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The transparency of intention


The attitude of intention is not usually the primary focus in philosophical work on self-knowledge. A recent exception is the so-called “Transparency” theory of self-knowledge, which attempts to explain how we know our own minds by appeal to reflection on non-mental facts. Transparency theories are attractive in light of their relative psychological economy compared to views that must posit a dedicated mechanism of ‘inner sense’. However, it is argued here, focusing on proposals by Richard Moran and Alex Byrne, that the Transparency approach to explaining knowledge of our intentions fails. Considerations of economy therefore recommend an alternative approach: the Rylean Theory Theory. The particular view defended here is that one way of coming to know what we intend is to self-ascribe an intention on the basis of making a conscious decision about what to do. This view requires that there are such things as conscious decisions, and so the existence of conscious decisions is defended against skeptical worries raised by Peter Carruthers. The conclusion is that we know of our intentions by theorizing about ourselves, but that this knowledge can still be first-personally privileged, authoritative, and non-alienated.

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  1. 1.

    For example, see Hatfield (1971).

  2. 2.

    As Sydney Shoemaker has forcefully emphasized.

  3. 3.

    Dretske (1994), Gallois (1996), Byrne (2005, 2011a). Moran (2001) also focuses on belief but not perceptual experience, and devotes significant attention to intention and complex emotions like resentment.

  4. 4.

    Based on the proposal offered in Ryle (1949, Chap. 6).

  5. 5.

    Although I do not mean to rule out that we also use simulation, emotional mirroring, or other less theoretical capacities. The important point is that we do sometimes theorize about the mental states of others, and so evidently have the capacity to do so concerning ourselves.

  6. 6.

    From "Torquato Tasso."

  7. 7.

    Building on Gallois (1996).

  8. 8.

    Though I will not argue against it here, this is a claim we should question. We might think that merely assenting to a proposition as true is not sufficient for belief, and that certain related dispositional properties also need to hold for the thinker genuinely to count as believing that P.

  9. 9.

    Anscombe (1963).

  10. 10.

    I mention this and the following two objections in a survey article (Paul 2014), anticipating their presentation here.

  11. 11.

    Bratman (1987) devises such examples. I argue against the thesis that intending to ϕ entails believing that one will ϕ in Paul (2009).

  12. 12.

    Byrne (2011a, pp 217–219).

  13. 13.

    I owe this insight to Carruthers (2009).

  14. 14.

    See Mackay (1992) for a summary of experimental findings that visual imaginings activate the same areas in the brain as visual perception. See Frith et al. (1996) for fMRI data suggesting that silent articulation of sentences involves activity in the area concerned with speech generation, and that imagining speech is associated with regions involved in speech perception. I am indebted to Byrne (2011b) for pointing me to these resources.

  15. 15.

    Importantly, the claim is not that we must remember our past decisions in order to know of past intentions. The epistemic warrant provided by the decision will be preserved even if memory of the decision is lost.

  16. 16.

    This is not to claim definitively that inner speech and imagery are all we are aware of in introspection. The aim is rather to argue that even if this is all we are aware of, we could still have reliable and authoritative access to our intentions via conscious events of deciding what to do.

  17. 17.

    I am indebted for the approach of understanding certain attitudes as settling questions for the thinker to Pamela Hieronymi’s work.

  18. 18.

    On my view, the commitment involved in deciding on an action does not entail the judgment that the action is best, or even in any way good. This allows the view to avoid the objection posed to Moran that our ordinary route to knowledge of what we intend would be insensitive to akratic or normatively underdetermined intentions.

  19. 19.

    Talk of “expressing” a commitment may suggest a picture on which there is some independent attitude that is being expressed, and that is therefore the real decision. This is not the picture I intend; my suggestion is that the expressive act constitutes the decision, just as there is no promise that is prior to or independent of an act of promising.

  20. 20.

    As I argue in more detail in Paul (2012).


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This paper was first presented at the SPAWN conference on “Transparency of Mind” at Syracuse University, and I am grateful to all of the participants for their insights. I am also indebted to Larry Shapiro, Mike Roche, Ben Schwan, Bob Gordon, and an anonymous referee for very helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Sarah K. Paul.

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Paul, S.K. The transparency of intention. Philos Stud 172, 1529–1548 (2015).

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  • Self-knowledge
  • Transparency
  • Decision
  • Intention
  • Theory Theory