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  • Explaining Inserted Thoughts
  • Matthew Parrott (bio)

thought insertion, schizophrenia, cognitive agency, consciousness

It seems to be impossible for a person to have introspective access to thoughts that are not her own (Campbell 1999). Yet, although first-personal conscious awareness of a particular thought is normally sufficient for being its owner, some schizophrenic subjects report being conscious of thoughts that are not theirs. This suggests that, contrary to philosophical orthodoxy, thought ownership is not a necessary condition for consciously experiencing a thought. Because what schizophrenics report is thus rather difficult to reconcile with standard philosophical conceptions of conscious thought, it would be good to have a clearer picture of precisely how experiences of thought insertion differ from those of ordinary thinking. Developing such a picture is the aim of Patrizia Pedrini’s essay.

Dispositions and Agency

One of Pedrini’s most valuable insights is that ordinary thinking is intimately tied to cognitive agency. Correspondingly, she thinks that experiences of thought insertion arise because of a certain type of agential failure. Although appeals to agency are familiar in discussions of thought insertion, the relevant failures have traditionally been conceived of primarily in volitional terms, either as some impairment in a subject’s ability to generate her thoughts or as some missing sense of agency normally associated with this kind of act. Yet, as several theorists have pointed out, many ordinary thoughts, such as passing thoughts or free associations, also lack these features. So, if cognitive agency is uniquely impaired in cases of thought insertion, it must be in some other way.

Pedrini’s conception of agency is importantly different. Rather than characterizing it in terms of acts or volitions, she offers a dispositional conception and develops her account of thought insertion along these lines. According to Pedrini (2015), we are fundamentally cognitive agents and being such is a “condition of possibility of holding attitudes held as our own” (p. 225). More specifically, she claims that one must be a cognitive agent to experience a particular thought as one’s own. This, however, does not require one to have actively formed the thought; rather it requires only that a person “be willing to take responsibility” for a thought and to actually do so “when (and if) the appropriate occasion arises” (p. 225). Thus, cognitive agency as it figures in Pedrini’s account should be understood as the disposition to ‘take responsibility’ for one’s thoughts.

But what does this involve? Among contemporary philosophers it is common to think a subject takes responsibility by endorsing her thoughts or judging them to be supported by reasons (Moran 2001). This line of thinking is embodied in what Pedrini calls the Endorsement Model. According [End Page 239] to endorsement theorists, a normal subject experiences a thought as her own because she has the capacity to endorse it with reasons (see, for example, Fernandez [2010] and Pickard [2010]). Pedrini’s central criticism of this model strikes me as correct. Schizophrenics typically experience thought insertion with respect to a variety of attitudes, not simply rational ones. Thus, they are sometimes alienated from thought contents that they merely entertain, fancy, or attend to. It should be clear, however, that for modes of thinking like these the notion of rational endorsement is completely out of place. Indeed, it is hard to see what it could mean to judge that my entertaining a thought about the beach is supported by reasons. How could merely entertaining such an idea have or lack justification? At best, the Endorsement Model is applicable to rational attitudes, like beliefs or desires, but not to the kinds of thoughts that, as Pedrini (2015) says, “do not have a rational provenance” (p. 225).

Is there some way to understand the notion of “taking responsibility” more broadly? If we look to social interactions, it seems that, in addition to citing reasons for our thoughts, we often cite causes. For example, if I am entertaining a thought about the beach and you were to ask why, I might reply that I am especially tired. In such a case, my fatigue would be cited as the cause of my thinking, not a reason. Because these sorts of...


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pp. 239-242
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