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Self-Knowledge and the Self
David A. Jopling

ISBN: 0415926904
Format: Paperback, 192pp
Pub. Date: August 2000
Publisher: Routledge

Practical Philosophy (Book Reviews) Spring 2002 Volume 4.2

Reviewed by: Trevor Curnow

According to David A. Jopling (p. 157), ‘The concept of self-knowing is indissolubly tied to the nature of dialogic encounter, and the epistemic and moral responsibility it entails.’ This is the philosophical climax of the book. What follows it is a literary coda in which Margaret Laurence’s novel The Stone Angel is appealed to as evidence for, or an embodiment of, this conclusion. What precedes it principally involves an examination of three individualistic approaches to self-knowledge, those of Stuart Hampshire, Jean-Paul Sartre and Richard Rorty. This has the unfortunate consequence that Jopling spends far more time arguing against them than he does arguing for his own conclusion. Given that they stand only as exemplars of a limited range of opinions, no demolition job on them, however efficient, can establish either that the individualist approach as such is misguided, or that his own particular dialogical approach is correct. Indeed, after looking at two other dialogical approaches (those of Michael Sandel and Ernst Tugendhat), he devotes only a handful of pages to setting out his own, and even these are characterised more by appeals to the ‘Other-mysticism’ (as I would call it) of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas than by solid argument. He claims (p. 138) that certain ‘considerations’ (some more disputable than others, I might add) ‘suggest that the means to self-knowledge, and the content of self-knowledge, have a clear social dimension’, but more is needed than this.

This reflects a problem I had with the book as a whole. There is much of merit to it. The expositions of Hampshire, Sartre and Rorty are generally well-handled and clear (although I think there are some terminological inconsistencies in his discussion of Sartre). Furthermore, these thinkers are not treated in isolation but related to others such as Sigmund Freud and Martin Heidegger. He is genuinely helpful in identifying points of convergence and divergence across a range of relevant materials, and he digs below the surfaces of the different approaches in an informative and insightful way. However, for him the stumbling-blocks with regard to Sartre and Rorty in particular relate primarily to matters he does not like. For example (p. 144): ‘The existential approach denies that there are any grounds independent of my own decisions and carefully considered judgements to which I can appeal in order to identify the convergence of my inquiry upon its proper target.’ This may be undesirable, but that is not enough for it to be wrong (if only!). Similarly, he is obviously disturbed by the implications of Rorty’s approach for moral responsibility. He is right to be, but unless Rorty can be shown to be mistaken, then it is our notion of moral responsibility that will have to change. Again, dislike is not disproof.

Despite all this, the book is worth reading. I would not so much damn it with faint praise as praise it with faint (or slightly more) damnation. It addresses an important topic and parts of it are most certainly illuminating. In his dissection of Hampshire, Sartre and Rorty, Jopling is a discerning and incisive guide. His own approach to the topic lacks neither interest nor potential, but it needs further development and support.

  Jean Paul Sartre. A french philosopher of the 20th century.
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