In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Self-Knowledge

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Monographs
  • The Limits of Self-Knowledge
  • The Value of Self-Knowledge
  • The Nature of the Self
  • Substantial Self-Knowledge

Philosophy Self-Knowledge
Quassim Cassam
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0112


In philosophy, self-knowledge usually means one of two things: knowledge of one’s particular mental states or knowledge of one’s own nature. To have self-knowledge in the first of these senses is to know one’s particular sensations, experiences, and propositional attitudes (beliefs, desires, and so on). Much of the recent literature has concentrated on self-knowledge in this sense. To have self-knowledge in the second sense is to know one’s own ontological nature, or less abstract characteristics, such as one’s own character, abilities, or values. Several different questions can be asked about self-knowledge: (1) What is its character, and what, if anything, distinguishes self-knowledge from other kinds of knowledge? (2) What are the sources of self-knowledge, and, if we have it, how do we get it? (3) What is the scope of self-knowledge, and what are its limits? (4) What is the value, or importance, of self-knowledge? It’s helpful to think about work on self-knowledge as addressing one or more of these questions, and this entry will be structured accordingly. Responses to (1) have focused on the idea that some self-knowledge is epistemically privileged. Responses to (2) include different versions of the following ideas: (a) self-knowledge is acquired by some kind of inner observation, or self-scanning; (b) self-knowledge is acquired by inference or self-interpretation; (c) self-knowledge is acquired by asking and answering the appropriate questions about the world at large. This is the “transparency” approach to self-knowledge, which can be seen as a version of or an alternative to inferentialism. (a), (b), and (c) assume that self-knowledge is acquired by employing the appropriate epistemic procedure and that questions about the origins of self-knowledge are fundamentally epistemological. Nonepistemic approaches include (d) expressivism and (e) constitutivism. The former focuses on the role of avowals (self-ascriptions of one’s current state of mind) as expressions rather than descriptions of one’s state of mind. The latter says that in the normal case there is a constitutive relation between being in a given mental state and knowing or believing that one is in that state. Constitutive approaches concentrate on the metaphysics rather than the epistemology of self-knowledge. Some responses to (3) discuss the obstacles to self-knowledge and identify varieties of self-knowledge that are difficult or impossible to acquire. Others seek to rule out certain forms of self-ignorance. With regard to (4), the issue is, what good does it do us to have self-knowledge, and what kinds of self-knowledge are valuable to us?

General Overviews

Gertler 2008 provides an extremely useful overview of the current debate. This is the best place to start. For a more detailed overview, see Gertler 2011. Hetherington 2007 is also a good introduction to the subject. It is written in the form of a personal mediation and does not attempt to survey the contemporary literature on self-knowledge. At a more advanced level, the opening chapter of Moran 2001 is an excellent introduction to some of the key issues in the philosophy of self-knowledge.

  • Gertler, Brie. “Self-Knowledge.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2008.

    An exceptionally clear and comprehensive survey and discussion. Highly recommended for anyone seeking an overview of philosophical accounts of self-knowledge.

  • Gertler, Brie. Self-Knowledge. New York: Routledge, 2011.

    A detailed and thorough introduction to the epistemology and metaphysics of self-knowledge. Highly recommended.

  • Hetherington, Stephen. Self-Knowledge: Beginning Philosophy Right Here and Now. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2007.

    An unusual and stimulating elementary introduction not just to the topic of self-knowledge but to philosophy generally. It is refreshingly jargon-free, and focuses on aspects of self-knowledge that tend to get neglected in more advanced philosophical discussions.

  • Moran, Richard. Authority and Estrangement: An Essay on Self-Knowledge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

    A widely discussed book. Its opening chapter gives an accessible account of some of the key features of self-knowledge that need to be accounted for by a good theory of self-knowledge.

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