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De se thoughts and immunity to error through misidentification


I discuss an aspect of the relation between accounts of de se thought and the phenomenon of immunity to error through misidentification. I will argue that a deflationary account of the latter—the Simple Account, due to Evans (The varieties of reference, 1982)—will not do; a more robust one based on an account of de se thoughts is required. I will then sketch such an alternative account, based on a more general view on singular thoughts, and show how it can deal with the problems I raise for the Simple Account.

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  1. 1.

    García-Carpintero (forthcoming) develops further the debate between the Lewisian and Fregean options, and defends a version of the latter.

  2. 2.

    Here is one, suggested to me by Ernest Sosa. On Shoemaker’s explanation, any statement appears to be vulnerable to error through misidentification. For it is always possible that the term ‘a’ might have meant something other than what it means and that the speaker might then have mistakenly thought that the thing he knows to be F is what ‘a’ refers to.

  3. 3.

    One can thus understand Evans’s reliance on SA, given his neo-Fregean conception of the contents of thoughts exhibiting IEM, and his lack of sympathy for any form of truth-relativism. Cf. Grush (2007) for an accurate exegesis of Evans’s notion of identification-freedom.

  4. 4.

    Wright (2012, p. 255) is well aware that SA needs at least “clarification and qualification”, essentially for the reasons I will suggest. I’ll discuss his proposals below.

  5. 5.

    Wright (2012, pp. 263–264, 273) grants this, which is also the line that Recanati (2013, pp. 236–238) takes in response to the criticism so far, as presented in García-Carpintero (2013).

  6. 6.

    Chalmers (2012, pp. 94–99) outlines an interesting analysis; Audi (1986) provides a more detailed account, which I like.

  7. 7.

    Cf. Neta (2011) for an introduction and a sophisticated discussion of these matters. Cp. my distinction between liberalism and weak conservatism with Neta’s distinction (op. cit., p. 691, 695) between simple and strong liberalism.

  8. 8.

    McGlynn (2015) and Morgan (ms) provide recent useful appraisals of the debate. In contrast to what I will suggest, both side with Evans against Shoemaker and Pryor.

  9. 9.

    Dennett (1978) presents such a scenario; cf. also Higginbotham’s (2010, p. 262) “Davidson’s eyes” example from H. G. Wells.

  10. 10.

    Cf. Coliva (2006, 2012) and Wright (2012, pp. 267–272); cf. also Peacocke (1983, pp. 139–151), and Peacocke (2008, pp. 92–103).

  11. 11.

    Fernández (2010, pp. 67–70) provides a nice description of the data to be accounted for in cases of thought insertion.

  12. 12.

    Cf. the debate between Coliva and Campbell (Coliva 2002a, b; Campbell 2002) about two different relevant senses of ownership, one—related to the “self-intimating” views on introspection to be mentioned below—on which the subject of an introspected state is guaranteed to be the introspecting subject, and another specific instead to the subclass of mental states including those that can be legitimately counted as mental actions. In the analysis of (rationally intelligible) cases of thought insertion suggested in the main text I am refusing to use a single category (such as the indistinct “thought”) to describe them. (Fernández 2010 talks of beliefs, but this is even less of a good candidate, because the relevant cases are episodic or occurrent states. Note, in response to some of Fernández’s criticisms of a suggestion like mine, that even judgments that are responses to perceptual experiences can be sensibly counted as actions, in that one could have refused to take the experience at face value and hence refused to form them, as we all do with illusions we recognize as such.) The subject introspects a passive state, such as an episode of inner speech, and she acknowledges it as her own; this is what I describe as the impression of being making a judgment. She disowns the corresponding judgment, and hence does not introspect it. Whether or not this is an accurate description of the relevant cases in schizophrenic patients, I cannot tell. However, it fits well with a tendency in psychiatry to make sense of delusions as rational responses to weird experiences; as far as I can tell, it fits the data; and it is consistent with both “subpersonal” and “personal” explanations of the disowning of the judgment in the literature (cf. Fernández, op. cit., pp. 72–75).

  13. 13.

    Cappelen and Dever consider this possibility (op. cit., p. 131): “maybe what is IEM for Gareth is his belief that his legs seem to be crossed”, and go on to contend: “But now imagine that Gareth is deviantly wired, so that he receives “introspective” awareness from John’s seemings”. Now, in the first place intuition does not support the suggestion that one could be introspectively “wired” to someone else’s seemings. To make sense of this requires a view of introspection as a pure causal process that most contemporary philosophers reject. The possibility would not exist, for instance, on Gertler’s (2012), Peacocke’s (1999, Chap. 6), or Shoemaker’s (1994) otherwise different accounts; more on this below. A proper defense of their claim would thus require an outline of an account of introspection that makes sense of the case (say, a straightforward perceptual model). Cappelen and Dever do not provide anything of the sort.

  14. 14.

    Lane and Liang (2011) provide another skeptical argument against IEM, based on interesting abnormal cases. Thus, a patient with somatoparaphrenia refers an introspected tactile sensation in her arm to the arm of her niece; and a subject of a “body swap illusion” experiences as her own an action (shaking her own hands) which she knows someone else, the experimenter, is in fact carrying out. In my view, these cases should be treated in the way I have suggested for thought-insertion. They only show that cases of what we would have prima facie considered de jure IEM are in fact cases of merely de facto IEM—and call for an account of the distinction. On the basis of similar considerations, Howell (2007) defends a more nuanced skepticism about IEM than these writers, which does not extend to introspection-based judgments. He is only skeptical that IEM affords a kind of non-Cartesian privilege that can be acknowledged without indulging Cartesian metaphysical consequences. His point is that (de facto) IEM ultimately depends on the (de jure) IEM of less committal mental states such as impressions or seemings, which are precisely those possessing the potentially problematic form of Cartesian privilege.

  15. 15.

    This is so because I agree with Evans (1982, pp. 242–243) and Peacocke (2014, pp. 86–99) that ordinary cases have a foundational explanatory character; more on this below.

  16. 16.

    McGlynn (2015) raises this point against Coliva (2006). On account of it, Wright (2012, pp. 271–272) ends up acknowledging a huge restriction of the extent of IEM; in spite of this, unlike Howell (2007), who, as mentioned above, argues for a similar restriction, he contends that the qualified version of SA that he accepts suffices to reject the “Psychological Hypothesis” that IEM is explained by features of psychological self-knowledge. I question this below.

  17. 17.

    Cf. Recanati’s (2007, pp. 150–160) distinction between grade-1 and grade-2 immunity.

  18. 18.

    Even though Peacocke does not take SA to provide the full story about IEM, but relies instead on his own account of the Self concept to offer a positive and helpful account, he does wrongly rely on SA to characterize the phenomenon to be explained. As we are about to see, this is something that the case of wh-immunity challenges. Peacocke (2014, p. 109) rejects modal characterizations of IEM like the one I rely upon following Pryor and Shoemaker. His reason is that modal definitions would force us to intuitively misclassify some cases as instances of IEM. “Suppose ... that in normal circumstances mirrors were always entirely flat, and that they only reflected faces very close to the mirror, so that in those normal circumstances, for any person x, only x can see the face and head of x in the mirror. In those circumstances, it would not be possible for someone, basing his judgment on what he sees in the mirror, to be right that someone’s hair is tidy, but wrong that his hair is tidy.” Why not? Even in such a world, we can easily conceive of being in a Duck Soup situation, not facing a true mirror but a transparent piece of glass behind which someone looking very much like us devilishly apes our doings.

  19. 19.

    Coliva (2006, pp. 7–11) questions the need for differentiating this form of immunity from the one previously introduced. I think she relies on some idiosyncrasies of Pryor’s example; the one I offer is intended to circumvent the problem. Cf. Wright (2012, pp. 267–269).

  20. 20.

    An undercutting defeater for p just takes away one’s justification for believing it; and additive defeater gives, in addition, positive evidence for not-p (Pryor 1999, p. 283). Defeaters should not be additive, because otherwise there would not be cases of wh-immunity, not even I am in pain. This is precisely what Smith (2006, p. 279) argues for, unfortunately for his argument by using only additive defeaters: “suppose you experience what you take to be a pain. Now suppose someone reliably tells you that you are not really experiencing a pain but an itch, and that this has been caused by someone else’s suffering a real pain. Whenever they experience a pain, they press a button which causes you to feel a pain-like itch.” Smith confronts the obvious problem that this does not affect Pryor’s notion by providing (op. cit. 280) an argument that ruling out the example on the grounds that the defeater is additive—packing the justification for the existential generalization—makes wh-misidentification collapse with de re misidentification; but the orange example shows the argument to be spurious. He also expresses doubts that the distinction “can bear the required weight” (op. cit., p. 281, fn. 14), but he does not motivate them. Morgan (ms) provides a subtler but related argument against Pryor’s characterization of the notion of wh-immunity, without questioning that it is a distinctive kind.

  21. 21.

    Wright (1998, p. 19) and Campbell (1999, p. 89) suggest similar views. The path Pryor follows to reach his own final definition of vulnerability to wh-misindentification, and hence immunity to it, is tortuous. In trying to avoid the complications, in a previous version of this material I just relied on this characterization, which I took to be at the heart of the notion, and which glosses what Pryor says at some points (“if your belief of a that it is F is immune to wh-misidentification when justified by certain grounds, that means that the justification those grounds give you for believing that something is F suffices by itself to justify you in believing that it’s a which is F”, op. cit., p. 285). Morgan (ms.) convincingly argues that it is better to replace Pryor’s definition by this core. I am very much indebted to him for discussion of these issues.

  22. 22.

    Morgan (ms.) suggests the following test for the independence of the justification that g provides for the existential generalization from the justification if provides for the singular claim: the former could be known on the basis of g, without the latter being true.

  23. 23.

    The qualification to SA that Wright adds in order to deal with this is that the justificational architecture of IEM thoughts “is non-inferential”, in addition to not involving any identity background presupposition of the kind needed to deal with the previous issue (op. cit., p. 271). Judgments liable to either kind of misidentification “involve an inferential justificational architecture involving the synthesis of multiple items of presumed information: ... an identification; ... a unique existential” (op. cit., p. 260). In addition to the big restriction in the scope of IEM already pointed out in fn. 16 above, this proposal questions Wright’s main claim—his rejection of the “Psychological Hypothesis” that IEM is explained by features of psychological self-knowledge. For accounts assuming forms of that hypothesis such as Howell’s (2006), capable of explaining on that basis the absence of the justificational architecture that Wright simply takes as explanatorily primitive, are more illuminating. I’ll make a similar point below in favor of my own proposal, which has the additional virtue of preserving de facto IEM.

  24. 24.

    My own views, although strongly influenced by him, differ at some points (cf. García-Carpintero 2015). I think of all speech (and mental) acts, including ancillary acts such as presupposing and referring, as constitutively normative; in particular, I think of presuppositions as constituted by normative requirements that their contents are already known. I also think that some linguistic presuppositions are semantically triggered, as will transpire below.

  25. 25.

    This statement of the presupposition contains another presupposition associated with the definite description, which I do not unpack further for the sake of perspicuity.

  26. 26.

    Proposals along these lines are quite standard nowadays in the linguistic semantics literature; cf. Heim (2008), Maier (2010) and Hunter (2013). Maier (forthcoming) extends this sort of account to mental states in a way compatible with my own proposal outlined below.

  27. 27.

    Singular representations thus understood may fail to have an object; there are, e.g., singular presuppositions associated with singular terms in fictions that are merely pretend. Our theoretical claims are to be understood as made in the framework of a free logic. Also, the proposal raises the question whether Frege puzzles can arise at the level of the presuppositions themselves, which after all are ultimately nothing more than background attitudes (I thank Gregory Bochner, Josh Dever and Dilip Ninan for presenting the worry): if this man is Joseph, how come I do not make the connection when I presuppose in one context, of him, that he is the demonstrated male when a given token is produced, and, in another, that he is picked out by the naming practice to which a given token of ‘Joseph’ belongs? In reply, I am assuming something like the apparatus of Fine’s (2007) Semantic Relationalism (cf. also Heck 2012). In some cases we assume anaphoric relations among the singular terms we deploy in thought, in some others we don’t; in the latter cases, but not in the former, the variables we use in the metalanguage to characterize the presuppositions can be assigned different values. Unlike Fine, I think these anaphoric dependences are token-reflexive monadic properties, invoked in additional presuppositions. This raises the further worry whether the initial presuppositions are needed: am I putting forward a redundant, overdetermined set of explanations? But they are independently needed, to capture contextually valid inferences (he is Bolivian, therefore a male is Bolivian) which we are disposed to make as part of our full linguistic competence.

  28. 28.

    In addition to Higginbotham, Peacocke (1983, Chap. 5; 2008 Chap. 3; 2014, Chap. 2, 4), and Howell (2006) have also defended related views. I think my proposal improves on theirs in elaborating on the role the reference rule is supposed to play in characterizing the person level, conscious first-person awareness that the subjects of those states are supposed to have.

  29. 29.

    Actually, this can at most be a case of de facto IEM; I am ignoring here possibilities that will be examined below, for the sake of keeping the presentation sufficiently simple.

  30. 30.

    Cf. García-Carpintero (2015) for references and discussion.

  31. 31.

    I have mentioned above demonstrative cases as an advantage of the present proposal over Recanati’s. As a referee pointed out, however, Recanati’s view might deal better with some intuitions about the present case. If, in an abnormal situation, a speaker judges that chair is yellow, her presuppositions would be the standard ones, because she is unaware that anything is unusual. The present proposal declares the judgment a presupposition failure—and hence, on my view, truth-valueless. Still, one might have the intuition that the judgment is simply false, which could be easily explained on Recanati’s account. In my view, the intuition is explained by our tacitly moving to the alternative context I have described.

  32. 32.

    Cf. Campbell’s (1997) discussion of the epistemic role of such integration of observable features. Burge (2003) and Schellenberg (2014) provide accounts of the epistemology of perceptual experience that would be helpful to develop a more detailed justification of the view suggested in the text. Both of them, however, ignore in my view the constitutive role played by awareness of phenomenal features in a full account. I hope to elaborate on these matters in future work; an earlier version of these ideas can be found in García-Carpintero (2002).

  33. 33.

    Fine (1995) articulates the distinction between those two forms of grounding or ontological dependence.

  34. 34.

    What determines that circumstances are abnormal? I do not think it suffices that the subject considers the possibility that they are—she might be overreacting to skeptical considerations. Nor is it necessary that she does—she might be carelessly ignoring close possibilities. This is a difficult epistemological issue for which I cannot offer a helpful discussion here.

  35. 35.

    The account of the de se I assume should thus be understood as “two-tiered” in the sense of O’Brien (2007, p. 65). Deploying representations whose significance is captured by the self-reference token-reflexive rule is a necessary but insufficient part of what thinking (and talking) about oneself as such is. The full account involves in addition (in the present case of the self-ascription of phenomenal states) a direct awareness of one’s own states, a self-knowledge that is not itself explained by the reliance on the self-reference rule.

  36. 36.

    Cf. García-Carpintero (forthcoming) for some discussion and references.

  37. 37.

    Cf. Peacocke (2014), pp. 110–111 for a similar explanation, assuming a different framework on introspective judgments. It should be clear why, on such accounts, the possibility that Cappelen and Dever (see above, fn. 13) casually toss about does not exist.

  38. 38.

    As indicated above, the present proposal—like Peacocke’s (1983), Coliva’s (2006) and Wright’s (2012)—adopts weak conservatism: a non-inferential judgment might be vulnerable to EM if it depends on a “background identification presupposition” to which in the circumstances one is not entitled. Morgan (ms) and McGlynn (2015) forcefully argue that, unembellished, such accounts would make the extension of IEM too narrow. For, even if skeptics such as Cappelen and Dever (2013) are wrong in their objections to IEM, the issues they raise might be enough to lead rational subjects to withhold judgments such as ‘I am in pain’ (at least in fallible, borderline cases) based on introspection, or even ‘I am judging this very thought’ (perhaps by developing “thought-insertion” misgivings). I think these arguments do not affect the present proposal, because it does not appeal to any old assumption that might counterfactually be doubted; it appeals to assumptions that are requirements given by the very nature of the representational system about who we are and which body is our own. The fact that a thinker who under ordinary circumstances judges I am in pain might be (mis-)led to worry whether the pain is hers does not make it any less IEM.

  39. 39.

    I thus side with Shoemaker and Pryor against Evans. Morgan (ms) and McGlynn (2015) opt for the opposite side. I cannot discuss their interesting considerations here. Let me just say that I cannot see any relevant difference between, on the one hand, the possibilities that Campbell and Pryor imagine for perceptual demonstratives, and on the other those contemplated in the main text for perceptual access to one’s body, or by Shoemaker for memory judgments—other than the currently easier factual availability of the former situations.


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Financial support for my work was provided by the DGI, Spanish Government, research project FFI2013-47948-P and Consolider-Ingenio project CSD2009-00056; and through the award ICREA Academia for excellence in research, 2013, funded by the Generalitat de Catalunya. Previous versions of this paper were given at talks at: ESPP 2013, Granada; Semantic Content, Barcelona 2013; PLM 2, Budapest 2013; Reference, Indexicality and Singular Thought, Campinas; Journée ’autour du travail de François Récanati’, Paris 2014; Self-knowledge, Expression and Transparency, Murcia 2014; ESPP 2014, Noto; CSMN, Oslo; Workshop on the First Person Perspective, Athens 2015. Thanks to the audience for useful questions and remarks, and in particular to Gregory Bochner, Herman Cappelen, Annalisa Coliva, Josh Dever, Jose Díez, Bjørn Jespersen, Alisa Mandrigin, Giovanni Merlo, Daniel Morgan, Dilip Ninan, Ernest Sosa, Stephan Torre, and Clas Weber for very helpful comments. Special thanks are due to Marie Guillot, who provided very detailed terrific comments on the penultimate version. Thanks also to Michael Maudsley for the grammatical revision.

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García-Carpintero, M. De se thoughts and immunity to error through misidentification. Synthese 195, 3311–3333 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-015-0817-y

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  • First-person
  • Self-reference
  • Self-knowledge
  • Immunity to error through misidentification