Speaking My Mind: Expression and Self-Knowledge

Speaking My Mind: Expression and Self-Knowledge

Speaking My Mind: Expression and Self-Knowledge

Speaking My Mind: Expression and Self-Knowledge


Dorit Bar-On develops and defends a novel view of avowals and self-knowledge. Drawing on resources from the philosophy of language, the theory of action, epistemology, and the philosophy of mind, she offers original and systematic answers to many long-standing questions concerning our abilityto know our own minds. We are all very good at telling what states of mind we are in at a given moment. When it comes to our own present states of mind, what we say goes; an avowal such as "I'm feeling so anxious" or "I'm thinking about my next trip to Paris," it is typically supposed, tells it like it is. But why isthat? Why should what I say about my present mental states carry so much more weight than what others say about them? Why should avowals be more immune to criticism and correction than other claims we make? And if avowals are not based on any evidence or observation, how could they possiblyexpress our knowledge of our own present mental states? Bar-On proposes a Neo-Expressivist view according to which an avowal is an act through which a person directly expresses, rather than merely reports, the very mental condition that the avowal ascribes. She argues that this expressivist idea, coupled with an adequate characterization of expressionand a proper separation of the semantics of avowals from their pragmatics and epistemology, explains the special status we assign to avowals. As against many expressivists and their critics, she maintains that such an expressivist explanation is consistent with a non-deflationary view ofself-knowledge and a robust realism about mental states. The view that emerges preserves many insights of the most prominent contributors to the subject, while offering a new perspective on our special relationship to our own minds.


“I have a terrible headache, ” I mutter, rubbing my temples.

“I am so tired, ” you say, as you stretch out on the couch.

A gloomy child says to her caregiver, “I hope Mommy is coming soon.”

Looking at the sky, your friend says, “I'm wondering whether it's going to rain.”

At the sight of a mean-looking pit bull, you say, “I am scared of that dog.”

Staring at the newest painting by one of my favorite artists, I say, “I'm finding this painting utterly puzzling.”

We have here a handful of examples of everyday utterances in which speakers tell us certain things about themselves. Each of these utterances mentions a particular sensation, or feeling, or thought that the speaker ascribes to herself at the moment of utterance. Such utterances—“avowals”, as they are sometimes called—ascribe states of mind that the speaker happens to be in at a given time. On their face, avowals resemble other everyday utterances in which we report various occurrences, such as:

“There is a red cardinal at the bird-feeder.”

“We've just run out of dog food.”

“I have a mosquito bite on my leg.”

Like these reports, avowals appear to inform us of certain contingent states of affairs; they tell us of states of mind that the speaker happens to be in at a given moment. Yet avowals have a unique status. For, when compared to ordinary empirical reports, avowals appear to enjoy distinctive security.

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