My predominant interest is in the extent to which thoughts can be shared among different subjects, and in particular whether there are limits to this sort of cognitive access. My research goal is to explain how indexical thinking, i.e., thinking in terms of “I”, “now” and “here”, describes the limits of cognitive access.
There are some things that some individuals can know which others cannot know in principle. For instance, suppose I realize that I am in danger. A good explanation of my knowledge and subsequent behavior would require some attitude ascriptions in terms of indexicals such as “I”, as opposed to my name or some other non-indexical form of identification like a definite description.
Since it is always possible for me to know that I am in danger without knowing that Jeremy, the man who authored the research statement, etc., is in danger and vice versa, these are different pieces of knowledge. It is not my knowledge that Jeremy or the author that is in danger, but my knowledge that I am in danger, that would motivate my acting for my own safety; though of course all of these are related so long as I realize that I am Jeremy, the author, and so on. Because explanations of action, such as my fleeing, must be in terms of knowledge that would actually motivate the action, some knowledge must be ascribed with the indexical “I”. This is the sense in which indexicals are essential to explanations of practical rationality.
Yet there is limited access to this knowledge in the sense that only I can have it; anyone other than me has at most knowledge that Jeremy, the author, that man, etc., is in danger. I am the only one that can know just what motivates me to flee since I am the only one who can identify myself in that first person way. First person indexical knowledge is in this case limited to me alone.
For the last half-century, limited accessibility was regarded as a potential threat to basic epistemological assumptions about the extent to which knowledge is publically accessible. As a consequence various semantic strategies were devised to avoid reaching the conclusion of limited access. These strategies focused on modifying propositional analyses of attitudes thought to give rise to the problem. I argue that it was a mistake to assume that limited accessibility can or even should be avoided in the semantics of attitude ascriptions. Cognitive limitations should be addressed on their own terms as a consequence of successful explanation with essential indexicals. This is so on any analysis of attitudes whether the analysis is in terms of propositions or some other unit of semantic content. Part of what makes my approach significant is that it reveals a new strategy for analyzing indexical explanations that focuses on the plausibility of an epistemological account of private thought. The threat posed by limited access is not intractable, I argue, insofar as an epistemological theory must already absorb private knowledge in ordinary cases of cognitive disabilities such as blindness and amnesia. My recent publication in American Philosophical Quarterly lays out this new account for the first person indexical “I”.
apply the same strategy to the temporal indexical “now” in my recent work in metaphysics. I argue that cognitive access to the present, however it is privileged on a given metaphysical view of time, is also limited to those subjects occupying that time. Arguments for certain metaphysical views of time maintain that thought about the present is epistemically privileged insofar as knowledge of the present is easy, a priori, or immediate. This epistemic concept of privilege is at least part of the motivation for A-theories of time, i.e., theories that take temporal distinctions such as “presentness” to be real properties of times; and it is sometimes used to argue for presentism: the view that only the present exists. It has been argued, for instance, that if there exist past (or future) times in addition to the present, then a skeptical hypothesis arises: we might be mistaken about the present; and this undermines the privileged status of the present. I object to this argument because access to the present is limited to those who occupy it. Even if there exist past times at which someone believes that their time is present, this is not a possible belief for me insofar as I occupy a different time; namely, the present. Hence, the relevant epistemic defeaters are impossible even on pluralist A-theories, such as the growing block theory. In papers recently presented at conferences, such as “Limited Access to the Privileged Present” I address worries about temporally limited access, e.g., the possibility of historical evidence and trans-temporal communication, in the context of my general account of private, indexical thought.
I expand this account of indexicality further in other papers some of which I have already presented at conferences including: “Indexical Co-Reference in Competing Explanations” and “Knowing What Someone Else Knows Versus Knowing That Someone Else Knows”. The former addresses how general accounts of inferences to the best explanation relate to my account of public discourse with indexicals. The latter is my reply to a potential conflict between my account of limited access and classic principles of epistemic logic such as epistemic closure.
Two of my other publications, “A Paradox for Possible World Semantics” and “Pragmatic Reflexivity in Self-Justifying and Self-Defeating Expressions” concern the reflexivity or self-applicability of semantic and epistemological theories. The former applies possible worlds semantics to the question of whether my utterance “possible world semantics is necessarily true” is true. The latter relates my analysis of self-defeating expressions to a number of traditional problems including skepticism and epistemological relativism. A related paper “The Allure of Meta-justification” concentrates on reflexivity based arguments at the heart of the dispute between rationalists and empiricists over higher-order justification of empirical and a priori knowledge. My immediate goal is to publish on all of these individual topics while working toward a larger work on indexicality and reflexivity as guiding issues in philosophical methodology. In essence the larger project will be an examination of how the success conditions of basic epistemic and semantic acts, such as conceiving, theorizing, and referring figure into the evaluation of philosophical explanations of those acts.
All of the projects I have described are unified by my focus on the relationship between philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics. What is at the core of each project is concern over the balance between the semantics of indexical attitude ascriptions and the success of the metaphysically and epistemologically loaded explanations that employ them.