Immunity, thought insertion, and the first-person concept

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In this paper I aim to illuminate the significance of thought insertion for debates about the first-person concept. My starting point is the often-voiced contention that thought insertion might challenge the thesis that introspection-based self-ascriptions of psychological properties are immune to error through misidentification relative to the first-person concept. In the first part of the paper I explain what a thought insertion-based counterexample to this immunity thesis should be like. I then argue that various thought insertion-involving scenarios do not give rise to successful counterexamples to the immunity of the target class of self-ascriptions. In the second part of the paper I turn to defend a Metasemantic Explanation of why the immunity thesis holds. The Metasemantic Explanation rests on a reference-fixing story about the mental ‘I’ whose key contention is that introspective impressions play an essential role in fixing its reference. It is part of my argument in favour of the proposed reference-fixing story, as well as of the Metasemantic Explanation, that they respect the paradigmatic features of self-ascriptions of inserted thoughts.

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  • 20 April 2020

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  1. 1.

    A notable—yet partial—exception is Hu (2017), which will be used as a foil at various stages of my discussion. The exception is “partial” since Hu devotes only one page to the construction of a thought insertion-based counterexample to The Introspective Immunity Thesis and does not explicitly engage with the question of what features a thought insertion scenario should have in order to appropriately challenge The Introspective Immunity Thesis. Arguably, Hu’s main focus is to carefully discuss various cases of error through misidentification in order to come up with a more precise definition of the phenomenon.

  2. 2.

    To forestall misunderstandings: I am not claiming that no attempt has been made to situate thought insertion within a more general account of introspection and psychological explanation; in fact that is the main project pursued in Campbell (1999). I am instead alerting the reader to the fact that those philosophers putting forward explanations of The Introspective Immunity Thesis have not paid enough attention to the question of whether or not certain features of thought insertion place constraints on an explanation of The Introspective Immunity Thesis. I will offer concrete examples below.

  3. 3.

    I refer the reader to Coliva (2006, 2018), García-Carpintero (2018), Hu (2017), McGlynn (2015), Palmira (2019) and Wright (2012a).

  4. 4.

    In agreement with the literature (see e.g. Coliva 2006; García-Carpintero 2018; Wright 2012a), I take these to be singular—as opposed to descriptive—concepts.

  5. 5.

    I use the expression “warrant” in the standard epistemological sense: epistemically warranted judgements have the distinctive value or quality of bearing a strong connection to the truth of the judged content. I will discuss different theories of warrant below.

  6. 6.

    This formulation captures, I believe, the core of the phenomenon without going through the rather complex characterisation offered by Pryor (1999). See García-Carpintero (2018), Hu (2017) and McGlynn (2015) for critical discussions of Pryor’s own formulation, and for other attempts at simplifying it.

  7. 7.

    For further discussion, see García-Carpintero (2018: 3320), McGlynn (2015: 41) and Pryor (1999: 284).

  8. 8.

    I shall henceforth use [] to refer to propositional contents of thoughts.

  9. 9.

    Some authors (e.g. de Vignemont 2012, Langland-Hassan 2015) maintain that thought insertion presents no counterexample to The Introspective Immunity Thesis since it merely shows the possibility of a false negative, as opposed to a false positive error. Since thought insertion-based counterexamples should be like (PARK), and since (PARK) is a genuine case of error through misidentification, this way of downplaying the significance of thought insertion is off target.

  10. 10.

    We’ll need (N2) since not all cases of thought insertion are such that the deluded subjects do ascribe authorship of thought to anyone in particular.

  11. 11.

    I use “impression” as synonymous with “experience” and “appearance”.

  12. 12.

    Note that both conservatism and liberalism enable Hu’s revised scenario to meet Preservation of Grounds. If we asked S to reconstruct their grounds for (N1) and (N2), it’d be really surprising to hear them citing their belief [thoughts have authors], for it’d be much more likely that they cite their introspective impressions only. This gives us reason to think that S’s grounds for (N1) and (N2) are introspective. However, if conservatism is true, S’s introspective impressions can afford S a warrant for (N1) and (N2) only if S is entitled to trust the background presupposition [thoughts have authors].

  13. 13.

    Wright (2014) tentatively recants his early take on the transmission failure; yet it’s unclear whether the view he ends up with really coheres with conservatism as is presented in Wright (2004, 2007, 2012b). So, I will stick to the original version of conservatism.

  14. 14.

    Two clarifications are needed. First, one might observe that (ii) is more controversial than (II). However, I grant (ii) for the sake of argument. Secondly, one might observe that in order for S to have a warrant for (III), S must be introspectively aware of T. From this fact, one might derive that introspective impressions do contribute, together with S’s entitlement, to warranting (III). Surely without accessing T, S couldn’t have any warrant for (iii), but this doesn’t show that S’s introspective access to T also warrants (iii). Rather, the conservative theorist will maintain that S’s introspective access to T is a merely enabling, as opposed to warranting (or justifying), condition for S to be warranted—by default and by default only!—to trust (iii). I thank an anonymous referee for this journal for urging me to clarify both points.

  15. 15.

    In fact, the situation is worse than that, for a transmission-failure problem arises even if we adopt Coliva’s (2015) moderate view of perceptual warrant, which is a genuine alternative to both liberalism and conservatism. On Coliva’s view, in order to be perceptually warranted to believe that p, it’s enough to have a certain course of experience with content p together with the assumption of a background presupposition such as there is an external world, absent defeaters. On such a view, the warrant for [here is a hand] is also bound to fail to transmit to the background presupposition [there is an external world]. The same holds, mutatis mutandis, for a moderate account of introspective warrant. This spells further trouble for the theoretical neutrality of Hu’s scenario.

  16. 16.

    In what follows I expand on some remarks made by García-Carpintero (2017: 254–255).

  17. 17.

    An anonymous referee pointed out that the foregoing discussion has been running two distinct questions together. The questions are: “Do self-ascriptions of inserted thoughts involve an error through misidentification?”; “Do self-ascriptions of inserted thoughts falsify The Introspective Immunity Thesis?”. While I agree that these are two distinct questions, I believe that this is a distinction without a difference for the purposes of this paper. If the arguments of this section are sound, (N1) and (N2) involve an error through misidentification only if liberalism is true, and this should lead us to revoke the status of counterexample to Hu’s scenario. So, one could answer the former question in the affirmative while, at the same time, answering the latter question in the negative. However, given that one of the two aims of this paper is precisely to establish whether The Introspective Immunity Thesis is falsified by self-ascriptions of inserted thoughts, claiming that (N1) and (N2) involve an error through misidentification provided that liberalism is true wouldn’t make any difference as to the question of whether The Introspective Immunity Thesis is falsified; the only claim that would be falsified is The Introspective Immunity Thesis + liberalism. But, again, that’s not the target of this paper, nor—arguably—is the target of the whole immunity debate.

  18. 18.

    See Wright (2012a) for a deflationary account and Recanati (2007, 2012) for a content-based account of immunity. See García-Carpintero (2018) and McGlynn (2015) for criticism of the former, and García-Carpintero (2018), McGlynn (2015) and Wright (2012a) for criticism of the latter.

  19. 19.

    Some examples: García-Carpintero (2018) and Hu (2017) maintain that thought insertion presents a counterexample to The Introspective Immunity Thesis, but in the first part of the paper I have argued against this. Peacocke (2014) seems to think that the standard formulation of the token-reflexive rule for ‘I’ will be enough to produce a Metasemantic Explanation of The Introspective Immunity Thesis; yet, as I will argue below, the standard formulation of the token-reflexive rule suffers from two neglected indeterminacy problems which make it unsuitable to account for The Introspective Immunity Thesis. Since, as I will demonstrate below, one of the indeterminacy problems stems from the possibility of distinguishing between thinkers-qua-authors and thinkers-qua-recipients deployed by Campbell to describe the phenomenon of thought insertion, this gives us further reason to think that thought insertion is relevant the project of capturing the pattern of reference of the first-person concept.

  20. 20.

    See, among others, Campbell (1994), García-Carpintero (2018), O’Brien (2007) and Peacocke (2014).

  21. 21.

    García-Carpintero (2018) also claims that introspection is crucial for fixing the reference of ‘I’.

  22. 22.

    I shall follow Gertler (2012)’s insightful presentation of acquaintance views. However, other philosophers, e.g. Chalmers (2003), Horgan and Kriegel (2007), have argued for similar points. I should also note that some of the authors discussing The Introspective Immunity Thesis favourably look at the constitution thesis under scrutiny: García-Carpintero (2018) endorses the acquaintance-based development of it offered by Gertler, whereas Peacocke (2014), Shoemaker (1994) and Wright (1987) subscribe to the constitution claim in the context of different theories of self-knowledge. This, to my mind, shows that assumption (3) does not beg the question against many participants to the immunity debate.

  23. 23.

    For present purposes it does not make a difference whether it is a phenomenal property or a phenomenal state which gets introspected. Henceforth I will ignore this distinction.

  24. 24.

    Even if we accept the thesis that having a phenomenally conscious state entails being aware of it, this might still not suffice for mentally demonstrating the mental state in question. Since one may be pre-reflectively or peripherally aware of one’s conscious mental state without thereby attending to it (see Kriegel 2009: Ch. 5) and since, plausibly, attention plays a key role in fixing the reference of demonstratives (see Campbell 2002), simple awareness of a thought may not suffice for latching onto it. This is why introspective impressions play a crucial role in fixing the reference of the demonstrative ‘this’ featuring in the token-reflexive rule for the first-person concept, for they are needed in order for there to be a mental demonstration to the occurrent thought S is presently thinking. I’m very much indebted to Anna Giustina for discussion of this point.

  25. 25.

    See Morgan (2015) for an insightful discussion of some of these issues.


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I wish to thank audiences at the 2018 LOGOS Seminar and the 2018 LOGOS DeSe Reading Group in Barcelona, the Diaphora Self-Knowledge workshop in Paris, the SLMFCE IX conference in Madrid, as well as an anonymous referee for this journal for valuable feedback on various parts of this material. I am particularly grateful to Manuel García-Carpintero, Anna Giustina, Daniel Morgan, Hichem Naar, Léa Salje, and Carlota Serrahima for providing detailed comments on previous drafts of this paper. Extra special thanks are due to the messy shoppers, Carlota and Daniel.

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Correspondence to Michele Palmira.

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Palmira, M. Immunity, thought insertion, and the first-person concept. Philos Stud 177, 3833–3860 (2020).

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  • Immunity to error through misidentification
  • First-person concept
  • Thought insertion
  • Introspection
  • Acquaintance
  • Token-reflexivity
  • Warrant
  • Transmission failure
  • Metasemantic explanation