Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Being Familiar with What One Wants

Today's post is by Uku Tooming (Hokkaido University) on his new paper “Being Familiar with What One Wants” (2020, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly).

Uku Tooming

In my paper, “Being Familiar with What One Wants”, I argue that there are two kinds of self-ascription of desire. First, there are easy cases where a sincere self-ascription seems to be immediately expressive of self-knowledge. For example, if I believe that I want to eat ice cream then, given the person I am, my self-ascription is true and there is no room for doubt. Second, there are hard cases which lack this kind of immediacy and where one could have easily been wrong about one’s self-ascription. For example, when I believe that I want to have a child then, given the person I am, this self-ascription is not immediately expressive of self-knowledge and can be put under question.

How to explain the difference between easy and hard cases? In particular, what makes a self-ascription of a desire an easy case? Since in the philosophical literature on self-knowledge of desire this question has not been asked, there are no clear guidelines how to answer it. Whichever proposed method of coming to know what one wants we consider it is not sensitive to the difference between easy and hard cases. This is not so much a criticism of any existing theory, but an indication that there is more work to be done.

In my paper, I propose a solution to this problem. My explanation of the difference between easy and hard cases proceeds from the assumption that our self-ascriptions in easy cases are safe self-ascriptions, i.e., they could not have easily been false. For our self-ascriptions of desire to be safe, they must track the constraints under which our desires are formed. What are those constraints? I take it that the generation of a desire is due to the updating of prior reward values of one’s options and these prior values were based on the agents’ past experiences. A self-ascription of desire thus tracks those constraints and is thereby safe only if it properly sensitive to those past experiences.

What does it take for a self-ascription of a desire for x to be properly sensitive to the relevant past experiences? My proposal is that there should be some previous experience with a rewarding option that was similar to x. For instance, I can be sure that I have a desire to eat ice cream because I have had comparable experiences before, and this ensures that I have the self-ascribed desire that is shaped by my actual learning history, and thereby excluding the close possibility of being wrong about my self-ascription. On the other hand, I am not in a position to exclude the possibility that it is false that I want to have a child because I have not experienced as rewarding anything that is relevantly similar to the experience of having a child. It is therefore a close possibility that I have a learning history which did not give rise to a desire to have a child.

The difference between easy and hard cases can thus be defined in terms of familiarity: in easy cases, the agent has experienced some content that is relevantly similar to x; in hard cases, she has not. 

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Epistemic Uses of Imagination

Today's post is by Christopher Badura (Ruhr-Universit├Ąt Bochum) and Amy Kind (Claremont McKenna College) on the new collection on the epistemic role of imagination Epistemic Uses of Imagination (Routledge, 2021). 



In recent years, philosophical interest in the epistemic role of imagination has blossomed.  Although there are a number of philosophers who remain skeptical, there is now considerable agreement that imagination has an important role to play in the epistemic domain.  But when it comes to the question of how best to articulate that role, or to the related question of what explains the ability of imagination to play that role, there is considerably less agreement.  These are the kinds of issues explored in the 15 contributions to our recently released volume, Epistemic Uses of Imagination (Routledge).

The idea for the volume was born in Bochum during summer 2019 when we co-organized a conference on Fiction, Imagination, and Epistemology at Ruhr University.  When we thought about what united the bulk of the talks, we realized that, in one way or another, they were concerned with explicating how imagination can contribute to justification, knowledge, and/or understanding. The talks took up this task in various epistemic contexts – some of them focused on the way that imagination functions in the modal domain, some on the relationship between imagination and reasoning, some on the role (or roles) that imagination plays in thought experimentation, and some on how imagination can help us to understand ourselves and others. 

In this way, we were guided towards an organizing principle for the volume: we would aim to achieve a greater understanding of imagination’s epistemic import by concentrating in particular on these four different epistemic uses of imagination.  We brought a few additional contributors on board to round out the volume, secured a contract from Routledge, and we were on our way.

And then – COVID-19 happened.  Could we still meet our original deadline for volume submission in the midst of a global pandemic?  Was it even reasonable of us to ask our contributors to try?  We decided to push on and, somehow, we were all able to do what it took.  We’re so incredibly grateful to our 14 authors for their Herculean efforts throughout this all.  Somehow, they managed to submit their drafts in a timely fashion, to give one another excellent feedback on those drafts, to revise (and, in many cases, to re-revise), to respond to copy-editor queries, to check page proofs – and to do it all with remarkable grace.



As we note in our introduction to the volume, there are several key themes running throughout the book.  We’ll here briefly mention three themes that we discuss.

Imaginative Constraints

One notion that has featured prominently in recent discussions of imagination’s epistemic usefulness is that of constraint.  Given that imagination, unlike perception, is not world-sensitive, it is generally agreed that imagination must be in some way constrained in order to be epistemically useful.  Imaginative projects typically start from some initial content that then unfolds to some further content.  Constraints play a role in both of these aspects of the project.  Not only must the initial content be appropriately constrained, but so too must the unfolding process.  Throughout the volume, authors attend to these issues – some attending to constraints of the first sort, some to constraints of the second sort, and some on both.

Imaginative Skill

The better that an imaginer is at setting appropriate constraints on their imagination, the more likely they are to succeed in putting imagination to epistemic use. This fact brings us to a second theme that runs throughout the volume, namely that imagination is best thought of within a framework that treats it as a skill.  Setting and obeying constraints are activities that one can be better or worse at, and imagining is correspondingly an activity that one can be better or worse at. This feature – that is, the fact that people differ with respect to how good they are at it – is one of the paradigmatic features of activities that are skills.  Though the contributions in the volume are not always explicit about their treatment of imagination as a skill, we think it is implicit in many of the contributions across all four parts of the book.

Imaginative Justification

Most (though not all) of our contributors are optimists about imagination’s epistemic usefulness and, more specifically, optimistic that imagination can provide an imaginer with justification.  But an important question remains. How does such justification work? This brings us to the third theme that runs throughout the volume, namely, an attempt to provide an explanation of what we might call imaginative justification. Although many of the contributions to this volume take up this theme, they do not all provide the same sort of answer.

As reflected by the orientation of the chapters in our volume, the philosophical discussion of the epistemic usefulness of imagination has at this point largely moved beyond the question of whether imagination can play an epistemic role to the question of how it can play that epistemic role.  In our view, any answer to this question will likely have to reckon with the issues arising out of these three themes that we’ve just discussed. By doing so, the chapters in this volume help address the role of imagination in epistemic contexts and thereby contribute to the development of an epistemology of imagination.  Of course, there is still considerable work to be done. 

The epistemology of imagination has not progressed to a stage at which it can be compared to the epistemology of perception or the epistemology of testimony. But it is our hope that this volume contributes to that progress and, in particular, that these chapters will advance our understanding of many of the critical issues surrounding the epistemic work that imagination can accomplish.  For our part, we’re very pleased with how the volume came out, and we hope that it will prove useful not only to folks already interested in imagination but also to others who work in epistemology, aesthetics, cognitive science, and on other related questions.

Further information about the book, including a complete table of contents, is available here.  We look forward to hearing what readers think of it.


Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Disturbances of Shared Intentionality in Schizophrenia and Autism

Today's post is by Alessandro Salice (University College Cork) and Mads Gram Henriksen (University of Copenhagen) on their new paper “Disturbances of Shared Intentionality in Schizophrenia and Autism” (published in 2021 in Frontiers in Psychiatry).


Alessandro Salice

In the past decades, shared intentionality (i.e., the capacity to share mental states like beliefs, intentions or emotions) has attracted intense attention in several disciplines. These include various theoretical disciplines (e.g., philosophy and game theory), empirical sciences of the mind (e.g., developmental psychology, social psychology, and cognitive sciences), and social sciences (e.g., anthropology, economics, and sociology). By now, the idea that shared intentionality pervasively characterizes human psychology and, therefore, human forms of social life has become fairly uncontroversial in the literature. 

However, the large body of insights secured by this burgeoning line of research has, so far, remained largely neglected in psychiatry. In particular, the relevance of shared intentionality and its potential to enrich our understanding of mental disorders such as schizophrenia and infantile autism have not yet been fully appreciated. 

While relevant literature does recognize that problems of sociality are part and parcel of the two syndromes, these problems are usually considered sequela of social cognitive deficits, and no references to shared intentionality are made. Moreover, with the extension of the diagnostic boundaries of the autism spectrum and the contemporary autism research that typically focuses on persons without intellectual disability, knowledge of the qualitatively different problems of sociality in autism and schizophrenia are gradually disappearing. 

Against this background, our recent paper ‘Disturbances of Shared Intentionality in Schizophrenia and Autism’ (Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2021) pursues two main goals (by amplifying and enhancing some theses already presented in Salice & Henriksen 2015). 

On the one hand, it aims at filling the aforementioned gap in psychiatric literature by specifically focusing on how shared intentionality breaks down in schizophrenia and infantile autism. Specifying the nature of these social difficulties–and especially how they differ from each other in the two syndromes–may potentially help resolve the growing differential-diagnostic confusion between schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder in clinical psychiatry. On the other, by illuminating how shared intentionality is disrupted in the two syndromes, the article also intends to shed light on the pre-conditions of shared intentionality when it is functioning normally or unproblematically.

To achieve these goals, we develop an empirically informed, conceptual account of two main forms of shared intentionality: joint intentionality and we-intentionality. Joint intentionality crucially relies on the agents’ mentalizing abilities such as mindreading and the ability to factor in (or “to be moved” by) their partner’s intentions in deliberation and action planning. 

By contrast, we-intentionality relies on the agents’ capacity to understand themselves as group members and to adopt the group’s perspective (on the nature of these two processes, see this other entry). Armed with this account, we then move our attention to the social difficulties in schizophrenia and in the severe end of the autism spectrum disorder (infantile autism), respectively.


Mads Gram Henriksen

When approaching the topic of sociality in schizophrenia, one is likely to encounter a staggering puzzle. On the one hand, patients with schizophrenia often report continuous difficulties in establishing and maintaining social relations with others, and frequently these difficulties are a source of loneliness and isolation. On the other hand, patients may simultaneously report that they enjoy and often participate in various forms of social interactions. 

We explain this apparent incongruity in social behavior by arguing that, in schizophrenia, we-intentionality appears to be disrupted, while joint intentionality remains unaffected. The main – although perhaps not exclusive – sources of problems of we-intentionality in schizophrenia are identified in trait-like, non-psychotic, anomalous self-experiences (also called ‘self-disorders’), which empirical studies consistently have found to hyper-aggregate in schizophrenia spectrum disorders but not in other mental disorders or healthy controls. 

In short, our claim is that the enduring presence of anomalous self-experiences may affect these patients’ capacity to understand themselves as group members (in the specific sense at stake in group identification) and, by extension, their ability to engage in we-intentionality.

When it comes to infantile autism, aberrant social behaviour has been considered as a hallmark of the syndrome since it was first described by Kanner and Asperger in the 1940s. We hypothesize that this pervasive aberrance in social behaviour can be cashed out in terms of difficulties that impact both joint and we-intentionality. 

In relation to joint intentionality, we argue that characteristic impairments in the intuitive understanding of other persons make it difficult to track and consider their intentions and to factor them in in action planning and conduct. Put another way, persons with severe autism are often not ‘moved’ by others’ intentions, which directly impacts their capacity to form participatory intentions and, thus, to engage in joint intentionality. 

The root of these difficulties is, in our view, best described by Hobson, who argues that persons with autism have a decreased propensity to identify-with others: they rarely are emotionally drawn or ‘moved’ to assume the others’ bodily expressed psychological attitude and, eventually, to acquire it as a potential attitude for themselves. 

We claim that this decreased ability to understand others’ attitudes plays a crucial role in inhibiting we-intentionality, too. More specifically, we suggest that the very same difficulties that persons with infantile autism encounter in adopting another individual’s perspective may affect the adoption of a group’s perspective.

In conclusion, the picture emerging from our article is that joint intentionality and we-intentionality are complex abilities that rests on various psychological pre-conditions. Consequently, alterations in these pre-conditions may have important consequences for the subject’s sociality and reverberate in the ways in which the subject interacts with others. 

While, evidently, there is currently no available experimental design to test our account or empirical evidence to validate or falsify it, we hope that our paper illustrates that research on shared intentionality can shed a new, refreshing light on some complex issues of relevance in psychiatry and clinical psychology.