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A role for ownership and authorship in the analysis of thought insertion


Philosophers are interested in the phenomenon of thought insertion because it challenges the common assumption that one can ascribe to oneself the thoughts that one can access first-personally. In the standard philosophical analysis of thought insertion, the subject owns the ‘inserted’ thought but lacks a sense of agency towards it. In this paper we want to provide an alternative analysis of the condition, according to which subjects typically lack both ownership and authorship of the ‘inserted’ thoughts. We argue that by appealing to a failure of ownership and authorship we can describe more accurately the phenomenology of thought insertion, and distinguish it from that of non-delusional beliefs that have not been deliberated about, and of other delusions of passivity. We can also start developing a more psychologically realistic account of the relation between intentionality, rationality and self knowledge in normal and abnormal cognition.

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  1. For similar projects, see the presentations by Fernández and Pickard at the Delusions and Self Knowledge workshop in Bristol in February 2008.

  2. Typically people suffering from Cotard’s syndrome believe that they are dead, or have other nihilistic delusions, e.g. about parts of their bodies missing, or the world no longer existing. Berrios and Luque (1995) have analysed many such cases.

  3. Capgras syndrome involves the belief that a dear one has been replaced by an impostor and is due to abnormality of perception of familiar faces. For more details about Capgras syndrome, see Stone and Young (1997).

  4. It is worth noticing that it is to some extent controversial whether delusions should ever be characterised in intentional terms. The debate between doxastic (e.g. Stone and Young 1997; Bayne and Pacherie 2005) and non-doxastic accounts of delusions (e.g. Berrios 1991; Stephens and Graham 2006) is relevant to the argument we present in this paper, and those on the side of doxastic accounts are likely to be more sympathetic to our approach.

  5. Evidence from the psychological studies on the effects of introspection confirms that the account of why one endorses the content of a certain attitude often changes across time. Further, sometimes reflecting on the reasons for an attitude leads one to revise the content of the initially reported attitude. Research participants asked to say what they thought about Reagan when he was president of the United States were later on asked to justify their opinion and, as a result of reflecting on their attitude, ended up expressing opinions that were different from the ones they reported at the start (Wilson and Hodges 1994).

  6. PSE = present state examination, SCAN = schedule for the clinical assessment of neuropsychiatry.

  7. Sometimes philosophers talk about “immunity from error through misidentification”. The idea is that I can be mistaken about what my thought is about, but I cannot be mistaken about who the subject of my thought is.


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The authors are grateful for comments on previous versions of this paper to: the audience of the Philosophy of Psychiatry Work-in-Progress Workshop organised by Rachel Cooper at the University of Lancaster in January 2008; the audience of the Delusions and Self Knowledge Workshop organised by Finn Spicer at the University of Bristol in February 2008; and the audience of the Cognitive Sciences seminar in Barcelona. In particular, the paper benefited from discussion with Hanna Pickard and Jordi Fernández who have been working independently on self knowledge and accounts of alien and inserted thoughts. The authors are also grateful to two anonymous referees for very constructive and helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Lisa Bortolotti.

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Bortolotti, L., Broome, M. A role for ownership and authorship in the analysis of thought insertion. Phenom Cogn Sci 8, 205–224 (2009).

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  • Authorship of thoughts
  • Self-knowledge
  • First-person authority
  • Thought insertion
  • Rationality
  • Ownership of thoughts
  • Intentionality
  • Self-ascription