Thursday 14 May 2015

Self-knowledge for Humans

In today's post Quassim Cassam presents his recent book entitled Self-knowledge for humans (Oxford University Press, 2014). Quassim is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, UK

Quassim Cassam

What is it about self-knowledge that makes it philosophically interesting? One familiar answer to this question is that the epistemological privileges and peculiarities of self-knowledge are what justify all the attention paid by philosophers to this topic. There is a presumption that our beliefs about our own thoughts aren’t mistaken, and knowledge of our own thoughts is neither inferential nor observational. A different answer sees the elusiveness and human importance of self-knowledge as the key. On this account, our aim as philosophers should be to understand why self-knowledge matters and explain why it is so hard to get.

These motivations for being interested in self-knowledge point in different directions. The standard examples of epistemologically distinctive self-knowledge are examples of what I call trivial self-knowledge. They include such things as knowing that you believe you are wearing socks or that London is your favourite city. Trivial self-knowledge is neither elusive nor, at least on the face of it, especially important. The contrast is with what I call substantial self-knowledge, that is, knowledge of such things as your character, emotions, aptitudes, values and why you have the attitudes you have. Substantial self-knowledge appears to matter in ways that trivial self-knowledge does not but it lacks the epistemological privileges and peculiarities of trivial self-knowledge. The difference between substantial and trivial self-knowledge is one of degree rather than kind but it seems obvious that the former is relatively hard to come by whereas the latter is relatively easy. Self-ignorance at the substantial end of the spectrum is always on the cards.

My book is partly a plea for philosophy to spend much more time on substantial self-knowledge than it has done in recent years. I argue that substantial self-knowledge is far more philosophically interesting than you might think. There is a lot to say about the epistemology of substantial self-knowledge, its importance, and the factors that make it hard to acquire. One example of substantial self-knowledge I spend some time on is knowledge of one’s own character. Another example is knowing why you have the particular beliefs you have. I talk about the extent to which our beliefs can be a reflection of our intellectual vices rather than our reasons, and argue that in many cases our failure to know why we have a given belief is the result of ignorance of the intellectual vices by which the belief is underpinned rather than ignorance of our reasons.

When I say that substantial self-knowledge is what matters to us as human beings, I don’t intend to close off the possibility that we are wrong about the value of self-knowledge. By the end of Shakespeare's play, perhaps King Lear knows himself less slenderly than he did at the start but was it all worth it? One of the aims of my book is to subject assumptions about the value of self-knowledge to critical scrutiny and to question certain seductive and popular accounts of its value. I contend that the value of self-knowledge is instrumental rather than intrinsic, though I believe that even its instrumental value is easy to exaggerate. Whatever the truth of the matter, it does seem that questions about the ultimate value of self-knowledge are ones that a philosophy of self-knowledge for humans should address.

In talking about ‘self-knowledge for humans’ I’m not just promoting the idea that philosophy should concern itself with varieties of self-knowledge that matter to us as humans. I also mean that what we should be after as philosophers is an account of self-knowledge that applies to humans beings as they actually are. One things we should know from empirical psychology, if we didn’t know it already, is that humans aren’t model intellectual citizens. Our beliefs can be eccentric, our desires irrational and our hopes hopelessly unrealistic. Our reasoning can be careless and our attitudes aren’t always as they ought rationally to be. We are homo sapiens, not homo philosophicus, the highly idealized and cognitively well-behaved subject of so much philosophical theorizing.

The distinction between homo sapiens and homo philosophicus echoes the distinction between homo
Self-knowledge for humans
sapiens and homo economicus, the idealized hyper-rational agent of so much economic theorizing. In my book the multiple disparities between homo sapiens and homo philosophicus come to a head over what I call rationalism about self-knowledge, a position I attribute to Richard Moran among others. This approach to self-knowledge says that a person can normally come to know his own beliefs, desires and other attitudes by reflecting on his reasons or on what his attitudes ought rationally to be. This assumes, as Moran puts it, that ‘the person’s reasons really do determine what his belief and other attitudes are’, that ‘what he believes about something on reflection is determined by what he has reason to believe’. And then the obvious question is: what if the person’s reasons don’t determine what his beliefs and other attitudes are? What then becomes of the possibility of figuring out what you believe by reflecting on what you have reason to believe?

Self-Knowledge for Humans is in large part a reflection on this question. I take it to be a pressing
question precisely because we aren’t homo philosophicus and because there is nothing unusual or exceptional in our beliefs not being determined by what we have reason to believe. I don’t deny that it is sometimes possible to know your own attitudes by reflecting on your reasons but the resulting knowledge will be inferential and based on evidence. The clear implication is that self-knowledge isn’t quite as epistemologically distinctive as it’s cracked up to be. For my part, I have no problem with the idea that we infer our own standing attitudes from internal and other evidence. I defend an inferentialist approach to self-knowledge and am happy that this way of seeing things has been gaining ground in recent years.

I’d like to end with a question: what is the significance for philosophy of the work on the frailties and pecularities of human reasoning of writers like Daniel Kahneman, Timothy Wilson, Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross? These writers paint a vivid picture of how we think and of the non-rational influences on our thinking and reasoning that is a very long way from homo philosophicus. How should we react? Are the various phenomena described by these writers of only marginal significance, so that we can sail serenely on, doing what we have always done, continuing to assume that our attitudes must by and large be rational?

I think such a reaction would be incredible. What we should be doing as philosophers is rethinking the extent to which our theories and explanations need to be reconfigured to take account of the disparities between homo philosophicus and homo sapiens. This process of rethinking has a long way to go, partly because it is only relatively recently that the need for it has been recognized in relation to self-knowledge. My book is an attempt to do some of the necessary rethinking, but to do it in a way that also addresses some of the bigger questions that always made self-knowledge sound to our non-philosophical friends like a subject that philosophers should be thinking and writing about.

1 comment:

  1. Is free will assumed in homo philosophicus?

    I have taken to using homo rapacious-superstitious-hierarch to describe our behavior.

    I can't help it! ;-)


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