Care for Oneself and Failures of Self-Knowledge

Zusammenfassung des Dissertationsvorhabens

Our capacities to “take care”, to “worry” or “care about” implicate an ability to step back out of the here and now. From this position outside direct experience we are able to reflect on many thinks, but maybe most important the future and the past. Only in light of that we can reflect about counterfactuals we can worry that something might go different from how we think it will go (or should have gone different than how it did happen) and only because we can understand what is good for something we can take proper care of it (or know that we did not take proper care in the past). In other words, because we can take a distance towards the here and now we can start to reflect on how things can be or could have been different – and this capacity seems to be the basis for care (“Sorge”) in general.

In my dissertation project I assume the above and apply this to the specific relation of “care for oneself”. This is an interesting relation insofar the ability to take a distance towards ourselves introduces a self-reflexive relation within ourselves: A “thing” (a self?) becomes the object of its own reflection. It is not clear how this self-reflexive relation must be understood: Is there a true “self” implied or is it just like a self-adhesive envelope? The envelope can “stick to itself”, but nothing more is implied by its self-reflexive relationship than this potential of the envelope itself – certainly no substantive self is implied.

But that nothing like a self is implied with the self-reflexive relation that is implied by taking care of ourselves can be seen by the following. The self-reflexive relation we have to ourselves is to be cashed out in terms of self-reflection. Just as the envelope can stick to itself, we can reflect on ourselves and through this gain knowledge. We can say (or know) that we are shy, nervous or hungry. Now the interesting difference between the self-reflexivity of the envelope and of us is that the envelope doesn’t change essentially when it is stuck to itself. But we on the other hand do seem to change when we gain knowledge of ourselves. For example: By interpretation the excitement in me as nerves I become a nervous person. By interpretation it as positive adrenaline I become a motivated person.* We start to reflect on ourselves and therewith we gain the ability to change both of the sides that stand in a self-reflexive relation.

This leads to the central research question of my dissertation. The point about self-reflexivity when it comes to a self is that it is unclear if and how the variables within the relation can be held constant: what would it mean to say that an attitude refers back to an attitude, when the establishment of that relation influences both parts of the self the moment it is established?

* In contrast think of a broken car: When we investigate why our car does not work and we find out that we are out of gas, this doesn’t change anything about the essential characteristics of the car. This does seem to be the case with ourselves when we conclude that we are angry on instead of disappointed in someone.


I studied my bachelor and master in philosophy in Utrecht, the Netherlands (both cum laude). In my Master thesis I tried to show that it is plausible to presuppose pre-cognitive, pre-reflective conditions of practical identity-formation, such as a body, a basic kind of self-confidence, and hope – an insight that is often missed in the Anglo-Saxon debate. In my PhD-research I continue to do research in this line and inquire into the “self-reflexivity” or “distance-taking” that underlies our ability to form a practical identity.

Next to this main research focus, I have two other active research interests. One is the Chinese philosophical tradition of Daoism in which I find the ideas of “wuwei” (“non-action”; often compared with “flow”), “pu” (“uncarved wood”; not being distracted by reified categories of thought) and “Dao” as normative principle especially interesting. The other research interest originates in a research assistantship on “energy ethics” in which I did research on how the role of ethics must be and can be conceived within the context of the complex European energy system.


Praktische Identität. Harry Frankfurt and The Things We (Should) Care About (Wintersemester 2015)

Ambivalenz. Eine Krankheit des Herzens oder ein Defekt des Willens? (Sommersemester 2016)



Henk van Gils MA

Ernst Moritz Arndt Universität Greifswald  ­
­Institut für Philosophie
Badestraße 6/7
D-17498 Greifswald

E-Mail: henkjaspervangils@gmail.com