The Greatest Philosophical Problem?

Written by  //  July 14, 2011  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  7 Comments

  “Gnothi Seauton” Know Thyself.

Inscription on the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi

What if I were to tell you that this inscription conveys the greatest problem in the history of philosophy? Intuitively most of us would find it hard to accept. On the face of it this inscription appears to state a pretty effortlessly executable prescription. Knowing oneself seems to be the most obvious knowledge that anyone can have of anything in the world; you need not learn anything or go anywhere to know yourself. However, that cocksure confidence, it turns out, is seriously misplaced. Paradoxically, human beings figure out obscure things easily, it is the most obvious ones that present the hardy perennials of philosophy. In the estimation of philosophers over the millennia, spanning from the Pre-Socratics to Wittgenstein this apparently neat and innocuous question- Who am I?-  nestles  the grandmother of all philosophical problems. The problem is a somewhat slippery one so I will not jump into it straight away. I will begin with its counterpart in human physiology: the problem of blind spots in vision. The physiological problem is much easier to grasp and will give us a better handle on the philosophical problem.

The Eye and the Blind Spot

There is a blind spot in the very centre of our visual field. At certain spots in our vision we just have no retinal stimulation.  To ‘see’ your blindness with your own eyes, try out this experiment. (Please follow the instructions in the opening screen)

You would have noticed the red dot just disappears into the white background. This is because of lack of retinal stimulation: the eye has a blind spot there. But why don’t we just see the blind spot? Why do we see the white background where we should have seen the blind spot in the form of a black hole the size of the red dot? That is because this phenomenon does not involve straightforward blindness in the sense of there being an ‘absence of vision’- it is much more than that. It is blindness plus active obscuring; as you do ‘see’ the white where there previously was a red dot. Almost as though your eye pulls a white veil to cover the blind spot and shows you something that is never even there.  As Roy Sorenson, the Princeton Philosopher puts it:

“Instead of perceiving a black hole where there is no retinal stimulation, the active brain ‘fills in’ the gap in accordance with its surroundings” [in this case the white background].

This optical experiment reveals that perception is not an entirely ‘passive’ phenomena; every perception to a certain extent is also a creation.  This problem is related to some interesting debates in the philosophy of science questioning the extent to which we – to use David Hume’s phrase- ‘gild and stain’ with our minds the ‘reality’ that nature is meant to reveal. The notorious ‘observer effect’ problem in quantum physics is one not so distant cousin. Perhaps a simpler avatar of the problem- and more comprehendible for my types- is the one raised by George Berkley “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Counterintuitive as it first sounded to me when I learnt of the solution, way back in 1886 the Scientific American had answered the question in the negative. No one to hear the sound = the tree makes no sound; as sound needs a medium of perception: the ear.


The Eye, the Blind Spot and Philosophy

You may wonder what does any of this have to do with the problem of knowing oneself.  Arthur Schopenhauer (1841) remarked that ‘I’ is the blind spot in philosophy just like the ‘eye’ had a blind spot. Quite an interesting thought; and the neat use of alliteration involving the ‘I’ and the ‘Eye’. Schopenhauer was fascinated with the idea of the self or ‘I’ and it is at the heart of his philosophy.  Schopenhauer was also a learned scholar of the Upanishads. He even named his pet dog ‘Atman’. In Sanskrit atman means the self or ‘I’.

The ‘eye’ and ‘I’ not only sound similar but if you look closely there is a curious overlap between the properties they have. Having picked it up from Schopenhauer, Ludwig Wittgenstein further developed the idea of this overlap. He said in his Tractatus (1922) that the eye can see everything in the visual field but cannot see itself; and nothing in the visual field can see the eye either. Similarly Wittgenstein notes that ‘I’ observes everything but nothing that is observed by the ‘I’ can observe the ‘I’. Quite literally ‘I’ is the blind spot of philosophy. We will return to Wittgenstein in a bit. But before that it must be pointed out that there is more to the idea of ‘I’ being the blind spot of philosophy. Just like the blind spot of the eye turned out to be blindness plus an active obscuring by the mind- so it is here.

When you ask yourself ‘who am I?’ you don’t just fall into silence; the mind throws out a welter of answers. Just like in case of the eye you don’t see the blind spot but the mind fills it in with the background colour. Just try it for yourself. There are countless candidate answers to the question ‘Who am I?’: ‘I am Indian’, ‘I am a son’, ‘I am John Doe’ ‘I am a husband’ ‘I am this’ and so on and so forth. But this is just yet another instance of the mind ‘filling in’ the blind spot just like it did in the optical experiment. The candidate answers are just so many thoughts; this is the mind actively scrambling the question. The question in the first place is who is ‘I am’? – The answer cannot be another ‘object’ that the ‘I am’ perceives, because the ‘I am’ is still behind it. This is like searching for a lost penny under a street light a mile away from the spot you lost it just because it is pitch dark there. The real thrust of the question is -who is the seer? The answer cannot be- ‘that which is seen by the seer’; and any thought is also seen by the seer. If you are lucky enough to follow Tamil you can see Rajinikant (Yes, the Superstar Rajinikant!) explaining this idea in his inimitable style here in a talk in Singapore.

This has also been the pillar of Buddhist and Advaitic Philosophy. The simple question they pose is: look for yourself- can the seer be seen? At this juncture we must seriously resist the great temptation to churn out conceptual answers because each of these answers is a product of thought and hence all uniformly illusionary. Advaitic philosophy says you must reject every such mental answer you may get. In Sanskrit this method of systematic rejection it is called ‘neti neti’ (neither this nor that). What must remain then after all thought is rejected is thoughtlessness itself: the state of ‘Shunyata’ (Zeroness). Here we are rid of these illusionary answers that masquerade themselves as the ‘I’.

Wittgenstein tackles the issue similarly in the Tractatus. He says that our language is the limit of our thought. Knowing the ‘I’ necessarily involves going beyond the mind. It involves thoughtlessness. Therefore there is no way of conceptually grasping the ‘I’ with language. And this forms the background for arguably the most intriguing aphorism in the history of Western Philosophy: ‘Where of one cannot speak thereof one must pass over in silence’. Wittgenstein ended the Tractatus with these words. Therefore no thought, no words, no language can ever answer the question ‘Who am I?’ for you. This makes the question like no other in Philosophy. For every other question, however difficult, you have at least language at your disposal to think and articulate an answer. Here you don’t even have that. You must remain silent and thoughtless in the face of this question.

“Gnothi Seauton”: An interesting etymology

“Gnothi Seauton”: Know yourself. The noun form of Gnothi is Gnosis. The Greek Gnosis and the Sanskrit word Jnana have a common ancestry having descended from the same word of the proto Indo-European Language. They even mean the same thing. In Sanskrit, Jnana means self-knowledge; not empirical knowledge. The Sanskrit term for empirical knowledge is pratyaksha. The English word ‘know’ comes from Gnosis. Moving eastwards; the word jnana when imported along with Buddhism into China came to be known as Chan. In fact Mahayana Buddhism in China is known as Chan Buddhism. Chan becomes Zen in Japanese. Hence Zen in Japanese also means ‘to know’. Zen is the practice of that very inscription at Delphi: ‘know thyself’.

About the Author

Shiv is reading for a Doctorate in Jurisprudence at Oxford University. He read for a B.C.L at Oxford University in 2005-06. He read for his undergraduate law degree at Indian Law Society, Pune (1999-2004).

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7 Comments on "The Greatest Philosophical Problem?"

  1. Emanuel Pradeep July 15, 2011 at 1:24 pm ·

    An excellent post,one of the best so far. you have explained the whole concept in a very beautiful manner especially the ‘blind spot’ theory and the ‘searching for the keys’ example was simply stunning. the word is Brilliant!!!

  2. Emanuel Pradeep July 15, 2011 at 1:34 pm ·

    *Searching for the penny example

  3. Rajiv E. Bhole, B.Tech July 16, 2011 at 11:27 am ·

    Thanks Shivprasad, that was a great article. Just a bit missing. Add it to what you’ve said and you’ll have solved your greatest problem.

    Gnosis is Gnyana, pronounced Dgnyana, in sanskrit, and also means knowledge or wisdom. Pratyaksha means tangible or empirical, and empirical knowledge or wisdom is Pratyaksha Gnyana, which is joint together as Pragnya in Sanshrit.

    Empirical observations are always made with our senses or sense receptors/organs.And the only real knowledge is the knowledge we acquire though our senses. Today the Hindi word Saunveda means both both Sense as well as Knowledge, although its Sanskrit root word is Veda. The word Veda means both knowledge as well as senses, and when combined with other words it is used as a prefix Vi-. Knowledge that comes from our senses or empirical knowledge is Vidgnyana, which in today’s terminology is the word for Science.
    The Sanskrit word for observe is Passhchita, or Passana (Pali), and the word for observing with our senses is Vipasshchita, or Vipassana. The word Vipasshchita is translated by the ignorant commentators of the Bhagvad Gita to mean Wise or Wise-person.
    With this little brush up on what you already know, you should be able to solve the Greatest Problem on mankind.
    But of course to experience Pragya and know yourself, you would have to do what Krishna asks Arjuna to do, the first thing in the Gita given in Gita 2.14 and 2.15. (But please remember: there heat and cold, pleasure and pain mean sensations of heat and cold, pleasure and pain.) & you can learn the technique to do that at a 10-Day Vipassana course, or you could read my book ‘The Lost Path’

  4. Rajiv E. Bhole, B.Tech July 16, 2011 at 11:35 am ·

    Or you could also go through an earlier edition of my book:
    Be Happy

    “The cause of all suffering is a person’s inability to sit still and be alone.” – Anthony de Mello S.J.

  5. Jean-Sébastien Desnanot February 21, 2014 at 9:31 am ·

    I thought “chan” and “zen” in respectively Chinese and Japanese rather came from Sanskrit “dhyana” which is more related to concentration.


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  7. Jezen June 29, 2015 at 5:40 pm ·

    A simple and ingtilleent point, well made. Thanks!

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