The Most Necessary Philosophical Question: Notes on “What Am I?”

By Adam J. Pearson

According to Xenophon, when Socrates visited the Temple of Delphi, he saw the words ‘γνῶθι σεαυτόν’ – Know yourself – inscribed there. To deeply know yourself, you must know not ‘who’ you are, but ‘what’ you are. For this reason, I say that not “who am I?” but “what am I?” is the deepest, most necessary question we can ask.

Asking this question is the only way to move beyond a cursory look at the surface personality into the realm of what we are more fundamentally. If you devote your time to no other philosophical question, devote your time to this one. The deeper you dive into it, the more intimately you will come to understand the nature not only of your own human individuality, but also of the greater universe on which your human existence depends, and your timeless, eternal nature beyond all form.

Nothing is more fundamental to us than our own being. On this issue, only we can be the authority. Therefore, to get to the heart of the matter, it is not sufficient to simply go on hearsay. It is not enough to say that “others say that I am this…”; this is still mere belief — it does not penetrate into the realm of direct experience. It is not enough to say that biology says I am a physical body; this still needs to be deepened by inquiry. It is not even enough to say that “I am awareness,” as many Eastern and New Age philosophies do; perhaps the truth is deeper even than this. Perhaps there is a truth to us that reaches deeper than words and concepts can express.

The only way to find out is to look for yourself. This may mean putting aside our current beliefs and opinions at least for so long as we are inquiring into the matter for ourselves. No one can do self-inquiry for us; only we can directly taste who and what we are. The people around you, often from a very well-meaning place, will often try to tell you what you are, to pin you into a role, a particular form, a need you fulfill for them, an economic pawn, or a political vote, but ultimately, no one else is the authority on you. Only you can be. Only you can discover the truth for yourself. Only you have the power to look directly into your own being. Only you can arrive at the truth of the matter as you know it, intimately, from within.

You may find that as you look deeply into your own nature, you are also looking into the nature of all other beings. There is no need to take my or anyone else’s word for it. Look for yourself. I invite you to inquire into this ‘what am I?’ question and see how far it takes you down the rabbit hole of reality.

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