Dissertation Abstract

My dissertation focuses on the relationship between two seemingly closely related phenomena, namely, what philosophers have often called first-person authority and privileged self-knowledge. As I distinguish them, the former phenomenon concerns the presumptive truth and relative indubitability of an agent’s present tensed mental state self-ascriptions, while the latter concerns her distinctive (in several possible respects) knowledge of the states she authoritatively self-ascribes. I accept that both of these phenomena are actual. I also accept that their existences have something to do with one another. I acknowledge, however, that philosophers have often tended merely to assume that this is so, perhaps because it is so tempting to think that first-person authority is an obvious consequence of privileged self-knowledge.

So-called expressivists about first-person authority are among the few who explicitly disentangle first-person authority from privileged self-knowledge. Expressivism about first-person authority is, roughly, the view that one’s psychological self-ascriptions are presumptively true because, in many circumstances, they are direct expressions of the very states self-ascribed. What follows, apparently, is that an agent’s self-ascription like “I desire pizza” is first-person authoritative inasmuch as it directly expresses her desire for pizza, whether or not it also (or otherwise) expresses knowledge of her first-order desire. The authority of her utterance, then, does not seem to depend on her having knowledge of her desire, privileged or otherwise. For those who remain committed to the existence of both first-person authority and privileged self-knowledge, and to thinking that they surely must be related, an explanatory challenge remains.

A subset of expressivists about first-person authority have recently argued that we can dismiss the explanatory challenge entirely. They do this by denying that we need to give an account of privileged self-knowledge. On this view, no explanatory purpose is served by countenancing such knowledge. I deny this conclusion, though I agree with these expressivists (and some non-expressivists) that many of the putative conceptual and cognitive roles historically envisioned for privileged self-knowledge are of dubious importance. In particular, I challenge the orthodox view that privileged self-knowledge is important due to its role in so-called ‘critical reasoning’, which is the process of subjecting one’s first-order attitudes to rational scrutiny by means of higher-order reflection on their epistemic credentials. Thus, I deny that privileged self-knowledge matters at the level of self-directed rational maintenance. Instead, I argue that privileged self-knowledge matters for irreducibly social kinds of reasoning: the basic idea is that possessing privileged self-knowledge is required in order for us to understand our ‘position in epistemic space’ relative to other agents, and that we cannot be the kinds of cognizers we are without this capacity.

In later chapters of the dissertation I turn to the question of what mechanisms, if any, provide us with privileged self-knowledge. For various reasons, I eventually argue that such knowledge is not the product of any sort of cognitive achievement and is, instead, a product of our agency and the nature of our mental states. Such a view is typically described as ‘constitutivist’, and I am happy with this label, except that I accept constitutivism for different reasons than most. I then defend constitutivism against a recently articulated competitor, which I call ‘rational fundamentalism’, according to which privileged self-knowledge is the product of a disposition (enjoyed by rational agents with the relevant conceptual repertoire) to produce higher-order beliefs about one’s own mental states. This view is marketed as an improvement on constitutivism because it (a) is better positioned to accommodate cases of self-error and self-ignorance, and (b) allows us to understand our mental states as ontologically distinct from our awareness of them. I argue that (a) is false and (b) is unimportant.

I close the dissertation by exploring the connections between first-person authority and privileged self-knowledge in more detail. The task, as I see it, is to hold onto the intuitiveness of the expressivist position while also denying its compatibility with deflationism about privileged self-knowledge. I argue that we should understand expressive self-ascriptions as expressing both first-order states and our awareness of them, since this view best accounts for the role that such self-ascriptions play in various kinds of social cognition.


Ontological Entanglement in the Normative Web

Terence Cuneo (2007) has argued that we have to be committed to the existence of epistemic facts insofar as they are indispensable to theorizing (a project that is likewise cognitively indispensable). Furthermore, he argues that the epistemic properties of these facts are inextricably ‘ontologically entangled’ with certain moral properties, such that there exist indispensable ‘moral-epistemic’ facts. Cuneo, therefore, concludes that insofar as epistemic realism is true, moral realism is likewise true. I argue that Cuneo’s appeal to the existence of indispensable moral-epistemic facts is problematic, even granting the existence of indispensable epistemic facts. I conclude, therefore, that Cuneo’s argument fails to justify moral realism.

In Progress

Neo-Expressivism and the Explanatory Relevance Requirement

It is sometimes thought that there is a difference between first-person authority, on the one hand, and privileged self-knowledge, on the other. The former, it is sometimes argued, concerns merely the presumptive truth of present-tense psychological self-ascriptions, while the latter concerns the distinctively secure, epistemically warranted second-order beliefs one has of the psychological states authoritatively self-ascribed. This paper examines a frequently—albeit often tacitly—accepted dialectical constraint on debates within the self-knowledge literature, which I dub the Explanatory Relevance Requirement (ERR). According to ERR, first-person authority and privileged self-knowledge bear essential explanatory relationships to one another. I argue that, if ERR is true, then a popular ‘neo-expressivist’ account of first-person authority is objectionable because it fails to abide ERR. The significance of this failure is assessed in light of a survey of possible grounds for ERR.

Constitutivist and Rational-Fundamentalist Privileged Self-Knowledge

Constitutivists about self-knowledge argue that rational agents frequently enjoy ‘privileged’ knowledge of their current first-order propositional attitudes because many of a rational agent’s second-order beliefs about one’s first-order propositional attitudes (or ‘self-beliefs’) are necessarily true. For many constitutivists this thesis has a striking ontological implication, namely that one’s self-beliefs are not ontologically distinct from their first-order objects. This, in turn, could mean that (1) one’s self-beliefs have their first-order objects as a proper part, (2) one’s self-beliefs just are their first-order objects self-consciously grasped, or (3) one’s self-beliefs are connected to their first-order objects as a matter of ‘conceptual necessity’. Matthew Parrott has recently argued, however, that no account of privileged self-knowledge which hopes to easily explain self-ignorance and error should countenance necessary states of self-knowledge. Instead, to capture the privileged character of much of our self-knowledge, he argues for what I call ‘rational fundamentalism’, according to which privileged self-knowledge is brought about by the triggering of a fundamental disposition, enjoyed by rational agents endowed with the concepts of the propositional attitudes, to form higher-order beliefs about their first-order propositional attitudes. Since this disposition–like other dispositions–can be masked, the connections it generates between the relevant attitudes are not necessary connections. The implication is that constitutivism ought to be rejected in favour of rational fundamentalism. I deny this implication: constitutivism and rational fundamentalism, I argue, are equally explanatorily and theoretically virtuous on several fronts, while constitutivism may be less objectionable than rational fundamentalism on one crucial front.

Not all of my works in progress are listed here, as some are currently under review, and some are only in their inchoate stages. Please contact me if you wish to hear about my other works in progress.

Copyright © 2018 Ben Winokur