Tuesday 29 August 2017

Self-knowledge and First-person Authority

This post is by Fleur Jongepier (picture below). Starting Autumn 2017 she will be based in Cambridge (UK), working on the role and value of self-knowledge in contemporary liberalism.

Normally, our sincere self-ascriptions, like “I want some coffee” or “I hope the meeting will be cancelled”, are not open to correction or challenge, for instance by asking me “Are you sure?”. Indeed, we would normally consider it inappropriate to do so (as expressivists like Dorit Bar-On have argued, see e.g. Bar-On and Long 2001; Bar-On 2004). Now most traditional theories of self-knowledge think of the special sort of authority that subjects have when speaking about their own mental states is to be explained epistemically. In other words, what is referred to as ‘first-person authority’ is typically explained in terms of self-knowledge: it’s because you know your own mental states particularly well that you are particularly well-placed to say something about them.

First-personal authority gets more complex, and I think perhaps philosophically and otherwise more interesting, when we consider more problematic first-personal statements. Consider for instance an utterance like “I am going to commit suicide” or “I should kill my daughter.” Sadly, some people self-ascribe these sorts of mental states, too – not just beliefs about the rain or a desire for getting a beer from the fridge (despite most of the examples in the self-knowledge literature).

But suppose that you are a close friend or family member of the person making one of these utterances, and suppose further that you actually know the utterance is false. Perhaps you found out that the person who - sincerely and perhaps repeatedly - thinks and says she wants to kill herself does not really mean it. Or you come to know, for instance, that the person who says she wants to kill her daughter suffers from OCD and does not genuinely have the desire to kill her daughter. Damiaan Denys for instance describes the following prototypical case of a young mother suffering from OCD:

When I’m alone at home and I see my daughter sleeping in her crib then I can see myself strangling her. I’m terribly shocked by the thought and I am very frightened by it. If nobody holds me back, I could murder my daughter. I don’t want to harm her, but there is no guar- antee that I never will. I can’t control myself any longer. I thought I was a good mother, but the fact that I think about it says something about who I really am. It shows that perhaps I don’t love my daughter enough. I don’t want to think about it but I’m not able to keep the thought out of my mind. The harder I resist, the stronger the thought is. (Denys 2011)

This raises many questions, among which an important question about first-person authority. What are we to think about the status of these subject’s avowals? Do they still have the same sort of authority that normally attaches to first-person statements about one’s mind?

Examples like those just given, I want to suggest, seem to challenge the traditional view according to which first-person authority is due to or grounded in self-knowledge. After all, the above self-ascriptions were false (or so I assumed for the sake of the argument). Therefore, these subjects don’t have self-knowledge. And so, the special authority they have when pronouncing upon their own mental states cannot be explained in terms of it. If it’s true that these subjects nonetheless have first-person authority, then this would mean first-person authority requires a different, non-epistemic, explanation – one that does not explain first-person authority in terms of self-knowledge.
One might think this conclusion is too quick. After all, I’ve assumed that these subjects lack self-knowledge but retain first-person authority. But do they? Defenders of the traditional view might come to a different conclusion: if the subjects don’t know their own minds when they issue their self-ascriptions, and assuming first-person authority depends on self-knowledge, then they don’t have first-person authority either. No self-knowledge, no authority. Another option would be to say that, despite appearances, these subjects do have self-knowledge, and therefore they must have first-person authority. So we have at least three ways of thinking about first-person authority in ‘hard cases’:

  1. The Decoupling View. They have first-person authority despite not having self-knowledge. 
  2. The Negative Traditional View. They do not have self-knowledge, therefore do not have first-person authority.
  3. The Positive Traditional View. They have self-knowledge and therefore have first-person authority 

The second and third views are versions of the traditional view according to which self-knowledge and first-person always come (and go) together. The first view is different in that it allows for a potential decoupling of the two. I think it’s actually the view that’s adopted outside of philosophy. I don’t think we normally are not inclined to chalenge or correct people’s self-ascriptions because people have self-knowledge, or we assume that they have self-knowledge. Another way of arguing for the first view is to look at what’s wrong with the other two ‘traditional’ views. This is what I aim to do in the next blogpost.

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