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Review of  New Essays on Semantic Externalism and Self-Knowledge

Reviewer: Anne Reboul
Book Title: New Essays on Semantic Externalism and Self-Knowledge
Book Author: Susana Nuccetelli
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 15.2586

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Date: Thu, 16 Sep 2004 15:00:13 +0200
From: Anne Reboul
Subject: New Essays on Semantic Externalism and Self-Knowledge

EDITOR: Nuccetelli, Susana
TITLE: New Essays on Semantic Externalism and Self-Knowledge
SERIES: Bradford Book
YEAR: 2003

Anne Reboul, Institute for Cognitive Sciences, CNRS, Lyon, France

This book could be seen as a companion to the collection of papers
recently published on Tyler Burge (see the review on the Linguist list:
issue 15.1691) and his own version of externalism. A short introduction
on externalism for non-philosophers may be warranted. Semantic
externalism is the position, first advocated by Putnam (1975),
according to which meanings are at least in part determined by states
of affairs in the world and thus are not purely mental and private.
This seems to lead to the conclusion that a subject could not have a
privileged access to his/her own thought, which contradicts a central
tenet in philosophy of mind. The book is dedicated to the examination
of this conflict between semantic externalism and privileged access. It
should be clear that this question has repercussion in linguistics,
notably in Gricean type pragmatics, where meaning is defined in
psychological terms. The discussion is thus of quite real importance
for all linguists who adopt a mentalistic view of language use and

The book opens with an Introduction by the editor, Nuccetelli. She
notes that ''the attempt to hold externalism concurrently with
privileged self-knowledge might face a reductio, since it might appear
that substantial propositions about one's environment could be known by
simple deduction from non-empirical premises'' (1). Nuccetelli presents
the opposition between internalism (all mental properties including
those with content are local in the sense that they preserve across
internal replicas) and externalism (some mental properties -- e.g.
those with content -- are not local in this sense). This can be reduced
to claims about supervenience (roughly, co-variation) either on
internal or external conditions. Externalism seems to be supported by
theories of direct reference. There is, however, a compatibility
problem between externalism and privileged and authoritative access,
which can be seen from two perspectives: either externalism or
privileged and authoritative access should be abandoned. The
compatibility problem stems from a potential reductio (first proposed
by McKinsey) whose formulation could be: (1) I am thinking that water
is wet; (2) if I am thinking that water is wet, then some empirical
condition obtains (from externalism, which can be argued for from
thought experiments, i.e., a priori); (3) therefore, some empirical
condition obtains. In other words, if externalism and privileged access
are correct, a priori empirical knowledge should be possible.
Nuccetelli then presents the contents of the chapters.

The first chapter, by Martin Davies, deals with ''The problem of
armchair knowledge''. He begins by recalling the McKinsey argument
showing the incompatibility between externalism and privileged access
under its reductio form. He notes that if deduction from a priori known
premises to an empirical conclusion goes through, then indeed
inconsistency threatens. Thus ''externalist philosophical theory, when
taken together with a plausible claim about self-knowledge, gives rise
to an instance of what [Davies] call[s] the problem of armchair
knowledge'' (25). The problem lies in the transmission of evidential
support from the premises to the conclusion. Building on propositions
by Wright, Davies argues that epistemic warrant from premises to
conclusion is limited to those cases where the truth of the conclusion
is not a precondition of the warrantability of one premise. Such
problems, according to him, are relatively widespread and are related
to the issue of begging the question in that both hinge on the question
of background assumptions.

The second chapter, by Crispin Wright, is devoted to ''Some reflections
on the acquisition of warrant by inference''. Wright begins with a
distinction between transmission of warrant and closure of warrant
(across entailment). Closure is weaker, depending merely on the fact
that the existence of warrant for premises ensures the existence of
warrant for the conclusion. Transmission, on the other hand, depends on
warrants for the premises giving warrant for the conclusion.
Transmission fails -- though closure does not -- in cases where warrant
for the premises depends on (antecedent) warrant for the conclusion
(begging the question). Non transmissible warrants may be connected
with the holism of empirical confirmation: in such cases, there is
information-dependence of warrant. This may occur for inferential
warrants. Another type of cases has to do with non-inferential warrants
acting as preconditions for cognitive activities such as perception,
memory or self- knowledge. This seems to be the kind of failure of
transmission, which occurs in McKinsey cases. However, operational
necessity, in such cases, entitles the subject to believe a priori that
the relevant defeaters do not obtain, thus allowing both semantic
externalism and authoritative self-knowledge.

Brian McLaughlin writes the next chapter, on ''McKinsey's challenge,
warrant transmission, and skepticism''. He begins by noting that given
the closure principle, the issue is ''whether it is possible to know a
priori a contingent environmental proposition'' (80), where a contingent
environmental proposition a priori entails the existence of the
external world. McKinsey's incompatibilism would go through if there
was any ''reason to believe that we can't know a priori that the
external world exists'' (80). By contrast, some compatibilists claim
that privileged self- knowledge and a priori mental externalism can
refute some kinds of skeptical hypotheses. McLaughlin then notes that
neither Wright's nor Davies' argument (see above) shows ''that no
compatibilist argument could be one in which warrant transmits'' (88).
McLaughlin distinguishes two notions of a priority: a weak notion in
which a belief is a priori if it warranted but not on the basis of
empirical evidence; a strong notion in which a belief is a priori if it
is warranted but not on the basis of empirical evidence and if it is
empirically indefeasible in the sense that it cannot be rebutted by
empirical evidence. The same distinction applies to privileged access
to mental states, yielding four possibilities for a given mental state:
weakly privileged, weakly a priori external; weakly privileged,
strongly a priori external: strongly privileged, weakly a priori
external, strongly privileged, strongly a priori external. The three
first possibilities would involve a failure of warrant transmission,
though the fourth would not. However, such a case is considered as
implausible by McLaughlin.

The fourth paper is by Michael McKinsey and deals with ''Transmission of
warrant and closure of apriority''. He begins by rehearsing his
incompatibilist argument. This leads him to the conclusion that either
semantic externalism or privileged access is false. However, it seems
that semantic externalism is true given ''semantic facts about cognitive
predicates that contain small-scope proper names and indexical
pronouns'' (99). Thus, privileged access should be restricted to
logically narrow properties. McKinsey then turns to the problem of
transmission of warrant. He agrees that there is a failure of
transmission in his argument but insists that closure is sufficient to
the validity of the argument and that warrant is not necessary. He
notes that closure will apply similarly in strong and weak apriority
arguments. However, he admits that there is a logical possibility that
some form of semantic externalism might be consistent with privileged
access. Yet, ''most forms of externalism imply that certain cognitive
premises have very strong empirical consequences'' (112) and they are
not subject to the closure objection. He concludes that ''[privileged
access] is false, and so there is simply no point in looking for forms
of externalism that are consistent with it'' (113).

''The reductio argument and transmission of warrant'', by Jessica Brown,
rejects failure of transmission of warrant in the reductio argument on
the grounds that Wright uses an internalist epistemology which is
incompatible with externalism. ''Thus, the concern that drives Wright to
his conditional analysis need not be shared by epistemological
externalists, for whom epistemic entitlement is partly a matter of the
subject's relations to her environment'' (121). What is more, Wright's
solution is as problematic as the reductio itself. ''It seems then that
we need to look for an answer to the reductio argument elsewhere''

Dretske devotes the sixth chapter to ''Externalism and self- knowledge''.
He begins by noting that metaphysical and epistemological doctrines in
philosophy are often difficult to reconcile and that in such cases,
''there is a temptation to trash the metaphysics in order to salvage the
epistemology'' (131). In the specific case of the compatibility between
externalism and privileged access, however, he would suggest ''to
reexamine (...) a suspect epistemology'' (131). Dretske begins by
reminding the reader that his externalism is not restricted to mental
content, but generalizes to all forms of representation. He then turns
to the sort of epistemology embodied in the current view of privileged
access, noting that it makes a wrong assumption: ''it assumes that
knowledge of what you think -- for instance, that there is water -- is
(or requires) knowledge that you think'' (133). Thus, ''if we think, we
can know -- in a privileged and authoritative way -- what we think.
What we can't know, at least not in the same authoritative way, is that
we are thinking it'' (136). Introspection is like perception in that it
gives us the content of our cognitive states, but not the fact that it
is content. Thus, ''perception is not an answer to the skeptic's problem
about other minds'' (138). Additionally, ''carrying information (...) is
not closed under (known) logical implication'' (140). Knowing that we
are thinking is not done through introspection, neither is it subject
to privileged and authoritative knowledge. Rather, it is learned by
human children through their parents and language plays a major role.
''Nonhuman animals never learn these things. This is exactly what one
would expect on an externalist theory of the mind'' (141).

Gary Ebbs then turns to ''A puzzle about doubt''. He begins by noting
that the standard view of the relevant thought experiments supposes
subjectively equivalent worlds such that a subject might never know,
without empirical investigation, which world she is in. However, Ebbs
argues, this is wrong because this analysis ''conflicts with the truism
that to express a thought, one must have some idea of what that thought
is'', which entails, on an externalist view, that one must know in which
world one is. On Ebbs' view, ''minimal self-knowledge is a practical
aspect of ordinary competence in the use of language, not a kind of
second-order propositional knowledge as many philosophers assume''
(147). Additionally, ''most philosophers assume that for a person to
entertain the thought that she is actually in one of her subjectively
equivalent worlds, she need only picture herself in it'' (150) in the
sense of adding to her present subjective experience a caption
referring to that world. Adopting this standard picture leads to a
puzzle as to what words refer to. To dissolve this puzzle, Ebbs
proposes that in fact we can know without empirical investigation which
world we are in. His first assumption is to the effect that ''it is
epistemically possible that p for a given person only if she can make
sense of its actually being the case that p'' (154). But for that, it is
not enough that she pictures herself in such a world: she must be able
to express that possibility and to do that she would have to suspend
all her substantive beliefs, which would deprive her language of its
semantics, preventing her from expressing the possibility. ''Statements
that we can't make sense of doubting in the sense described above are
among the statements that we properly take ourselves to know without
empirical investigation'' (162).

The editor of the book, Susana Nuccetelli signs the eighth chapter,
''Knowing that one knows what one is talking about''. She wants to ''argue
(...) that externalist claims about the dependence of content on
environmental factors presuppose certain theses about the semantics of
natural- kind terms that, if sound, would make those claims eligible
for empirical justification instead'' (169). She uses the example of
singular propositions, where a causal chain is involved linking the
(proper) name and its referent. This excludes Fregean senses. As for
natural-kind terms, though they do have senses, these fall short of
being Fregean. Just as singular terms may fail to have referents, so do
natural-kind terms (e.g. phlogiston). Thus, if semantic externalism is
correct, then the justification of belief about substantial entailments
from words and thoughts to the environment rests (at least in part), on
empirical investigation. This leads to an answer to incompatibilist
arguments: self-ascriptive beliefs about propositional attitude
contents could be a priori justified under the weak notion of apriority
(see above).

Anthony Brueckner deals in chapter 9 with ''Two transcendental arguments
concerning self-knowledge''. He begins by noting that ''what is needed
for a fully adequate reply to the skeptic about self-knowledge is an
explanation of how it is that I know that I am thinking a water
thought'' (186). He then turns to two transcendental arguments, one by
Moran and one by Bilgrami. They both reject infallibility and
transparency of self-knowledge, as well as the notion of an
introspective faculty. They both agree on the non-inferential and not
evidentially based character of self-knowledge. Bilgrami tries to show
that the notion that believing to be in a given mental state is enough
to guarantee that one is indeed in that mental state is a condition of
the possibility of responsible agency. Brueckner introduces here
Shoemaker's notion of a self- blind person, incapable of second order
beliefs and question whether such a person would be incapable of
responsible agency (entailing freedom, responsibility and
appropriateness of reactions). This leads him to the conclusion that
Bilgrami's argument fails. He then turns to Moran's. Moran
distinguishes ''between two points of view upon one's own intentional
mental states: the theoretical/empirical point of view and the
transcendent point of view'' (194). The first one is evidential (and
thus subject to a Moore's paradox), while the second is not, but is
based on actual states of affairs in the world (and thus not subject to
a Moore's paradox). A rational agent should adopt the transcendental
point of view, which is necessary for responsible action. This is
however false. Hence, again there could be a self-blind but nonetheless
responsible agent.

In chapter 10, Joseph Owens turns to ''Externalism, Davidson, and
knowledge of comparative content''. He examines Davidson's views on
externalism and self- knowledge, arguing that Davidson misunderstands
the incompatibilist arguments. Owens begins by a distinction between
physical externalism of the Putnam kind (P- externalism) and social
externalism of the Burge kind (B- externalism). One key issue here is
whether one should not only think that ''the twins merit different
psychological characterizations'' (202), but also ''assign different
psychological states to the twins'' (202). Davidson would accept the
first possibility, but not the second, thus qualifying as a linguistic
but not a metaphysical realist. He also rejects B-externalism as
incompatible with self- knowledge, while he accepts P-externalism as
compatible with self-knowledge, rejecting incompatibilist arguments on
the grounds that they rely on an introspective view of self-knowledge
as perception of inner mental objects. This, however, is mistaken in
Owens'view in that the mistake is not about the mechanisms but about
the nature of self- knowledge. The nature of self-knowledge is
(wrongly) taken to be that to know that I'm thinking a water thought, I
must be able to reject the possibility that I'm thinking a twater
thought. Davidson's rejection of B-externalism is based on the fact
that, given that, on B-externalism, public conventions determine
content, ''this makes content independent from intention'' (212), opening
the possibility that one would know what one is thinking or saying.
This conclusion is not, however, correct.

Kevin Falvey devotes the eleventh chapter to ''Memory and knowledge of
content'', turning to the second kind of incompatibility argument. He
begins by noting that our knowledge of our past mental states is not as
authoritative as knowledge of our present mental states. It may also be
more objective, though less direct. Thus, ''first-person authority
extends primarily over one's present-tense attributions of intentional
mental states'' (221). However, a more pressing question is to whether
one can still be authoritative about one's own thoughts if one is
radically out of touch with one's past mental states, through, for
instance, world switching. This is Boghossian's argument, ''directed
against Burge's idea that a central part of our notion of first-person
authority involves the self- verifying character of first person
attributions'' (221). This self-verifying property stems from the fact
that one cannot entertain a second-order judgment about a first order
thought without thinking that first-order thought. Boghossian's
argument rests on an equation between remembering and having once known
and not forgotten, an equation which Falvey contests. To show this,
Falvey introduces the notion of disjunctive kinds of stuffs, which
takes care of world switching. Thus, the right to rely on preservative
memory is not itself entirely free of empirical presuppositions.

In chapter 12, Sanford C. Goldberg asks ''What do you know when you know
your own thoughts?''. He wants both to acknowledge that there are valid
incompatibilist arguments and that semantic externalism is well
motivated. His view is that one should distinguish between two kinds of
self- knowledge. The first kind are first-person present-tense
judgments, or basic self-knowledge, and self-verifying. Goldberg then
turns to a variation on Boghossian's argument, noting that it relies on
the notion that world switching is accompanied by concept shifting in
the sense of a replacement. This however is unconvincing and indeed
implausible. Nevertheless, an adaptation of Boghossian's argument does
go through. However, this argument does not threaten compatibilism
between externalism and basic self- knowledge as this is not the kind
of self-knowledge involved in the Boghossian style argument. What is
more, such a distinction between two types of self-knowledge is
independently motivated.

Chapter 13, by Richard Fumerton, deals with ''Introspection and
internalism''. Fumerton begins by pointing out critics of externalism
use arguments which rely on half of Leibniz's law in a way strongly
reminiscent of the Cartesian dualist argument. After having outlined
various internalist and externalist commitments, Fumerton revisits the
incompatibilist argument. He supposes ''that the externalist will
concede that we know through introspection what we are thinking of in a
way in which we cannot know through introspection truths about the
causal origin of our internal states'' (270), a concession that,
according to him, is fatal to some externalist commitments.

Mathias Steup examines, in chapter 14, ''Two forms of antiskepticism''.
He goes back to the McKinsey's argument, noting that Sawyer and
Warfield have argued that there is no contradiction in spite of
appearances between semantic externalism and privileged and
authoritative access, which they take to be a basis for an
antiskeptical argument. Steup, though sympathetic with the attempts, is
however doubtful about the soundness of the arguments. According to
him, ''there is reason to think that, while it might be possible to gain
a priori knowledge of some very general propositions about the external
world, the premises of Warfield's argument are, in point of fact, not
knowable a priori'' (282). One point is that Warfield's argument falls
under failure of transmission of warrant, thus begging the question
against the skeptic. However, Steup thinks that an appeal to background
knowledge might do the trick: I know that I have a body and that there
is an external world because I can know that the skeptical alternative
is false through my background knowledge, which defeats it. Thus,
skeptical alternatives ''are defeated in the strong sense that their
negations are beyond a reasonable doubt'' (291).

This is an excellent book in which most papers are of very high
quality. Its relevance to linguists should be obvious. All the
linguists who think that, whatever ''the function'' of language is,
language can be used to describe reality presumably think that words
have extensions as well as intensions and may also think that, where
words refer to categories of objects in the world, e.g. natural kinds,
the extension of these words play a major role in their semantics. In
this, they are semantic externalists. They may also think however that
meaning should be described in psychological terms and that speakers
have privileged access to what they mean by a given utterance. Hence
the resolution, if any, of the conflict between semantic externalism
and privileged access is of special interest to at least some
linguists. Though I don't think that any specific paper in this
collection provides a complete and completely satisfying solution to
this problem, most of them make an interesting contribution. Of special
interest for linguistics are, in my opinion, Dretske's, Ebbs',
Nuccetelli's, Owens' and Steup's papers. Each of them contributes a
more or less important piece to what could be a solution to the puzzle.
They also happen to be perhaps more accessible to a non-philosopher
audience than are other papers in the collection, which though highly
sophisticated and fascinating for philosophers, tend to be more

Putnam, H. (1975) ''The meaning of 'meaning''', in Mind, Language and
Reality. Philosophical Papers, vol. 2, Cambridge, Cambridge University
Press, 215-271.

Hahn, M. & Ramberg, B. (2003),Reflections and replies. Essays on the
philosophy of Tyler Burge, Cambridge, MA.,The MIT Press.
Anne Reboul is a First Class Research Fellow at the French Center for
Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. She has a Ph.D. in Linguistics
(EHESS, Paris) and a Ph.D. in philosophy (University of Geneva,
Switzerland). She has written some books, among which an Encyclopaedic
Dictionary of Pragmatics and quite a few papers in French and English,
on pragmatics and/or philosophical subjects.

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