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Ourselves and Others: The Dependence Thesis


I. Objectives
II. Background
III. Research Questions

I. Objectives

In the introduction to the project on The Philosophy and Theology of Intellectual Humility, intellectual humility is characterised as an intellectual virtue ‘plausibly related to open-mindedness, a sense of one's own fallibility, and a healthy recognition of one's intellectual debts to others’. We are concerned with the role that should be accorded to this virtue, thus characterized, in accounts of thought and knowledge in one particular area, namely that of thinking, and acquiring knowledge, about ourselves. We will be articulating and arguing for a thesis we call the Dependence Thesis, which says that the capacity for self-awareness depends on the capacity for specific forms of social interaction with others—interactions loosely labeled ‘second-personal’. To endorse the Dependence Thesis, as we will be developing it, is to give intellectual humility a critical role in an account of what is required for properly functioning self-awareness.

If our arguments for the Dependence Thesis are successful, they will indicate ways in which our indebtedness to other runs very deep. Furthermore, they will serve to undermine a last bastion of the so-called Cartesian picture of mind, according to which our minds are constituted independently of our natural and social environments. Although it is now commonly accepted that our minds are not, in that sense, fully autonomous, it has been widely assumed that we can nonetheless come by knowledge and awareness of our own minds without reliance on others. A convincing defense of the Dependence Thesis would show that that assumption must be dropped. We are dependent on others not only for our ways of thinking and knowing about our social and natural environments, but even for our ways of thinking and knowing about ourselves.

In II, we introduce the background and motivation for the Dependence Thesis and say something about the way we will be drawing on work in other disciplines in articulating and defending it. In III, we list several specific, interdependent questions that our joint research will be addressing. In IV we outline the individual research to be undertaken by each of the project members.

II. Background

The Dependence Thesis encompasses self-consciousness, self-knowledge and self-understanding. Its general point can be illustrated by setting it against the background of a familiar objection to one particular consequence of the Cartesian picture, namely that we acquire full mastery of our mental concepts by repeated introspection of our own mental states. The first claim in the objection says that this picture leads to solipsism, on which the very idea of other minds doesn’t make sense—the pinnacle, one might say, of non-humility. The second claim is that solipsism is not a tenable position because, with respect to mental predicates, ‘[t]he idea of a predicate is correlative with that of a range of distinguishable individuals of which the predicate can be significantly affirmed’. (Strawson 1959: 99). The implication is supposed to be that our capacity to single ourselves out as subjects is dependent on our capacity at the very least to make sense of the possibility of other subjects existing and having the same kinds of mental states as those we ascribe to ourselves.

One way of motivating and introducing the Dependence Thesis is to note that Strawson does not really explain how it can be that predicates, or concepts we apply ourselves on the basis of introspection can be the very same ones we apply to others, where the latter, he holds, is done on the basis of observation. How do introspection and observation combine in underpinning our grasp of a single concept? The central thrust of the Dependence Thesis, as it applies to this particular problem, is to say that for the right kind of explanation we should look to reciprocal social interactions of various kinds, in which experiencing and observing are somehow combined in a single reciprocal activity or experience. The proposal here is that—in a way that needs to be explained—that activity or experience grounds both observation-based and introspection-based applications of the concept.

Generalizing from the problem of the unity of our mental concepts, the suggestion we will be exploring is that psychological and epistemological mechanisms underpinning second person interactions will provide core materials for explaining why and how the Dependence Thesis is true.

In developing and justifying this approach, we will be examining the bearings on philosophical problems of work in various branches of psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience, much of it currently conducted under the headings of the ‘intersubjectivity approach’ or the ‘second person approach’. This research is concerned with questions about how mechanisms underpinning reciprocal social interactions of various kinds serve to connect the participants’ experiences. It is generally considered as a contribution to explanations of knowledge of other minds. The claim we will be pursuing is that its full import is best appreciated if we filter its findings and claims through the questions raised by different formulations of the Dependence Thesis, that is, by asking about the role played by such research on second person interactions in explaining the nature of our access to our own minds. In the next section we will unpack some of these general claims by setting out particular questions we will be addressing in trying to make good this claim.

III. Research Questions

III.1. Intersubjectivity

The questions we are interested in are often discussed under the heading of ‘empathy’. The term is used in a variety of ways, of course, and the issue of interest is not how one chooses to define it but the nature of the phenomena it is used to pick out and the role they are held to play in making minds mutually transparent. On one construal, the capacity for empathy is, specifically, the capacity for what is labeled the sharing of affect, where this is thought to amount to a form of communication. One set of issues, to which developmental work is especially relevant, is how we should understand the sense, or senses, in which affective engagement can be communicative. Specific questions here include how to characterize the ‘jointness’ of early infant/caregiver affective engagements, what kinds of mutual awareness or ‘common knowledge’, if any, might underpin such engagements, and what exactly it is one shares when one shares ‘affect’. There is also the question of how to understand the sensory and affective experience involved in such interactions, in particular what substance is to be given to the intuition that they afford a direct experience of another as ‘another subject’. And there is the general background question of how we should understand the—intuitively, essential—role that affect plays in making ‘second-person interactions’ possible.

III.2. The explanatory role of intersubjectivity

Our case for humility about self-awareness turns on the ‘explanatory potential’ of intersubjectivity: in particular, on the question of what kinds of understanding and knowledge children’s and adults’ capacity for affective engagement makes available to them, and how it does so. Is intersubjectivity, as some developmentalists claim, essential for ‘first-personal’ forms of self-awareness and for a conception of others as subjects, open to distinctive forms of understanding? Can work on empathy shed light on the capacity to share thoughts about oneself, for example to realize that the knowledge someone else is expressing is knowledge of one’s own properties?

III.3. Self-Knowledge

How might second-personal interactions foster self-knowledge? And how might the answer to that question illuminate the epistemology of self-knowledge? In particular, is reliance on others required for a proper sense of the limitations and fallibility of the ‘first-person perspective’? Or does the latter perspective itself depend in some ways on the capacity for second-person interactions? And does reflection on the Dependence Thesis shed light on the much-discussed issue of whether self-knowledge should be understood as a ‘cognitive achievement’?

IV.1 Shared Experiences and Self-Consciousness: insights from developmental psychology and psychiatry (Eilan)

Most philosophers would agree with Nagel that correcting for the incoherence of solipsism requires showing how the idea of other minds is ‘built in from the very start’, such that our own point of view is grasped from the start as being only one among others. (Nagel 1986: 106). There is much less agreement, though, about how we should explain what such ‘building in from the start’ amounts to, or about the mechanisms that sustain it. The Dependence Thesis, in this context says, at its most abstract, that facts about social interaction will play a central role in explaining what the building in amounts and how it is achieved. Put thus, not many would disagree. The ‘intersubjectivity approach’ is meant to yield something stronger. One way of putting the stronger claim is this. Experiences that are in fact shared underpin our capacity to single ourselves out as subjects, and to apply mental concepts to ourselves, in the same way that perceptual experiences of the physical world underpin our capacity to apply physical concepts to that world and, indeed, to conceive of it as objectively out there. The aim of this part of the project is to become clearer about what this claim might amount to by examining its potential explanatory force in two contexts: developmental and psychiatric. I say a few words about each in turn.

1. Saying that experiences (and, possibly, actions) that are in fact shared provide the basic input to our capacity to think of ourselves as subjects does not yet explain how the input does its work, any more than mere appeal to perceptual input explains how it does the work of grounding our grasp of physical concepts. As in the latter case, how one describes the input and what one says about how it serves to ground concept acquisition and possession are not independent enterprises. There are a variety of interesting debates about what sharing amounts to which are critical here (to be pursued in collaboration with both Roessler and Longworth, see IV.2 and IV.3). But a dispute that will be of particular interest in this context is between those who hold—with Vasu Reddy (2005), for example—that everything needed for self consciousness and consciousness of others is provided by early instances of dyadic interaction, in which carers and infants respond to each other’s displays of emotion; and those who insist that joint attention to ‘a third object’, or the sharing of a take on the world out there, plays a critical role, such that—in Werner and Kaplan’s terms (1963)—the ideas of oneself, the other and an objective world all emerge together.

I will be suggesting that much of what is of value in Reddy et al.’s work (for more on what this see by Roessler in IV.2) is preserved even if we adopt, as I believe we should, the second approach. Several reasons for this will be developed, two of which are the following. First, in the absence of something like a take on the world we do not have in play the kind of structure required for thought—about oneself or anything else. Second, an account of the incoherence of solipsism must, inter alia, show how we come to have an idea of our own perspective on the world as being, essentially, one perspective among others. And here too, I will argue, shared takes on a joint world play a critical role. All of this is consistent, I will argue, with attaching great importance to mutual awareness in accounting for our understanding of ourselves.

2. In his monumental two-volume work on schizophrenia, Karl Jaspers claims that patients in the throes of delusions are ‘un-understandable’. (Jaspers 1963. For discussion of his notion of understandability, see Eilan 2000.) By this he meant at least that empathy with such patients, in the sense of imagining what it is like for them from the inside, is impossible. Similar claims have been made about psychopaths, though the flavour of the bafflement is somewhat different. (For fascinating grapplings with this issue see Cleckley 1978). In both cases, doubts about understandability are accompanied by doubts about the reality to these subjects of other minds, and doubts about their capacity to fully grasp various mental concepts, as applied to themselves and others.

One way of further exploring the content and potential explanatory force of the Dependence Thesis is to see it as an answer to a question posed by Jaspers as to whether it would be possible for a community of schizophrenic patients to exist, a “community united in common delusions [the content of] which they mutually elaborate as true by means of their common experience of it” (Jaspers 1963: 284). “[T]he putting of the question is more important than the empirical answers so far obtained” (284), he says, as it serves to highlight something he thought was critical for normal “personal worlds”, namely that they are socially constituted and “characterized by objective human ties, a mutuality in which all men meet” (281). In contrast, schizophrenic patients, Jaspers suggests, live in “specific, private worlds,” which are not mediated by communication with others and whose origins are to be sought in a psychopathological process that actually severs normal social ties.” (Hoerl 2001).

Jaspers himself leaves open the possibility of two quite different kinds of explanations of why there are in fact no such communities. On one, the “private worlds” of the schizophrenic are wholly coherent, as is their understanding of them—their experiences are just so odd and different that in fact no one shares them. On the other, there is something about these experiences which makes them essentially unshareable, where this in turn also puts into doubt the coherence of the “private world” they are said to inhabit. If the latter claim is true, then we have here the beginning of a defence of a version of Dependence Thesis, on which the possibility of shared experiences of the world sustains our capacity, as adults, to think about ourselves and others.

Schizophrenic delusions have been the subject of much attention from philosophers, and of fascinating debates with psychiatrists. A central recurring question is whether various delusions should be explained by appeal to a combination of strange but comprehensible experiences and faulty reasoning, or whether the breakdown is more severe, such as to yield a form of semantic breakdown. (On this debate, see Campbell 2001; Davies et al. 2001; Eilan 2001.). One proposal to be pursued here is that many of these disputes can usefully be reconfigured as disputes about the Dependence Thesis, and that once this is done, there are strong reasons for thinking that we are in fact dealing with failures of the second, semantic kind. Conversely, the hope is that considering the explanatory force of the Dependent Thesis in this context will also provide a far more detailed understanding of what it might mean for thought about oneself and others to be sustained by a sharing of worlds.

IV.2. Joint Self-Knowledge (Roessler)

Intellectual humility is sometimes characterized as a proper recognition of one’s indebtedness to others, in one’s pursuit of knowledge or justified belief, for their help, expertise, or judgement. The relevant dependence on others may take a variety of forms, with interesting variations across domains of knowledge. One way to characterize traditional philosophical thinking about ‘first-person access’, however, is as holding that our knowledge in this domain is in principle protected from any substantive dependence on others. It’s not just that we don’t rely on testimony to discover what we believe or experience or intend. The claim is, rather, that the capacities we have for gaining direct self-knowledge are not capacities that can intelligibly be exercised jointly, in the way that we may jointly inspect objects in our shared environment, or jointly assess the evidence for a hypothesis, or jointly reminisce about old times. ‘Joint introspection’ could mean, at best, that we both introspect our own mental states; and in that case, neither of us will incur any significant debt to the other.

There is a small but persistent tradition in philosophy, though, that rejects this picture of self-knowledge. According to Shaftesbury, ‘one would think there was nothing easier for us than to know our own minds (…). But our thoughts have generally such an obscure implicit language that it is the hardest thing in the world to make them speak out distinctly.’ (1999 [1711]: 77–78) On Shaftesbury’s account, others can play a vital role in making self-knowledge possible, by ‘holding us out a kind of vocal looking-glass’. The central notion, in this tradition, is not ‘introspection’ but ‘expression’: it is, in some sense, by expressing one’s attitudes or experiences that one knows them. This would suggest that self-knowledge may indeed, at least sometimes, be acquired by engaging in joint activities, such as, centrally, verbal communication. And this, in turn, would make room for the idea that there may be intelligible ways in which self-knowledge can be aided (and perhaps impeded) by others. A stronger claim might be that our self-knowledge essentially depends on the capacity for such joint activities. On this reading, Shaftesbury’s view would amount to a version of the Dependence Thesis.

Scheler discusses such claims in his account of empathy (1923), and Bernard Williams (2000) also considers them, but they have, on the whole, received little sustained attention in contemporary epistemology and philosophy of mind. Arguably, however, there is a great deal of relevant work in psychology, both on the development of self-awareness and ‘mind-reading’ abilities, and on impairments and pathologies of self-knowledge. Two main objectives of this part of the project are, first, to explore ways in which this work can help to articulate, and may provide support for, the Dependence Thesis, and, second, to determine how that thesis can shed light on traditional philosophical concerns about self-knowledge. Here I will highlight the first objective. (For some preliminary work on the second objective, see Roessler 2013.)

There is an obvious sense in which reflection on cognitive development is bound to inspire intellectual humility. As even strong nativists will acknowledge, without constant support from caregivers, infants would have a hard time acquiring or activating any cognitive ability. Some developmental psychologists, however, have argued for a significantly stronger view. One way to put the view is to say that the capacity for self-awareness is, at least initially, a special case of the capacity for mutual or shared attention. On this view, it’s not just that infants need caregivers to acquire the capacities underpinning self-awareness. Rather, others figure in the constitution of the capacities. For example, Vasu Reddy has argued that early forms of self-awareness are constituted by reciprocal infant/caregiver interactions, involving things such as shyness, coyness and embarrassment. The infant’s ‘sense of self’ here is essentially a matter of her awareness of another’s attention and affect. As Reddy puts it (perhaps hyperbolically), the self is a “dialogic entity, existing only in relation and therefore knowable only as a relation”. (2006: 149)

I mention three major theoretical issues raised by this view. First, there is a subtle but very interesting difference in emphasis between Reddy’s and Hobson’s view on the emergence of self-awareness. The difference has to do with the question whether we should think of early forms of self-awareness as a matter of sharing attention to oneself as an object—as is suggested at least by Hobson’s early work (e.g. Hobson 1993)—or whether there is a sense in which infants engaging with (without sharing the focus of) another’s attending to them show a form of self-awareness.

Second, the fundamental question raised by both of these views is how to characterize the kind of communication or sharing that is held to be constitutive of self-awareness. One might have thought that communication—even communication as basic as exchanging a comment on a common object of attention by sharing a smile or a worried look—presupposes both self-knowledge and complex mindreading abilities, and therefore cannot help in explaining either. The question here is whether the ‘jointness’ of joint attention can be understood in more primitive terms. Compare, for example, Campbell’s claim that the way to understand it is to acknowledge a sense in which each co-attender is a ‘constituent’ of the other’s experience (Campbell 2005, 2011). A debate that is of particular interest in understanding the nature of the ‘jointness’ of joint attention is between those who appeal to primitive dispositions for the sharing of affect (e.g. Hobson and Reddy) and those who conceptualize such interactions as essentially a form of co-operative activity (Tomasello 2008).

Third, granting some form of ‘social-externalist’ view of early forms of self-awareness, how would such a view bear on our understanding of mature self-awareness? One way to address this question is to look at work on impairments and pathologies of self-knowledge. An illustrative example is provided by Hobson’s account of the “loss of insight into the sources of one’s behaviour” shown by patients with borderline personality disorder. The suggestion is thatowing to abnormal ways of relating to others, such patients lack the capacity properly to express certain attitudes in speech and thought, and therefore lack an the kind of awareness we ordinarily have of our attitudes and their motivating role (2002: 169–75).

V.III. Sharing, Self-Awareness, and Other Minds (Longworth)

According to a strong version of the Dependence Thesis, self-awareness per se depends upon other-awareness. That Thesis leaves open the natures of the required objects of other-awareness: for all it says, my self-awareness may depend on other-awareness only of God, and not on others like me. (Thus, Descartes endorsed a form of Dependence Thesis, since he held that self-awareness depends upon awareness of oneself as limited by comparison with God, a form of other-awareness of God. (Descartes 1641: Second Meditation).) A more discriminating Thesis is that self-awareness depends on awareness of others like me. According to a weaker version of the Thesis, the capacity for self-awareness normally possessed by adult humans depends essentially upon a capacity for awareness of others like me. The weaker version of the Thesis allows that self-awareness is possible without other-awareness. However, it holds that the kind of self-awareness that we in fact possess depends upon other-awareness of conspecifics. In considering the prospects this Thesis, it’s natural to reflect upon the various advantages afforded to one’s capacity to know oneself by a capacity to know others, where that can include taking on board others’ views about one.

This is one point at which the Dependence Thesis connects with humility. Philosophical discussions of self-awareness often stress the special authority or privilege attending one’s knowledge of oneself, when compared with the knowledge about one that is available to others. The claim has been that each of us is especially well placed to know about ourselves, so that self-knowledge is especially comprehensive and secure. Such claims support a presumption of the autonomy of self-awareness: comprehensiveness entails that there are few gaps in one’s self-knowledge that another’s views might fill; security entails that others are not, in general, in a position to correct one’s own views about oneself. These claims conflict with humility about one’s autonomous powers of self-awareness. According to Aquinas, “It is contrary to humility to aim at greater things through confiding in one’s own powers: but to aim at greater things through confidence in God’s help, is not contrary to humility….” (ST 2a2ae q161 a2 ad2) Replacing “God” in his formulation with “others like me,” the Dependence Thesis is connected with humility in the following way: humility with respect to self-awareness is a matter of appropriate acknowledgement that others’ views about one might supplement, or correct, one’s own. (See also Grenberg 2005.)

Development of this idea depends upon the pursuit of three large issues. First, an assessment is required of the scope and limits of autonomous self-awareness. Second, an assessment is required of the scope and limits of others’ knowledge about one, in particular, the knowledge about one that they can possess independently of one’s own views, so that it can serve to supplement or correct those views. Third, an account is required of the ways in which others’ knowledge about one is made available to one, so an account of how others’ claims about one can be exploited in developing one’s view of oneself. (Work on these issues connects with questions about the nature of sharing, and about the nature of mutual awareness and joint attention, to be pursued in collaboration with Eilan and Roessler.)

Work on the limits of self-awareness and the scope of other’s knowledge about one (the first and second issues above) will involve attention to three interconnected ways in which others might have superior knowledge about one. First, it will attend to knowledge about some of the more dispositional features of human psychology, knowledge of which can depend on the assembly and proper treatment of evidence from an array of activities and attitudes: unreflective attitudes; emotions; psychological capacities or powers; character traits, including virtues and vices. Although one might be especially well placed to know some of the evidence on which attributions to oneself of such dispositional features depends, others might be better placed with respect to some other bits of evidence, or better able to compile the evidence, and so to come to a more comprehensive or accurate view. Second, it will attend to knowledge about appraisal-dependent features of human psychology, knowledge of which can depend upon evidence about a subject’s relations to facts and values about which they are liable not to be distinctively authoritative: subjects’ knowledge versus ignorance; their reasonableness; the goodness of their wills; and, again, the extent to which they manifest virtues or vices. Third, it will attend to knowledge about psychological features that are dependent upon aspects of subjects’ natural and social environments. For example, it appears possible for subjects to have beliefs about arthritis even though their views about arthritis are incomplete or erroneous, as long as the subjects are suitably connected with more expert thinkers. And that possibility may open the way for the more expert thinkers to supplement or correct subjects’ own views about precisely what it is that they believe. (Cassam Forthcoming; Heal 2013; Kant 1781: A314/B370; Ryle 1949: 112–189.)

Work on the way in which one can make use of other’s views about one in order to develop self-knowledge (the third issue mentioned above) depends upon an account of a distinctive form of joint activity, the attempt to work together with others in order to find out about oneself. Here, there are two main questions: first, how should we understand the form of communication involved in taking on board another’s views about oneself?; second, on what specific capacities does that form of communication depend? (The second question connects again with Eilan’s and Roessler’s work.)

With respect to the question about the required form of communication, a puzzle is presented by orthodox views about one’s knowledge of oneself, according to which that knowledge has a distinctively first personal form, and so is distinct from any third personal form of knowledge. According to those views, with respect to any form of third personal knowledge about an individual, including oneself, it can be an open question for one whether that knowledge concerns oneself. For example, I might come to know that that person looks tired, by seeing myself in a mirror, without thereby being in a position to know that I look tired. Now consider the knowledge someone else might have about one. It is natural to think that others’ knowledge of one must take third personal form. But if their knowledge takes third personal form, then again it will seem to be distinct from any distinctively first personal knowledge one might have about oneself. And in that case, it seems that one might come to share others’ knowledge about oneself without yet being in a position to know anything about oneself as oneself—without that shared knowledge supplementing one’s own distinctively first personal knowledge about oneself. In that case, it can seem puzzling how one can exploit others’ knowledge about oneself in order to shape one’s own self-conception.

One means of attempting to address the puzzle would be to question a central presumption of the orthodox view: that the only forms of knowledge about oneself that are available to others are, in relevant respects, distinct from first personal forms of knowledge about oneself. On one way of pursuing this unorthodox approach, the claim would be that, in addition to third personal forms of knowledge, others can have distinctively second personal forms of knowledge—forms naturally expressed through use of second person pronouns—and that some of those second personal forms are not relevantly distinct from first personal forms of knowledge. In that case, where another would express knowledge about me by saying, “You look tired,” my partaking in their knowledge might amount to my coming to know that I look tired, without that knowledge going via a piece of knowledge to the effect that by “You,” they meant me. A central aim of this part of the project will be to develop both the orthodox and unorthodox approaches to dealing with the puzzle and comparatively to assess their prospects. Of special importance here will be the role played, in connecting thinkers able to share “I”–“You”-thoughts, by their capacities for empathy and openness. (Longworth, 2013; Rödl 2008.)


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