alter (or have altered by external factors) one’s own perspective will mean the changing of how one reacts, what one contributes. The source of these actions has changed.

So, what I think about myself, the source of my knowing, will necessarily have to include what I think about knowing. I decide about who I am; I decide about how the world relates to me; I decide about how I relate to the world. What I decide may or may not correspond to a certain degree with what is really outside of myself, but who I am and how I relate to the world are intimately linked.

Self`-knowl"edge (?), n.

Knowledge of one's self, or of one's own character, powers, limitations, etc.


© Webster 1913.

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