The limits of selflessness: semantic relativism and the epistemology of de se thoughts

Synthese 190 (10):1793-1816 (2013)
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Abstract
It has recently been proposed that the framework of semantic relativism be put to use to describe mental content, as deployed in some of the fundamental operations of the mind. This programme has inspired in particular a novel strategy of accounting for the essential egocentricity of first-personal or de se thoughts in relativist terms, with the advantage of dispensing with a notion of self-representation. This paper is a critical discussion of this strategy. While it is based on a plausible appeal to cognitive economy, the relativist theory does not fully account for the epistemic profile that distinguishes de se thinking, as some of its proponents hope to do. A deeper worry concerns the reliance of the theory on a primitive notion of “centre” that hasn’t yet received enough critical attention, and is ambiguous between a thin and a rich reading. I argue that while the rich reading is required if the relativist analysis of the de se is to achieve its most ambitious aims, it also deprives the theory of much of its explanatory power.
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2013-05-24

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