Introspective misidentification


It is widely held that introspection-based self-ascriptions of mental states are immune to error through misidentification (IEM), relative to the first person pronoun. Many have taken such errors to be logically impossible, arguing that the immunity holds as an “absolute” necessity. Here I discuss an actual case of craniopagus twins—twins conjoined at the head and brain—as a means to arguing that such errors are logically possible and, for all we know, nomologically possible. An important feature of the example is that it is one where a person may be said to be introspectively aware of a mental state that occurs outside of her own mind. Implications are discussed for views of the relation between introspection and mental state ownership, and between introspection and epistemic criteria for the “mark of the mental.”

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  1. 1.

    Nevertheless, there are proposed counterexamples to Introspective Immunity in the existing literature, including Lane and Liang (2011), Rosenthal (2012), and Hogan and Martin (2001). These will be discussed below.

  2. 2.

    Though see Wright (2012) for an argument that there is no special connection between judgments that are IEM and self-consciousness.

  3. 3.

    See Smith (2006, p. 276) for a clear articulation of this approach to explaining Introspective Immunity.

  4. 4.

    For instance, Smith (2006, p. 279) dismisses Wright’s (1998) explanation of why introspective self-ascriptions of mental states are IEM on the grounds that, if it were correct, some judgments of the form ‘I am in pain’ (made in very unusual circumstances) would not be IEM.

  5. 5.

    Imagined cases of telepathy are sometimes offered as counterexamples to the absolute necessity of Introspective Immunity (Hogan and Martin 2001).

  6. 6.

    If we assume it is sufficient, then there is no appearance of a challenge to IEM—a judgment of the form “I see the kidnapper,” made by Kruno, will be true. Here I want to consider (and dismiss) a possible counterexample that could arise if telepathy is not sufficient for factive seeing.

  7. 7.

    Lane and Liang offer another example, involving the “Body Swap” illusion, that does arguably involve a self-ascription of the right form to challenge Introspective Immunity. They hold that when subjects experience the illusion of shaking hands with themselves, “their experiences involve misrepresentation of action awareness” (2011, p. 92). Although it was really the experimenter who was shaking their hand, “the subjects misrepresented themselves as the agent of the action” (p. 92). They take the case to violate IEM because the subjects “represent themselves as agents when plainly they are not” (ibid.). However, in one sense, the test subjects really are agents. For they do in fact shake hands with the experimenter. So they are right to the extent they judge, through introspection, that they are shaking hands. Where they go wrong is in judging that they are shaking their own hands. However, it is only an unusual sort of perceptual experience—seeing their own bodies on a head-mounted screen—that leads to the mistaken part of the judgment. So in this case the judgment as a whole is not grounded in introspection in the way it would need to be to challenge Introspective Immunity.

  8. 8.

    A video depicting some of these capacities, together with Dominus’s (2011) article, can be retrieved at:

  9. 9.

    It is assumed, at this point, that there are two brains between the twins, not one unusual brain. That point will be argued for below (end of Sect. 5.1).

  10. 10.

    I will, however, say something here about his “vicious regress” argument against distinct existences views of introspection. Distinct existences views are naturally paired with the idea that introspection must involve the identification of mental states as belonging to oneself, just as judgments about one’s body formed through perception involve identifying perceived things (e.g. a bleeding knee) as being one’s own. However, Shoemaker insists that if this is how introspection works, it gives rise to “a vicious infinite regress” with respect to our capacity for self-knowledge: “Identifying something as oneself would have to involve…finding something to be true of it that one independently knows to be true of oneself…This self-knowledge might in some cases be grounded on some other identification, but the supposition that every item of self-knowledge rests on an identification leads to a vicious infinite regress” (p. 561).

    If one is convinced that that IEM is a logical necessity, the vicious regress problem may arise; if one doubts the absolute necessity of IEM, then the regress problem poses no additional challenge to distinct existences views (I think that Shoemaker means to grant this much, though I am not sure others will agree). For note that ordinary perceptual knowledge does not fall prey to a vicious infinite regress, even if perceptually identifying some thing x as y (e.g., that man as Bill Clinton) has to involve finding something true of it that one already knew to be true of y (e.g., that Clinton has certain facial features). There is no vicious regress here because we can initially pick up the reference of ‘Bill Clinton’, and learn some of his characteristics, through someone else’s demonstration. Of course, if I initially learned that Clinton has certain facial features from my friend’s pointing to him and saying, “That is Clinton,” then my subsequent judgments about Clinton will not be immune to errors of misidentification. For something could have gone wrong in the initial identification (e.g. I may have mistook whom my friend was pointing at), infecting my judgments thereafter. But, of course, knowledge of Bill Clinton does not require immunity to such errors of misidentification. By the same token, so long as we accept that judgments about one’s own mental states are not absolutely immune to errors of misidentification, there is no reason that self-knowledge cannot consist in a succession of judgments involving identification, together with some (fallible) acts of introspective demonstration, or application of a theory of mind (to oneself).

    See Byrne (2005), Rosenthal (2012), Finkelstein (1999), and Lormand (2000), for responses to Shoemaker’s other arguments (involving, e.g., “self-blindness”) against distinct existences views.

  11. 11.

    As part of the OT scenario, I am assuming that Krista and Tatiana do in fact have two distinct sets of core psychological features, and therefore count as two distinct people. Of course, if there were one just one causally and inferentially integrated set of core psychological features between them, we might conclude that they are in fact only one person with an unusual body. In that case, there would be no threat to IEM. Many of the anecdotal reports from Dominus, however, suggest that there are indeed two sets of preferences between the twins (one reportedly loves ketchup, while other hates it and tries to scrape it off her own tongue while her sister is eating it!). However, some of the anecdotes also suggest that their identities are more closely fused (Krista says, “I have two pieces of paper,” while she is holding one, and her sister is holding one). For the purposes of this paper, we can simply stipulate that the propositional attitudes of each twin are causally and inferentially isolated from each other, and that they only have introspective access to each other’s perceptual states. This is certainly an empirically (and logically) possible interpretation of their situation.


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Versions of this paper were presented at the Fifth Consciousness Online conference and at the 2013 meeting of the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology. Special thanks to Richard Brown, Max Seeger, Elizabeth Schechter, Annalisa Coliva, John Schwenkler, Joel Smith, and Serife Tekin for their valuable criticisms and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Peter Langland-Hassan.

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Langland-Hassan, P. Introspective misidentification. Philos Stud 172, 1737–1758 (2015).

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  • Introspection
  • Immunity to error
  • Self-knowledge
  • IEM