The Relation of Ability and Self-Knowledge

Introducing Neuro-Psychological Evidence to a Philosophical Debate

Term Paper 2011 16 Pages

Philosophy - Theoretical (Realisation, Science, Logic, Language)



1 Introduction and Structure

2 The Philosophical Debate on States of Mind
2.1 The Wide Context: Externalism vs Internalism
2.2 The Narrow Context: William Child and Wittgenstein’s Externalism

3 Introducing a Neuro-Psychological Evidence
3.1 Patient E.D.: A Case Study
3.2 The Dissociation of Memory Systems in Neuro-Psychology
3.3 The Translation of Terminologies

4 Discussion
4.1 Relevance of the Evidence
4.2 Impact on the Debate

5 Summary

1 Introduction and Structure

Is it possible to have the ability to speak a language without knowing about it? Intuitively, this seems quite unlikely, for when I am able to speak a certain language, I have to have acquired knowledge of the vocabulary and the syntactic rules it follows and I have to know how to ap- ply these. Cases where the spontaneous acquirement of the ability to speak or understand a certain language is mentioned, are limited to fiction (e.g. J.K. Rowling’s sorcerer’s apprentice Harry Potter who is surprisingly able to understand Parseltongue, the “language” of the snakes (Rowling, 1998)) or have a rather mythological character (as in 1 Corinthians 12-14, where the “Gift of Tongues” is, among other “Spiritual Gifts”, given to the twelve apostles) and will be dismissed as a construct of human spirit. The first goal of this essay is, however, to suggest that the possibility of one being surprised to find oneself able to understand or even speak a language is not only thinkable but also quite real - even if not based on any supernatural in- cidents but on empirical research. As this is a philosophical essay, there is of course a further purpose in presenting this possibility. In the debate between internalism and externalism, an author, namely Mr. William Child (based on considerations by Mr. Dummett1 ), dismissed in his work “Wittgenstein’s externalism” the possibility of not-knowing about certain kinds of abilities (precisely, speaking a language and doing mathematical calculations) and yet having this ability. He contrasts these abilities with what he calls mere “practical abilities” - abilities that might very well slumber within a person without her knowing about it, as for instance the ability to swim (Child, 2006, p. 15)2. It is the second goal of this essay to examine the effect of the empirical insights provided on the arguments made in the context of Mr. Child’s (respectively, Mr Dummett’s) claim. Having these two main goals in mind, the line of action will go as follows: First, the philosophical debate on states of mind will be considered to provide the necessary background knowledge of the arguments in question. This again, will be done in two steps. First, by giving a short overview of the debate between externalism and internalism in the modern philosophy of mind, which should facilitate some orientation on the wider context of the debate (section 2.1) and secondly by reconstructing the immediate context, that is to say Mr Child’s line of thought in his essay “Wittgenstein’s externalism” to understand what function is exactly given to the claim of different types of abilities within his argumentation (section 2.2). In the following section, the neuro-psychological evidence will be introduced. It focuses primarily on patient E.D. (described by H.J. Markowitsch and colleagues, (Markowitsch et al., 1993)), who lost a significant part of his personal memory and was quite surprised when he was able to react correctly to instructions given in Italian, for he was no longer aware of the fact that he once learned the language (section 3.1). This remarkable case, which shows the possibility of possessing knowledge of a language without self-knowledge of this fact, will be backed and generalized by outlining the modern understanding of different and mostly independent memory systems in the human brain which discriminates semantic knowledge (knowledge including words, grammatical rules) and episodic memory (date-dependent knowledge including personal experiences; section 3.2). Subsequently, the translation of the memory systems and the corresponding sorts of knowledge will be translated into the terms used in the philosophical debate reverting to the terminology used by Child and Dummett (section 3.3).

In the following discussion, the evidence will be defended against possible objections (section 4.1) and its effect on Child’s arguments will be examined (Section 4.2). Last, a summary of this essay together with a brief meta-reflection on the sort of argument used in this essay will be provided (Section 5).

2 The Philosophical Debate on States of Mind

As noticed, this section will first give a quick summary of what the debate between externalists and internalists in the philosophy of mind is all about in order to provide a basic understanding of the topic (2.1). Afterward, the relevant passages of Mr. Child’s essay on Wittgenstein’s externalism will be examined more closely (2.2). Since Child represents the externalist’s position in the debate, this standpoint will be outlined in the form of positive statements assuming that an internalist would disclaim it. Hence, we want to think of an internalist as someone who is at this point not interested in making a stand by introducing his own proposals but who reviews the voiced claims critically and seeks to expose their argumentation weaknesses or to point out implausible consequences that the theories allow for.

2.1 The Wide Context: Externalism vs Internalism

In a sentence, the controversial subject between externalism (or contextualism) and internalism in the modern philosophy of mind is whether or not mental states (including all aspects of the mind such as knowledge, beliefs, desires, and the like) depend at least partially on a particular context. Externalists argue that certain states such as intentions have to be linked in the “right way” to the surrounding world, while internalists think that intentions depend on intrinsic or physiological properties (Lau and Deutsch, 2010). In this case, “context “ or “world” does explicitly not refer to the immediate surrounding of a subject - the things one has “before one’s eyes” - but to the wide context of how the world is shaped. This includes the physical properties of the world as well as the existence of particular objects or social institutions such as money or particular games or languages that also extend the time of a particular thought3. Accordingly, many arguments do not refer only to our actual world but include thought experiments to other possible or thinkable worlds4. Traditionally, the debate concentrated primarily on mental content (like intentions). The traditional externalist position here (as in Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment) is that, although two Subjects are physiologically speaking exactly alike, their mental content would still differ if they were situated in different contexts or worlds. This sort of externalism dealing with mental content referring to the world is called semantic externalism.

2.2 The Narrow Context: William Child and Wittgenstein’s Externalism

Embedded in the wider context of the debate on internalists and externalists described above, William Child discusses in this 2006 paper, “Wittgenstein’s Externalism: Context, Self-Knowledge and the Past” the externalism or contextualism represented by the “later” Wittgenstein (this refers to Wittgenstein’s later writings, most importantly the Philosophical Investigations of 1953). His main purpose is to show that Wittgenstein substituted in fact a sort of externalism and that his arguments therefore do support externalism. In order to substantiate this thesis he falls back on various passages of Wittgenstein’s writings that resemble rather typical externalists views as well as “Twin-Earth-style thought experiments” (Child, 2006, p. 1). In order to provide for a better appreciation of the Wittgensteinian lines of thought, one passage of Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics (“RFM”) that Mr. Child offers shall also be quoted here:

“Let us imagine a god creating a country instantaneously in the middle of the wilderness, which exists for two minutes and is an exact reproduction of a part of England, with everything that is going on there in two minutes. Just like those in England, the people are pursuing a variety of occupations. Children are in school. Some people are doing mathematics. Now let us contemplate the activity of some human beings during these two minutes. One of these people is doing exactly what a mathematician in England is doing, who is just doing a calculation. - Ought we to say that this two-minute-man is calculating? Could we for example not imagine a past and a continuation of these two minutes, which would make us call the process something quite different?” (Wittgenstein, 19781956, VI-34)

As Child remarks, Wittgenstein apparently thinks that, under certain circumstances, we might consider the activities described in the “instant-clone” version of England as very different, if the past and the future (that is, the context) of the scenery was different - although the physiological properties of the people described are, as well as their immediate surrounding (like pencils, notes or calculators), exact copies of their English counterparts who are in fact going to school or doing mathematical calculations. As Mr. Child is also able to demonstrate further examples of Wittgenstein’s writings, he seems to make a convincing point by claiming that Wittgenstein’s considerations do in fact match the modern externalist’s way of thinking about mental content (Child, 2006, pp. 2-3)5.

After convincing the reader of this, Child goes on to address three main questions concerning Wittgenstein’s views and their relation to the modern debate in the philosophy of mind. First, the relation to a modern standard form of externalism (developed by Putnam and Kripke) which refers to natural kind terms which are said to conflict with Wittgenstein’s conception of the meaning of terms, which he thought to be, roughly speaking, determined by their use within a community of speakers. Secondly, Mr. Child addresses an obvious objection to Wittgenstein’s considerations as quoted above, namely the possibility that mental states or intentions might be defined by things that happen after they occurred. Third, and for our purposes most impor- tantly, he confronts an internalists claim that doubts the relevance of Wittgenstein’s arguments for contextual conditions for the externalist’s argumentation, “since those conditions could in principle be internalized into a subject’s intentions and dispositions” (Child, 2006, p. 3). As the last part is the one we are going to deal with and a detailed analysis of the first two points would blow the frame of this work, we shall skip these points and directly consider the last part of Child’s writing. This is possible as the single lines of argumentation are in fact unrelated. To tackle Child’s line of thought, we need to consider another example of Wittgenstein’s that underlines his understanding of a “right” context that affects our judgment on whether or not we would call actions in two physically identical situations alike. The example embraces two members of a far away tribe (maybe in another world) that are behaving just like two chess players playing a chess match. This means they are moving black and white figures on a square 64-field chess board in a way that corresponds perfectly to the rules two chess players would follow in our society playing chess - even “with all the appropriate mental accompaniments” (Child, 2006; Wittgenstein, 2003 (1953)6. But, in this thought experiment, the tribe-members have no concept of chess - in fact, the society they live in does not have any concept of games whatsoever. On this account, Wittgenstein thinks, we would not consider them actually playing chess. The reason for this is that they are not actually applying the rules of chess but merely following them without actually intending to do so (Child, 2006, p. 10). This brings us to the first important remark on the argumentation relevant for our purpose. The mere existence of an appropriate context is a necessary but insufficient condition to call a practice of moving chess figures around a game of chess - even if the movements correspond to the actual chess rules. The individuals performing these rules have to be linked to the context in the right way. By “the right way”, we mean that they need to have the intention of playing a game of chess and therefore of applying the rules of actual chess7. After establishing this observation, a verbal exchange between an imaginary internalist and Child accessing Wittgenstein’s arguments follows.

The first objection is that, if a player’s intentions are so important, it is possible that all the things the context supplies (e.g. the social institution of the game chess) can be “internalized” or be “built into” someone’s intentions so that the context is in fact not needed at all (Child, 2006, p. 10).

Child replies using a Wittgensteinian argument after which one could in fact not have the in- tention of playing chess without a social institution or an actual practice of playing chess. That is, because the rules one has inside one’s mind can in principle be interpreted “in indefinitely many ways” (Child, 2006, p. 11). Therefore, “to specify the rules of chess, what is required is not just a verbalization of the rules, but a way of taking or applying the verbalization. And a way of taking the formulation cannot itself be built into what is present in someone’s mind; it requires the existence of an actual practice of applying the rules.” (ibid.) This point suggests a differentiation of “stationary” sets of rules needed for chess (or any other practice, like a language or calculating) that can be “built” into someone’s mind. It suggests furthermore a “dynamic” way of applying these rules that is necessary to know whether one is actually able to follow these rules (Wittgenstein, 1978 1956, p. 184)8.

The internalist subsequently objects by asking why this interpretation of the stationary rules shouldn’t be part of someone’s dispositions (and therefore be internalized). This can be under- stood as the way someone “would apply these rules [of chess] if she were to apply them” (Child, 2006, p. 11)9.

As a possible response, Child names Dummett’s interpretation of Wittgenstein, which roughly suggests to take an anti-realist position concerning counter-factuals of that form. This means to deny that one can make valid statements about circumstances that never arose10. The argu- mentation he actually wants to use as a response to the objection nevertheless is based again on the RFM. It basically reprehends the conditions under which the rules (and thus the appli- cation) of chess or any other practice like a language or calculating can be invented. Under the circumstances that no other rule exists that one can refer to, Wittgenstein insists, an “imaginary application” of the invented rule is not sufficient to call this invention a rule, as this would be a sort of private language11. Hence, one has to apply the rule correctly in order to prove to oneself and to others that one is able to follow the rule. Child expresses this point of the discourse as follows:

“We might see the dialectic like this: Wittgenstein suggests that it is only if a person has actually calculated right in some sufficiency of cases that he can know that he can calculate. The internalist denies that: a person who has never calculated, he thinks, can know that he can calculate, provided that he is ‘in the mental state that in the normal course of things is produced by training and practice” (Child, 2006, p. 13).

At this point, Child assumes that Wittgenstein would insist that having calculated (or played chess or spoken a certain language) really is a necessary condition for knowing that on can do it12 and presumes a different internalist move:


1 In fact, it is Mr. Dummett who first made this claim in his book The Logical Basis of Metaphysics (Dummett, 1993a), but as Mr. Child’s arguments are going to be primarily considered in this book, he will be regarded as the one defending the claim.

2 According to Child this means that, “if someone asks you whether you can swim, it makes perfectly good sense to reply that you do not know, but will try to swim and see whether you can.” (Child, 2006, p. 15)

3 Accordingly, internalists typically think that these conditions (as the existence of the institution “money”) can be included into a subject’s mental states or dispositions, which in turn makes a context bearable.

4 The most famous thought experiment of this kind is probably Hillary Putnam’s Twin Earth of his 1973 paper “Meaning and Reference”, which introduces an exact copy of our world with the only difference that water consists of a different chemical composition (Putnam, 1973).

5 Although Wittgenstein is said to have declined to “confess” to any philosophical ideology such as externalism

6 The question of how “all appropriate mental accompaniments” can occur in two people just behaving like they were playing chess without actually having a concept of this game is also a rather interesting one. Still, it will have to be considered at some other occasion as this work focuses on another question.

7 This relation between acting individual and context can also be illustrated by a person walking the streets in a certain direction that is indicated by signposts. If the person does however not have any concept of signposts in her culture, she is not actually following the rule of following signs into an indicated directions but - one might say coincidentally - conforming to the rule of following signposts without intending to do so.

8 This is also a point worth examination. However, this would again exceed the scale of this essay. Hence, we will just accept that there are different ways in which a set of rules someone has in mind can be interpreted.

9 Child remarks that this introduces an “implicit counter-factual” (Child, 2006). This refers to a logical “if-then” relation of the form “if xy were true, we would do such-and-such”.

10 For further reading see (Dummett, 1993b, p. 459).

11 In his Private Language Argument, Wittgenstein shows that a language (or any other “game” or practice that depends on a set of rules) that can only be understood by its “inventor” is impossible for it provides no means by which can be tested whether or not she uses her own rules correctly. The most prominent example for a private language is a certain feeling or sensation that a person labels “S” by ostensive definition and whenever it occurs, one marks an “S” in her diary. But, as it is possible to remember the feeling incorrectly or to simply forget what exact feeling was initially labeled, there is no way of knowing whether the signs in the diary are actually correct (compare: Wittgenstein, 2003 (1953, 19781956 ).

12 It becomes clear that the question of whether someone knows is equivalent to the question whether someone is entitled to know. Being entitled to know does in turn depend on whether the necessary truth conditions for knowledge are fulfilled. This is a common way of thinking in the analysis of knowledge as outlined in section


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Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg – IPHI
Ability Self-Knowledge Wittgenstein Dummett Child Markowitsch Philosophy of Mind E.D.




Title: The Relation of Ability and Self-Knowledge