Charmides 163-172.  Here Critias has taken over as interlocutor from sweet young Charmides; he pushes first his revised definition for temperance (sophrosune): from “doing your own business” to “doing good things” (163e) which is abruptly dropped (when Socrates asks if it’s still temperance when you do good in ignorance) and replaced with the Delphic admonition to “know yourself” (164d).

Now given that Socrates himself, back in the First Alcibiades, suggested this as a good goal, and furthermore defined it as knowing your own soul, and furthermore suggested that the method for knowing one’s own soul was to contemplate the knowing soul in someone else (thus practicing knowing knowing, as it were), it is odd and confusing that here he absolutely resists the possibility of any such thing.  From 165c to 169c he throws into question, by analogies with other things, whether it is at all possible to have a “science of itself” (episteme heautou) — a “science of sciences” which is how “knowing yourself” has come to be glossed.  Can there be anything in nature “which is so constituted as to have its own faculty applicable to itself” (169a)?  The argument here is very difficult to follow, particularly as Socrates moves from actions (can you “see seeing” apart from actual objects of sight; can you “hear hearing” apart from sounds, etc.) to mathematical concepts (can “the greater” be greater than itself, or “the double” be double itself, etc.).  At this point poor Charmides’ initial headache must be worse than it was before the whole charm conversation got going.

In spite of the obscurity of the argument, I find the whole discussion really interesting, as I am currently taking part in an ACM initiative on metacognition — thinking about thinking.  The idea is that helping students focus on their own ways of thinking, and helping them learn more efficient ones, or ones more appropriate to the subject-matter, will facilitate their learning (of subject-matter — that’s still the goal).  What would Socrates say, I wonder?  One of the great claims of liberal education is that it teaches students how to think; that while you may not emerge with a particular (or practical) expertise, you do acquire a set of cognitive skills that can be broadly applied.  In Socratic terms, you won’t have learned shoemaking or pottery, but perhaps you will have started to “know knowing.”  I had a cranky professor in graduate school who (undoubtedly under the influence of Socrates) used to deny that it was possible to teach anyone how to think (“is thinking a techne?” he would ask).

Perhaps at the end of the dialogue (which is coming right up) we’ll get somewhere with this, and I won’t have to think that my whole metacognition project is profoundly anti-Socratic.  But I’m not hopeful.

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