Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Rockney Jacobsen

Advisor Role

Dissertation Supervisor


Several basic asymmetries are normally thought to exist between first- and third-person present-tense ascriptions of mental states. First of all, when a speaker ascribes, for instance, a belief that p to another, she must do so on the evidence provided by the utterances and actions of the other. However, it at least appears that typically she need not do so when ascribing a belief to herself. In other words, there is an immediacy to a self-ascription of a belief (that is, an utterance of the form ‘I believe that p’) that thirdperson ascriptions (‘He believes that p’) lack. Secondly, our self-ascriptions are groundless—demands that we justify our self-ascriptions, or explain how we know that we are in the mental states we self-ascribe, are generally deemed inappropriate. Thirdly, assuming sincerity on the part of the speaker, a self-ascription of a mental state is highly likely to be correct. This likelihood of correctness is not thought to extend to her ascription of similar beliefs to others. Thus, it is claimed, speakers possess a level of authority with respect to their self-ascriptions that they do not enjoy with regard to their attribution of beliefs to others.

Discussions of ‘the problem’ of self-knowledge often focus on these asymmetries and the prima facie tension between the idea that the first person needs none of the evidence on which the third person depends, and yet is more likely to be correct. In what does this apparently special way of knowing our own minds consist? In recent times a number of philosophers (for example, Sydney Shoemaker, Tyler Burge, Akeel Bilgrami, Richard Moran and Dorit Bar-On) have pursued this goal by linking self-knowledge claims (authoritative self-ascriptions of mental states) to the critical rationality and rational agency taken as essential to the first-person perspective. While their approaches differ in various respects, each argues that (1) self-ascriptions express second-order beliefs about first-order mental states, and that (2) the explanation of the truth of, and warrant for, these beliefs that qualifies them as knowledge is to be found in the requirement for self-knowledge that the possibility of rationality demands.

Looking at how (1) is understood is essential for assessing the plausibility of this normative turn in the explanation of self-knowledge, and arguments for a substantial epistemic account of self-knowledge more generally. Determining in what sense, if any, (i) self-ascriptions may be thought to count as expressions of second-order beliefs, and (ii) the role second-order belief might play in securing the truth of self-ascriptions, will have consequences for understanding what role, if any, normative second-order judgement (that is, judgement about what first-order state one ought to have) may play in what is normally called self-knowledge. I argue that various problems with the views of each of the philosophers mentioned above points to the need for a non-epistemic explanation of our authoritative self-ascriptions, where such self-ascriptions are taken as expressive not of second-order beliefs about our mental states, but of the first-order states they semantically specify. I contend that a good account can be found through combining Davidson's explanation of first-person authority with an expressivist reading of the firstorder expressive character of self-ascriptions.

With an epistemically deflationary explanation of authoritative self-ascription in place, what becomes of the understanding of rationality argued for by Shoemaker et al? Following David Owens, I first argue that, even if we were to possess the kind of self knowledge these philosophers suppose us to have, we could not exercise the kind of higher-order control over our first-order states for which they argue. 1 then close out the discussion by offering an outline of an alternative conception of rationality—that of Donald Davidson—that points to how we may conceive of rationality without selfknowledge.

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