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Philosophy Self-Knowledge
by
Quassim Cassam

Introduction

In philosophy, self-knowledge usually means one of two things: knowledge of one’s particular mental states or knowledge of one’s own nature. To have self-knowledge in the first of these senses is to know one’s particular sensations, experiences, and propositional attitudes (beliefs, desires, and so on). Much of the recent literature has concentrated on self-knowledge in this sense. To have self-knowledge in the second sense is to know one’s own ontological nature, or less abstract characteristics, such as one’s own character, abilities, or values. Several different questions can be asked about self-knowledge: (1) What is its character, and what, if anything, distinguishes self-knowledge from other kinds of knowledge? (2) What are the sources of self-knowledge, and, if we have it, how do we get it? (3) What is the scope of self-knowledge, and what are its limits? (4) What is the value, or importance, of self-knowledge? It’s helpful to think about work on self-knowledge as addressing one or more of these questions, and this entry will be structured accordingly. Responses to (1) have focused on the idea that some self-knowledge is epistemically privileged. Responses to (2) include different versions of the following ideas: (a) self-knowledge is acquired by some kind of inner observation, or self-scanning; (b) self-knowledge is acquired by inference or self-interpretation; (c) self-knowledge is acquired by asking and answering the appropriate questions about the world at large. This is the “transparency” approach to self-knowledge, which can be seen as a version of or an alternative to inferentialism. (a), (b), and (c) assume that self-knowledge is acquired by employing the appropriate epistemic procedure and that questions about the origins of self-knowledge are fundamentally epistemological. Nonepistemic approaches include (d) expressivism and (e) constitutivism. The former focuses on the role of avowals (self-ascriptions of one’s current state of mind) as expressions rather than descriptions of one’s state of mind. The latter says that in the normal case there is a constitutive relation between being in a given mental state and knowing or believing that one is in that state. Constitutive approaches concentrate on the metaphysics rather than the epistemology of self-knowledge. Some responses to (3) discuss the obstacles to self-knowledge and identify varieties of self-knowledge that are difficult or impossible to acquire. Others seek to rule out certain forms of self-ignorance. With regard to (4), the issue is, what good does it do us to have self-knowledge, and what kinds of self-knowledge are valuable to us?

General Overviews

Gertler 2008 provides an extremely useful overview of the current debate. This is the best place to start. For a more detailed overview, see Gertler 2011. Hetherington 2007 is also a good introduction to the subject. It is written in the form of a personal mediation and does not attempt to survey the contemporary literature on self-knowledge. At a more advanced level, the opening chapter of Moran 2001 is an excellent introduction to some of the key issues in the philosophy of self-knowledge.

Anthologies

Cassam 1994 contains some of the classic papers on this topic, with an emphasis on papers on self-reference and self-awareness. Ludlow and Martin 1998 is an extremely useful and comprehensive collection of papers on the question of whether externalism about mental content and privileged access are compatible. Wright, et al. 1998 and Nuccetelli 2003 also contain some good papers on this question. In addition, Wright, et al. 1998 contains a number of important papers on the Wittgensteinian approach to self-knowledge and on reason and the first person. Gertler 2003 is another excellent collection, with a wide range of papers exemplifying a number of radically different approaches to the problem of self-knowledge. Coliva 2012, Hatzimoysis 2011, Liu and Perry 2012, and Smithies and Stoljar 2012 all contain excellent papers that have not been previously published.

Monographs

There are some important and high-quality monographs on self-knowledge. Shoemaker 1963 focuses on broadly Wittgensteinian themes. Moran 2001, which is probably the single most widely discussed monograph on self-knowledge, supports a transparency approach. For a different version of this approach, see Fernández 2013. Finkelstein 2003 and Bar-On 2004 contain influential discussions and defenses of expressivism. Bilgrami 2006 defends a form of constitutivism, whereas Carruthers 2011 defends a sophisticated version of inferentialism. Other more recent books include O’Brien 2007 and Tanney 2013. Cassam 1997 is also relevant, especially for readers with an interest in Immanuel Kant and Peter Frederick Strawson. None of these books makes for easy reading, but each of them makes a significant and original contribution.

The Character of Self-Knowledge

One of the legacies of René Descartes is the conviction that knowledge of a significant subclass one’s particular mental states is epistemologically privileged. Much discussion has focused on whether, and in what sense, we have privileged access to our own particular mental states and whether such privileged access is compatible with other, influential theses in philosophy, such as anti-individualism, or externalism, about mental content—the view that the contents of our mental states depends in part on relations between ourselves and the physical and social environment.

Privileged Access

There are different ways of understanding the claim that subjects enjoy privileged access to their own mental states. Alston 1971 and Gertler 2003 (cited under Anthologies) contain useful accounts of the varieties of privileged access. McGinn 2004 focuses on whether the customary epistemic privileges of introspection and perception can be inverted. Ryle 1994 attacks the doctrine of privileged access and is criticized in Davidson 2001b. Cassam 2009 discusses the idea that what makes some self-knowledge special is that it has no basis. Davidson 2001a develops an interesting positive account of first-person authority. Wright 1998 offers a deflationary account of this phenomenon, and is effectively criticized in Snowdon 2012. Williamson 1996 attacks the idea that we are guaranteed epistemic access to our own mental states.

  • Alston, William. “Varieties of Privileged Access.” American Philosophical Quarterly 8 (1971): 223–241.

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    A clear account of the relationship between the different epistemic privileges that figure in discussions of self-knowledge.

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  • Cassam, Quassim. “The Basis of Self-Knowledge.” Erkenntnis 71 (2009): 3–18.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10670-009-9164-zSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A critical discussion of the view that the special authority of self-knowledge consists in its not needing a basis.

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  • Davidson, Donald. “First Person Authority.” In Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. By Donald Davidson, 3–14. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001a.

    DOI: 10.1093/0198237537.003.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that first-person authority is grounded in the presumption that a speaker usually knows what he or she means rather than in a special way of knowing.

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  • Davidson, Donald. “Knowing One’s Own Mind.” In Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. By Donald Davidson, 15–38. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001b.

    DOI: 10.1093/0198237537.003.0002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues against the Rylean view that we know our own minds in exactly the same way we know the minds of others. Also argues that externalism about mental content does not constitute a genuine threat to first-person authority. Initially published in Self-Knowledge, edited by Quassim Cassam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

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  • McGinn, Colin. “Inverted First-Person Authority.” Monist 87 (2004): 237–254.

    DOI: 10.5840/monist200487211Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that the customary epistemic privileges of introspection can be inverted; that is, that there could be a creature that perceives its own states of mind and introspects nonmental reality.

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  • Ryle, Gilbert. “Self-Knowledge.” In Self-Knowledge. Edited by Quassim Cassam, 19–42. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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    Originally published in 1949, in The Concept of Mind (New York: Hutchinson). A much-discussed and criticized defense of the view that there is no difference in kind between people’s knowledge about themselves and their knowledge about other people.

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  • Snowdon, Paul. “How to Think about Phenomenal Self-Knowledge.” In The Self and Self-Knowledge. Edited by Annalisa Coliva, 243–262. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199590650.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A penetrating critique of Cripsin Wright’s account of self-knowledge and the underlying research program. Contends that phenomenal states are not self-intimating and that beliefs about one’s own phenomenal states are not incorrigible.

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  • Williamson, Timothy. “Cognitive Homelessness.” Journal of Philosophy 93 (1996): 554–573.

    DOI: 10.2307/2941049Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An important and influential critique of the view that the mental is luminous. One is not always in a position to know whether one is in a given mental state, even when one is attending to the question.

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  • Wright, Crispin. “Self-Knowledge: The Wittgensteinian Legacy.” In Knowing Our Own Minds. Edited by Crispin Wright, Barry C. Smith, and Cynthia Macdonald, 13–45. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    A discussion of the “default view,” according to which (save in special cases) it is primitively constitutive of the acceptability of psychological claims that a subject’s opinions about himself or herself are authoritative by default.

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Privileged Access and Externalism

Externalism is the view that the contents of our mental states depends in part on relations between ourselves and our physical or social environment. Incompatibilists argue that externalism threatens privileged access to our own thoughts because it implies that we have to investigate our environment in order to know their contents. Compatibilists maintain that we can have privileged access to our own thoughts even if externalism is true. A closely related issue is whether externalists who think that we can have a priori knowledge of our own thoughts are also committed to thinking that we can have a priori knowledge of the environment. Boghossian 1998a, Boghossian 1998b, and McKinsey 1998 are the classic defenses of incompatibilism. There are discussions of McKinsey’s challenge in Davies 1998 and Wright 2011. Davidson 2001 and Burge 1994 are the classic defenses of compatibilism. Farkas contends that a new understanding of the internal/external divide is needed to understand the issue of the compatibility of externalism and privileged access. Ludlow and Martin 1998 and Nuccetelli 2003 (both cited under Anthologies) contain many other excellent papers.

  • Boghossian, Paul A. “Content and Self-Knowledge.” In Externalism and Self-Knowledge. Edited by Peter Ludlow and Norah Martin, 149–173. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 1998a.

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    Asserts that if the content of a thought were determined by its relational properties, we could not know our own minds. An excellent paper.

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  • Boghossian, Paul A. “What The Externalist Can Know a Priori.” In Knowing Our Own Minds. Edited by Crispin Wright, Barry C. Smith, and Cynthia Macdonald, 271–284. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998b.

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    Argues that if compatibilism were true, we would be in a position to know a priori certain facts about the world that no one can reasonably believe are knowable a priori.

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  • Burge, Tyler. “Individualism and Self-Knowledge.” In Self-Knowledge. Edited by Quassim Cassam, 65–79. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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    Originally published in 1988, in Special Issue: Eighty-Fifth Annual Meeting American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division, Journal of Philosophy 85.11. Claims that the epistemic credentials of basic self-knowledge do not rest on knowledge of general principles or investigation of the world.

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  • Davidson, Donald. “Knowing One’s Own Mind.” In Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. By Donald Davidson, 15–38. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1093/0198237537.003.0002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Defends a version of compatibilism on the basis that being in a state of mind does not consist in standing in some relation to an object. Initially published in Self-Knowledge, edited by Quassim Cassam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

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  • Davies, Martin. “Externalism, Architecturalism, and Epistemic Warrant.” In Knowing Our Own Minds. Edited by Crispin Wright, Barry C. Smith, and Cynthia Macdonald, 321–361. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    Defends a version of compatibilism by examining the conditions under which nonempirical warrant transmits from the premises to the conclusions of McKinsey-style arguments.

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  • Farkas, Katalin. “What Is Externalism?” Philosophical Studies 112 (2003): 187–208.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1023002625641Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Contends that the best way to understand externalism makes it obvious why it places restrictions on self-knowledge.

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  • McKinsey, Michael. “Anti-Individualism and Privileged Access.” In Externalism and Self-Knowledge. Edited by Peter Ludlow and Norah Martin, 175–184. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 1998.

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    A classic defense of incompatibilism and the starting point for much of the contemporary discussion.

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  • Wright, Crispin. “McKinsey One More Time.” In Self-Knowledge. Edited by Anthony Hatzimoysis, 80–104. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199590728.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reflections on McKinsey 1998.

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The Sources of Self-Knowledge

Epistemic accounts claim self-knowledge is acquired by employing the appropriate epistemic procedure—inner observation/self-scanning, inference/self-interpretation, or transparency reasoning (asking and answering the appropriate questions about the world at large). Nonepistemic accounts focus on the expressive role of mental self-attributions (expressivism), or the necessary, constitutive relation between being in certain psychological states and knowing or believing that one is in those states (constitutivism).

Inner-Observation and Self-Scanning Accounts

Inner-sense accounts of self-knowledge represent introspection as a form of inner perception or inner observation. A key question for this approach is whether there is a viable analogy between inner and outer observation. Armstrong 1994 and Lycan 1997 defend the inner-sense approach. Dretske 2003 argues that knowledge of internal facts is quite unlike perceptual knowledge. Boghossian 1998, Evans 1994, and Shoemaker 1996 are highly critical of the inner-sense approach. Byrne 2005 responds to some of their criticisms. Nichols and Stich 2003 develops a monitoring-mechanism account.

Inference and Self-Interpretation Accounts

Inferentialism can be understood as the view that inferences from various kinds of evidence are a key source self-knowledge. Bem 1972 and Ryle 1994 emphasize behavioral evidence. Lawlor 2009 focuses on psychological evidence. Byrne 2011 defends an unorthodox inferentialism that draws on aspects of the transparency approach. Gopnik 1993 is a classic defense of the “theory theory” version of inferentialism, whereas Carruthers 2009 and 2011 support the view that we have interpretive sensory access to our current thoughts.

  • Bem, Daryl. “Self-Perception Theory.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Vol. 6. Edited by L. Berkowitz, 1–62. New York: Academic Press, 1972.

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    States that individuals come to know their own attitudes, emotions, and other internal states partially by inferring them from observations of their own behavior or the circumstances in which this behavior occurs, or both. A social psychologist’s defense of a view more commonly associated by philosophers with Gilbert Ryle.

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  • Byrne, Alex. “Transparency, Belief, and Intention.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 85.1 (2011): 201–221.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8349.2011.00203.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Tries to explain how the “transparent” inference from the premise P to the conclusion “I believe that P” can yield self-knowledge.

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  • Carruthers, Peter. “How We Know Our Own Minds: The Relationship between Mindreading and Metacognition.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32.2 (2009): 121–182.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X09000545Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Denies that our access to our own minds is different in kind from our access to the minds of other people. Asserts that our access in both cases is interpretive, in the sense that it depends on information about the subject’s circumstances, current or recent behavior, and current or recent mental life.

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  • Carruthers, Peter. The Opacity of Mind: An Integrative Theory of Self-Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199596195.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Maintains that our access to our own propositional attitudes is almost always interpretive, employing the same kinds of inferences and data we use when attributing attitudes to other people.

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  • Gopnik, Alison. “How We Know Our Own Minds: The Illusion of First-Person Knowledge of Intentionality.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16.1 (1993): 1–14.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X00028636Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Defends the “theory theory,” according to which commonsense psychological beliefs are constructed as a way of explaining ourselves and others.

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  • Lawlor, Krista. “Knowing What One Wants.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 79 (2009): 47–75.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1933-1592.2009.00266.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Contends that inference from internal promptings is a routine means by which we know what we want.

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  • Ryle, Gilbert. “Self-Knowledge.” In Self-Knowledge. Edited by Quassim Cassam, 19–42. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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    Originally published in 1949, in The Concept of Mind (New York: Hutchinson). Famously argues that the things one can find out about oneself are the same as the sorts of things one can find out about other people and that the methods of finding them out are much the same; in both cases, inference plays a key role.

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Transparency Accounts

These works can be divided into transparency accounts of knowledge of our own thoughts and transparency accounts of knowledge of our own sensations and other conscious states. In both cases, the basic idea is that knowledge of our own states of mind is acquired not by attending to those states themselves, but by attending to the world. Building on Evans 1994, Moran 2001 is the classic statement and defense of the transparency approach. Boyle 2009 further elaborates and defends this approach. There are interesting variations on the transparency approach in Dretske 1995 and Fernández 2013. Cassam 2012, Finkelstein 2012, Shah and Velleman 2005, and Way 2007 are all critical, in different ways, of Moran 2001.

Expressivism

The core idea of expressivism, a version of which can be found in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later writings, is that a self-attribution of the form “I believe that P” is an expression rather than a description of the speaker’s state of mind. There are more and less extreme forms of expressivism, depending on whether self-attributions are regarded as propositional. A key question for expressivism is whether, and in what sense, it casts any light on the epistemology of self-knowledge. Bar-On 2004 and Finkelstein 2003 are the classic statements and defenses of expressivism. Wright 1998 extracts a form of expressivism from Wittgenstein’s later writings.

Constitutivism

The most prominent version of constitutivism says that there is a constitutive relation between believing something and believing or knowing that one believes it: if you are rational and have the necessary concepts, you can’t believe that P without knowing or believing that you believe that P. Constitutivism can also be understood as the (different) view that taking yourself to believe that P makes it the case that you believe that P. Boyle 2011 and Shoemaker 2012 defend constitutivism in the former sense on metaphysical grounds. Bilgrami 2006 identifies the radical normativity of states of mind as the basis of constitutivism. Peacocke 1998 is critical of some aspects of Shoemaker’s constitutivism. Zimmerman 2006 responds to Peacocke’s criticisms. Schwitzgebel 2011 advocates a moderate constitutivism that endorses some of the key insights of rival approaches. The constitutivism defended in Wright 2001 is grounded in thoughts about linguistic practices. Tanney 1996 develops a constructivist alternative to Wright’s constitutivism.

The Limits of Self-Knowledge

The other side of self-knowledge is self-ignorance. Philosophers influenced by René Descartes tend not to have much interest in this topic, in part because they are skeptical about the possibility of self-ignorance. Shoemaker 1996, building on Moore 1993, tries to limit self-ignorance by arguing against the possibility of “self-blindness.” However, philosophers influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche and the work of prominent empirical psychologists are starting to develop an interest in the limits of self-knowledge. Nietzsche’s views are helpfully summarized and discussed in Katsafanas 2012. The psychological evidence for widespread self-ignorance is examined in Nisbett and Wilson 1977 and Wilson 2002. Schwitzgebel 2012 considers the prevalence and significance of different varieties of self-ignorance.

The Value of Self-Knowledge

Why does self-knowledge matter? Is self-ignorance a bad thing? If so, why? These are questions about the value of self-knowledge. The philosophical literature on this topic is small but includes some important papers, mainly emphasizing the importance of self-knowledge for rationality or for certain forms of reasoning. Burge 1998 and Shoemaker 1996 both develop arguments along these lines, with Burge 1998 arguing that self-knowledge is required for critical reasoning and Shoemaker 1996 contending that it is required for rationality. Such arguments are criticized in Rosenthal 2008. Wilson and Dunn 2004 discusses the value of self-knowledge in terms of its impact on well-being. Feldman and Hazlett 2013 considers whether self-knowledge might be valuable because it is necessary for authenticity.

The Nature of the Self

Self-knowledge can be understood as knowledge of the kind of thing one is. Descartes claimed to know, just by thinking, that his thinking self was an immaterial substance. In arguing as he does, Descartes assumes that he can identify himself and his thoughts without thinking of his thinking self as a physical thing. The correctness of this assumption has been the focus of more recent discussions about self-reference and self-identification, which take for granted that the thinking self is physical. These discussions are not directly about self-knowledge, but they do raise important questions about the relationship between self-knowledge and first-person thinking. Shoemaker 1994 distinguishes two uses of “I,” as subject and as object. Evans 1994 contends that self-reference requires the conception of oneself as a physical thing. Cassam 1997 maintains that it requires awareness of oneself as a physical thing. Campbell 1994 argues against such approaches and in support of the view that self-reference does not require an accurate self-conception. Anscombe 1994 asserts that “I” is not a referring expression.

Substantial Self-Knowledge

By and large, philosophical accounts of self-knowledge have little to say about what nonphilosophers usually mean by “self-knowledge”: knowledge of such things as one’s values, character, abilities, emotions, and not easily accessible thoughts and feelings. Such “substantial” self-knowledge is often ignored by philosophers on the grounds that it is not epistemologically interesting or distinctive, however humanly important it might be. Yet it is possible to find a few notable examples of philosophers engaging with varieties of self-knowledge the acquisition of which by any normal person represents a substantial cognitive achievement. Hetherington 2007 discusses the different senses in which one might be said to know one’s mental nature. Kupperman 1984–1985 looks at knowledge of one’s own character. Nussbaum 1990 argues that knowledge of the heart must come from the heart.

LAST MODIFIED: 01/13/2014

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0112

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