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Quassim Cassam's Research

My latest books are Self-Knowledge for Humans and Berkeley's Puzzle: What Does Experience Teach Us? (joint with John Campbell). Both were published by Oxford University Press in 2014. My previous books, also published by Oxford University Press, were Self and World (1997) and The Possibility of Knowledge (2007). In 1994 I edited the volume on Self-Knowledge in the Oxford Readings in Philosophy series, and also wrote the volume on self-knowledge for Oxford Bibliographies (2013). I'm not done with self-knowledge and am planning to write a further book, arising out of Self-Knowledge for Humans, on the value of self-knowledge. My current research is on what I call 'vice epistemology', that is, the study of the nature and epistemological signficance of intellectual vices. I define intellectual vices as intellectual character traits, thinking styles or attitudes that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Examples of such traits are gullibility, prejudice, wishful thinking closed-mindedness, carelessness and negligence. You can see a full list of my work in progress at the end of my Publications page.

(a) Self-Knowledge for Humans (Oxford University Press 2014)

The book is organized around the two core ideas: the first is that a theory of self-knowledge for humans should take account of the respects in which human beings are not model epistemic citizens; our reasoning is often not critical reasoning and our attitudes (beliefs, desires, fears) aren't always as they rationally ought to be. The second idea is that an account of self-knowledge for humans should have something to say about the kinds of self-knowledge which ordinary reflective humans find interesting, puzzling or worthwhile.

In developing the first of these ideas I draw on Daniel Kahneman's work on fast thinking and the work of other psychologists (Nisbett and Ross) and philosophers (Harman) on phenomena such as belief-perseverence and attitude recalcitrance. I argue that such phenomena are a problem for rationalism about self-knowledge, understood as the view that we can determine what our attitudes are by determining what they rationally ought to be. I contend that we are less rationally active in relation to our attitudes than rationalists think. My positive account of self-knowledge is inferentialist: I defend the generally unpopular idea that we know our own thoughts by inference from pyschological and/or behavioural evidence.

In developing the second core idea, I explore the relationship between the relatively trivial self-knowledge which has been the focus of much philosophical discussion (knowing that you believe it is raining) and the substantial self-knowledge that is of more general interest - knowledge of one's own character, values, aptitudes, emotions, and so on. Substantial self-knowledge lacks the epistemic privileges of the self-knowledge that has been the focus of philosophical attention, but neverthless raises interesting questions in its own right. I develop an account of self-knowledge which accounts for the different varieties of self-knowledge in a way that does justice to our cognitive limitations. I also discuss the value of self-knowledge and the extent of self-ignorance. Self-ignorance is an important theme in Nietzsche's remarks on self-knowledge, and ought to be the focus of philosophical attention. We should be open to the idea that a degree of self-ignorance is unavoidable and not necessarily a bad thing.

I conceive of my project as doing for philosophy what behavioural economists have tried to do for economics. Just as behavioural economics tries to explain the economic behaviour of homo sapiens rather than the economic behaviour of an ideally rational and selfish homo economicus, so philosophy should be primarily concerned with the human predicament rather than with the reasoning and self-knowledge of an idealized homo philosophicus. While a degree of idealization is unavoidable in philosophical explanations it is important to remember that we are, in the end, human animals.

(b) Berkeley's Puzzle: What Does Experience Teach Us? with John Campbell (Oxford University Press 2014)

This book is written in the form of a debate. The opening essay is by Campbell. I then reply to him, and in the last two chapters we reply to each other. Campbell defends a 'relationalist' solution to Berkeley's Puzzle and criticizes representationalism. I defend a representationalist solution and criticize relationalism.

Berkeley's puzzle is: we seem to have concepts of mind-independent objects, concepts of objects (like the tree in the quad) which can exist unperceived. Empiricists think that our concepts are grounded in sensory experience. But (at least according to Berkeley) sensory experience can't ground concepts of mind-independent objects. This leaves us with a range of options: we can agree with Berkeley that we don't really have concepts of mind-independent objects, we can dispute the suggestion that our concepts are grounded in sensory experience, or we can set out to explain how concepts of mind-independent objects can be grounded in sensory experience.

Campbell and I pursue the last of these options. However, in his contribution Campbell argues that we can only understand how sensory experience can ground concepts of mind-independent objects if we have what he calls a Relational View of experience. In my contribution I argue that concepts of mind-independent objects can be grounded in sensory experience because our sensory experience represents objects of experience as mind-independent by representing them as persisting and constant. Sensory experience can have this representational content without presupposing concepts of mind-independent objects, and this is what enables it to ground our grasp of such concepts. I contend that the Relational View is objectionable on a number of grounds, and doesn't solve Berkeley's Puzzle.

Campbell's main objection to representationalism is that it makes consciousness explanatorily redundant because states that aren't conscious can still be representational. In response, I argue that sensory experience has its representational content by virtue of its conscious character. In effect, I appeal to the notion of 'phenomenal intentionality' in response to Campbell's redundancy objection.

(c) The Possibility of Knowledge (Oxford University Press 2007)

This book is about how-possible questions in epistemology (questions of the form 'how is knowledge of such-and-such a kind possible?'). I give an account of how such questions arise and how they should be answered. The basic idea is straightforward: the question 'how is X possible?' is asked when we are inclined to think that X is possible, but there are apparent obstacles which make X look impossible. The key to answering the question is to overcome or dissolve the obstacles, and identify means by which X is possible. Applying this framework to our knowledge of the external world, a priori knowledge, and knowledge of other minds, I explain how obstacles to these types of knowledge can be removed, and identify different means by which each type of knowledge is possible.

You can hear me discussing the main ideas of the book in this podcast recorded at the University of Chicago in 2010:

(d) Self and World (Oxford University Press 1997).

The main thing I try to do in this book is to bring out the importance of bodily awareness for self-awareness. To be conscious of your own thoughts and experiences you have to be aware of yourself, the subject of your thoughts and experiences, as a flesh and blood physical object. It's not just a matter of being aware of yourself as having a body but of experiencing yourself as being a bodily subject. Although this book has often been interpreted as following in the footsteps of other Oxford philosophers such as P. F. Strawson, this isn't how I see things. For Strawson, all the explanatory work is done at the level of conception: self-awareness requires the conception of yourself as a corporeal object among corporeal objects. In Self and World I argue against this approach and put the emphasis on sensory awareness rather than on conception.