On the Outside, Looking In: The Antithesis

Ishani Khemka
Monday 10 July 2023

The world around us is often perceived as a singular entity, a mass in the middle of a galaxy floating through space enabling us to experience the world around us. Yet is the earth and world as we know it experienced in the same way by the each of the 7.8 billion people that inhabit it? Or is it a result of an amalgamation of perspectives, a continuous work in progress shaded by experience, practice, culture, and economy? And what does it mean to harbour such knowledge of ourselves in accordance with the world? Disciplines like philosophy help us, and in some cases don’t help us, in pondering such questions in an attempt to find an answer. This article, however, will focus on how Paul Conlan attempted to understand a claim made by Gareth Evans in Evans’ book, “The Varieties of Reference,” regarding self-knowledge. Because every claim about the world, as small as it may be, can be dissected into a sum of infinite parts that intrigues those who study it.

Who is Gareth Evans?

Gareth Evans was a British philosopher best known for his book, “Varieties of Reference”, published in 1982, which remained unfinished due to his untimely death in 1980 but was completed and edited by another philosopher, John McDowell. The book focussed on the philosophy of language and tried to answer questions like: “What is reference?” and “How do words latch onto the world?” A particular claim made by Evans in his book has intrigued philosophers for decades, it goes as follows.

 [I]n making a self-ascription of belief, one’s eyes are, so to speak, or occasionally literally, directed outward—upon the world. If someone asks me “Do you think there is going to be a third world war?”, I must attend, in answering him, to precisely the same outward phenomena as I would attend to if I were answering the question “Will there be a third world war?” (Evans 1982: 225)

Often, we are under the impression that a prerequisite for self-knowledge is introspection. This is considered an accomplishment for individuals, as it differentiates between the inner world of thought and the outer world we perceive. Evans, on the other hand, suggests something different. Commonly known as the transparency method, he argues that we learn about (at least some) of our mental states not by looking in at ourselves, but by looking out at the world. In essence, self-knowledge doesn’t require introspection to ascertain the things that one does or does not believe, it requires looking at the external world to see what the case is.

Paul Conlan

Paul recently completed his PhD through the St Andrews/Stirling joint programme, publishing his thesis “I’m A Believer: Evans’ Transparency Remark and Self-Knowledge.” Currently, he works for the Centre of Energy Ethics (CEE) at St Andrews, for which he has organised various energy cafes and an interdisciplinary conference which ran from the 6th to the 8th of June.

Image courtesy: Paul Conlan

Paul’s Perspective

In his unpacking of Evans’ claim, Paul drew from works by Elizabeth Anscombe, Donald Davidson, Sebastian Rödl and other influential philosophers on the themes of self-knowledge and self-reference. Paul wanted to display that Evans’ statement falls under the minimalistic view of self-knowledge. He concludes that what Evans was trying to say through this statement is that self-knowledge amounts to nothing. While knowing things may be a cognitive achievement, self-knowledge is not an achievement, it is something that comes “for free” by virtue of us knowing about the world but is not derived from the world.  Paul describes this approach as radically anti-cartesian. Descartes believed that self-knowledge was special, a realm of facts different from facts about the world, where error and doubt about the contents of that realm were not possible. Paul’s interpretation of Evans shows that no such special realm exists, for if it did, self-knowledge would be a cognitive achievement

When asked whether this view influences his own way of looking at the world, Paul said, “I’ve been studying it for so long I’ve internalised this idea about self-knowledge. The lessons of this are so deeply ingrained within me and I can’t imagine what it would be like not to think this. Then again, I think that’s just true of all good philosophy, it’s good because you couldn’t think of anything else. I also do think a lot of people are wrong about self-knowledge, but maybe that’s just me.”

Paul believes that this topic of study sheds light on the philosophy of language and how we understand and interact with words. It also adds to ethical studies wherein one refers to themselves and suggests ways of thinking about the notion of ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’. Paul stated that this view is intimately related to the conceptualist worldview, wherein people believe that the world is inherently conceptually structured.

This is one of many ways in which questions surrounding the self can be asked. It is imperative that they are asked, to refine our use of langue, our use of self and to attempt to understand how our existence interacts with the world and builds upon it, if it does so at all.

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