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David Finkelstein's Expression and the Inner is a welcome and thoughtful contribution to two central debates in the philosophy of self-knowledge and the philosophy of psychology: (1) how to account for first-person authority, and (2) how to characterize conscious mental states. It will therefore be of interest to anyone curious about the nature of consciousness and the nature of our access to it.
Finkelstein's formulation of the phenomenon of first-person authority runs as follows: "If you want to know what I think, feel, imagine, or intend, I am a good person--indeed, usually the best person--to ask." (p. 9) The philosophical problem is to explain exactly why one is usually the best person to ask about one's own thoughts, feelings, etc.. In the first section of EI (chapters 1-3) Finkelstein sets out convincing arguments that a number of popular approaches to this problem are weak in various ways. Specifically, detectivism (the view that authority results from our reliably tracking our own mental states), constitutivism (the view that authority results from our authoring our own mental states), and a middle path account (between detectivism and constitutivism) are all under fire.
In the second section (chapters 4-6) Finkelstein sets out his own account of first-person authority. Taking cues from Ludwig Wittgenstein's later work, Finkelstein proposes an expressivist treatment of authoritative mental state self-ascription. The driving thought is that by stressing similarities between, on the one hand, authoritative claims that one is, for example, happy and, on the other hand, natural expressions of one's happiness (smiling) we can generate a satisfying account where rival accounts are less than satisfying. "I'm usually the best person to ask [about what mental state I'm in]," Finkelstein writes, "for just the same reason that my face is the best one to look at." (p. 101)
The received criticism of expressivist accounts of first-person authority is that, while claims to be happy, hurt, hopeful, etc., are assertoric in the sense of being literally either true or false, natural expressions of these mental states (smiling, cringing, persisting, etc.) are obviously out of the running for "truth-evaluability". Finkelstein's solution is simply to grant authoritative mental state self-ascriptions ("avowals") an assertoric "dimension" right alongside their expressive dimension. He contends that Wittgenstein himself never denied an assertoric dimension to avowals, and that in any case it's in the interest of common sense not to deny them what so clearly belongs to them. (Cf. pp. 93-9) Naturally, Finkelstein doesn't see that this in any way compromises the explanatory usefulness in regards to first-person authority that's supposed to come by way of attending to avowals' expressive dimension.
In chapter five Finkelstein explains how attention to avowals' expressive dimension can also shed light on the problem of how to characterize the difference between conscious and unconscious mental states. He begins by criticizing a "simple account" and a "not-so-simple account" of that difference, and from there he proceeds to set out his positive view.
The simple account is simply that, "Your mental state is conscious if you know that you are in it. Your mental state is unconscious if you don't know that you are in it." (pp. 114-15) His criticism of the simple account turns on an interesting and useful distinction between someone's being conscious of believing, thinking, feeling, etc., something (or some way) and someone's consciously believing, thinking, feeling, etc., something (or some way). The problem with the simple account lies in that it rules out the possibility of one's coming to be conscious of one's belief that such-and-such without consciously believing that such-and-such; on the simple account, once one knows that one believes something (is conscious of believing) one thereby renders the belief conscious (is consciously believing). But certainly we can come to know of our own unconscious beliefs, desires, etc., by trusting reliable sources, like successful therapists, without thereby rendering those beliefs, desires, etc., conscious. (The distinction between conscious of and consciously also plays a key role in chapter one's argument against "new" detectivism.)
The not-so-simple account improves on the simple account by adding that in order for a state to be conscious in the right sense (for one to be consciously in that state) one needs to know it "via a particular cognitive mechanism…It's tempting to refer to this mechanism as 'inner sense'…" (p. 116) For slightly more technical, and less compelling, reasons Finkelstein has the improved account going the way of the simpler one.
For Finkelstein, it's not that you know, or how you know about your own mental states that renders them conscious, rather our attention should fall, again, on the expressive dimension of authoritative mental state self-ascription. Since one speaks authoritatively only about one's conscious mental states, and since authority is a matter of the expressive dimension of one's mental state self-ascriptions, Finkelstein arrives at the suggestion that, "Someone's mental state is conscious if he has an ability to express it merely by self-ascribing it. If he lacks such an ability with respect to one of his mental states, it is unconscious." (p. 120)
Besides these two important contributions to the philosophy of self-knowledge and psychology, in the later sections of his book (including a postscript) Finkelstein conducts informed and interesting discussions of the relations between sapience and sentience, the relations between human experience and the experience of 'lower' animals, and the role of deliberation in first-person authority.
Well argued and clearly written, Finkelstein's Expression and the Inner can safely claim a place among the most serious and the most accessible treatments of a number of the central concerns of working philosophers and philosophically minded psychologists.
© 2009 Nathanial Blower
Nathanial Blower is a graduate student working on his dissertation in philosophy at the University of Iowa. He works on the philosophy of self-knowledge and the philosophy of mind.