Skip to main content

Davidson, first-person authority, and direct self-knowledge

We’re sorry, something doesn't seem to be working properly.

Please try refreshing the page. If that doesn't work, please contact support so we can address the problem.


Donald Davidson famously offered an explanation of “first-person authority” (1984). However, he described first-person authority differently across different works—sometimes referring to the presumptive truth of agents’ self-ascriptions of their current mental states, and sometimes referring to the direct self-knowledge that agents often have of said states. First, I show that a standard Davidsonian explanation of first-person authority can at best, and with some modification, explain the presumptive truth of agents’ self-ascriptions. I then develop two Davidsonian accounts of direct self-knowledge—one accounting for its function and another accounting for its source—pushing back in the process against deflationary and quietist rejoinders to these projects. Finally, I relate my Davidsonian accounts of direct self-knowledge back to the modified Davidsonian account of the presumptive truth of agents’ self-ascriptions.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    A presumption of truth may also be owed to or in fact ceded to self-ascriptions.

  2. 2.

    See, e.g., Jacobsen (2009, p. 254) and Child (2013, p. 536). There is another argument, often called the ‘disquotation argument’, that I will not discuss here (though see Hossein Khani 2021).

  3. 3.

    Hence Davidson’s saying that “there is no such thing as a language” (1986, p. 107), so long as we understand a language as a system of meanings that agents are reared into without any contribution of their own.

  4. 4.

    Ludwig (1994) and Hossein Khani (2021) ask us to imagine a situation in which a speaker and interpreter share an environment and come to use all their words in the same ways to apply to the same objects. In such a situation, couldn’t the interpreter know the speaker’s meanings just as well as the speaker, at least if the interpreter applied the heuristic of assuming that the speaker meant by X whatever the interpreter meant by X? And yet, they say, an asymmetry in authoritative meaning-knowledge holds for all speaker-interpreter pairs. So how can this argument for semantic authority succeed? I am not convinced by this objection, however, since the interpreter must still use fallible empirical evidence of the speaker’s linguistic activity while applying the heuristic, thus opening additional space for error, whereas the speaker need not consult any such evidence (cf. Balsvik 2003, p. 83).

  5. 5.

    Hossein Khani thinks that Davidson did not view this externalist idea as key to explaining first-person authority. But Davidson does clearly state that he is offering an explanation based on this idea (see also his reply to Thöle—1993, pp. 249–250). At any rate, this is the sort of idea that many have interpreted Davidson as offering.

  6. 6.

    For the loci classici, see Boghossian (1989) and McKinsey (1991).

  7. 7.

    See Amoretti (2007, 2012), Balsvik (2003, chapter 7), and Verheggen & Myers (2016, chapter 3) for defenses of Davidson’s externalism against incompatibilism about semantic externalism and semantic authority.

  8. 8.

    See, e.g., Davidson (1994) for criticisms of standard social and natural kinds externalisms.

  9. 9.

    Jacobsen does note, however, that while “the paratactic analysis suggest[s] this expressivist idea, [it] neither mandates, nor is mandated by it” (Ibid., p. 264). The thought is only that the paratactic analysis and the expressivist idea are a natural pairing.

  10. 10.

    Bar-On’s (2004) expressivism allows self-ascriptions to express first-order mental states and self-beliefs.

  11. 11.

    At one point, Jacobsen describes first-person authority as “propositional knowledge of beliefs attributed” (2009, p. 264). It is hard to reconcile this with his denial that any self-beliefs constituting propositional self-knowledge are expressed through one’s self-ascriptions, and with his additional claim that speakers’ self-ascriptions need only be sincere to be authoritative, whether or not speakers know them to be sincere (Ibid., p. 261). Perhaps there is a route from the presumptive truth of self-ascriptions to the existence of direct self-beliefs even if such self-beliefs are not expressed by one’s self-ascriptions. But, for all that has been said so far, why go in for this?

  12. 12.

    Aune (2012, p. 221) worries that “if consistent usage is the sole basis for getting things right with certain words, everyday claims about observed dogs and horses would have as much authority as psychological reports”. But this does not follow for Jacobsen’s account, which has it that one’s sincere self-ascriptions are especially reliable because they express the very attitudes that they semantically represent, whereas utterances like “that’s a dog!” express one’s dog-belief without semantically representing it and, hence, are not reliably true for the same reason.

  13. 13.

    There is an ongoing dispute about whether Davidson thought that self-knowledge of meanings is propositional or not. Jacobsen (2009) and Wright (2015, pp. 415–416) opt for a know-how reading, contra Child (2013, 2017) and Hossein Khani (2021). Aune (2012) thinks that Davidson at least ought to have embraced a propositional view. Jacobsen cites some compelling textual evidence for the non-propositional reading from Davidson’s discussions of first-person authority: “the word “know” here is not essential…it would do as well to say that the speaker is not misusing his own words, or that he means, in a literal sense, what he says” (1993, p. 212).

  14. 14.

    Akeel Bilgrami (2006, p. 28) also refers to Davidson as a constitutivist, though he elaborates no further.

  15. 15.

    Davidson does say, after all, that “meaning … gets its life from those situations in which someone intends … that his words will be understood in a certain way, and they are” (1994, p. 120).

  16. 16.

    Balsvik (2003, p. 69) understands Davidson’s official view similarly.

  17. 17.

    Actually, Mandelbaum (2014) denies this, since he thinks merely entertaining a thought is sufficient for (occurrently) believing it, though see Street & Richardson (2015) and Street & Kingstone (2017) for responses.

  18. 18.

    Stueber (2000, p. 154) writes that “Charity, correctly (i.e., globally and holistically) understood, is a constitutive principle of interpretation without defining an algorithmic procedure of how to construct an interpretation for a particular person.”.

  19. 19.

    This process need not be phenomenologically salient. It can be “interpretation in which conscious reasoning and explicit recourse to evidence and induction have been reduced to zero” (Davidson 2001a p. 90).

  20. 20.

    I take it that, in many cases, endorsing an attitude as rational is sufficient for having it. This is not to say that we can never fail to have an attitude simply in virtue of endorsing it. It is also not to say that these endorsements are our epistemic reasons for the attitudes endorsed. Our second-order endorsements of our first-order attitudes may simply be second-order representations of our first-order epistemic reasons, where it is our first-order reasons that epistemically ground our first-order attitudes.

  21. 21.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pushing me to clarify this point.

  22. 22.

    See Coliva (2016) for a take on which sorts of attitudes are known via self-interpretation and which are not.

  23. 23.

    This process does not always guarantee that the child and caregiver use their words in the exact same way. The child might find fake cows similar to real cows, and eventually come to have a single concept under which they both fall, if the caregiver is not careful to provide the child with divergent reactions to fake and real cows. This will mark a certain failure on the part of the caregiver to triangulate with the child at a fine enough grain to prevent the child’s forming this (by our lights) silly concept (Davidson 2001b), but the point is that the concept will be perfectly determinate for the child. This matters because Hossein Khani (2021, p. 26) thinks that emphasizing triangulation cases threatens to erase asymmetries in self- and other-knowledge of meaning, because he sees triangulation as necessarily leading to the participants as meaning the same things by the same words.

  24. 24.

    I offered an over-intellectualization objection to Steuber’s account. I take it that over-intellectualization objections ought to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and so I see no tension in critiquing Steuber’s account for reasons of potential over-intellectualization while offering an intellectualized account myself.

  25. 25.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this worry. See Verheggen & Myers (2016, p. 114, en. 12) for a defense of the Davidson’s triangulation argument qua transcendental argument.


  1. Amoretti, C., (2012) Davidson, self-knowledge, and skepticism. In Amoretti, C. and Vassallo, M. (Eds.), Knowledge, Language, and Interpretation. On the Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag.

  2. Amoretti, C. (2007). Triangulation and rationality. Epistemologia, 30, 307–326.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Aune, B., (2012) On Davidson’s view of first person authority. In Preyer, G. (Ed.), Donald Davidson on truth, Meaning, and the Mental. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

  4. Balsvik, E. (2003). An interpretation and assessment of first-person authority in the writings of philosopher Donald Davidson. Edwin Mellen Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bar-On, D. (2004). Speaking My Mind: Expression And Self-Knowledge. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  6. Bar-On, D. (2010). Avowals: Expression, security, and knowledge: reply to matthew boyle, david rosenthal, and maura tumulty. Acta Analytica, 25, 47–63.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Bilgrami, A. (2006). Self-knowledge and resentment. Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Boghossian, P. (1989). Content and self-knowledge. Philosophical Topics, 17(1), 5–26.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Child, W., (2013) Davidson and first-person authority. In Lepore, E. and Ludwig, K (Eds.), A Companion to Donald Davidson. 533–549.

  10. Child, W. (2017). First-person authority and the univocality of mental terms. In C. Verheggen (Ed.), Wittgenstein and Davidson on Language, Thought, and Action (pp. 186–204). Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Coliva, A. (2016). The Varieties of Self-Knowledge. Palgrave Macmillan.

  12. Davidson, D., (1984) First person authority. Dialectica 38(2–3): 101–112. Reprinted in Davidson 2001a.

  13. Davidson, D., (1987) Knowing one’s own mind. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association, 60(3): 441–458. Reprinted in Davidson 2001a.

  14. Davidson, D., (1991) Three varieties of knowledge. In Griffiths, P. (Ed.), Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement. New York: Cambridge University Press. Reprinted in Davidson 2001a.

  15. Davidson, D., (1992) The second person. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 17(1): 255–267. Reprinted in Davidson 2001a.

  16. Davidson, D., (1993) Reply to Bernhard Thöle. In Stoecker, R. (Ed.), Reflecting Davidson: Donald Davidson Responding to an International Forum of Philosophers. Hawthorne: De Gruyter.

  17. Davidson, D., (1999) The emergence of thought. Erkenntnis, 51: 7–17. Reprinted in Davidson 2001a.

  18. Davidson, D. (1968). On saying that. Synthese, 19, 130–146.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Davidson, D. (1973). Radical interpretation. Dialectica, 27, 314–328.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Davidson, D. (1986). A nice derangement of epitaphs. In E. Lepore (Ed.), Truth and Interpretation (pp. 433–446). Basil Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Davidson, D. (1994). The social aspect of language. In B. McGuinness (Ed.), The Philosophy of Michael Dummett (pp. 1–16). Kluwer.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Davidson, D. (2001a). Subjective, intersubjective, objective. Clarendon Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  23. Davidson, D., (2001b) Externalisms. In P. Kotatko, P. Pagin, and G. Segal. (Eds.), Interpreting Davidson. Stanford: CSLI 2001.

  24. Davidson, D., (2001c) Comments on Karlovy Vary Papers. In Kotatko et al. (Eds.), Interpreting Davidson Selected Papers from the 1996 Karlovy Vary Symposium on Analytic Philosophy.

  25. Fenici, M. (2017). Rebuilding the landscape of psychological understanding after the mindreading war. Phenomenology and Mind, 12, 142–150.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Goldman, A. (1989). Interpretation psychologized. Mind & Language, 4(3), 161–185.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Goldman, A. (1993). Epistemology, two types of functionalism, and first-person authority. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 18(2), 395–398.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Hornsby, J. (2005). Semantic knowledge and practical knowledge. Aristotelian Society Supplementary, 79(1), 107–130.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Jacobsen, R. (2009). Davidson and first-person authority: parataxis and self-expression. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 90, 251–266.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Khani, H. (2021). Davidson on self-knowledge: a transcendental explanation. Southern Journal of Philosophy.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Kiverstein, J. (2011). Social understanding without mentalizing. Philosophical Topics, 39(1), 41–66.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Ludwig, K. (1994) First-person knowledge and authority. In Preyer, G. et al. (Eds.), Language, Mind and Epistemology: On Donald Davidson’s Philosophy. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

  33. Mandelbaum, E. (2014). Thinking is believing. Inquiry: an Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy, 57(1), 55–96.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. McGeer, V. (2015). Mind-making practices: the social infrastructure of self-knowing agency and responsibility. Philosophical Explorations, 18(2), 259–281.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. McKinsey, M. (1991). Anti-individualism and direct access. Analysis, 51, 9–16.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Parent, T. (2017) Self-Reflection for the Opaque Mind: An Essay in Neo-Sellarsian Philosophy. Routledge.

  37. Roessler, J. (2015). Self-knowledge and communication. Philosophical Explorations, 18(2), 153–168.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Street, C., & Kingstone, A. (2017). Aligning spinoza with descartes: An informed cartesian account of the truth bias. British Journal of Psychology, 108, 453–466.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Street, C., & Richardson, D. (2015). Descartes versus spinoza: truth, uncertainty, and bias. Social Cognition, 33(3), 227–239.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Strijbos, D., & de Bruin, L. (2012). Making folk psychology explicit: the relevance of robert brandom’s philosophy for the debate on social cognition. Philosophia, 40, 139–163.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Stroud, B. (1968). Transcendental arguments. Journal of Philosophy, 65(9), 241–256.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Stueber, K. (2019) Davidson, reasons, and causes: a plea for a little bit more empathy. Journal for the History of Analytical Philosophy Vol. 7 No. 2: Donald Davidson: Looking Back, Looking Forward: 59–75.

  43. Stueber, K. (2000). Understanding other minds and the problem of rationality. In H. H. Kögler & K. Stueber (Eds.), Empathy and Agency: The Problem of Understanding in the Social Sciences (pp. 144–162). Westview Press.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Stueber, K. (2002). The problem of self-knowledge. Erkenntnis, 56, 269–296.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Thӧle, B., (1993) The explanation of first person authority. In Stoecker, R. (Ed.) Reflecting Davidson: Donald Davidson Responding to an International Forum of Philosophers. Hawthorne: De Gruyter.

  46. Verheggen, C., & Myers, R. H. (2016). Donald Davidson’s triangulation argument. Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Wright, C. (2015) Replies Part II: Knowledge of our own minds and meanings. In A. Coliva (Ed.), Mind, Meaning, & Knowledge: Themes From The Philosophy of Crispin Wright.

  48. Zawidski, T. W. (2019). A new perspective on the relationship between metacognition and social cognition: metacognitive concepts as socio-cognitive tools. Synthese.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


Special thanks are due to Claudine Verheggen and Robert Myers for their indispensable feedback on multiple versions of this paper. I would also like to thank Christopher Campbell and Henry Jackman for their comments on earlier work of mine, portions of which were revised and included in this paper. Finally, thanks are due to audiences at a meeting of the Canadian Philosophical Association and at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2018 for offering feedback on an early precursor to this paper.


The author has no funding sources to declare.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Benjamin Winokur.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The author declared that there is no conflict of interest.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Winokur, B. Davidson, first-person authority, and direct self-knowledge. Synthese (2021).

Download citation


  • First-person authority
  • Self-ascriptions
  • Self-knowledge
  • Parataxis
  • Expressivism
  • Constitutivism