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  • Knowing Without Reasons
  • Paul B. Lieberman (bio)

self-knowledge, externalism, trauma, Wittgenstein

Although this paper discusses a technical and controversial philosophical issue—the proper analysis of knowing—it should interest and provoke clinicians, and, although its argument invokes a technical and contentious psychiatric phenomenon—the repression of traumatic events—its conclusion also has great clinical relevance.

The philosophical issue is this: When we claim to know or to believe something, what is actually going on? The "traditional" philosophic view is that when we claim to know or to believe we claim to have reasons that justify us. It is our having reasons that makes some judgment or assertion a statement of knowledge or belief. Absent reasons we are merely, at best, automata, instruments, or just guessing, perhaps registering something accurately, but not, in some important sense, fully sentient or justified about it. Clinically, if this analysis were true, then it would seem to make no sense to attempt (as therapists often do) to explain certain thoughts or actions as motivated, reasoned, and so on; we might just call them "automatic," habitual, or reflex. We might conceive of them as caused, for example, by certain brain processes—a kind of byproduct of physicochemical events, as in delirium. On the other hand, if we did acknowledge that someone could know or believe something without being able to give his or her reasons, the way would at least be conceptually open for them or their therapists to unearth the reasons they have but do not know. This, I think, is the clinical stake in the philosophical issue, and to which Freedman (2007) makes a contribution.

The chicken-sexers seem to know something, yet not to know their own reasons (they are "super blindsighted"), but this seems an odd and, perhaps, anomalous case. Freedman claims that the clinical phenomenon of the repression of trauma, which she notes to be very widespread, shows that such super blindsightedness is not rare, but commonplace.

Now, I think, clinicians will hesitate at this point, for several reasons. First, although it is established that trauma is widespread, as Freedman claims, it is certainly not established that the repression of trauma occurs frequently. Many researchers and clinicians maintain, in fact, that repression of trauma is rare (McNally 2003) and, certainly, it is often, if not usually, the ineffective forgetting of trauma that seems highly pathogenic. Second, although it is true that trauma is associated with many psychiatric conditions, that association is far from perfect, so to say that (repressed or non-repressed) trauma causes or is the reason for certain types of beliefs and behaviors is less clear than the fact that chicken sexers do their work based on olfactory experiences. Third, [End Page 23] even if we allow some causal role for trauma in producing certain beliefs and behaviors, there is no accepted mechanism by which this occurs, so we are still mostly in the dark about what exactly we mean that repressed trauma is a or the reason in these cases. And, finally, the examples of the chicken-sexers and of (repressed or non-repressed) trauma do not address (perhaps they do not have to address) the clinician's practical concerns: Even if super blindsightedness (knowledge or belief without right reasons) can occur, is it occurring now (in this particular clinical situation), how can we tell? What does it matter?

I think Freedman's argument can be made more convincing to clinicians. We do not need to accept that repression of trauma is widespread. We need only to accept that (a) trauma, itself, is widespread; (b) there are significant effects of trauma on subsequent thought and action; and (c) traumatized individuals often do not realize or fully understand that, and how, their subsequent beliefs and behaviors have been so affected. These premises, I believe, the literature does support, and from them it seems to follow that super blindsightedness is common, as Freedman contends.

In fact, I think that if we canvas our lives, we will find that much of what we claim to know or believe is not based on our having reasons in mind (or on reliability). This is shown, first, by how very difficult it...


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pp. 23-24
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