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The Self and Self-Knowledge

Richard Baron inspects different ideas of the self.

What counts as a person? We think we know our own beliefs, desires and sensations, but what kind of knowledge is that? And how secure is that knowledge?

These are big philosophical questions, and this collection of essays by eleven leading philosophers shows just how much our thinking about them has advanced in recent years. Unfortunately, I only have space to mention some of the contributors here.

If there is a theme through this book, it is that to understand the self we need to interweave several strands in our thinking: for instance, that the concept of the self has an ethical dimension, or that concepts of rationality have special roles to play, or that you only have beliefs and feelings if you are disposed to state them.

The first of these strands is visible in Carol Rovane’s essay, in which she makes use of her ethical criterion of personhood. For her, a person is not necessarily a biological organism: a person is an entity that pursues its own coherent projects as a single entity, with one set of thoughts. A group of people who all think individually, and who might disagree, does not count as a person on this criterion. But a tightly-knit team of people who thought and acted as one, could count as a person. One aspect of the ethical dimension is that we should respect peoples’ projects.

It is pretty radical for Rovane not to start with the biological body as the basic criterion of personhood. One reason why it is so radical is that thoughts are in the heads of individual bodies. Moreover, we naturally think of persons as individual bodies. But does that prove anything, or could we just be making a mistake in our natural intuitions?

Christopher Peacocke says that our thoughts really ought to prove something. He makes the point that how we think of ourselves as ourselves ought to give us a good general guide to what it is to be a self. He reflects on how we file and integrate our experiences, then goes on to rescue the self from David Hume’s famous challenge to the whole concept. Hume claimed in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) that when he looked within himself, he could find only perceptions, not a self. Peacocke argues that the self can exist as the subjectof conscious states without itself being an object of perception.


Moving on to our knowledge of ourselves, there are several possibilities. One is that we work out our beliefs, desires and sensations by observing ourselves. Another is that our beliefs, desires and sensations are automatically presented to us, so that we know we have them without our needing to deliberately observe or work anything out. So if you believe that Sacramento is the capital of California, or if you desire chocolate, or if you have a headache, you just know that you have that belief, or that desire, or that headache, without having to make any observations of yourself. A third possibility is that if you sincerely express a belief or desire, that means you have a belief or desire. If I ask you about the shape of the Earth, and you sincerely say “I believe that the Earth is round,” then you have that belief. All of these possibilities, and more, are considered in this book, although the idea that we look at ourselves and then work out what we believe, desire or feel, gets short shrift. The range of options reflects the need to accommodate several points. We seem to have rock-solid knowledge of our own states of mind: you may not know the right answer to some factual question, or what you ought to want, but you must know what you think is the right answer, or what you do want. And it would be very odd to ask someone how she knew that she was in pain; so that kind of knowledge seems to be immediate and incontrovertible. On the other hand, we can sincerely say we think one thing, but act as if we think something else. Someone can sincerely say they believe that a volcano will never erupt again, but always avoid going within twenty miles of it.

Jane Heal opens the discussion of self-knowledge by setting out some underlying structures that might explain its special features. We might reveal ourselves to ourselves through how we perceive the world. Alternatively, our expressions of our internal states might be aspects of those states. Annalisa Coliva and Akeel Bilgrami develop the bold line that when someone expresses her beliefs as things to which she is committed, those expressions have to be correct. That is, they make an inviolable connection between sincerely expressing a belief and commitment to it. This connection reflects norms of rationality, and does not leave the expression secondary to the belief.

Lucy O’Brien considers our knowledge of our actions. She shows how problems arise for the ideas that each action is preceded by trying to act and that this trying grounds our knowledge of our action. She generalises from this to discuss how a mechanism that we construct to solve a philosophical problem may bring more problems in its wake – a lesson worth heeding. Another valuable lesson is taught by Paul Snowdon’s discussion of claims like “I am in pain” or “This image (presented by an optician) seems to me to be more blurred than that one.” Discussions of self-knowledge often assume that the speaker must know the truth of such claims. Snowdon challenges this assumption. The general lesson is that widespread assumptions are worth challenging.

The views expressed in this book are wide-ranging, and some authors disagree with others. Overall, the book gives a good idea of what analytic philosophy is like these days. There are lots of carefully-defined views, and disagreements keep on emerging; sometimes in ways, and for reasons, that one would not expect, for example, when Christopher Peacocke argues that fear is not made up of an awareness of danger plus some attitude, like anxiety about danger. The reader who is already immersed in the topic will recognize many of the views, and will spot new moves in the debate. The reader who is new to the field will have to work hard to map out the different views and the common themes, but that itself will be a most rewarding mental exercise.

© Richard Baron 2013

Richard Baron is a philosopher in London. His website is www.rbphilo.com.

The Self and Self-Knowledge, edited by Annalisa Coliva, Oxford University Press, 2012, 304 pages, £45 hb, ISBN 978-0-19-959065-0.

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