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‘Self-knowledge’—here understood as the knowledge a creature has of its own mental states, processes, and dispositions—has come to be, along with consciousness, an increasingly compelling topic for philosophers and scientists investigating the structure and development of various cognitive capacities. Unlike consciousness, however, the capacity for self-knowledge is generally held to be the exclusive privilege of human beings—or, at least, of creatures with the kind of conceptual capacity that comes with having a language of a certain rich complexity. Prima facie, self-knowledge involves more than simply having sensations (or sensory experiences). Many say it involves even more than having moods, emotions, and ‘ﬁrst-order’ intentional states, paradigmatically beliefs and desires, but also hopes, fears, wishes, occurrent thoughts, and so on. Some philosophers disagree, claiming that ﬁrstorder intentional states (individuated by ‘propositional content’) are themselves properly restricted to language-using creatures and, by that token, to self-knowing creatures. Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that self-knowledge involves, minimally, the capacity for a conceptually rich awareness or understanding of one’s own mental states and processes, and hence the capacity, as it is often put, to form ‘second-order’ beliefs about these, a capacity that can be extended to, or perhaps only comes with, forming beliefs about the mental states and processes of others.
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More generally, then, self-knowledge involves the capacity for adopting what Daniel Dennett calls the intentional stance (Dennett 1987)—understanding oneself (and others) as having experiences and ways of representing the world that shape agential behavior. But this capacity should not be understood in purely spectatorial terms. The more sophisticated a creature’s intentional understanding, the more sophisticated it will be at acting in a world partially constituted by agential activity. Thus, the capacity for intentional understanding continually plays into, and potentially modiﬁes, an agent’s own intentionally directed activity, a point I will return to below.
1. Empirical Findings: Testing The Limits Of Intentional Understanding
A number of experiments have been designed to test for the presence of such a capacity in nonhuman animals (primarily hominids) and very young children, with interestingly controversial results. Some investigators claim that the evidence for intentional understanding (including a fairly sophisticated awareness of self ) is persuasively strong in the case of certain primates (chimpanzees and bonobos, though for a deﬂationary interpretation of this evidence based on further empirical trials, see Povinelli and Eddy (1996)). Experiments with young children (most famously the ‘false-belief task’) seem clearly to indicate that intentional understanding comes in degrees, passing through fairly discernible stages. How precisely to characterize these stages and what constitutes the mechanism of change is hotly debated (Astington et al. 1988), yet there is an emerging pattern in the empirical data that is noteworthy for standard philosophical discussions of self-knowledge. First, under certain, not very unusual conditions, young children will make mistakes in attributing basic mental states to themselves (desires and beliefs) that are inconceivable from the adult point of view because of the direct ﬁrstpersonal awareness adults seem to have of these states. Second, the errors children make in self-attribution mirror in kind and frequency the errors they make in attributing mental states to others; there seems to be no dramatic asymmetry between self-knowledge and knowledge of other minds, at least for children (Flavell et al. 1995, Gopnik 1993). Moreover, though children become increasingly more sophisticated in their intentional self-and other-attributions, this symmetry and systematicness in kind and frequency of error seems to persist in notable ways into adulthood, with subjects ‘confabulating’ explanations for their actions and feelings that are purportedly based on direct introspective awareness of their own minds (Nisbett and Wilson 1977). To psychologists investigating these phenomena, this pattern of results suggests that, for both children and adults, judgments about mental states and processes are aﬀected (perhaps unconsciously) by background beliefs about how such states are caused and how they in turn cause behavior, and these beliefs can be systematically wrong, at least in detail. There is nothing special about the capacity for self-knowledge that avoids the error-causing beliefs embedded in our ‘folk-psychology.’
2. The Philosophical Project: Explaining The Special Character Of Self-Knowledge
Although judgments about our own mental states and processes are clearly not infallible, there are distinctive features of self-knowledge that require explanation. These features, and the interrelations among them, are variously presented in the philosophical literature, but they are generally held to consist in the following (Wright et al. 1998, pp. 1–2).
(a) Immediacy—the knowledge we have of our own sensations, emotions, and intentional states is normally not based on behavioral or contextual evidence; it is groundless or immediate, seemingly involving some kind of ‘special access’ to our own mind.
(b) Saliency (or, transparency)—knowledge of our own minds, especially with regard to sensations and occurrent thoughts, is unavoidable; if we have a particular thought or sensation, we typically know that we have it (such mental states are ‘self-intimating’).
(c) (First-person) authority—judgments about our own minds (expressed in sincere ﬁrst-person claims) are typically treated by others as correct simply by virtue of our having made them. Normally, such claims require no justiﬁcation and are treated as true, so long as there is no overwhelmingly defeating counter-evidence to suggest that we are wrong about ourselves.
The traditional account against which most discussions of self-knowledge react is drawn from Rene Descartes (Descartes 1911). Viewing the mind as a non-physical substance directly knowable only from the ﬁrst-person point of view, Descartes had a ready explanation of ﬁrst-person authority: we clearly and distinctly percei e the contents of our own minds, which are by their nature transparent to us. Alternatively, since we have no special perceptual access to the minds of others, the only way we can make judgments about them is by observing their external bodily movements and inferring from their similarities to ours that they are likewise caused by mental states and processes. Such weakly inferred third-person judgments are perforce dramatically less secure than ﬁrst-person judgments, which are themselves infallible. On this view, the commonly acknowledged asymmetry between ﬁrst-and third-person judgments is exaggerated in both directions.
This Cartesian account has been discredited in almost everyone’s estimation—and not just empirically, but conceptually. Even the picturesque metaphor of the ‘mind and its contents’ was held by Gilbert Ryle to encourage such bad habits of thought that nothing worthwhile could be said in its defense. The ‘metaphysical iron curtain’ it introduced between knowledge of self and knowledge of others was, in Ryle’s view, suﬃcient to show the bankruptcy of the Cartesian picture by making impossible our everyday practices of correctly applying, and being able to correct our applications of, ‘mental conduct’ concepts either to others or to ourselves. Since this would undermine the possibility of a coherent language containing such concepts, it undermines the possibility of our conceptualizing ourselves intentionally at all. Thus, so far from providing an explanation of our capacity for self-knowledge, Descartes’ theory discredits it. We ﬁnd out about ourselves in much the same way that we ﬁnd out about other people, Ryle is famous for saying: ‘A residual diﬀerence in the supplies of the requisite data makes some diﬀerences in degree between what I can know about myself and what I can know about you, but these diﬀerences are not all in favor of self-knowledge’ (Ryle 1949, p. 155). Although Ryle exhaustively illustrated his view that the ways we ﬁnd out about ourselves are as various as the kinds of things we ﬁnd out, thus debarring any simple philosophical analysis of self-and other-knowledge, he is generally thought to have promoted the doctrine of ‘logical behaviorism’ (not Ryle’s term), according to which all talk about so-called ‘mental’ states and processes (our own or anyone else’s) is really just talk about actual and potential displays of overt behavior. In fact, though clearly suspicious of philosophical defenses of ﬁrst-person authority based on a principle epistemic privilege, Ryle is more proﬁtably read as following Wittgenstein in trying to reveal how the ‘logical (or ‘grammatical) structure’ of a pervasive way of thinking about the ‘mind and its contents’ inevitably generates self-defeating explanations of various phenomena, including our capacity for self-knowledge. Any substantial account of such phenomena must therefore exemplify a diﬀerent kind of logical structure altogether (see discussions of Wittgenstein’s view in McDowell 1991, Wright 1991).
3. Current Proposals: ‘Causal–Perceptual’ S. ‘Constitutive’ Explanations Of Self-Knowledge
This proposed opposition between diﬀerent ‘logical types’ of explanation is given more substance in contemporary work with philosophers pursuing two quite diﬀerent methodological approaches to understanding the purported immediacy, saliency, and authority of self-knowledge. The ﬁrst ‘causal–perceptual’ approach focuses on the mechanics of self-knowledge, including the nature of the states we are purportedly making judgments about, the nature of the states that constitute those judgments, and the nature of the connection between them. The second so-called ‘constitutive’ approach focuses on the larger implications of our capacity for self-knowledge, including what role it plays in specifying conditions for the possibility of our powers and practices of agency. Adopting either one of these approaches does not rule out addressing the questions featured by the alternative approach, although the sorts of answers given are materially shaped by which questions occupy center ﬁeld.
3.1 Causal–Perceptual Accounts Of Self-Knowledge
According to some philosophers, the basic defects of the Cartesian view stem not from the idea that ﬁrst-person knowledge is a form of inner perception, but from its dualistic metaphysics and an overly restricted conception of what perception involves. On Descartes’s ‘act-object’ model of perception, mental states are objects before the mind’s ‘inner eye’ which we perceive (as we do external objects) by the act of discerning their intrinsic (nonrelational) properties. Without mounting any radical ‘grammatical’ critique, problems with this view can be readily identiﬁed, especially once the mind is understood to be part of the material world (see Shoemaker 1996, Wright et al. 1998).
(a) There is no organ of inner perception analogous to the eye (but we do have a capacity for sensing the position of our bodies, by proprioception, and this does not require any specialized organ; perhaps introspection is like proprioception).
(b) Sensations could possibly count as ‘objects’ of inner perception, but intentional states (beliefs and desires) are less plausible candidates. First, phenomenologically, we do not seem to be aware of our intentional states as discernibly perceptible in the way that sensations are; there is no perceptual experience that precedes, or comes with, our judgments about such states—no ‘qualia.’ Second, intentional states are individuated by their propositional content, and their propositional content is plausibly determined by (causal) relational features these states bear to the subject’s physical or social environment, rather than intrinsic features of the states themselves. If the ‘externalist’ view of content is right, then authoritative self-knowledge of these states cannot be based on inwardly perceiving their intrinsic properties (see Ludlow and Martin 1998).
(c) In contrast with external perception, there are no mediating perceptual experiences between the object perceived and judgments based on those perceivings. If mental states and processes are objects of inner perception, they must be ‘self-intimating’ objects, where the object of perception is itself a perceptual experience of that object. Taken literally, this idea is hard to make coherent, though some have found it invitingly appropriate in the case of sensations as a way of marking what is so unusually special and mysterious about them.
Many of these problems (and more) are satisfactorily addressed by adopting a ‘tracking’ model of inner perception (Armstrong 1968). We do have ‘special access’ to our own minds in so far as the second-order beliefs we form about our (ontologically distinct) ﬁrst-order states and processes are reliably caused, perhaps sub-Cognitively, by the very ﬁrst-order states and processes such beliefs are about. There need be no distinctive phenomenology that characterizes such access, and no need therefore to give diﬀerent accounts of our self-knowledge of intentional states versus sensations, imaginings, and other phenomenologically diﬀerentiated phenomena. Of course, if all such states are functionally deﬁned—that is, dispositionally, in terms of their causal relations to other mental states, to perceptual inputs and to behavioral outputs—there is nothing about them that makes them in principle accessible only to the person whose states they are. But this is a strength of the approach. Such states are accessible in a special way to the subject (by normally and reliably causing the requisite second- order beliefs), thereby accounting for the immediacy, saliency, and authority of our ﬁrst-person judgments. Yet because causal mechanisms can break down in particular cases, ﬁrst-person error may be expected (as in self-deception). Such errors may also be detected: since ﬁrst-order states are constitutively related to a subject’s linguistic and nonlinguistic behavior, signiﬁcant evidence of noncohesiveness between the subject’s sayings and doings may be used to override her self-ascriptions. Moreover, there is no inconsistency between this account of the special character of self-knowledge and psychologists’ ﬁndings of systematic error in self-and other attribution. It may be just as they suggest: since the concepts in terms of which we express our second-order beliefs (about self and other) are functionally deﬁned in terms of folk-psychological theory, systematic error may result from the theory’s deﬁciencies.
3.2 Constitutive Accounts Of Self-Knowledge
The causal–perceptual approach to self-knowledge has many advantages, including, it would seem, the ontological and conceptual independence of ﬁrst-order states from the second-order beliefs that track them in self-knowers. For this means there is no conceptual bar on attributing beliefs, desires, and so forth to creatures that lack the capacity for self-knowledge but still behave rationally enough to be well predicted from the intentional stance. Why then do some philosophers insist that having such ﬁrst-order intentional states is constitutively linked to having authoritative self-knowledge—and, therefore, presumably, to a subject’s forming second order beliefs about her ﬁrst order states for which ‘truth is the default condition’ (Wright 1991)?
To begin with a negative answer: if causal–perceptualists are right in saying that the subject’s status as an authoritative self-knower is merely contingently dependent on a reliable causal mechanism linking ﬁrst and second-order states, then we could not account for the special role self-knowledge plays in constituting that subject as a rational and responsible agent (Bilgrami 1998, Burge 1996, Shoemaker 1996 ). How so? Consider, for instance, the causal–perceptualist account of error in self-attribution: The subject forms a false second-order belief due to a breakdown in the causal mechanism normally linking that belief to the appropriate ﬁrst-order state. Her lapse of rationality consists in her saying one thing (because of the second-order belief ) and doing another (because of her ﬁrst-order states). But why count this a lapse of rationality (as surely we do), rather than simply a self-misperception, analogous (except for the causal pathway) to misperceptions of others? What imperative is there for a subject’s self-attributions to line up with her other sayings and doings in order for her to be a coherent subject, responsible and responsive to the norms embedded in our folk-psychological conception of rational agency?
Diﬀerent authors take various tacks in answering this question, but there is a discernible common thread. An agent cannot act linguistically or nonlinguistically in ways that respond self-consciously to these norms, unless she knows in a directive sense what she is doing—i.e., unless she recognizes herself as acting in accord with certain intentional states that she knows to be hers, and knows in a way that acknowledges her own agency in producing and maintaining them.
Moreover, an agent is self-consciously responsive to norms that govern her own intentional states (such as believing that p), not just by recognizing what counts as norm-compliant behavior, but actually by regulating herself (her judgments, thoughts, and actions) in accord with such norms. On this picture, if a person’s sincere claims about herself do not cohere with the (other) things she does and says, we may say she fails to know herself. But, just as importantly, we say that she acts unknowingly. That is, there is some sense (perhaps pathological) in which she acts, but without authoring her own acts as a free and responsible agent. Hence, she does not authorize such acts; they are out of her reﬂective control. To fail in self-knowledge on this account is not to be wrong in the passively spectatorial sense that one can be wrong about others; it is to fail more actively in exercising one’s powers of agency.
Constitutive explanations of self-knowledge display a very diﬀerent logical structure from causal–perceptual accounts. Consequently, they suggest a diﬀerent way of conceptualizing the intentional capacities of self-knowers, a way that has become needlessly complicated through retaining the traditional architecture of ﬁrst-order states and second-order beliefs about them that are ontologically, if not conceptually, distinct and that supposedly underlie and get expressed in ﬁrst-person claims (McGeer 1996). This distinction makes sense on a causal–perceptualist account of self-knowledge; but it only confuses and obscures on the constitutive account, leading, for instance, to inappropriate descriptions of what distinguishes us from other animals. The constitutive explanation of self-knowledge focuses on what it means to be an intentional creature of a certain sort, an intentional creature that is capable of actively regulating her own intentional states, revising and maintaining them in self-conscious recognition of various norms. No doubt there are automatic mechanisms also involved in regulating intentional states in an environmentally useful way, mechanisms we may well share with nonlinguistic creatures and which explain why adopting the intentional stance towards them works as well as it does (Shoemaker 1996, essay 11). But in our own case, we increase the range and power of the intentional stance by understanding what rational, responsible agency requires of us and molding ourselves to suit. The apparatus of ﬁrst-and second-order states may play some useful role in further elucidating this capacity for intentional self-regulation, but more likely it encourages bad habits of thought—a lingering vestige of the dying, but never quite dead, Cartesian tradition in epistemology and philosophy of mind.
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