PHIL 2410: Know Thyself

[UConn Storrs]

We normally take ourselves to be in a privileged position to tell what state of mind we are at any given moment – whether we feel tired, have a headache, want a cup of tea, are nervous about tonight’s date, or are thinking about tomorrow’s exam; and so on. This kind of basic self-knowledge seems effortless by comparison to the knowledge we have of others’ mental states. It also seems much easier by comparison to the ‘lofty’ self-knowledge we may aspire to achieve through deep self-examination, or therapy. In our own case, we don’t appear to have any need to consult evidence, observe our own behavior, or engage in interpretation or analysis. At the same time, basic self-knowledge seems more secure than knowledge of others’ minds. When you say how you feel or what you’re thinking, you seem to be both more certain and much less open to challenge or correction than when you pronounce on the mental states of others. But why is that?

The effortless yet secure character of basic self-knowledge seems especially puzzling if we embrace the contemporary scientific perspective on ourselves. According to that perspective, human minds are an integral part of the natural world, nothing more than brains and central nervous systems, which appears to imply that the commonsense idea that we have privileged knowledge of our own states of mind is due to some kind of an illusion. After all, we are not presumed to be in a special position to know things about chemical processes in our stomachs; why should we be in such a position with respect to neural processes in our brains? Our aim in this course will be to understand the character of basic self-knowledge and the source of its privileged status from both a philosophical and a scientific point of view. We will first consider philosophical problems associated with self-knowledge, and then examine some answers proposed by both philosophers and scientists, assessing their merits and weaknesses.

Trouble registering? This class has a catalog-level pre-requisite of PHIL 1101/1102/1103/1104/1105/1106/1107. We can override this pre-requisite. If you are an Honors student, you may register by emailing and including (1) your name; (2) your 7-digit Student Admin number; (3) your registration “pick time”; (4) the course number and section (PHIL 2410-001); (5) the class number from Student Admin; and (6) confirmation that there are seats available in the course.