The Self-Monitoring Fallacy: Reflections on Self-Knowledge

“We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge - and with good reason. We have never sought ourselves - how could it happen that we should ever find ourselves?" So begins Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals. I happen to be teaching this book now, so I am re-reading it for perhaps the fourth time, and like all great books, it deepens and expands with each re-reading.

Nietzsche has many targets of criticism in the Genealogy, but the one that he mentions first is our relationship with knowledge. One of the fundamental goals of philosophical reflection (or maybe we should just say plain old thinking) is the old Socratic dictum: "Know thyself." Self-knowledge is a key to good living. In order to achieve what makes us happy in life, we need to know at least at some basic level what makes us happy.


But the self turns out not to be so easy to know. There are any number of impediments to self-knowledge, and you don't need a PhD in philosophy to know the primary obstacles. Three come to mind off the top of my head:

1) Change. The self like all living things changes, and it does so in two fundamental ways. We change as we pass through life stages. As a child, we want to play. As a teenager, we want to be an adult. As an adult, we want to be a child, etc. And then we change in respect to the situations we are in. We learn to be different selves in response to different situations. In the end, this means that self-control looks less like knowing yourself and acting out your goals, and more like governing a city filled with different selves that have to be constrained and released in different situations.

2) We don't like what we see. Hence the lesser known but perhaps more true Socratic dictum: "Self-knowledge is a bitch." Here we are getting closer to Nietzsche's project in the Genealogy. Part of the reason we remain unknown to ourselves is that what we find when we turn the gaze inwards is sometimes repugnant to our sensibilities. A primary criticism that Nietzsche launches against the philosophical self-scrutiny that comes before him is that none of those philosophers were actually looking at human beings in all of their emotion, embodiment, animality, violence, pain, fear. Instead, philosophers were only interested in knowing and outlining the details of the ideal self -- the self that is the rational controller of its destiny. The self who disinterestedly pursues knowledge, the good, and God. The self that loves harmony and peace rather than chaos and disruption.

3) The knowledge-relation is an inadequate self-relation. This is Nietzsche's main point, and it's sorta subtle. You can't know yourself in the ways that we know other things because as soon as we make the self into an "object of knowledge" and set out to study it, we've already lost the sort of genuine relationship with the self that would be necessary for self-knowledge. The reason for this is that the self is not a thing, it is an activity. Once the self is abstracted from the projects it engages in and made into an object of knowledge, it's no longer a self.  The self, for Nietzsche is a relation in the making, and to look at it from the point of view of the knowledge relation is to disengage it from all other sorts of relations and make it do one narrow thing: engage in knowing. This is how we can arrive at the Cartesian myth: cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am: nothing could be further from the truth.

When we look at the self from this point of view, we do indeed get the philosophical view of the self as a sort of truth-seeker or knower. But -- and this is the most important point -- the knowing self is just a fragment of the self that we are. There are many other aspects of self-hood that essentially and necessarily escape the knowledge relation. Who we are is really the sum of our relations with things, with people, with our prior acts of self, with our job, with our religion, with our body, and with what we know. Not seeing those other aspects of self-hood is committing what Nietzsche's peer William James calls elsewhere "the philosophical fallacy." To commit this fallacy of thought is to assume that when thinking philosophically we have a pure view of the truth, when really the perspective of philosophical reflection is merely that: a perspective, one among many others.

Nosce te ipsum?
A similar fallacy occurs with runners who use technology such as heart rate monitors and GPS watches and even training logs to monitor and "know" their running better. We might call it the "self-monitoring" fallacy, and it is subject to the same problems as the philosophical fallacy. These pieces of training equipment do not objectively monitor a pre-existing body. Instead, just as the philosophical gaze presents a certain type of "thinking self," technological monitoring presents a certain type of body -- namely the body as quantified field of data. When we read the data that is produced from this monitoring, we do indeed know our heart rates and paces and the like, but the thing that we know when we read that data is actually only a small fragment of the runner's body that has been abstracted from many other possible relations. It is one perspective among its many relations.

Just as the self is more than -- and fundamentally different from -- its knowledge relations, the runner's body is more than -- and fundamentally different from -- the quantified self that is produced by these instruments of measure. Running, like all rich activities of life is just that: an activity. It's a set of relations and undergoings that are mixed up and tangled with all of life's relations. The attractive thing about geeking out over training data and logs (and believe me, I am prone to do this) is that it presents running as "free" from all of these messy things. In precisely the same way that the philosophical idea of the self as rational, controlled, and naturally good-seeking, it presents training as a neat matter of science, a question of inputs and outputs that can be controlled and monitored from without. Attractive? Sure. False and narrow? Yep.

Philosophers catch all sorts of flak for being detached and out of touch with the reality of life's problems. Much of this flak is well-deserved, as is verified by a cursory glance at the lastest professional journals. But the hazards of our profession are not unique. In a specialized world, we are all subject to increasingly narrow connections and perspectives that in turn produce false and narrow world views.

Running, seems to me, can be a practice that resists such specialization. Beyond the geekery, the training plans, the tactics and strategies, we can find running as a broad practice that we do with others. One that not only loosens the legs and the chest and sets the heart to new rhythms, but also gets us outside, exploring space, our local towns and communities. It allows us to feel the weather. It gives us time for bull-shitting with friends, or for doing the hard work of introspection. Occasionally, it allows us the sense of power of using the body as a well-honed tool.

And, yes, okay, it also lets us indulge our inner training geek. I'll give you that. But be careful of that guy. He has a tendency to use the certainty of his knowledge to erase all of the uncertainty of life. It's that uncertainty, that wildness, that openness, that keeps us out there. Not just training. Running.


  1. “I Am Not I”
    “I Am Not I”
    By Juan Ramón Jiménez 1881–1958 Juan Ramon Jimenez
    Translated By Robert Bly

    I am not I.
    I am this one
    walking beside me whom I do not see,
    whom at times I manage to visit,
    and whom at other times I forget;
    who remains calm and silent while I talk,
    and forgives, gently, when I hate,
    who walks where I am not,
    who will remain standing when I die.

    1. Very nice! You might also like "Borges and I" by, well, Borges:

  2. Point taken! But when you have a big goal, it's really easy (and somewhat necessary) to slip into the mindset of the data-obsessed. Because it *is* all about training, and training right as much as you can (because you can never train 100% right). Keeping track helps keep my confidence high, and me accountable.

    I will say, I am looking forward to achieving my goal for a lot of reasons, but one of them is because once I've done it I'm planning to give myself a lot of unstructured running--no GPS, no HR monitor, no paces, no plan. Just running.

    1. Yes, indeed. I totally get the geeking out as an aspect of serious training, but in my case I am not sure whether it was helpful or more a way of working out anxiety that all this effort wouldn't add up to much!

      Anyways, sounds like you are in the "thick" of the good fight. Best of luck!

  3. I'm curious where the Socrates quote, "Self-knowledge is a bitch" is found. Is it real?

    1. Ha ha, no that was a joke. Sorry for the confusion!

  4. according to schrödinger, if i look inside myself, i find myself to be dead.

    or, you know... something like that.



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