Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

Expressivism, Self-Knowledge, and Describing One's Experiences

Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

Expressivism, Self-Knowledge, and Describing One's Experiences

Article excerpt

Each of us is normally the best person to ask when it comes to our own feelings and experiences. Speaking about one's own mental states is generally held to carry a special epistemic authority. Moreover, this authority belongs exclusively to the first person; others are not admitted to have a similar claim to know someone's experiences even if they are extremely well-informed and familiar with them. I take these to be facts on first-person authority as they appear in the practice of human life quite universally.

Such authority has a central place in social life; denying it can easily (and legitimately?) be taken as an offence. However, it might be that philosophers have historically been overconfident about the special security of our knowledge of our own minds. Carruthers (2011) argues that self-knowledge is interpretive and prone to confabulation. Schwitzgebel (2011; Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel, 2007) claims that we might be regularly wrong about even quite fundamental features of our conscious experience. Therefore it is important to be clear about the nature of first-person authority, and the conditions in which it may be legitimately challenged.

In this article, I seek to give a modest account of self-knowledge that still respects the special status of the subject as a knower of her own mental states. I treat commonsensical first-person authority as an explanandum, setting aside accounts that seek to dethrone the notion altogether. I start by presenting two contrasting views about the nature of self-knowledge and the basis of first-person authority. I point out how each of these views, "detectivism" and "constitutivism," is unsatisfactory and how expressivism about avowals, an idea inherited from Wittgenstein (1953), can be seen as preferable to them. I owe the tenus detectivism and constitutivism, as well as the main drift of the argument in the first half of this paper, to Finkelstein (2003). Another way to refer to these two contrasting views would be to call them (species of) empiricism and rationalism about selfknowledge, as is done in Gertler (2011). I proceed to present a version of expressivism that incorporates some of the good insights made by detectivism and constitutivism. As explained in the conclusion, I hope my view to be meritorious in respecting commonsensical first-person authority without invoking privileged access, i.e,, an idea of a special epistemic channel that makes self-knowledge unproblematic to come by. I also seek to do justice to the meaning of "selfknowledge" as a process that has to do with the personal development of one's conception of oneself.


What is it that makes psychological self-ascriptions, or avowals, especially secure?1 One way of answering is to appeal to introspection, combined with some form of privileged access. The idea is simple: people come to know what their own mental states are like because they are the ones who directly feel or perceive those states. We are assumed to have an "inner sense," or some naturally evolved capacity that enables us to inwardly monitor our mental states. These are forms of what Finkelstein (2003) calls detectivism: the view that the source of self-knowledge is a perceptual or quasi-perceptual act of detecting that allows us to find out our own mental states.

So, one possible explanation for first-person authority is a combination of two ideas: first, there is a special way of detecting one's own mental states; and second, that way of detecting is remarkably reliable. Maybe subjects are not completely infallible about everything that goes on in their conscious experience, but they have such a propensity of being right about those things that it cannot be paralleled by any other person,

It is hard to deny that in an obvious sense, the subject of a painful sensation is in a better position to observe that particular pain than anyone else. But it is still far from obvious that this is what grounds the typical way in which firstperson authority is granted to subjects, or if this is a good account of what selfknowledge is, Next, I attempt to illustrate the issue by an example; my chosen example in this paper will be a case of describing a sensation of pain. …

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