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Immunity to Error and Subjectivity

From: Canadian Journal of Philosophy
Volume 37, Number 4, December 2007
pp. 581-604 | 10.1353/cjp.2008.0004

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Since Sydney Shoemaker published his seminal article 'Self-Reference and Self-Awareness' in 1968, the notion of 'Immunity to Error through Misidentification' (IEM) has received much attention. It crops up in discussions of personal identity, indexical thought and introspection, and has been used to interpret remarks made by philosophers from Wittgenstein to William James. The precise significance of IEM is often unspecified in these discussions, however. It is unclear, for example, whether it constitutes an important status of judgments, whether it explains an important characteristic of judgments, or whether it merely marks an important characteristic of judgments. Nevertheless, reference to IEM abounds, making this obscure notion seem all the more significant.

I argue that the deference paid to IEM is a mistake. Though my arguments should show that IEM fails to mark, constitute or explain any important status of judgments, this paper's aim is more specific. Many philosophers seem to advance IEM as an alternative to a Cartesian method of defining first-person privilege and of circumscribing the first-person perspective. Gareth Evans, for example, seems to think that consideration of the scope of IEM helps us see our way past a limited, mentalistic picture of the first-person perspective (Evans, 1982, 224). Similarly, Shoemaker (1994) appears to think that IEM offers us insight into self-knowledge without presupposing a notion of infallible access. Since IEM is a more permissive status than traditional Cartesian forms of epistemic security, it might appear to be an antidote to overly restrictive accounts of self-knowledge and subjectivity.

I argue, however, that Immunity to Error through Misidentification cannot replace traditional forms of epistemic security in our theorizing about self-knowledge and subjectivity. I will show, in fact, that IEM is neither necessary nor sufficient for any interesting status that judgments might possess. In particular, it does not mark a first-personal character of judgments. The appearance to the contrary stems from cases where IEM is underwritten by a more traditional Cartesian status. This does not necessarily force us back into a mentalistic self-conception, but it does suggest that a more liberal perspective cannot be attained by simply bypassing the traditional analyses of self-knowledge. The result is that IEM proves to be an extraneous item in the philosopher's conceptual repertoire, clouding more issues than it illuminates.

I Immunity to Error through Misidentification

1. The Basic Notion

Shoemaker introduced IEM in an attempt to clarify certain remarks by Wittgenstein and to explain the peculiar status of certain judgments about oneself. In the Blue Book, Wittgenstein maintained that there are two uses of 'I': its 'object use' and its 'subject use.'

There are two different cases in the use of the word 'I' (or 'my') which I might call the 'use as object' and 'the use as subject'. Examples of the first kind of use are these: 'my arm is broken,' 'I have grown six inches,' 'I have a bump on my forehead,' 'The wind blows my hair about.' Examples of the second kind are: 'I see so-and-so,' 'I hear so-and-so', 'I try to lift my arm,' 'I think it will rain,' 'I have a toothache.' One can point to the difference between these two categories by saying: the cases of the first category involve the recognition of a particular person, and there is in these cases the possibility of an error, or as I should rather put it, the possibility of an error has been provided for. …On the other hand, there is no question of recognizing a person when I have a toothache. To ask, 'are you sure it is you who have pains?' would be nonsensical.

(Wittgenstein, 1958, 66-7)

Shoemaker (1994) maintains that the subject uses of 'I' are not characterized by strict incorrigibility, but rather by Immunity to Error through Misidentification (IEM). He offers the following implicit definition of IEM:

…to say that a statement 'a is F' is subject to error through misidentification relative to the term 'a' means that the following is possible: the speaker knows some particular thing to be F, but makes the mistake of asserting 'a is F', because, and only because, he mistakenly thinks that the thing he...

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