Why transparency undermines economy


Byrne (Philos Top 33:79–104, 2005; Self-knowledge, 2011a; Consciousness of the self: new essays, 2011b; Proc Aristot Soc Suppl Vol 85:201–219, 2011c; Introspection and consciousnes, 2012) offers a novel interpretation of the idea that the mind is transparent to its possessor, and that one knows one’s own mind by looking out at the world. This paper argues that his (Byrne, Proc Aristot Soc Suppl Vol 85:201–219, 2011c; Introspection and consciousnes, 2012) attempts to extend this picture of self-knowledge force him to sacrifice the theoretical parsimony he presents as the primary virtue of his account. The paper concludes by discussing two general problems transparency accounts of self-knowledge must address.

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  1. 1.

    “Vision, we may say, reveals the visual world: the world of v-facts. In the visual world things are colored, illuminated, moving, and so on, but not smelly or noisy” (2012, p. 200). Byrne goes on to add: “Vision is, at least in creatures like us, an exclusive conduit for v-facts” (ibid.).

  2. 2.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting this, as well as noting the problem it might raise for the theory’s parsimony.

  3. 3.

    These points will apply, mutatis mutandis, to the Fregean interpretation of v-propositions.

  4. 4.

    Also on pain of abandoning Fregeanism about visual content; see, for example (Chalmers 2006, p. 172).

  5. 5.

    Note that this does not in any way contradict or presume to answer Valaris’s (2011) objection to Byrne: that inference rules should work just as well in hypothetical or suppositional reasoning as in categorical reasoning. Presumably, Valaris would agree that if I am engaged in hypothetical reasoning, and so do not believe the premise, I need not believe the conclusion. The problem for Byrne which Valaris identifies is that if I assume for the sake of argument that it is raining, it does not seem that I need to assume for the sake of argument that I believe it is raining.

  6. 6.

    The claim could even be further weakened: to be a belief a state must have most or enough of the functional properties of belief. The concern is that Byrne’s perceptual beliefs have near to none.

  7. 7.

    A referee wonders if Byrne’s partitionings are really that ad hoc. After all, we know the visual system to be relatively encapsulated. Couldn’t Byrne explain the specific partitioning of visual beliefs in terms of this general encapsulation of the visual system? Possibly, but this would still fail to address two of the key ways in which the account is ad hoc. First, why don’t these partitionings undermine the state’s status as a belief? If Byrne wishes to say that it still manifests enough of the functional properties to count as a belief, the burden is on him to state what these manifestations are, given his claim that the state “does not influence [the illuded subject’s] verbal reports about the lengths of the lines, or any plans for action based on the lengths of the lines.” On the other hand, if Byrne grants (as he seems to) that the manifestations are lacking, he must explain why we should regard the functional properties as present, but masked or otherwise latent, rather than absent altogether. To insist on masking without independent grounds is ad hoc. Second, he must offer some independent grounds why SEE would be an exception to the visual system’s general encapsulation. At present, nothing has been offered, and the only justification seems to be that inferentialism requires that it is so.

  8. 8.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting this.

  9. 9.

    Ashwell also argues that this account is probably not economical in Byrne’s sense.

  10. 10.

    Both Ashwell and Valaris argue, for example, that desires in some way present their objects as valuable, allowing us to know our desires by asking what is desireable. This seems to commit them to a guise of the good position on motivation, and in the case of Ashwell, a version especially similar to that found in (Johnston 2001; Oddie 2005; but also see Tenenbaum 2007; Schafer 2013). For examples of recent criticisms of such views, see Schroeder (2008) and Baker (2014).

  11. 11.

    Valaris (2014, p. 15) suggests that this could perhaps be explained if perceptual states take non-propositional content. The suggestion is intriguing, but it would need to be developed in more detail before its promise could be assessed; and we would need to know if this solution could be extended to other plausibly non-committal states, such as, say, imagining.


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Thanks to Colin Klein, Tristram McPherson, Jack Woods, and the two anonymous referees for discussion, criticism, and helpful advice. The research in this paper was substantially funded by a grant from the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China (Project No. LU342612). Ideas in this paper were partly developed while visiting The Australia National University, especially thanks to discussions on the problem of self-knowledge with Ryan Cox and Daniel Stoljar.

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Baker, D. Why transparency undermines economy. Synthese 192, 3037–3050 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-015-0700-x

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  • Self-knowledge
  • Inference rules
  • Perception
  • Intention
  • Alex Byrne