"Thinking and Talking about the Self"


John Perry

“Not long ago,” Mach wrote in 1885,  “after a trying railway journey by night, when I was very tired, I got into an omnibus, just as another man appeared at the other end.   ‘What a shabby pedagogue that is, that has just entered,’ thought I.   It was myself: opposite me hung a large mirror.   The physiognomy of my class, accordingly, was better known to me than my own.” 

Mach acquired a belief at the beginning of the episode, that we can imagine him expressing as: 

(1)     That man is a shabby pedagogue.

By the end of the episode he has another, which we can imagine him expressing as: 

(2)     I am a shabby pedagogue.   

It will also be convenient to imagine that Mach went on to make an obvious inference and to say, 

(3)     Mach is a shabby pedagogue.

All three statements are true iff Mach is a shabby pedagogue.  But only (2) expresses what we might call a “self-belief”.

There are three questions I want to address in this talk.  The first is about beliefs; what makes the belief that (2) expresses a self-belief?  This question has to do with the nature of belief, and what is special about self-beliefs.  The second question has to do with the connection between language and belief.  (2) expresses self-belief, while (1) and (3) do not.  This clearly has something to do with the use of the first-person, that is, in English, the word “I”.  The way the word “I” works is not particularly mysterious, but it is not trivial to say why the way it works makes it suitable for expressing self-beliefs.  Finally, I want to say a little bit about the distinction between thought and belief, and their connections to language.