Knowledge First Philosophy of Mind

Developing an Epistemological Approach to the Nature of Mind

From January 2017 to October 2017

Contemporary philosophy of mind has been dominated by debates in the metaphysics of mind: What is the nature of the mental? How does the mental relate to the physical? Can the mental be reduced to the physical? What kinds of causal relations can hold between mental and physical items? These are all questions about the metaphysics of mind, and they are at the centre of philosophical theorising about the mind.

There are also debates in the epistemology of mind: how do we know our own minds? And how do we know about the minds of others? But these are often conducted in isolation from debates in the metaphysics of mind, and those who are interested in the latter often proceed as though the epistemology of mind is irrelevant; or at least an issue to be sorted out later, once we’re clear on the nature of the objects of our knowledge.

This project challenges this traditional division. Many other debates in philosophy have recognised that the epistemology of a particular domain may set important constraints on the metaphysics of that domain. In the philosophy of mathematics, considerations about how we know mathematical truths have been brought to bear on the question of what mathematical objects are; and in moral philosophy, considerations about how we know truths about moral values have been brought to bear on the question of what moral values could be. This project will use considerations about how we know about the mind as a resource to inform our accounts of the nature of the mind. This is an epistemology first approach to the philosophy of mind.

There are different ways in which the epistemology of mind may bear upon the metaphysics of mind. Consider our knowledge of others’ minds. Some people have argued that this is a form of perceptual knowledge. Does that require that mental states themselves be perceivable? If so, then it would have implications for the kind of thing mental states must be. Or consider our knowledge of our own mind. Some have suggested that our ways of knowing about our own mental states are more intimately connected to the nature of those states than, say, our ways of knowing about trees are to the nature of trees. Does this require a special connection between mental states and one’s knowledge of those mental states – and is this the kind of connection which can be reductively analysed? These are the kinds of questions which arise when one starts with the epistemology of mind.

The project will involve a series of seminars exploring different ways in which central topics in the epistemology of mind can be brought to bear on questions concerning the nature of mind. These will prepare the groundwork for a one-day international workshop on the metaphysical implications of the epistemology of mind. Philosophical study of the mind has too long ignored epistemological considerations. Our primary aim in this project is to explore an epistemology-first approach to understanding the nature of the mind.

The project will include two workshops in Oxford and London, and will culminate in an international conference on 19-20 June in Oxford. For more information, visit the project’s own website here.

Image: Mirror, Alex Chen

Anil Gomes

Project Leader

Matthew Parrott

Project Leader