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Three Varieties of Knowledge

  • Donald Davidson


I know, for the most part, what I think, want, and intend, and what my sensations are. In addition, I know a great deal about the world around me. I also sometimes know what goes on in other people's minds. Each of these three kinds of empirical knowledge has its distinctive characteristics. What I know about the contents of my own mind I generally know without investigation or appeal to evidence. There are exceptions, but the primacy of unmediated self-knowledge is attested by the fact that we distrust the exceptions until they can be reconciled with the unmediated. My knowledge of the world outside of myself, on the other hand, depends on the functioning of my sense organs, and this causal dependence on the senses makes my beliefs about the world of nature open to a sort of uncertainty that arises only rarely in the case of beliefs about my own states of mind. Many of my simple perceptions of what is going on in the world are not based on further evidence; my perceptual beliefs are simply caused directly by the events and objects around me. But my knowledge of the propositional contents of other minds is never immediate in this sense; I would have no access to what others think and value if I could not note their behaviour.



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1 I make no claims about how broadly Wittgenstein intended his thesis about private languages to be interpreted; perhaps he intended his argument to apply only to those concepts which are necessarily private. But I, like Saul Kripke, think the argument applies to language quite generally and so (I would say) to all propositional thought. See Kripke, , Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (1982). I should add that while I accept the idea that communication is the source of objectivity, I do not think it depends on speakers using the same words to express the same thoughts. The use to which I put the Wittgensteinian insight will emerge presently.

2 Here I accept Quine's thesis of the indeterminancy of translation, and extend it to the interpretation of thought generally. The analogy with measurement is my own.

3 In ‘Mental Events’, reprinted in my Essays on Actions and Events (1980).


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