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This chapter presents a detailed argument against a conception of self-knowledge that continues to dominate much of philosophical thinking today. It holds that we have an immediate and infallible access – a “privileged” access, as it is often termed – to the contents of our own minds. In reality, there does not exist any self-knowledge of this kind. The conception in question arises from a misunderstanding of the nature of the intimate relation that we bear to ourselves in virtue of which we are selves at all. A second central claim of this chapter is, then, that this essential relation we have to ourselves is not cognitive in character, but instead practical. It consists in our aligning ourselves on what appear to us to be pertinent reasons in all that we think and do. As a result, the self-knowledge that matters philosophically is not, as the Cartesian tradition has held, the supposedly first-person, immediate knowledge we have of our own mental states. Instead, the self-knowledge that truly matters is considerably difficult to achieve and is best understood along the lines of Plato’s ethics-centered idea of self-knowledge.
What words mean, Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty suggests, depends only on individuals’ asserting their authority to give them a particular meaning, but Alice and others question this claimed semantic authority. Dictionaries are often thought of as semantically authoritative, but most aim to describe actual usage, not to endorse ‘proper’ meanings. For words like tree names, semantic authority plausibly lies with those who know about trees. But even in sciences, semantic authority is disputable, as shown by debates over defining planet. Sometimes courts adjudicate conflicts over meanings, as illustrated by shifts in marriage and related words. Even then divergent interests can allow continuing disputes. Guidelines for ‘inclusive language’ sought to direct people to use words in certain ways. Their effective authority was tied to the issuing group’s status: government agencies, e.g, could better wield semantic authority than small interest groups. Policing others’ usage sometimes happens and is called ‘political correctness’ (PC); mocking others’ usage often accompanies charges of being PC. Claims of trans women that they themselves know best whether they are women are sometimes derided. But such first-person semantic authority gains its force from existence of communities recognizing the legitimacy of such gender claims. Ultimately, semantic authority resides in communities.
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