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Self-knowledge, Normativity, and Construction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 April 2010

Julia Tanney
University of Kent at Canterbury


He tried to look into her face, to find out what she thought, but she was smelling the lilac and the lilies of the valley and did not know herself what she was thinking—what she ought to say or do.


Much of modern and contemporary philosophy of mind in the ‘analytic’ tradition has presupposed, since Descartes, what might be called a realist view about the mind and the mental. According to this view there are independently existing, determinate items (states, events, dispositions or relations) that are the truth-conferrers of our ascriptions of mental predicates. The view is also a cognitivist one insofar as it holds that when we correctly ascribe such a predicate to an individual the correctness consists in the discovery of a determinate fact of the matter about the state the individual is in—a state which is somehow cognized by the ascriber. Disputes have arisen about the nature of the truth-conferrers (e.g., whether they are physical or not) and about the status and the nature of the individual's own authority about the state he is in. A dissenting position in philosophy of mind would have to be handled carefully. It would, most importantly, need to allow for the objectivity of ascriptions of mental predicates at least insofar as it made sense to reject some and accept others on appropriate grounds. Perhaps such a position in the philosophy of mind can be likened in at least one way to what David Wiggins has characterized as a doctrine of ‘cognitive underdetermination’ about moral or practical judgments.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2002

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1 Henceforth, I shall speak of states or events for ease of exposition. By ‘independently (or antecedently) existing’, I mean states whose existence does not depend on any epistemic interest the subject might take in them.

2 See ‘Truth, Invention and the Meaning of Life’, ‘A Sensible Subjectivism’, and ‘Truth, and Truth as Predicated of Moral Judgements’, reprinted as essays III, IV, and V in Needs, Value and Truth (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987).

3 ‘Truth, Invention and the Meaning of Life’, op. cit., p. 130.

4 This paper develops some of the ideas I suggested in A Constructivist Picture of Self-Knowledge’; Philosophy, 71, no. 277 (07 1996), pp. 405–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 That they cannot make sense of it comes as no surprise, once it is noted that the goal of so-called ‘naturalism’—to locate the mental within nature conceived as the realm of law—is ipso facto removing from the mental the first-personal point of view or participant perspective that seems so important for retaining the inventive aspect. For this reason it would seem as if any theory of mind that conceives its starting point as the recoil from dualism—(e.g. behaviourism, identity theories, functionalism, and even anomalous monism)—and attempts a full-bodied or modified physicalism, will be unable to account for the inventive or constructive aspect of the mental.

6 All references are to the Penguin edition, translated by David Magarshack, 1954.

7 See Crispin Wright's discussion of the Cartesian view in ‘Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy of Mind: Sensation, Privacy, Intention’, Meaning Scepticism Puhl, K. (ed.) (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1991), pp. 126–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8 The quotation is from §193 of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, trans. Anscombe, G. E. M. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953)Google Scholar. He uses the metaphor to illuminate the idea that a machine's action seems to be in it from the start (and the metaphor of a machine had been introduced in an attempt to make sense of the idea that an act of meaning can in someee sense anticipate reality (§188)).

9 The phrase is McDowell's, John in ‘Functionalism and Anomalous Monism’ Actions and Events: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson, Lepore, and McLaughlin, (eds) (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), p. 389.Google Scholar

10 Ibid. p. 389

11 See my Why Reasons May Not be CausesMind & Language, 10, nos. 1/2, pp. 103126.Google Scholar

12 See especially ‘What is Human Agency?’, ‘Self-Interpreting Animals’, and ‘The Concept of a Person’, reprinted as chapters 1, 2, and 4, respectively in Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

13 ‘What is Human Agency’, op. cit., p. 36.

14 Oblomov wrote the letter that Stolz refers to out of a mixture of cowardice and vanity: partly in an attempt to derail the impending complication that such a relationship would bring to his life, and partly to witness Olga's distress as she reads the letter. His claim that Olga does not really love him is, I think, most implausible, but it is an interpretation with which Stolz can tempt Olga.

15 The term is taken from Korsgaard, C., , The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).Google Scholar

16 Taylor, , ‘What is Human Agency?’, op. cit., p. 37.Google Scholar

17 Making Up Your Mind’, Ratio, 1, (1988), p. 148.Google Scholar

18 Ibid. p. 148.

19 Ibid. p. 149.

20 ‘Gods’ Logic and Language (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963 (originally published 1951)), pp. 191192.Google Scholar

21 Ibid. p. 195.

22 Wiggins, D. ‘Truth, Invention and the Meaning of Life’, op. cit., p. 126.Google Scholar

23 Or, in cases of self-deception, confusing or muddling what had been inchoate before. In these cases there are at least two strands of thought/action patterns manifested. One is the pattern that belies the agent's self-conception and uncovers her ignorance about her own mind. The other is the pattern—often of denials, of protestations, of avoidance—that is a straightforwardly rationalizable outcome of this self-conception. Adolphe, who is self-deceived about the obstacles to his worldy success, is not merely wrong to blame his relationship with Ellénore. His false conception about their life together feeds into a whole pattern of behaviour leading to a tragedy that is itself only rendered comprehensible by this conception.

24 And perhaps even the ‘differential response dispositions’ shown by thermometers. Charles Taylor (‘What is Human Agency’, op. cit., p. 28) suggests parenthetically that Camus's Mersault might an example of someone who fails one test of personhood insofar as he lacks the ability to ‘deploy a language of evaluative contrasts ranging over desires’ (p. 23). Consider another character from Oblomov. Agafya Matveyevna Pshenitzyn, the woman whose elbows entrance Oblomov and eventually capture his heart, is described by the narrator as someone barely capable of self-reflective awareness.

Had she been asked if she loved him, she would again have smiled and said yes, but she would have given the same reply when Oblomov had lived no more than a week at her house, (p. 374)

He was a gentleman: he dazzled, he scintillated! And, besides, he was so kind; he walked so softly, his movements were so exquisite; if he touched her hand, it was like velvet, and whenever her husband had touched her, it was like a blow! And he looked and talked so gently, with such kindness.…She did not think all these things, nor was she consciously aware of it all, but if anyone had tried to analyse and explain the impression made on her mind by Oblomov's coming into her life, he would not be able to give any other explanation. (p. 375)

Agafya Matveyevna herself was not only incapable of flirting with Oblomov and revealing to him by some sigh what was going on inside her, but, as has already been said, she was never aware of it or understood it herself …Mrs Pshenitzyn's feeling, so normal, natural, disinterested, remained a mystery to Oblomov, to the people around her, and to herself. (p.376)

Her brother even characterises her as an animal:

‘She can't be expected to look after her interests, can she? A cow—that's what she is, a blamed cow: hit her or hug her, she goes on grinning like a horse at a nosebagful of oats.’ (p. 357)

25 ‘A Constructivist Picture of Self-Knowledge‘, op. cit.

26 The Idea of Invention’, in Proceedings of the British Academy vol. 39, 1955; pp. 85108.Google Scholar

27 Ibid. p. 101

28 This paper was written during study leave made possible by an AHRB Research Award, for which I would like to record my gratitude. It was first presented in March 1999 at a colloquium on Subjectivity hosted by the Kent Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Kent. Thanks to John Flower, Edward Harcourt and Richard Norman for their comments, and to David Wiggins and Crispin Wright for helpful criticism and suggestions on the penultimate draft.

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