The last level of self-understanding is the ontological or structural level. This is a bit more illusive, but well within one’s grasp with effort. We can identify the three parts of that entity we call the self: external, internal, and ontological.5 Most superficial is the external self, the persona the world encounters and attributes to your name. This is not only the physical body, but also the actions, speech, and countenance emerging from within you. This is also the participatory self. Self-knowledge here is an objective assessment of your external appearance and the appraisal of the effect of your actions, speech, mood, and emotions on those around you. Self-control and unselfishness are the key means to alter your outer image.

The internal self is the more complex private, inner personality and lifelong train of thought that overlaps with the psychological self we addressed above. It is our separate side and the seat of contemplation. However self-knowledge at this level expands beyond the psychological to the spirituality of the mystics or what Abraham Maslow calls ‘peak experiences.’ It also offers another priceless opportunity, essential to full self-knowing: the almost magical ability to be the observer of oneself, a higher level of self-consciousness.  What this means is when the external or internal self experiences something or acts , the inner self can be its own observer, stepping back to witness and even interpret that experience or action, what Eckhart Tolle calls the ‘silent watcher.’

Last is the ontological self, that primal, non-egoic, non-verbal being which underlies and precedes personality and intellect. This is the most illusive of all facets of self and a source of continuing disagreement. Martin Heidegger in his deeply contemplative Being and Time, sees our inner being or dasein as the contact point for our understanding of all being. Paul Tillich seems to agree. Alternatively Buddha teaches that deep meditation reveals nothing beneath the personality, a ‘non-self,’ although there is some contradiction implicit in his other belief of reincarnation. Richard Taylor seems to agree with Buddha that underneath the layers of the self lies nothing. Only through contemplation or meditation on yourself can you hope to discern which or if both positions are correct.


It is quite easy to live one’s entire life without honing self-knowledge, but the price is likely to be a narrowed meaning and value of that life. The practical philosopher must devote significant effort to understand his fundamental constitution, the source of his feelings and thoughts, and what if anything lies at the root of his being. The reward of highly refined self-knowledge is the door it opens to contentment, meaningful purpose, and contact with ultimate reality that constitute the other parts of a meaningful and happy life. Think about it!


1Cassirer, Ernst, An Essay on Man. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1972. ISBN 0-300-00034-0, page 1.

2Ibid, pa

3Ibid, pages 21.

4Irvine, William B., A Guide to the Good Life. Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2009. ISBN978-0-19-537461-2, page 119.

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