Friday, 30 August 2013

on how we know what we think

About once or twice a day I receive an automated email from one Anastasia Friel Gutting supplying the latest Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews review. This is a fantastic service, although it's a bit dispiriting just how many philosophy books there are being published these days, and it's not possible to read even the reviews of more than a small portion. (It's also a bit dispiriting how chronically professionalised the whole business of academic philosophy has become. Reviews also often end, a bit like those legion self-serving empirical psychology papers, with some 'clearly this is very important work but there are still some flaws and so lots more work [and presumably lots of funding please too for this ever so important task] is now needed'. About which only: UGH!!!) At any rate, here's one that just came in and caught my attention - a review by Lauren Ashwell of Jordi Fernández' Transparent Minds: A Study of Self-Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2013). It caught my attention because of a strikingly baffling premise inexplicitly built into it from the get-go, a premise I will question here.

Ashwell talks of how Fernández is interested in 'how we introspect' our beliefs and desires. But we're not told what is meant by 'introspect'. Whether, for example, it is something which happens very often. Whether it is something that is supposed to happen when you ask what I believe or feel and I am able to tell you. Now it might be said that it is the name for whatever the means is by which we come to know what we believe and desire. What I want to point out here though is just how un-innocent the assumption is that there is any 'how', any means or method, at all to something here being called our 'knowing' what we believe. That seems like a massive assumption, and I can't for the life of me think what motivates it - unless I saddle the philosopher promoting it with a prior commitment to an extremely alienated conception of the self (I'll say more of what I mean by this below).

Thus we are told that 'Fernández's account of introspection, like many others, takes its inspiration from Gareth Evans' remarks about introspection -- roughly, that in order to find out whether you believe that p, you simply ask whether p is true.' With this assumption in place from the start - the assumption that it makes straightforward sense to talk of finding out whether I myself believe that p - we then are treated to the inevitable causal theory:  'that when you ask whether p, you are looking for whether you are in a state that normally causes you to believe that p. The normal cause of M [Fernández] labels the ground for M. He calls his model of introspection the "bypass" model; you "bypass" looking for the mental state directly, and look for whether you are in a state that would be a normal cause of that mental state.' The discussion that follows in the book and the review will then treat of the various cases that can and cannot be accommodated by the causal theory in question. A whole host of complex philosophical theorising ensues...

But, really, why should we accept that there is any such thing as finding out whether I believe that p? What work is the concept of coming to know doing here, what discriminations does it afford in this context? There is in ordinary discourse at least one context in which we do talk of finding out what we think about p: it is when we haven't made up our minds yet, and we think it over and thereby arrive at a belief. But there's no reason at all that I can see why this would be called 'introspection'. Instead it is an active process of belief construction.

When you ask me what I believe or feel, and I tell you, what I normally do (...but you tell me what you do if it's interestingly different...) is to speak from my belief or from my feeling. I'm not normally speaking from somewhere else inside me, some other vantage point from which I must now try to access some other portion of myself (where the belief or feeling is, as it were, stored away). To ape Wittgenstein: you can often enough find out what I think or feel by asking me; I however do not need to find out what I think or feel. I do not need to find this out because my being and my believing are not two separate things. Therefore there is, it seems to me, typically no 'introspecting' and no question of a 'how' to be answered by any theory whatsoever; there is no access required.

'I know what I believe!'; 'I know what I feel!'. Sure, I can imagine uses for those phrases - such as when you question or interpret me and I self-righteously resist your usurping of my first-person authority. In pointing this out I am not trying to use an ordinary language philosophy approach to disappear the issue on the philosophical table, but only inviting the philosopher to now actually say what they do mean, since they clearly don't mean what we ordinarily mean, by the notion under consideration. It's not that they can't use words in news ways - in fact, bring it on! - but we need to be told what the work is that these notions - of 'coming to know what I feel' - are to be doing.

So, yes, why might someone come to think that there was some 'how' to be answered as to 'how I know what I believe or feel'? Here's the only way I can think myself into that epistemologised self-predicament. First I imagine myself not as living immanently within my understandings and feelings, but as residing somehow behind or set back from them. And now it really will be the case that I seem to require access of some sort to them. Now I need to find out what I believe or feel. If I really want to entrench this alienated philosophical disposition further in me, then I keep hold of such an epistemologised conception of my capacity to avow or express my beliefs and feelings, and point out just how magical the idea of, as we would now put it, 'just knowing' is. Perhaps it smacks of some Cartesian immediacy of self-presence: the mind that knows itself glowingly and gloriously in its own automatic reflexive glaze and glare. That is surely something we must do away with by wheeling out a thoroughly naturalistic alternative account. Or perhaps I can entrench it further by thinking about those cases where indeed we do all want to talk of failures of self-knowledge (cases drawn from psychoanalysis, perhaps), and then just assert without further ado that in the normal case what therefore we must have to do with are success stories. Other methods of auto-entrenchment may also be available.

What none of these options yet do, however, is to get the epistemologising project - the project of legitimating the idea that there is some knowing, some success, some access, some achievement, some arriving, some how, some means, involved in my everyday ability to state what I feel and think - off the ground. Sure, give me some examples of the communicational work that can be done by the notion of knowing what I believe or think - work that doesn't collapse into those readily available notions of strong-mindedness or interpersonal resistance or of overcoming internal repressive forces - and I'll be the first to concede that there is a need for a theory of 'how we know what' we think and feel. Until then: thanks, but let's hold the causal theory.