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A Constructivist Picture of Self-Knowledge

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

Julia Tanney
University of Kent at Canterbury


How are we to account for the authority granted to first-person reports of mental states? What accounts for the immediacy of these self-ascriptions; the fact that they can be ascribed without appeal to evidence and without the need for justification? A traditional, Cartesian conception of the mind, which says that our thoughts are presented to us directly, completely, and without distortion upon mere internal inspection, would account for these facts, but there is good reason to doubt the cogency of the Cartesian view. Wittgenstein, in his later writings, offered some of the most potent considerations against the traditional view, and contemporary philosophy of mind is practically unanimous in rejecting some of the metaphysical aspects of Cartesianism. But anyone who repudiates Cartesianism shoulders the burden of finding another way to accommodate its apparent epistemological strengths.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 1996

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1 Austen, Jane, Emma (London: reprinted by Penguin Books, 1987), 398.Google Scholar

2 See, for example, ‘Making Up One's Mind—Wittgenstein on Intention in Logic, Philosophy of Science, and Epistemology: Proceedings of the 11th International Wittgenstein Symposium (Vienna: Holder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1987), 391404Google Scholar; ‘Moral Values, Projection, and Secondary Qualities’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supp vol. LXII, (1988), 1–26; ‘Wittgenstein's Rule-Following Considerations and the Central Project of Theoretical Linguistics’, in Reflections on Chomsky, George, A. (ed.) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 233–64Google Scholar; ‘Critical Notice, Wittgenstein on Meaning, by Colin McGinn’, Mind 98, (1989), 289305Google Scholar; ‘Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy of Mind: Sensation, Privacy, Intention’, Journal of Philosophy 86, 11 (1989), 622–35Google Scholar; extended version in Meaning Scepticism, Klaus Puhl, (ed.), (de Gruyter, 1991), 126–47. The most recent discussion, which I have not been able to address here, is ‘Self-knowledge—The Wittgensteinian Legacy’ (delivered at a conference on Self-knowledge in St Andrews, August 1995, and to be published by Oxford University Press in a forthcoming volume edited by C. Macdonald, B. Smith, and C. Wright.)

3 Kripke, Saul, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 15ff.Google Scholar

4 Without defending Kripke's meaning-scepticism, I think this move misfires: it seems to be an example of a misconstrual of the role of justification in self-interpretation, which I'll examine in a different context in the next section. In what follows I'll focus on what Wright does take to be the point of these pages.

5 Wright, ‘Making up one's own mind’, op. cit., note 2, 398–9.

6 Ibid., 396.

7 Ibid., 400.

8 Ibid., 402.

9 Ibid., 401.

10 Wright, , ‘Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy of Mind’, in Journal of Philosophy, op. cit., note 2, 632.Google Scholar

11 Wright , ‘Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy of Mind’, in Puhl (ed.) Meaning Scepticism, op. cit., note 2, 143.Google Scholar

12 Some of what Wright says, especially the remarks quoted above, seem at least not to rule out the stronger version, but the gist of his proposal is, I think, compatible with the weaker, 'constructivist' position I develop here.

13 Boghossian, Paul, ‘Content and Self-knowledge’, Philosophical Topics, 17 (1989), 5—25CrossRefGoogle Scholar) makes a related point against what he calls 'cognitively insubstantial' accounts of self-knowledge, but his conclusion about the inevitability of a cognitive account doesn't follow. He writes:

The most important considerations however, against, an insubstantial construal of self-knowledge derives from [the following]; namely, that self-knowledge is both fallible and incomplete. In both the domain of the mental and that of the physical, events may occur of which one remains ignorant; and in both domains, even when one becomes aware of an event's existence, one may yet misconstrue its character, believing it to have a property it does not in fact possess. How is this to be explained? I know of no convincing alternative to the following style of explanation: the difference between getting it right and failing to do so (either through ignorance or through error) is the difference between being in an epistemically favourable position with respect to the subject matter in question—being in a position to garner the relevant evidence or not. To put this point another way, it is only if we understand self-knowledge to be a cognitive achievement that we have any prospect of explaining its admitted shortcomings, (p. 19) Below in the text, I'll explain why Wright is right to resist the idea that the achievement is a cognitive one.

14 Wright, ‘Making Up One's Mind’, op. cit., note 2, 401.

15 Even if it is implemented in subsequent action, it still might be criticizable; we can imagine a situation in which there are no good grounds for avowing it and its subsequent implementation is, as it were, ‘accidental’.

16 Wright, ‘Wittgeinstein's Later Philosophy of Mind’, op. cit., note 2,

17 See Wright, ‘Moral Values, Projection, and Secondary Qualities’, and ‘Wittgenstein's Rule-Following Considerations and the Central Project of Theoretical Linguistics’, op. cit., note 2.

18 Wright, ‘Wittgenstein's Rule-Following Considerations’, op. cit., note 2, 246.

19 See Edwards, Jim, ‘Best Opinion and Intentional States’, The Philosophical Quarterly 42 (1992), 2133.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

20 Davidson, Donald, ‘Knowing One's Own Mind’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association 60 (1986), 441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

21 Note that precisely this point can also be made against Wright's move to block Kripke's sceptic. Recall he argued that Kripke's challenge to produce a justification for avowals of intention flies in the face of first-person facts: that in avowing an intention, no justification is needed. But whether or not one is needed depends on whether the (alleged) intention ascribed meets various intelligibility requirements.

22 Burge—in the realist camp—seems to want self-verifying thoughts to play a role in saving first-person authority in light of the perceived threat to it from an externalist individuation of content. (The John Locke Lectures, Oxford University, 1993, unpublished.) Further, various functionalists who are also in the realist camp adopt an insubstantial cognitive architecture to assure the reliability of self-ascriptions in light of the perceived threat to authority from an internalist, relational individuation of thought.

23 I describe in more detail one type of regress that ensues in attributing to individuals cognitive grasp of reasons and norms of rationality in my ‘De-individualizing Norms of Rationality’ Philosophical Studies 79, issue 3 (September, 1995), 237–58.Google Scholar

24 Again, there would seem to be no point anymore in attributing to any individual participant in the practice cognitive grasp of these rules since any explanation along these lines would be illusory; the type of explanation on offer presupposes the abilities to be explained. This suggests, pace the modern cognitivist trend, reasons for resisting pursuing an individualistic psychology in studying various (social) practices. This point is developed in more general terms in my ‘Playing the rule-following game’, ms. And I discuss it further in relation to Dan Sperber's work in cognitive anthropology in my ‘A Critique of Cognitive Anthropology’, in Questions of Context and Interpretation, Roy Dilly (ed.), forthcoming.

25 Mozart, : ‘A Letter’, reprinted in The Creative Process, Ghiselin, B. (ed.) (New York: New American Library, 1952).Google Scholar

26 Saying this, really, is just to reiterate the fact that a cognitive expla-nation of the ability won't be possible, while making clear the role for standards that have been achieved or set by these cases.

27 I'm supposing that we could tell alternative stories making sense of what has happened up until this point; in particular, of (what seems to be) Emma's jealousy. But think of the latitude available to do so: perhaps she doesn't want her friendship with Knightley threatened, but doesn't want to marry him either.

28 There is a different kind of case possible—one which isn't ruled out by the discussion here—in which Emma isn't wrong in self-ascribing the belief that Knightley should marry no one but her. (She acts consistently with it, say, and pursues him.) But she may be wrong that deep down she really loves Knightley. Cases of self-deception are certainly possible, or cases in which one correctly ascribes a belief that is mistaken. But in order for this to be possible, many other constraints need to be met and the point about justification conditions remains intact.

29 To avow it inappropriately, then, might involve a kind of error that is not easily accommodated on the Cartesian model. If love, for example, were simply a feeling that presented itself to me upon mere internal inspection, then I might with perfect propriety tell someone that I love him by correctly identifying the feeling that I have toward him. But if loving someone is conceptually tied to the disposition to make a commitment, then I might be incorrect in avowing my love if I am not disposed to make a commitment. (This implication and the example were suggested to me by the Editor of this journal.)

30 I've presented ancestors of this paper at the CREA, Paris, and to members of the philosophy departments at the Universities of Tulane, Georgetown, Bowling Green State, and to Pomona College; and more recent versions to the Universities of Leeds, Nottingham, and Keele and to University College, London. I've received valuable comments on all of these occasions. Special thanks to Pierre Jacob, Christopher Peacocke, Philip Percival, Tony Skillen, Crispin Wright, and to the Editor of this journal for comments on various versions.