Expressing first-person authority


Ordinarily when someone tells us something about her beliefs, desires or intentions, we presume she is right. According to standard views, this deferential trust is justified on the basis of certain epistemic properties of her assertion. In this paper, I offer a non-epistemic account of deference. I first motivate the account by noting two asymmetries between the kind of deference we show psychological self-ascriptions and the kind we grant to epistemic experts more generally. I then propose a novel agency-based account of deference. Drawing on recent work on self-knowledge, I argue that a person normally has a distinctive type of cognitive agency; specifically she is able to constitute her psychological attitudes by making judgments about what they ought to be. I then argue that a speaker expresses this agentive authority when she self-ascribes a psychological attitude and this is what justifies deferentially trusting what she says. Because the notion of expression plays a central role in this account, I contrast it with recent neo-expressivist theories.

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  1. 1.

    Philosophers sometimes use the term “avowal” to refer to an assertion made about one’s own psychological attitudes. I am avoiding this term because it seems to me that different philosophers have different things in mind by “avowal”. For example, Richard Moran uses it to refer to “a statement of one’s belief which obeys the Transparency Condition” (2001, p. 101), which is a fairly narrow usage. Whereas Dorit Bar-On and Douglas Long think of “avowals” more broadly as any “present tense self-ascriptions of occurrent mental states.” (2001, p. 311) It is notable that neither of these is how Ryle understood “avowal” (his use of the term included self-ascriptions of moods, which he explicitly claimed were “not occurrences”) (1949, p. 83).

  2. 2.

    Some may wish to contend that psychological self-ascriptions are not assertions because a speaker does not utter them with the intention of reporting her attitudes (cf. Bar-On 2004). This assumes that assertions are uttered only in order to report information, which is a restrictive conception of assertion [for more on the nature of assertion see MacFarlane (2010)]. It seems to me that Williams is right when he says that “if a speaker comes out with a declarative sentence not as part of a larger sentence (as one might say, by itself) and there are no special circumstances, then he is taken to have asserted what is meant by that sentence” (2002, p. 74). So, following Williams, I shall assume that openness in speech results in assertion regardless of whether the speaker’s prior intention is to report some information.

  3. 3.

    This is not uncommon strategy among contemporary work on the authority of self-knowledge, cf. Moran (2001), Bilgrami (2006) and Boyle (2009).

  4. 4.

    In any discussion of deference, we must assume the speaker is sincere. In any context, if someone lies or is otherwise misleading, she loses her entitlement to deference. This is not to say we might not continue to defer to what she says, only that we are wrong to do so. In the remainder of this essay, I shall assume speakers are sincere.

  5. 5.

    According to some views of testimony, epistemic properties would not be what justify trusting my mechanic. Tyler Burge thinks that we are entitled a priori to accept any intelligible speech unless there are good reasons not to Burge (1993). If Burge is right, it will be more challenging to distinguish the kind of deference we grant to psychological self-ascriptions form the kind we bestow on epistemic experts. It will not, however, be impossible. Even if the justification in both cases were a priori, there would still be an asymmetry in the way that justification could be defeated. As I shall argue, explicit appeals to evidential support sometimes defeat our justification for deferring to psychological self-ascriptions but they never defeat our justification for trusting epistemic experts. I think this may be sufficient to distinguish the two, on the assumption that Burge is right. However, I also agree with the criticisms of Burge’s account of testimony leveled by Fricker (1994) and Faulkner (2007).

  6. 6.

    Continually citing supporting evidence for a claim will no doubt strike us as bizarre and this might lead us to think there is something psychologically amiss with a speaker, but the additional evidence doesn’t undermine the epistemic status of what is said.

  7. 7.

    The kind of data I have in mind can be found in various places: see, for instance, Carruthers (2010); Haybron (2007); Valzire (2010); Wilson (2002); and Wilson and Dunn (2004). The spark for much of this work was Nisbett and Wilson’s paper (1977).

  8. 8.

    This is why some philosophers have expressed skepticism about the epistemic privilege of introspection, cf. Schwitzgebel (2008, 2012) and Bayne and Spener (2010).

  9. 9.

    It is important that these reasons are conclusive. Making a judgment about non-conclusive reasons in favor of P does not settle what one ought to believe.

  10. 10.

    Burge (1998) draws heavily on this conception of agency in developing his account of self-knowledge. For a further discussion and criticism of Burge, see Parrott (ms).

  11. 11.

    Legend has it that former Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams once said that the strike zone is “whatever that day’s umpire says it is”. That is to say, the umpire does not merely discern whether a pitch is within some pre-determined area; the umpire’s judgments constitute strikes. In saying this, Williams is rightfully deferring to the umpire’s authority, but not because the umpire is in a better position to know what a strike is. Notice too that the constitutive relationship is slightly different in the umpire’s case. Her judgments about whether a pitch is a strike constitute strikes. In the case of psychological attitudes, a person’s normative judgment about what attitude she ought to have constitutes the attitude. This is obviously different from so-called ‘constitutive theories’ that attempt to explain self-knowledge in terms of constitutive relations between a person’s first-order attitudes and her higher-order beliefs about them (e.g., Bilgrami 2006; Heal 2001; and Shoemaker 1994, 2012). A full discussion of these views is beyond the scope of this paper (but see Parrott, ms).

  12. 12.

    This awareness is not usually, nor need it be, explicitly represented.

  13. 13.

    Thus we might think of the agentive character of the first-person in terms of it being the perspective from which one not only recognizes but also imposes obligations on one’s self. A related discussion along these lines may be found in Chapter 12 of Soteriou (2013), in which he rightly notes: ‘Your recognizing that you are under an obligation to do something is not sufficient for imposing that obligation on yourself, and so it is not sufficient for governing your conduct in the way that you think you should…’ (p. 305).

  14. 14.

    It is worth emphasizing that these are only features of psychological attitudes that one relates to in a first-personal way. An attribution of a belief that P made on the basis of behavioral evidence does not commit one to the truth of P. Someone can quite easily attribute to herself the belief that her neighborhood is unsafe based on noticing how she walks nervously down the road while constantly looking over her shoulder without being committed to the truth of that belief (cf. Moran 2001). Indeed, when one’s self-ascription is made on the basis of third-personal data, one can even self-ascribe the belief that P while simultaneously judging that one ought to believe ~P. This is why Moore’s paradox does not seem odd in cases of third-personal self-ascription.

  15. 15.

    Someone might object that intelligence is exercised rather than expressed. I think this is wrong. If you are unconvinced, consider stupidity. Can someone exercise stupidity? It seems far more natural to me to say that stupidity is sometimes expressed by what a person says. Perhaps, one could say that in these cases stupidity is exhibited but I take this to be equivalent to saying it is expressed (Objection: Someone exhibits stupidity because it is a feature of the content of what she says and so not something that is expressed. Reply: Imagine a very stupid person reciting the Peano axioms). This naturally raises the question of what the difference is between saying that a property is exhibited and saying that it is expressed. On my view, expressions are a subset of exhibitions, which are ways of making some internal condition manifest. However, some exhibitions are not expressions, partly because they do not involve a psychological or mental state (cf. Martin 2010). For instance, I regularly exhibit my clumsiness but it seems odd to say that I express it. A complete account of the expressive would explain why our concept of the expressive is tied so closely to psychological or mental states but this is a very large topic beyond the scope of this essay. For some further discussion, see Green (2007) and Martin (2010).

  16. 16.

    It also must not be equivalent to saying she exercises it but we have already seen that exercising agency is not necessary for one to have agentive authority. This is because the attitudes for which we intuitively have authority include more than those we form through deliberation.

  17. 17.

    cf. Burge (1996). I also think this is a plausible way of reading Moran (2001).

  18. 18.

    The fact that in each case the speaker stands in a different relation to the attitude she self-ascribes will not help because the relation an individual stands in to the referent of her self-ascription does not plausibly individuate the kind of speech act.

  19. 19.

    Another way to motivate this line of thinking is by reflecting on Moore’s paradox. We might think that whereas first-personal self-ascriptions of Moore-paradoxical propositions sounds bad, their third-personal counterparts sound fine. For further discussion, see Moran (2001) and Shoemaker (1995/1996).

  20. 20.

    Cf. Bar-On (2004), Finkelstein (2003) and Wright (1998).

  21. 21.

    Although not every contemporary expressivist identifies as ‘neo-expressivist’, I use the term to include any theory (such as Finkelstein 2003) that thinks an expressive speech act can also have semantically evaluable content.

  22. 22.

    This is something that Bar-On is very clear on. Cf. Bar-On (2004, Chap. 8, 2009, 2010).

  23. 23.

    Bar-On (2004) finds Sellars’s distinction between action-expression, causal-expression, and semantic-expression helpful for articulating her position. However, I do not see how the causal sense of expression is relevant to her view. Moans and winces might be thought to be causal expressions of their underlying conditions but Bar-On seems to want to downplay even this. It therefore seems to me that the action sense and the semantic sense are the ones that matter to her neo-expressivism, which is perhaps why she drops discussion of the causal sense in more recent work (cf. 2009, 2010).

  24. 24.

    The second conjunct reiterates Self-Ascription.

  25. 25.

    From these remarks, it seems clear that Bar-On is working with a fairly broad conception of intentional action. Some philosophers have been reluctant to accept that conception, arguing that the only way a psychological attitude could be expressed by an intentional speech act is if the speaker intends to express that attitude. This is at the center of Boyle’s (2010) critique of Bar-On but it is more charitable to Bar-On if we assume a broader conception of intentional action.

  26. 26.

    Bringing in a causal sense of expression might be thought to help here and one might be tempted to offer a causal version of Matching. If underlying psychological attitudes caused assertions that semantically represented those states, it would be a way of explaining why we justifiably defer to those assertions. There are several problems with this. First, it is false. Psychological attitudes cause different sorts of speech acts, not just ones that semantically represent them. Second, even if it were true, one would want some sort of explanation for the causal relation. I think that explaining why there is matching between the semantic sense and causal sense is even more challenging than why there is matching between the semantic sense and the action sense.

  27. 27.

    Bar-On offers a picture of what such an explanation would look like in Chapter 8 of her book. It is not clear to me whether she endorses it. A similar developmental account is defended in Green (2007).

  28. 28.

    In the previous section I suggested that there are two different kinds of self-ascription, those made from the first-person perspective which express agentive authority and those made from the third-person perspective that do not. Yet the alternative view on which there is only one kind of self-ascription would also not individuate them in terms of the attitudes they expressed. So neither approach requires Matching to be true.


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Earlier versions or parts of this essay were presented at the University of Oxford Theoretical Work in Progress Group, the University of Puget Sound, UC Berkeley, and UCLA. I am grateful to everyone who offered questions and comments on those occasions, particularly to Gregory Antill. For extremely thoughtful comments, and for many stimulating discussions on the topic of this essay, I must express special thanks to Andreas Anagnostopoulos, Tony Bezsylko, John Campbell, Anil Gomes, Nick Jones, Markus Kohl, Berislav Marusic, Michael Martin, Josh Sheptow, Michael Sollberger, James Stazicker, Barry Stroud, Lee Walters, and Daniel Warren. Finally, I wish to thank an anonymous referee for taking the time to read this essay and for offering very interesting and constructive feedback.

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Parrott, M. Expressing first-person authority. Philos Stud 172, 2215–2237 (2015).

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  • Expressivism
  • Self-knowledge
  • First-person authority
  • Agency