Skip to main content

More than Just a Passing Cognitive Show: a Defence of Agentialism About Self-knowledge


This paper contributes to a debate that has arisen in the recent self-knowledge literature between agentialists and empiricists. According to agentialists, in order for one to know what one believes, desires, and intends, rational agency needs to be exercised in centrally significant cases. Empiricists disagree: while they acknowledge the importance of rationality in general, they maintain that when it comes to self-knowledge, empirical justification, or warrant, is always sufficient.

In what follows, I defend agentialism. I argue that if we could only come to know our judgement-sensitive attitudes in the way described by empiricism, then we would be self-estranged from them when we acquire knowledge of them. We would relate to our own attitudes as if we were watching the movies of our inner lives unfold. Given that this is not the position we typically inhabit, with respect to our judgement-sensitive attitudes, I conclude that empiricism fails. This is the self-estrangement argument against empiricism. I then consider a response that Brie Gertler, an empiricist, offers to the objection that empiricism fatally portrays us ‘mere observers of a passing cognitive show’ (2016, p. 1). I argue that her response is unsuccessful. Hence, we should endorse agentialism.

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


  1. 1.

    Gertler (2011a) has previously referred to this view as ‘rationalism’. In her more recent work, she has used the term ‘agentialism’ to describe this view because she claims that doing so allows us to distinguish between authors who invoke rationality in explaining self-knowledge, and yet do not claim that rationality makes an epistemic contribution to self-knowledge (she cites Shoemaker (1994) and Gallois (1996) as adherents to this view); and authors who do think rational agency makes an epistemic contribution to self-knowledge, such as Moran (2001, 2012) and Boyle (2009, 2011, 2019).

  2. 2.

    Sorgiovanni’s (2019) recent defence of agentialism, for example, proceeds by way of a defence of a particular agentialist method—namely, Burge’s (1996).

  3. 3.

    Sensory-based attitudes include, for example, a belief that one is seeing a blue sky, is in pain, or is hungry.

  4. 4.

    Dorit Bar-On (2004) thinks this is a problem for agentialism because it would mean that the agentialist would have to deny the uniformity assumption—the assumption that all privileged self-knowledge is achieved in the same way. One can respond to Bar-On, following Matthew Boyle (2009), by simply rejecting the uniformity assumption. This is the positon I adopt in this paper. I agree with Boyle that is it unclear why the assumption should be made in the first place.

  5. 5.

    The agentialist position rests upon the assumption that our judgement-sensitive attitudes are held on the basis of reasons. This does not necessarily mean for good reasons, an assumption that Cassam (2014)—mistakenly in my view—attributes to the agentialist position.

  6. 6.

    I grant that it can be sometimes hard to change our beliefs.

  7. 7.

    Lest I be misunderstood: I am not making the strong claim that we are never self-estranged from our judgement-sensitive attitudes.

  8. 8.

    Similar appeals to endorsement have been made by Moran, who thinks that without endorsement, a person’s self-attribution ‘may as well be about some other person’ (2001, p. 93). Lisa Bortolotti similarly thinks endorsement should be ‘measured in terms of the capacity for reason-giving’ (2009, p. 235).

  9. 9.

    The argument I am advancing does not take a stance upon several controversies that divide agentialists. Baron Reed (2010), for example, distinguishes between two main types of agentialist (referred to by Reed as ‘rationalist’) approaches: an outward approach, which he attributes to Akeel Bilgrami (2006), and an inward approach, which he attributes to Moran (2001) and Burge (1996). There are also, furthermore, important differences between Moran’s view and Burge’s.

  10. 10.

    See Moran (2012) for a critique of Byrne’s attempt to account for transparency without appealing to agency.

  11. 11.

    I say typically here because we need to allow that one can self-attribute an attitude and still be self-estranged from it. The IAT case is an example of this.

  12. 12.

    For a discussion about how to describe cases where a subject explicitly endorses P and behaves as if she believes not-P, see Albahari (2014).

  13. 13.

    I am not suggesting that all beliefs are judgements, however. This would be to ignore dispositional beliefs which can arises independently of any conscious judgement.

  14. 14.

    See Reed (2010) for a discussion about why endorsing P on the sole basis of one’s remembering that one once believed that P is problematic.

  15. 15.

    I have argued previously (Andreotta 2021) that this result illustrates how the transparency method can be applied to intentions.

  16. 16.

    This is not to say that mere reflection upon an attitude P will always be enough to change that attitude (Hieronymi 2014, p. 8).

  17. 17.

    See Sorgiovanni (2020) for a discussion about the role that memory plays in the agentialist’s explanation of self-knowledge.

  18. 18.

    I thank an anonymous peer reviewer for bringing this concern to my attention.

  19. 19.

    Moran articulates this point in the following passage, when describing the process of knowing what he intends to do: ‘My knowing what I will do next is not based on evidence or other reasons to believe something, so much as it is based on what I see as reasons to do something. Hence, a person’s statement of intention is not to be challenged by asking for his evidence’ (2001, p. 56).


  1. Albahari, M. (2014). Alief or belief? A Contextual Approach to Belief Ascription. Philosophical Studies, 167, 701–720.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Andreotta, A. J. (2021). Extending the Transparency Method beyond Belief: a Solution to the Generality Problem. Acta Analytica, 36, 191–212.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Armstrong, D. M. (1968). A materialist theory of the mind. Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Bar-On, D. (2004). Speaking my mind: Expression and self-knowledge. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bortolotti, L. (2009). Delusions and other irrational beliefs. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  7. Boyle, M. (2009). Two kinds of self-knowledge. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 78, 133–164.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Boyle, M. (2011). Transparent self-knowledge. Aristotelian Society Supplementary, 85, 223–241.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Boyle, M. (2019). Transparency and reflection. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 49, 1012–1039.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Bratman, M. ([1987] 1999) Intention, plans, and practical reason. CSLI Publications.

  11. Brownstein, M. (2018). The implicit mind: Cognitive architecture the self-and ethics. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  12. Burge, T. (1996). Our entitlement to self-knowledge. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 96, 91–116.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Byrne, A. (2005). Introspection. Philosophical Topics, 33, 79–104.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Byrne, A. (2018). Transparency and self-knowledge. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  15. Carruthers, P. (2011). The opacity of mind: An integrative theory of self-knowledge. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  16. Cassam, Q. (2014). Self-knowledge for humans. Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Coliva, A. (2012). One variety of self-knowledge: constitutivism as constructivism. In A. Coliva (Ed.), The self and self-knowledge. Oxford University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  18. Fernández, J. (2013). Transparent minds: A study of self-knowledge. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  19. Finkelstein, D. H. (2003). Expression and the inner. Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Flavell, J. H., & Wellman, H. M. (1977). Metamemory. In R. V. Kail Jr. & J. W. Hagen (Eds.), Perspective on the development of memory and cognition. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Gallois, A. (1996). The world without, the mind within: An essay on first-person authority. Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  22. Gertler, B. (2011a). Self-knowledge. Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Gertler, B. (2011). Self-knowledge and the transparency of belief. In A. Hatzimoysis (Ed.), Self-knowledge. Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Gertler, B. (2016). Self-knowledge and rational agency: A defense of empiricism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 95, 1–19.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Goldman, A. (2006). Simulating minds. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  26. Greenwald, A. G., Poehlman, T. A., Uhlmann, E., & Banaji, M. R. (2009). Understanding and using the Implicit Association Test: III Meta-analysis of predictive validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 17–41.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Hieronymi, P. (2014). Reflection and responsibility. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 42, 3–41.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Hinshelwood, A. (2013). The relations between agency, identification, and alienation. Philosophical Explorations, 16, 243–258.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Kind, A. (2003). Shoemaker, self-blindness, and Moore’s paradox. Philosophical Quarterly, 53, 39–48.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Korsgaard, C. M. (2009). ‘The activity of reason’, Proceedings and Addresses of the. American Philosophical Association, 83, 23–43.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Lycan, W. G. (1996). Consciousness and experience. MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  32. McGeer, V., & Pettit, P. (2002). The self-regulating mind. Language and Communication, 22, 281–299.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Moran, R. (2001). Authority and estrangement: An essay on self-knowledge. Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Moran, R. (2003). Responses to O’Brien and Shoemaker. European Journal of Philosophy, 11, 402–419.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Moran, R. (2012). Self-knowledge, “transparency”, and the forms of activity. In D. Smithies & D. Stoljar (Eds.), Introspection and consciousness. Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Nichols, S., & Stich, S. (2003). Mindreading: An integrated account of pretence, awareness, and understanding other minds. Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  37. Nosek, B. A., Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (2007). ‘The Implicit Association Test at age 7: a methodological and conceptual review. In J. A. Bargh (Ed.), Social psychology and the unconscious: the automaticity of higher mental processes (pp. 265–292). Psychology Press.

  38. Räikkä, J., & Smilansky, S. (2012). The ethics of alien attitudes. The Monist, 95, 511–532.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Reed, B. (2010). Self-knowledge and rationality. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 80, 164–181.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Scanlon, T. (1998). What we owe to each other. Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Schwitzgebel, E. (2012). Introspection, what? In D. Smithies & D. Stoljar (Eds.), Introspection and consciousness. Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Shah, N., & Velleman, J. D. (2005). Doxastic deliberation. The Philosophical Review, 114, 497–534.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Shoemaker, S. (1994). Self-knowledge and inner sense. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 54, 249–314.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Shoemaker, S. (1996). On knowing one’s own mind. The first-person perspective and other essays. Cambridge University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  45. Shoemaker, S. (2003). Moran on self-knowledge. European Journal of Philosophy, 11, 391–401.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Sorgiovanni, B. (2019). The agential point of view. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 100, 549–572.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Sorgiovanni, B. (2020). The role of memory in agential self-knowledge. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 50, 413–425.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Williams, B. (1973). Deciding to believe. Problems of the self: Philosophical papers 1956–1972. Cambridge University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

Download references


An early version of this paper was presented at a workshop on self-knowledge, held at Deakin University in December 2017, titled Self-Knowledge: Occurrent Trends and Issues. I am grateful for the helpful comments I received from Harriet Levenston, Ryan Cox, Jordi Fernández, and Michael Mitchell. I am also grateful to Harriet Levenston and Michael Rubin who read draft versions of the paper and offered helpful suggestions and criticisms. I would also like to thank Miri Albahari and Nin Kirkham, who supervised my PhD thesis on self-knowledge, from which this paper is a descendent of.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Adam J. Andreotta.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The author declares no competing interests.

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

Andreotta, A. More than Just a Passing Cognitive Show: a Defence of Agentialism About Self-knowledge. Acta Anal (2021).

Download citation


  • Self-knowledge
  • Introspection
  • Gertler
  • Rationalism
  • Agentialism
  • Empiricism