Brie Gertler

 Self-Knowledge (2011). In Routledge’s New Problems in Philosophy series.  A detailed outline of the book is here.


Arguing About the Mind (2007), co-edited with Lawrence Shapiro. Routledge.


Privileged Access: Philosophical Accounts of Self-Knowledge (2003), editor. In Ashgate’s Epistemology and Mind Series. Includes new papers by Murat Aydede, Dorit Bar-On and Douglas Long, José Luis Bermúdez, Fred Dretske, Joseph Levine, William Lycan, Charles Siewert, Ernest Sosa, and me; reprints 6 seminal articles on self-knowledge. Here is the Introduction. Here is an online review.


According to an influential view that I call agentialism, our capacity to believe and intend directly on the basis of reasons—our rational agency—has a normative significance that distinguishes it from other kinds of agency. Agentialists maintain that insofar as we exercise rational agency, we bear a special kind of responsibility for our beliefs and intentions, and those attitudes are truly our own. In this paper I challenge these agentialist claims. My argument centers on a case in which a thinker struggles to align her belief to her reasons, and succeeds only by resorting to non-rational methods. I argue that she is responsible for the attitude generated by this struggle; that this process expresses her capacities for rationality and agency; and that the belief she eventually arrives at is truly her own. So rational agency is not distinctive in the ways that agentialists contend.

This chapter concerns self-knowledge of our mental states, with a focus on how we know our own beliefs and intentions. It examines the agentialist approach to self-knowledge, which is driven by the idea that believing or intending on the basis of reasons is something that we do, and hence involves agency. Agentialists maintain that, because beliefs and intentions are exercises of agency, self-knowledge of these attitudes differs fundamentally from self-knowledge of states that we simply undergo, such as sensations. Specifically, agentialists claim that self-knowledge of our attitudes is linked with our identity as rational thinkers, capable of believing and intending on the basis of reasons. This chapter outlines the agentialist approach to self-knowledge, and canvasses and assesses a range of agentialist accounts of how we know our own beliefs and intentions.

A primary goal of this chapter is to correct a widespread misunderstanding about how epistemic issues shape the debate between dualists and physicalists. According to a familiar picture, dualism is motivated by armchair reflection, and dualists accord special significance to our ways of conceptualizing consciousness and the physical. In contrast, physicalists favor empirical data over armchair reflection, and physicalism is a relatively straightforward extension of scientific theorizing. This familiar picture is inaccurate. Both dualist and physicalist arguments employ a combination of empirical data and armchair reflection; both rely on considerations stemming from how we conceptualize certain phenomena; and both aim to establish views that are compatible with scientific results but go well beyond the deliverances of empirical science. My discussion highlights these neglected epistemic parallels between dualism and physicalism, and reveals the fine-grained epistemic commitments that motivate dualism and physicalism, respectively.

Some physicalists (Balog 2012, Howell 2013), and most dualists, endorse the acquaintance response to the Knowledge Argument. This is the claim that Mary gains substantial new knowledge, upon leaving the room, because phenomenal knowledge requires direct acquaintance with phenomenal properties. The acquaintance response is an especially promising way to make sense of the Mary case. I argue that it casts doubt on two claims often made on behalf of physicalism, regarding parsimony and mental causation. I show that those who endorse the acquaintance response face special obstacles to invoking parsimony in an argument for physicalism. And I show how acknowledging the phenomenon of acquaintance can ease the dualist’s problems with mental causation, by dispelling three key objections to epiphenomenalism. The most challenging of these objections is that epiphenomenalism blocks an evolutionary explanation of the so-called “hedonic/utility match”. I propose that pleasures and pains, while themselves epiphenomenal, can nonetheless explain positive and negative associations with stimuli, associations that can contribute to fitness.

How do we know our own beliefs, intentions, and other attitudes? According to empiricism, such self-knowledge is based in empirical justification or warrant. Agentialists charge that empiricism portrays us as mere observers of a passing cognitive show, and thereby neglects the fact that believing and intending are things we do, for reasons. They maintain that our capacity for self-knowledge derives from our rational agency—our ability to conform our attitudes to our reasons, and to commit ourselves to those attitudes through avowals (Burge 1996; Moran 2001; Bilgrami 2006; Boyle 2009). This paper has two goals. The first is clarificatory: to identify agentialism’s defining thesis and precisely formulate the agentialist challenge to empiricism. The second goal is to defend empiricism from the agentialist challenge. I propose that the phenomena the agentialist associates with believing and intending are, in fact, features of agency more generally. These features are present when a subject’s reasons for acting can issue in action directly. My proposal is compatible with empiricism about self-knowledge. So empiricism can do justice to the idea that believing and intending are exercises of rational agency.

With this provocative book, Cassam aims to reorient the philosophical study of self-knowledge so as to bring its methodology and subject matter into line with recognizably human concerns. He pursues this reorientation on two fronts. He proposes replacing what he sees as the field’s standard subject, an ideally rational being he calls Homo Philosophicus, with a realistic version of Homo Sapiens. And he proposes shifting the field’s primary focus from “narrow epistemological concerns” to issues reflecting “what matters to humans”, such as knowledge of one’s own character and the moral significance of self-knowledge. Cassam also contributes to this field, advancing his own accounts of self-knowledge’s epistemology and value. A particular virtue of the book is its unwavering insistence that philosophical views about self-knowledge must be judged by their fidelity to what self-knowledge actually is, namely, an untidy phenomenon in the lives of cognitively limited creatures. Cassam’s realist outlook is sensible and refreshing, and his effort to bring philosophical attention to neglected issues about self-knowledge is commendable. But I have reservations about the book’s framing conceits: that taking seriously how humans actually think amounts to a “radical reorientation of the philosophy of self-knowledge”, and that the choice to focus one’s theorizing about self-knowledge on epistemological issues is indefensible.

Feldman and Conee (2001) observed that the term “internalism”, as used in epistemology, is ambiguous. It sometimes denotes the view that justification supervenes on factors within the thinker (“mentalism”), whereas at other times it refers to the view that justification is accessible to the thinker (“accessibilism”). As used in the debate about mental content, “internalism” corresponds to mentalism. Strikingly, however, it is the question of accessibilism that is the target of many internalist and externalist arguments. In this paper I argue that the focus on thinkers’ access to their thoughts is misplaced. The debate between externalism and internalism hinges on the significance of external factors for rational relations between first-order thoughts, not on issues of accessibility. The shift away from issues of accessibility neutralizes both the “incompatibility” objection to externalism and the charge that internalism overestimates first-person access. The revised understanding of the debate supports a broadly Fregean approach to individuating cognitive values. I develop a version of this approach and defend it from a prominent externalist objection. Since this approach individuates cognitive values narrowly, my argument ultimately supports internalism.

The debate between internalists and externalists about mental content has proven exceptionally intractable; there is little agreement even on the implications of each of these positions. The culprit, I think, is an ambiguity in the terms “externalism” and “internalism”, which they inherit from an ambiguity in the notion of “intrinsic to the thinker” that defines these positions. I argue that this ambiguity is ineliminable. Any way of explicating “intrinsic to the thinker” will clash with the usual taxonomy of leading externalist and internalist views, or construe these positions as involving commitments that are standardly regarded as orthogonal to them—and, in some cases, explicitly rejected by their most prominent exponents. The moral is stark. The sense that there is a substantive, defining commitment of externalism or internalism—even one that is vague or underspecified—is illusory. There is no univocal thesis of externalism or internalism.

I elaborate and defend a set of metaphysical and epistemic claims that constitute what I call the acquaintance approach to introspective knowledge of the phenomenal qualities of experience. The hallmark of this approach is the thesis that, in some introspective judgments about experience, (phenomenal) reality intersects with the epistemic, that is, with the subject’s grasp of that reality. This thesis—or something close to it—is implied by the claim that we sometimes grasp our experiences directly, by using an experience’s defining phenomenal quality to form an epistemically substantive conception of the experience itself. I am especially concerned to correct a mistaken conception of acquaintance accounts as epistemically ambitious, by showing that the epistemic commitments of the acquaintance approach are in fact relatively modest.

My remarks focus on Kriegel’s “awareness thesis”, which underpins his self-representationalist theory of consciousness. The awareness thesis is that phenomenally conscious states are states the subject is aware of.  I elucidate Kriegel’s case for this thesis, and argue that this case doesn’t rule out an alternative, less radical picture of the relation between consciousness and awareness.  Self-representationalism’s central benefits can be secured without embracing the awareness thesis.

Several contemporary philosophers have argued that one can discover whether one believes that p simply by considering whether p; moreover, they claim, use of this “transparency” method explains our privileged access to our beliefs (Byrne, Fernández, Moran). In this paper, I argue against that claim. Use of the transparency method does not yield knowledge of either explicit or implicit dispositional beliefs. And while the self-attributions of occurrent beliefs generated by the transparency method may qualify as knowledge, the possibility that the use of the method generates new beliefs (rather than revealing existing beliefs) means that the availability of that method does not explain our privileged access to our occurrent beliefs.

Stoljar rejects dualism, but defends the use of conceivability arguments. He argues that the appeal of dualism stems from our ignorance about the physical, an ignorance that taints our use of conceivability tests. Stoljar’s central purpose in the book is to show that it is this type of ignorance, and not some other factor, that is principally responsible for the appeal of dualism. The bulk of his arguments target materialists’ competing diagnoses of dualism’s allure. In this study, I sketch Stoljar’s case against rival accounts of how dualist arguments fail. But most of my critical remarks concern his arguments against dualism. For I think the sort of ignorance that Stoljar rightly attributes to us may threaten materialism at least as much as it threatens dualism. Much of this study is devoted to substantiating that claim.

Many philosophers accept the following triad of views. (A) Externalism about mental content; (B) internalism about the self; (C) an epistemic conception of the boundary of the self. I argue that this triad, though not incoherent, is unstable. Since we ordinarily delineate the self in epistemic terms, (C) is highly plausible. So we should either reject externalism about mental content (that is, (A)) or allow that the mind extends into the world (and thus reject (B)).

I defend (modified versions of) the more controversial elements of Clark and Chalmers’ argument for the “extended mind” thesis, including the parity principle and the claim that Otto’s notebook records play a role relevantly similar to that played by information stored organically. But, I argue, the extended mind thesis has worrisome consequences. On my diagnosis, the culprit is a widely accepted implicit premise of their argument, namely, that dispositional beliefs are mental states. The true moral of Clark and Chalmers’ argument is that the mind is much narrower than we ordinarily believe: it is constituted exclusively by occurrent attitudes and experiences.

  • “In Defense of Mind-Body Dualism”. (2007) In Reason and Responsibility, 13th edition. Feinberg and Shafer-Landau, eds. (Wadsworth).

Reprinted (2014) in Timmons and Shoemaker, eds., Knowledge, Nature, and Norms, 2nd edition. (Wadsworth).

Reprinted (2011) in Alter and Howell, eds., Consciousness and the Mind Body Problem: A Reader. (Oxford University Press).

  • “Tienson’s Challenge to Content Externalism”. (2007) The Southern Journal of Philosophy (Spindel Conference 2006).
  • “Simulation Theory on Conceptual Grounds”. (2004) Protosociology 20.
  • “Functionalism’s Methodological Predicament”. (2000) The Southern Journal of Philosophy 38: 77-94.

Book Reviews