Thinking, Inner Speech, and Self-Awareness


This paper has two themes. One is the question of how to understand the relation between inner speech and knowledge of one’s own thoughts. My aim here is to probe and challenge the popular neo-Rylean suggestion that we know our own thoughts by ‘overhearing our own silent monologues’, and to sketch an alternative suggestion, inspired by Ryle’s lesser-known discussion of thinking as a ‘serial operation’. The second theme is the question whether, as Ryle apparently thought, we need two different accounts of the epistemology of thinking, corresponding to the distinction between thoughts with respect to which we are active vs passive. I suggest we should be skeptical about the assumption that there is a single distinction here. There are a number of interesting ways in which thinking can involve passivity, but they provide no support for a ‘bifurcationist’ approach to the epistemology of thinking.

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  1. 1.

    Langland-Hassan 2008; Byrne 2011; Cassam 2011.

  2. 2.

    Compare Carruthers’s statement ‘I can report that most of my thoughts occur in the form of imaged conversations’ (1996: 51) and O’Shaughnessy’s contention that ‘ideas and questions are continually entering one’s mind instantaneously and wordlessly’ (2000: 247).

  3. 3.

    Ryle suggests that we ‘learn to make this study of our own talk from first taking part in the public discussion of anyone’s talk’ (149: 176).

  4. 4.

    This may need to be qualified in light of Ryle’s remarks about the development of ‘aliveness’ (‘the boy who is just capable of working out a simple sum is probably not yet able to state precisely what he is doing (…).’ (1949: 172)). Still, the capacity for self-knowledge does seem to be part of a properly developed capacity for engaging in ‘serial operations’.

  5. 5.

    Ryle is very clear on this in his later writings on thinking. Compare this passage from ‘Thinking and Saying’: ‘Then is Thinking just talking to oneself? Or is it doing something Extra? Not the former, since Pythagoras might let his mind wander and just be reciting under his breath random and miscellaneous things like anecdotes, Spanish proverbs, lines from Shakespeare, jingles, and bits of the multiplication-table; and then he would not be thinking.’ (1972: 133)

  6. 6.

    ‘The assertive family is that class of actions in which a speaker undertakes a

    commitment to the truth of a proposition. Examples are conjectures, assertions, presuppositions, presumptions and guesses.’ (2013: 6)

  7. 7.

    See Vendler 1972 for illuminating discussion of the relation between the activity of thinking about something and the occurrence of what he calls mental acts, such as judging or guessing.

  8. 8.

    This is how Cassam 2011 formulates his neo-Rylean account.

  9. 9.

    Compare Stroud’s claim that ‘(i)t is because the agent has the intention he has, or because he is acting under that intention, that he knows that he is intentionally doing such-and-such, but that does not explain how he knows.’ (Stroud 2013: 8). Further recent discussions of the explanatory connection between intention and self-knowledge include Falvey 2000; Haddock 2011; Soteriou 2013; Roessler 2013a.

  10. 10.

    I think this point is partly responsible for the resistance some philosophers show to the idea of a close connection between thinking and inner speech. Compare Charles Travis’s claim that ‘one chooses what to say, not what to think.’ (quoted in Soteriou 2013: 245) and Zeno Vendler’s question ‘what would it be to want to think something (..)?’ (1972: 44). For illuminating discussion of these views, see Soteriou 2013, chapter 10.

  11. 11.

    It is often rightly said that the ‘openness of the progressive’ means that knowing that you are crossing the road is compatible with never getting to the other side of the road, and perhaps never even getting started. However, if you form the intention to cross the road in the face of compelling evidence that you won’t be able to do so (or perhaps even just despite not knowing that you will be able to do so), arguably you cannot be credited with ‘knowledge in intention’ that you are crossing the road. (See Roessler 2013a.)

  12. 12.

    According to some philosophers, that intention needs to be invoked in explaining the nature of assertion. See, for example, Williams 2002.

  13. 13.

    It might be said that to be able to express your view, you need to have prior, independent knowledge of what your view is (so that you may calculate what to do in order to express it). But this is surely implausible. As Jennifer Hornsby has remarked, ‘(v)oicing our thoughts is something that we are able to simply do.’ (2005: 120) Intentionally stating one’s view that p does not normally reflect an instrumental belief that by vocalizing in a certain way one will be able to state one’s view that p, any more than intentionally raising one’s arm reflects the belief that by flexing certain muscles one will be able to raise it. As a consequence, practical knowledge of expressing one’s view can help explain one’s knowledge that it’s one’s view that p. See Roessler (2015) for more detailed discussion and defence of this suggestion.

  14. 14.

    As indicated in the last section, this may sometimes be, more precisely, a matter of imagining performing a speech act, under certain self-imposed constraints. For simplicity, I’ll take that qualification as read.

  15. 15.

    See Frankfurt 1988. Discussions of the epistemology of thought that are substantially influenced by Frankfurt’s claim include Stephens and Graham 2000 and Cassam 2011.

  16. 16.

    John Campbell takes this view: ‘these reports by patients show that there is some structure in our ordinary notion of the ownership of a thought which we might not otherwise have suspected.’ (1999: 610)

  17. 17.

    Compare O’Shaughnessy: ‘We all know people who, as one might express it, ‘free-associate in public’, who ‘natter away’, uttering ‘the first thing that comes into their head’, and Molly Bloom’s monologue is nothing but a silent internal example of such. This phenomenon has interesting properties. To begin, it is a case of ‘talking to oneself’, and being talking cannot but be intentionally active. Now these particular intentions stand to one another in a rather special relation. (..) the connective tissue of these rapidly changing intentions is mere association and inclination. As one word‐project is approaching its termination, another is already welling up into place (..)’ (O’Shaughnessy 2000: 217)

  18. 18.

    See Campbell 2001 for illuminating discussion of the general distinction between top-down vs bottom-up approaches to the explanation of delusions.

  19. 19.

    Versions of this paper were presented at the ESPP meeting in Noto in 2014 and at the Society for Philosophical Analysis in Buenos Aires. For criticism and suggestions I’d like to thank Mario De Caro, Naomi Eilan, Thor Grünbaum, Diego Lawler, James Stazicker and Hong-Yu Wong. Special thanks to Sam Wilkinson for extremely helpful comments on the penultimate draft.


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Roessler, J. Thinking, Inner Speech, and Self-Awareness. Rev.Phil.Psych. 7, 541–557 (2016).

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  • Practical Knowledge
  • Serial Operation
  • Propositional Knowledge
  • Auditory Experience
  • Obsessive Thought