Investigating Conscious Acquaintance

From October 2015 to June 2016

Bertrand Russell famously drew a distinction between ‘knowledge by description’ and ‘knowledge by acquaintance’. His core idea was that when you are directly conscious of something—that is, when you have an experience of the thing itself—you can thereby gain a distinctive and especially secure kind of knowledge about it, a mental state that is fundamentally different from (merely) knowing some true claim about that thing. The influence of Russell’s seminal work has enshrined ‘acquaintance’ as a familiar philosophical term-of- art. More generally though, the idea that when we undergo a conscious experience something is somehow directly ‘given’ to or ‘present’ in our minds, rather than being merely accurately described or represented, and that this special intimate conscious relation plays some crucially important role in our cognitive lives, has a long history in philosophy that predates Russell.

For much of the latter half of the 20th century the notion of ‘acquaintance’ fell into disrepute, with many philosophers sceptical of the idea that the mind can ever ‘simply confront’ some portion of reality, or that conscious experience provides us with some specially secure foundations for our beliefs. However, in recent years the idea of an acquaintance relation has undergone a very marked revival of fortunes in philosophy, with many different theorists invoking some version of the notion in a range of different philosophical projects and with a potentially bewildering array of different senses.

This project then aims to shed some light on this much-contested topic, investigating what exactly the acquaintance relation is supposed to be and what philosophical work it is supposed to do. The project will work towards holding a two-day conference on the topic ‘conscious acquaintance’, featuring many of the leading theorists currently working on acquaintance—as well as a number of prominent opponents of acquaintance-based theorising. There will also be space in the schedule for three papers that will be selected on the basis of a call for extended abstracts.

Image: Peppas!, Melvin “Buddy” Baker

Thomas Raleigh

Principal Investigator