How we use language to make sense of our thoughts

Humanities Center fellow Eli Alshanetsky writes and teaches about the philosophical problem of self-knowledge.
Dec 7, 2017

Eli Alshanetsky is a Mellon postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center who studies the philosophy of the mind, epistemology, and cognitive science.

His forthcoming book, Articulating a Thought (Oxford University Press, 2018), examines how we make our thoughts clear to ourselves in the process of putting them into words.

Alshanetsky received a PhD in philosophy from New York University and a BA in philosophy and cognitive science from UC Berkeley. Before coming to Stanford, he spent a year as a lecturer at NYU.

Q. What is the focus of your current research?

My research focuses on self-knowledge. For philosophers, this means not only knowledge of the Self (if there is such a thing!), but also knowledge of aspects of our mentality more generally. How do we access our mental states? How do we discover what we think, want, and feel? Some cases of self-knowledge seem trivial and instantaneous (“Am I now thinking about this question? Decidedly so!”). Others take more time and effort (“What is it that bothers me about what this person is saying? Hmm, let me think...”). I am more interested in trickier cases like the latter.

Q. What drew you to study this aspect of philosophy?

As an undergraduate taking philosophy classes, I would often write papers in which I’d summarize some philosopher’s view, or rehash the arguments surrounding some thesis, while adding my own twist here and there. This would result in clear papers, but they did not feel very creative. On the other hand, outside of my philosophy classes, I was having all sorts of insights about life, the world, morality, and other topics that seemed broadly philosophical. These insights were intense but obscure. Whenever I took the chance to get clear on one of them in a paper, I found myself in the midst of one of those tricky cases of self-knowledge that I study in my work. I couldn't predict how long the paper would be, or whether it would make any sense. I'd turn in barely comprehensible papers, but still feel I was getting somewhere intellectually. It’s as though I was split into two parts—one clear, the other obscure. One part was well-versed in language but oblivious to many aspects of reality; the other part was linguistically clumsy but interfaced more closely with experience. Leaving each part to its own devices resulted in nothing good, but the value of bringing them together was not yet apparent to me.

I wanted to understand the reason for this split, and why it seemed so crucial to get the two parts talking to each other. Thinking about this has naturally led me to self-knowledge. Our knowledge of our own thoughts is as immediate as can be. And yet, I didn’t feel that I had a good handle on many of my thoughts, or knew whether my insights were really insights, until I pinned them down using words others could easily understand. This struck me as strange: Why would other people be relevant here? And why would a public language formulation be needed for the seemingly private task of getting clear on our own thoughts?

Q. How do you conduct your research?

I run no experiments, draw on no archival materials. Many philosophers emphasize linguistic and conceptual analysis—using people’s judgments about the proper use of words as data. In the areas I’m exploring, this methodology doesn’t get one very far. Explanatory virtues such as simplicity play a role, but there must be something to keep the explanation from veering into speculation. And in my case, that grounding element is given by detailed descriptions of experience, my own and other people’s. So the main material I draw on is experience.

While there is skepticism nowadays about this kind of first-person methodology, I think much of it is misplaced. Unlike many scientific inquiries whose subject matter is radically foreign to us, my inquiry aims at understanding aspects of our own subjective perspective. The fact that we ourselves are the beings under investigation makes it more appropriate to extrapolate from our own experience and gives us some edge. (Exactly what gives us this edge is itself a question that I explore in my research.)

Q. What would people be surprised to learn about your research?

What surprised me personally is how pervasive the phenomenon I was studying turned out to be. You may think there’s very little in common between getting clear on a philosophical idea and recalling a name (for example, of some actor). But in fact in both cases we proceed experimentally, trying out candidate ideas or names until we recognize a fit (“Aha! It’s Daniel Day-Lewis!”).

The click of recognition in these cases is puzzling, and in a way suggestive of the famous puzzle in Plato’s Meno: How can we search for something if we don’t know what it is? And if we do know, what’s the point of looking? Plato thought all philosophy was recollection, and there’s a grain of truth in that idea. But really, the phenomenon is all over the place. We find it in activities as basic as classifying colors and sensations, and as sophisticated as mathematical discovery. In all these cases there is a spontaneous process of selection—one that is exquisitely attuned to our standards and goals, engages our emotions, and culminates in a distinctive kind of experience. When I first became interested in self-knowledge, the last thing I expected was to find the same underlying process at play in all these diverse activities.

Q. Why is it valuable to study your topic?

Studying self-knowledge can illuminate other kinds of basic knowledge and the nature of mental states, and it can help with other questions that go to the heart of the Western philosophical tradition. But the interest of the topic is far from just academic. Understanding how we make our ideas clear can give us practical insight into our intellectual development and contribute to the design of educational curriculum.

Many other possible applications have come to me from conversations with my students. Last year, a PhD student in political science drew my attention to the relevance of the topic to discussions of sincerity in politics (if we don’t have much by way of self-knowledge, then maybe we should not ask political candidates to be sincere!).

More recently, an MA student in philosophy has opened me to a whole world of real-life cases, discussed in the work of philosopher Miranda Fricker and others, in which people struggle to make themselves intelligible to others and to themselves. A person may be all too familiar with a specific type of injustice (“I was subject to this”), without recognizing it as such (“I was a victim of sexual harassment,” “I was subject to racial discrimination,” “I was illegally detained”). Understanding how we make our ideas clear can shed light on what happens in such cases and what we could do to help.