Tuesday 31 May 2016

On Knowing One’s Own Resistant Beliefs

This post is by Cristina Borgoni (pictured above), Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Graz. Here she summarises her recent paper 'On Knowing One's Own Resistant Beliefs', published in Philosophical Explorations. 

I have two lines of research in philosophy: one is on self-knowledge and the other is on beliefs. In self-knowledge, I am part of a research trend that tries to expand the philosophical agenda in order to incorporate human concerns on the topic. Everybody knows that knowing oneself (e.g., one’s values or one’s deep desires) can be very difficult. However, philosophy has not been concerned with such difficulties. Philosophy has rather traditionally focused on a different issue, namely, on explaining how we know some of our thoughts in an apparently immediate and almost infallible way (e.g., if someone asks whether you believe it is raining now, you will have no problems in knowing immediately what you believe). However, the aspects of our psychological life that are not known in such a special way are left out from the philosophical agenda, including our resistant beliefs.

A resistant belief is a recalcitrant cognition that persists in the person’s psychology despite the person’s epistemic reasons against the belief. I have examined the nature of this type of belief in a number of papers, which belong in my research on beliefs. An example of a resistant belief is the following. Imagine that you have learnt since very early that women are not fit for politics. Perhaps, you have grown up in a community with only a few, or even no, women politicians. Or, perhaps, you learnt it from your family and friends, who explicitly acknowledged that women were very good for a variety of tasks but not for politics; men were the ones to represent your society collective interests. Today, however, you know and actually defend the idea that men and women are equally fit for politics. Nevertheless, your early-inculcated prejudicial belief might still be part of your psychology, and might still guide some of your automatic thoughts and emotional reactions. In this imaginary situation, you have a resistant belief.

My paper unites questions from my two research lines. In exploring how we know our resistant beliefs, I challenge two theses accepted by influential views on self-knowledge. The first thesis holds that if we need to rely on evidence in order to know that we have a given belief, our achieved self-knowledge is ‘third-personal’, i.e., it is just like knowing other people’s minds. The second thesis holds that we cannot have first-personal knowledge of beliefs that we do not control. We control our own beliefs to the extent that we are able to revise them according to our reasons. Normally, if you come to learn that your view on vegetarianism is wrong, you will thereby change your beliefs on the issue. Some authors have argued that lacking such a connection to one’s beliefs precludes first-personal self-knowledge.

In the paper, I argue that knowledge of one’s own resistant beliefs constitutes a counter-example to both theses. You can still have first-personal knowledge of your resistant belief even though your knowledge is based on evidence; and even though you lack control over such a belief. My first argument appeals to the folk notion of introspection, according to which exercises of introspection––a typical first-personal route to self-knowledge––do not equate with immediate knowledge and is compatible with reliance on evidence. Furthermore, part of the evidence on which you rely in order to discover that you still have your early sexist belief is known ‘from inside’: you know how you feel when you see a woman politician giving a speech; you know what you think when the next president is likely to be a woman.

My second argument distinguishes between the notions of ‘authorship’ and ‘ownership’, which are conflated under the thesis that you cannot have first-personal knowledge of beliefs you do not control. The former notion is related to the idea of belief control: you are the author of your anti-sexist belief to the extent that you endorse it with your reasons. The latter notion is related to the circumstances in which you take a belief to be your own belief. In the paper, I argue that first-personal knowledge only requires ‘ownership’. In the proposed example, even though you disapprove that women are less fit for politics then men, you are in a position to acknowledge that the resistant sexist belief is a belief of yours; it does need to be an alienated belief. I conclude the paper acknowledging that knowing one’s own resistant beliefs might be different from immediately knowing what your favorite movie is, however it is not less first-personal.

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