Self-Knowledge without Introspection

I just read a paper by Bob Gordon entitled “Simulation Without Introspection or Inference from Me to You” (in Mental Simulation, ed. M. Davies and T. Stone, Blackwell, 1996).  Bob argues that introspection (looking inside your mind/perceiving your mental states/observing the qualitative aspect of your mental states) is unnecessary for mental state attributions to oneself (and to others).  All you need is “ascent routines” (an idea indebted to Gareth Evans).  Here is how the ascent routine for belief self-attribution works: consider whether P, and if so, then conclude that you believe that P.  When considering whether someone else, “recenter your egocentric map” and proceed as in your own case, although your conclusion now apply to the other person.  Bob also suggests that introspection develops later than the attribution of mental states.  I find this compelling.

Here is another reason to believe Bob’s account:

Why should you need to introspect in order to ascribe to yourself mental states while no one thinks you need to introspect in order to act in a nonverbal way on those same mental states (or at any rate, on the mental causes of your behavior)?  You can seek water when you are thirsty (“want water”), seek food when hungry (“want food”), pick up a toy when you believe it’s in front of you, etc.  No need to introspect there.  But isn’t the attribution of mental states just another kind of behavior?  And if you can act on your thirst by seeking water without introspecting first, why wouldn’t you be able to act on your thirst, in appropriate circumstances, by saying “I’m thirsty” (which in many circumstances would actually qualify as water-seeking behavior, especially for helpless babies) without introspecting first?

Obviously there is a lot more to say here (including facing some objections), but I’ll stop here for now.



  1. This is an example of Gordon´s “ascent routine” procedure: a question about your mental states -Do you believe Micky Mouse has a tail?- is transformed in an outward looking question -Does Micky Mouse has a tail?

    Well, looking for an external criteria to scrutinize our mental states is good strategy to escape the troubles of introspection.

    But how we can escape the confusion of self/other distinctiveness.

    In neuropsychiatry, informed by the relevant literature on perception and action cycles, is suggested that some delusional signs of patients are formed by blurring the distintion of ones own mental states with that of others.

    If Gordon is right, he is not suggesting that we are blurring the self/other distinction to account for mental atributtion? or in other words, for a succesfull mental atributtion we have to be schizophrenic?

  2. gualtiero piccinini

    Good question.  No, he argues that the default routine attributes mental states to oneself.  For others, we can “recenter our egocentric maps”.  As far as I can tell, the egocentric maps are just neural representations of the world in egocentric space, and “recentering” is an operation by which people can actively reconfigure their egocentric maps around a representation of the person they want to attribute mental states to.  So depending on how the egocentric maps are configured, we attribute mental states to us or to others, and there is no confusion.  This suggests a possible explanation of schizofrenia:  the break-down of the ability to properly configure one’s egocentric maps.

  3. gualtiero piccinini

    Thanks for the question.  To clarify: Gordon is talking only about verbal attribution of mental states, as when we we say, “I believe it’s election day”, or “I want my country back”.

  4. Here’s another kind of self-knowledge without introspection: Judge that you’re forming a visual image of your mother at the same time you make it true that you are forming a visual image of your mother. Say that you’re the kind of person who will buy women flowers and at the same time or immediately thereafter successfully resolve to become the kind of person who buys women flowers.

    Introspection assumes that the target state causes the judgment about it. But there are also cases of self-knowledge where the target state and the judgment have a common cause or the judgment causes the target state.

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