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Ockham on the Possibility of Self-Knowledge: Knowing Acts without Knowing Subjects

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My aim in this paper is to show that William Ockham (ca. 1287-1347) succeeds in accounting for a particular kind of self-knowledge, although in doing so he restricts the direct cognitive access to mental acts and states as they occur, in a way similar to the restriction in contemporary debates on self-knowledge. In particular, a considerable number of Ockham-scholars have argued that Ockham’s theory of mental content bears a substantial likeness to contemporary ‘externalist’ approaches, and I will argue for the success of this theory in three steps: first, I show that, although the form of what is judged (‘I am F’) implies the ascription of an act to oneself (as the subject of the act), through ‘intuition’ it suffices to directly cognize the act but not the subject. In Ockham’s conception, intuition is a specific kind of singular cognition. In the second step I show that, according to Ockham’s thesis of mental language, Person is an aspect of mental verbs and not of acts of intuition. Lastly I argue that the correctness of first-person judgments about one’s acts is guaranteed by an ontological fact, and not an epistemological fact. It becomes apparent that this reading is compatible with an epistemological externalism.

Affiliations: 1: Universität Hamburg


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