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Toulmin, S. (1981). On Knowing Our Own Minds. Ann. Psychoanal., 9:207-221.

(1981). Annual of Psychoanalysis, 9:207-221

V Psychoanalysis and Philosophy

On Knowing Our Own Minds

Stephen Toulmin, Ph.D.

My subject here is the nature of self knowledge. As far back as the time of Socrates, philosophers were celebrating the virtues of knowing yourself; and in the wider culture, today, “sorting your head out” and “getting your act together” are perhaps more highly valued than ever. Even so, the actual character and content of self knowledge are still not wholly understood. So the questions I shall be asking in this paper are, (1) “What kinds of knowledge do we have of ourselves?,” and (2) “How do we come by that knowledge?”

At first hearing, these sound like perfectly simple questions, of a kind that we should be able to answer pretty easily. Yet they raise problems that are, I suspect, not unlike those that St. Augustine had with the idea of time. We know the answers perfectly well, until someone asks us to state them; and then we can only stammer in reply. Though they may appear perfectly translucent (that is to say), these questions conceal some real complexities and difficulties. So, all that I can hope to do here is, first, to sort out the main types of “self knowledge” recognizable in straightforward, unproblematic cases; second, to begin disentangling the special difficulties that arise from the obstacles to “self knowledge,” viz., shame and forgetfulness, pride and resentment, false modesty and mental pain, repression and all those other factors that increase the inventory of our unconscious minds—that part of “ourselves” about which we most conspicuously lack self knowledge and self understanding—and, thirdly, to reflect briefly on the significance of “self knowledge” for our understanding of children, education, and mental development generally.

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