Extending the Transparency Method beyond Belief: a Solution to the Generality Problem


According to the Transparency Method (TM), one can know whether one believes that P by attending to a question about the world—namely, ‘Is P true?’ On this view, one can know, for instance, whether one believes that Socrates was a Greek philosopher by attending to the question ‘Was Socrates a Greek philosopher?’ While many think that TM can account for the self-knowledge we can have of such a belief—and belief in general—fewer think that TM can be generalised to account for the self-knowledge we can have of other propositional attitudes, such as our desires, intentions, wishes and so on. Call this the Generality Problem. In the present paper, I contrast my own attempt to solve the Generality Problem with several recent ones. I argue that in order to extend TM beyond belief, we must look to the concepts underpinning each kind of mental state. Doing so, I argue, reveals a series of outward-directed questions that can be attended to, in order to know what one desires, intends, wishes and so on. Call this the conceptual approach to extending TM. I support the conceptual approach in the present paper by showing how it generates Moore-Paradoxical sentences that are analogous to the case of belief.

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  1. 1.

    Proponents of the inner sense view include Lycan (1996), Armstrong (1968), Nichols and Stich (2003) and Goldman (2006). According to this view, we acquire self-knowledge of our mental states by looking inside, or by employing our own ‘internal monitor’, as Lycan (1996, p. 33) puts it. For a discussion of some of the most recent objections to the inner sense view, see Byrne (2018, Ch. 2). While Byrne does not think that any of these objections present a ‘knock-down refutation’ (2018, p. 49) of the view, he does think that there are ‘grounds for dissatisfaction [and that it] is time to examine some leading alternatives’ (2018, p. 49).

  2. 2.

    Another rival view to the inner sense view is called neo-expressivism. It is defended by Bar-On (2004) and Finkelstein (2003). According to this view, we do not detect our mental states, but rather express them. I will not consider this view in this paper.

  3. 3.

    Gordon, alternatively, calls this the ‘belief only’ (2007, p.155) objection.

  4. 4.

    Like Byrne (2018), I also think that TM can be extended to sensations. In this paper, however, I am only concerned with showing how TM can be applied to propositional attitudes.

  5. 5.

    In contrasting ‘inward-directed’ questions with ‘outward-directed’ questions, I am following Cassam (2014, p. 3), Moran (2004, p. 457) and Finkelstein (2003, p. 161).

  6. 6.

    Moran also attributes this negative thesis to TM when he says that the view does not involve ‘an “inward” glance or… observation of one’s own behaviour’ (2001, p. 101). Not all philosophers attribute this negative thesis to TM, however. Silins (2012), for example, says, ‘it remains perfectly possible that we obtain self-knowledge through inner observation and the transparency method at the same time’ (2012, p. 305). In my view, Silins’ ‘compatibilism’, which entails a rejection of the negative thesis, is in tension with TM’s positive claim. This is a point I do not have the space to argue for in this paper, however.

  7. 7.

    For an account of how TM is applicable to belief, see Moran (2001), Fernández (2013) and Byrne (2005, 2018).

  8. 8.

    Another reason to accept TM, some have argued, is that is captures the phenomenology of self-attributing a belief. See Valaris (2014) for a defence of this claim.

  9. 9.

    Moore’s Paradox is named after the English philosopher G.E. Moore. As Green and Williams (2007, p. 5) point out, Moore is careful to distinguish between paradox and absurdity. Moore claims it would be absurd for a speaker to utter a MP sentence; and it is paradoxical that such an absurd sentence is not contradictory. The following MP sentence is an example that Moore himself provides: ‘I went to the pictures last Tuesday, but I don’t believe I did’ (1942, p. 543).

  10. 10.

    Following Cassam (2010), I understand judgements to be conscious mental actions, which are related to beliefs, which are typically more stable, longstanding, mental states. Cassam would disagree, however, that judgement and belief go together with the kind of congruity I am proposing here. Such a discussion is beyond the scope of this paper, however, which is after all not a thorough assessment of whether TM is a successful method for self-knowledge of belief, but instead an attempt to apply it to other propositional attitudes.

  11. 11.

    It would also be absurd for someone to judge that P is the case and claim that they have no beliefs either way about P. Consider someone who were to avow the following: ‘I judge that Nouméa is the capital city of New Caledonia, but I neither believe it or disbelieve it’.

  12. 12.

    See Schwitzgebel (2010) for a discussion about how to classify cases where there is an apparent mismatch between what a person believes and what they occurrently judge to be the case.

  13. 13.

    For a recent critique of Byrne’s approach, see Boyle (2019, pp. 1019–1024).

  14. 14.

    It is interesting to compare Carruthers’ criticism of TM: that it is only applicable to sensory-based beliefs, with Dorit Bar-On’s criticism of TM: that there is no way to extend TM to sensory-based beliefs (see 2004, p. 118). These distinct criticisms illustrate how differently TM has been represented in the literature.

  15. 15.

    I will only be concerned with how we know our occurrent conscious desires. As Krista Lawlor points out, we sometimes become aware of our unconscious desires by ‘inference’ (2009, p. 49), e.g. by testimony or therapy. This method of achieving self-knowledge of our desires would not conform to TM. This shows that TM is not the only way one can know what one desires.

  16. 16.

    In what follows, I consider the terms ‘desire’ and ‘want’ to be analogous.

  17. 17.

    It has been pointed out to me that some people use the term ‘believable’ differently to the way that I do here. Some use the term to refer to the upper threshold of epistemic possibility. For example, one might say ‘It’s not believable that the LA Kings will win the Stanley Cup’ to mean that it is very unlikely the LA Kings will win. Given this interpretation, the sentence ‘It’s not believable that the LA Kings will win the Stanley Cup, but I believe they will’ does not sound very Moore-Paradoxical. This is because there is a significant gap between finding something believable, in this epistemic threshold sense, and actually believing it. This would, therefore, not make it a good guide for determining what one believed. If we were to interpret DES in this same way, such that ‘desirable’ referred to an objective threshold of what is typically desired by people, then DES would be rendered even more implausible than I have suggested. This is because the connection between what one desires and what one deems desirable (in this objective threshold sense) is not a very congruous one. For example, a smoker may deem it ‘undesirable’ in this sense to have a cigarette, yet still have a desire for one.

  18. 18.

    I use these two forms to distinguish between desires which bring about actions (‘ϕ’); versus those that are about states of affairs (‘P’).

  19. 19.

    It may be objected that we often imagine things will bring us pleasure or satisfaction, and yet do not want to do them. For example, there may be three movies showing simultaneous at a cinema complex: Jaws, Alien and Scarface—all movies I think I would enjoy. Suppose I can only see one and come to pick Jaws. I would not say after making this choice that I lack a desire to see Alien or Scarface. I would say that I still believe that both would bring me pleasure or satisfaction, and so I think I have a desire to see both. However, since I believe that Jaws would be more pleasurable (or enjoyable) than the two other movies I decide to see it—and may even say that I do not want to see Alien or Scarface. It is important to note that the sense of ‘want’ in this context should be understood as shorthand for preference and should not be construed as denoting a lack of a desire to see Alien or Scarface.

  20. 20.

    See also Bilgrami (2006), who discusses the connection between intention and commitment.

  21. 21.

    As in the case of belief and desire, the conceptual approach should not be understood as an infallible guide to intention.

  22. 22.

    The English subjunctive can, of course, be used in various other forms. Consider Adam’s (Adams 1970, p. 92) famous example, ‘if Oswald hadn’t shot Kennedy, someone else would have’. This sentence suggests that the speaker believes that Oswald did kill Kennedy and that Kennedy would have been shot by someone else, if Oswald did not do it.

  23. 23.

    I thank an anonymous peer reviewer for suggesting this problem to me.


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Earlier versions of this paper were presented to audiences at the Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference in Adelaide in 2017 and to the Philosophy Society at the University of Western Australia in 2018. I thank everyone who took part in those enlightening discussions. I would like to thank Miri Albahari, Nin Kirkham, Daniel Stoljar, Alex Byrne, André Gallois, Sean Ramsey and Harriet Levenston for feedback and advice on earlier versions of the paper. I also would like to thank an anonymous referee of this journal for the insightful comments.

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Andreotta, A.J. Extending the Transparency Method beyond Belief: a Solution to the Generality Problem. Acta Anal (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12136-020-00447-9

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  • Self-knowledge
  • Transparency
  • Introspection
  • Belief
  • Desire
  • Intention