|Philosophy of Mind
Reflexive Transparency, Mental Content,
ABSTRACT: It has been disputed whether an externalist conception of the individuation of intentional states, such as beliefs and desires, is compatible with self-knowledge, that is, the claim that one's judgments about one's intentional states are non-evidential, non-inferential, and authoritative. I want to argue that these theses are indeed incompatible, notwithstanding an important objection to this incompatibility claim. The worry has been raised that if externalism is true, then for a subject to know, say, that he or she believes that p, the subject would need to know, on the basis of some evidence, the external conditions which determine the belief's content. Thus, externalism would be incompatible with self-knowledge. But many philosophers have accepted an objection suggesting that this worry is mistaken because in order to have a belief one need not know the metaphysical conditions determining its content, even if they are externalist. And thus, the subject's reflexive judgment about the belief would not need to rest on evidence about those external conditions. But this objection rests on a crucial assumption according to which mental content is reflexively transparent in the sense that a subject could not judge that she or he has an intentional state and be mistaken about the content of her or his state, even if the content is externally determined. My main purpose is not reflexively transparent on the assumption of externalism and, thus, self-knowledge and externalism are incompatible.
I. Self-knowledge, Externalism, and an Incompatibility Worry
It has been disputed whether an externalist conception of the individuation of intentional states, such as beliefs and desires, is compatible with self-knowledge, that is, the claim that one's judgments about one's intentional states, are non-evidential, non-inferential, and authoritative.(1) The worry has been raised that if externalism is true, then for a subject to know, say, that she believes that p, the subject would need to know, on the basis of some evidence, the external conditions which determine the belief's content. And thus externalism would be incompatible with self-knowledge. But many philosophers have accepted an objection suggesting that this worry is mistaken, because even if one's belief content is externally determined, one need not know the external conditions determining that content in order to have the belief. And, thus, the subject's reflexive judgment about the belief would not need to rest on evidence about those external conditions.(2) But this objection rests, in turn, on a crucial assumption according to which mental content is reflexively transparent in the sense that a subject could not judge that she has an intentional state and be mistaken about the content of her state, even if content is externally determined.(3)
My main purpose is to question this crucial assumption. Now the claim that mental content is reflexively transparent is extremely compelling and, if it is correct while externalism is true, then this would indeed support the compatibility of externalism and self-knowledge. But, I want to argue that mental content is not reflexively transparent on the assumption of externalism. If my argument is correct, the upshot is that self-knowledge and externalism are incompatible.
To set the general background, let me first say a bit more about externalism, self-knowledge, and the worry that these theses may be incompatible. Though externalism is not universally accepted, it is very well-known and, recently, it has become almost the received view in philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. Externalism is a metaphysical thesis concerning the individuation conditions on intentional states, such as beliefs, desires, and the like. According to this thesis, intentional states are individuated by their content, and content depends essentially on some relations between the subject and her environment.(4)
As regards self-knowledge, it has its historical roots in Descartes's ingenious intuition about the cogito. Now, on both sides of the compatibility issue, it is agreed that self-knowledge should be understood as a weaker claim than what we may call the "unrestricted cartesian conception". On this unrestricted understanding, self-knowledge would be the mark of the mental in the sense that (i) a subject who has a mental state could not fail to know that she has it, and (ii) all reflexive judgments about one's own mental states could not fail to be true and, hence, no evidence (and no inference) could show them to be mistaken. Of course, this unrestricted cartesian conception seems much too strong in so far as it rules out both the possibility that there exist unconscious mental states and that some judgments about one's mental states may be cases of self-deception.(5) However, it seems hard to deny that typically when a subject judges that she has a certain intentional state, then this judgment is warranted even if it rests on no empirical evidence and no inference. And it is in this weaker sense, vague though it may be, that self-knowledge is generally understood in the incompatibility issue.
Now, some have voiced the worry that externalism might be incompatible with self-knowledge. The worry is simply that if an intentional state, say, my belief that water is a liquid, is individuated in accord with externalism, then it depends on some conditions that hold in my environment. But, goes the worry, how could I know on the basis of no evidence that I have that belief since my knowledge of these external conditions would certainly need to be based on some evidence? But, some philosophers have insisted that this worry rests on the following mistaken assumption: for a reflexive judgment about one's intentional state to be warranted, one would need to know the external conditions which are essential to its content. For instance, to know that I believe that water is a liquid, I would need to know that I inhabit an environment where there is water, and to know that I would need some empirical evidence. But, goes the objection, to have a belief with a certain externally determined content, it is not necessary to know the external conditions which determine the belief's content. The latter may be what it is simply because the subject happens to be appropriately "hooked" to her environment. And if that's correct, then why should the subject need to know that those external conditions obtain in order to know that she has that belief?
However, it's important to see that this argument, in support of the compatibility of externalism and self-knowledge, rests on the crucial assumption that I have already noted, namely, that mental content is reflexively transparent in the sense that a subject could not judge that she has an intentional state with a certain mental content and be mistaken about the content of her state.
II. Reflexive Transparency
First, let me try to make a bit clearer the notion of reflexive transparency. This notion is best understood with some examples which illustrate Descartes's paradigm of the cogito. Consider the following:
Now, these judgments are reflexively transparent simply in the following sense: the property (or the relation) which is self-ascribed is instantiated by the very instantiation of the judgment. For instance, by judging that I refer to myself, I actually stand in the referring relation to myself. Now, the sense in which judgments like these are non-inferential, non-evidential, and authoritative and, thus, constitute self-knowledge, is transparent enough. It seems that anyone who considers these examples, and who actually makes such reflexive judgments would be struck by their reflexive transparency.
However, it should be noted that in such paradigmatic cases no externally determined content seems too involved. Thus, prima facie, even if these judgments are indeed reflexively transparent, this does not entail that judgments about one's externally determined mental contents are also reflexively transparent. In other words, though the claim that mental content is reflexively transparent, may seem prima facie quite compelling in its own right, still it is doubtful that the reflexive transparency of judgments like (1)-(3) entails that judgments about one's externally determined intentional states are also reflexively transparent.
Now, this should help understand the crucial assumption involved in the objection to the incompatibility worry, that is, the claim that the content of one's intentional state is reflexively transparent even if it is externally determined. Indeed, it is only in so far reflexive judgments are transparent in that sense, that they would not need to be supported by empirical evidence about the relevant external conditions. Thus, according to this crucial assumption, I could not judge that I have a certain intentional state, while the content of that reflexive judgment might fail to involve the very externally determined content of that state. So, reflexive transparency would have to be true not only of judgments like (1)-(3), which correspond quite strictly to the intuition of the cogito, but it would also have to be true of judgments about the content of one's thoughts. In other words, reflexive judgments like (4), would also have to be reflexively transparent:
But, in so far as (4) is supposed to illustrate the reflexive transparency of mental content, we must insist that "I think", in (4), is used in a generic sense. On this reading, the judgment expressed by (4) is only about a certain propositional content the subject believes she entertains. Thus, (4) could be taken as expressing the same thing as
Now, it seems hard to deny that such judgments are reflexively transparent in the same sense that (1)-(3) are. But I want to suggest otherwise.
III. Could a subject be mistaken about her own mental content?
If the claim that mental content is reflexively transparent is to support the compatibility of externalism and self-knowledge, then this claim must also presuppose, quite obviously, the externalist character of mental content. So this general assumption of the compatibilist objection can be stated as follows. For convenience, I call it "Reflexive Transparency of Externalist Content".
This claim seems quite plausible. After all, for one to judge that one is thinking that p, it does seem that one must think that p. But could it not be possible that one judges that she thinks that p, when in fact she does not, because she thinks that q instead? Of course such a possibility may seem a bit paradoxical, but I now want to suggest an example supporting the possibility of such an error through misidentification. For convenience, I call this possibility "Error through misidentification of content" (or "EMC"):
Consider the following example.(7) Suppose that a subject is in a building located on the docks. The subject (call her "S") is facing the wall of a room where there are two windows facing the harbor. The windows are at a certain distance from each other. From those windows, ships getting in an out of the harbor can be observed. S's angle of gaze is such that through the left window she sees the part of a ship, say the front deck, and through the right window she sees another part of the very same ship, say the pilot cabin at the rear. Now we can suppose that S does not realize that it is one and the same ship she is observing. For instance, perhaps the paint of the ship is being redone, and perhaps there is a discrepancy between the look of the front part, and that of the rear part. Moreover, suppose that S has recently observed two different ships in the harbor: one having some striking resemblance with the front part of the ship she now observes, and the other having features similar to those of the rear part. Furthermore, the angle of S's gaze is such that it would be physically possible that what she sees through the two windows be two different ships. We can even suppose that on several occasions S has indeed observed pairs of different ships from just that perspective, and that she has never before observed only one ship through both windows as it now happens.
Now, suppose that in that situation S comes to believe that the ship she sees through the left window is different from the ship she sees through the right window. Hence, her belief's content could be expressed thus:
Moreover, S could come to make a reflexive judgment about the content of her belief: she may judge that what she believes is that this ship is different from that ship, which reflexive judgment can be expressed as follows:
(For brevity's sake, I drop the qualification about the indexical mental gaze, though it is still assumed here and in what follows.) But now if RTEC is true, then (6) is reflexively transparent and, thus, it could not possibly be mistaken. But here the following question arises: when S makes judgment (6) is it necessary that the that-clause express the very proposition that occurs in her world-directed belief, namely the one expressed by (5)? I think it is not. In other words, I want to argue that there is ground to resist the claim that (6) could not possibly be mistaken and, thus, ground to deny RTEC.
First, if the content of S's world-directed belief, that is, the content expressed by (5), is indeed determined by the external conditions holding in S's environment, namely by the fact that there is actually only one ship referred to, then this very mental content entails that the ship is not self-identical which violates the general principle that all objects are self-identical (or "PSI"). But we can certainly assume that S accepts that principle. Moreover, it is in no way incoherent that in making reflexive judgment (6), S uses the expression "I think" with the intention to refer, at once, both to the content of the world-directed belief that just occurred to her, the content expressed by (5), and to the content expressed by the that-clause in (6), meaning that both thoughts are identical. But, by "that this ship ¹ that ship" in (6), S may well express a content different from the content of the belief that just occurred to her. This is why it does not seem incoherent that in (6) S may make an error through misidentification of her mental content. For instance, by the that-clause in (6) the subject may express a proposition which, contrary to (5), does not entail that the ship is not self-identical. Indeed, we may suppose that by the that-clause in (6) S expresses the following proposition or a similar one:
Now, we may ask why it is (5*), rather than (5), that gives the content of the that-clause in (6). In reply we must note, first, that I need not claim that the that-clause in (6) must necessarily be interpreted as expressing (5*), or a similar proposition. But to support the coherence of EMC, all I need to claim is that it is not incoherent that the that-clause in (6) may express (5*), while by "I think", in (6), the subject may also intend to refer to the different world-directed thought that occurred to her, namely the one which violates PSI. The reason why this is not implausible, let alone incoherent, can be put in a nutshell: Charity begins at home. It is one thing for someone to believe a proposition which violates a principle she accepts, namely PSI; but it is quite a different thing to self-ascribe a belief the content of which does violate that accepted principle. It seems extremely plausible that when we ascribe beliefs to others we try to make them rational by avoiding to ascribe contents which violate some strong principle like PSI. But then it seems that this must also be true of self-ascriptions. In a case like (6) it would be quite "self-uncharitable" for the subject to judge that she believes a proposition which violates a principle she admittedly accepts, unless she would knows the external conditions which determine the content of the belief she intends to ascribe to herself.
Let me try to clarify this point. Suppose that after making judgment (6), the subject was brought to the window and shown that there is only one ship, then it does not seem incoherent that she would react in the following way. About her non-reflexive thought she may say: "Gee! I did believe something that entails that the ship is not self-identical". But if pressed to say whether in her reflexive judgment about that belief she judged that she was believing something that entails the falsity of PSI, then she could coherently answer that she did not, that she reflexively judged that she was believing something which does not entail that the ship is not self-identical, perhaps something like (5*), but that she was mistaken in her reflexive judgment. Nobody's perfect! But it is plausible that we are charitable in belief ascriptions, particularly in one's own case. So, if what I have argued so far is correct, then error through misidentification of content in reflexive judgments is indeed possible. And if that's correct, it suffices to show that RTEC is false. But, as we may recall, RTEC is precisely the fundamental assumption underlying the objection to the incompatibility worry about externalism and self-knowledge.
For the that-clause in a reflexive judgment like (6) to express the same externally determined content as the one expressed by the non-reflexive judgment like (5), which violates PSI, it does seem that the subject would need to know the external conditions that determine the content of the latter. Unless the subject knows those external conditions, it seems rather implausible that she would self-ascribe a belief which violates a principle she admittedly accepts, even though in her reflexive judgment (6) she may use "I think" intending to refer both to (5), which violates PSI, and to (6)'s that-clause, intending the latter to express a proposition like (5*), which does not violate PSI.(9)
Thus, if the argument of this paper is correct, then the worry that externalism and self-knowledge are incompatible is more than a worry: those theses are indeed incompatible. If my argument is correct, it indicates that the a priori intuitions underlying the compatibilist claim that we do have some kind of special first-person epistemic access to the content of our intentional states is probably mistaken, unless one is ready to deny externalism. But this is an issue I shall leave for another occasion.
Notes(1) There is an extensive literature on this issue. For arguments in support of the compatibility of externalism and self-knowledge, see Brueckner (1991), Burge (1988), Davidson (1986, 1989), and Warfield (1992). For the incompatibility claim, see Boghossian (1989, 1994). (2) For an influential argument along these lines, see Burge (1988). (3) In what follows I make clear the specific sense in which I use the notion of reflexive transparency, which is very similar to the notion of self-verification used by Burge (1988). It is important to note that "reflexive transparency", as I use the expression, is different from the notion of "epistemic transparency" discussed by Paul Boghossian in his (1994). Boghossian argues that an externalist conception of content violates what he calls "epistemic transparency". But this notion seems epistemologically richer then the notion of reflexive transparency involved in my discussion. In this paper, I intend to remain neutral about Boghossian's argument which, for all I know, may well be correct. (4) For influential arguments in support of externalism, see Putnam (1975), and Burge (1979). Putnam's famous Twin-earth case is useful to illustrate the main idea of externalism: even though my twin and myself may be identical in all physical respects, the belief my twin expresses when he says "Water is a liquid" is different from the one I express when I say the same thing, because my twin is located in an different environment, namely Twin-earth, where there is, in place of water, a chemically different substance, namely XYZ or twater, which shares the phenomenal properties of water. (5) Of course the claim that there exists unconscious mental states has become widely accepted in this century, especially under the influence of psychoanalysis. But it should be noted that it is also a central assumption of contemporary cognitive science. Concerning self-deception, namely cases where a subject believes that she has a certain mental state but is mistaken, apart from being intuitively plausible, this claim is also strongly supported by empirical evidence. For a review of that evidence, see Nisbett and Wilson (1977). (6) See Frege (1984) for the classical distinction between grasping and judging. (7) My example is inspired by an example of Gareth Evans in his (1982), but Evans' s example serves a different purpose. (8) The following could also be another candidate:
(9) The following example, which draws upon the intuitions of Putnam's Twin-earth case, may help to put into focus the main consequence of my argument. Suppose that unbeknownst to me I have just been transported to Twin-earth (for the first time). Suppose that I come upon a pond of twater, namely that substance phenomenally similar to water but chemically different. Suppose that it is early in the morning and there is vapor which can be observed over the pond. Suppose also that I am a water ignoramus: I sure know some things about water, for instance that it is a wet thirst-quenching liquid, but I never believed that water evaporates. I may have heard the claim but, until then, never believed it; I may have remained skeptical or undecided about it. Now suppose that the following world-directed thought occurs to me:
Moreover, suppose I am a reflexive kind of person and that I make the following reflexive judgment:
But if what I have argued in this paper is correct, then it is certainly not incoherent that by "I believe" in (8) I intend at once to refer both to the indexical content that just occurred to me, namely to the proposition that twater evaporates, and to the proposition expressed by "that water evaporates" in (8), namely the proposition that water evaporates, intending to claim that those two contents are identical. But of course, this would just be a case of error through misidentification, and reflexive judgment (8) would indeed be false. But if that is correct, we must accept that the falsity of (8) would have to be established on the basis of empirical evidence (or some inference). In other words, (8) is mistaken precisely because I have neglected some crucial empirical evidence (or some inference), that is, the fact that I am on Twin-earth, and thus the stuff I refer to by "this" in (7) is different than the stuff I refer to by "water" in (8). For all I know even though the stuff I refer to by "this" in (7) does evaporate, I may still fail to believe that water evaporates.
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