Maria Alvarez

Wittgenstein, Anscombe and 'Self-Knowledge'

26th November, 2019

@ 6:15 pm - 8:00 pm

Bloomsbury, 50 Bedford Square

London WC1B 3DP


About the Speaker
About the Reporter

About the Speaker

Maria Alvarez is Professor of Philosophy at King's College London, having previously taught at the University of Southampton. She’s the author of Kinds of Reasons; an Essay in the Philosophy of Action and works mainly on philosophy of action, reasons and normativity. She’s currently working on a monograph on agency, choice and moral responsibility. She is Co-Editor of Philosophy with Bill Brewer.


Alvarez, M. (2013). Kinds of Reasons: An Essay In The Philosophy Of Action (Reprint edition). Oxford University Press, Usa. Cite


Philosophers use the term ‘self-knowledge’ to refer to the distinctive knowledge that we are said to have of our own sensations, beliefs, intentions and other ‘mental states’. According to standard interpretations, however, for Wittgenstein, talk of self-knowledge in relation to these phenomena is, at best, misguided – if not plain wrong. On the other hand, Elizabeth Anscombe, whose work was deeply influenced by Wittgenstein, placed the concept of ‘practical knowledge’ at the centre of the account of intentional action, as developed in her book Intention. Anscombe’s account and the concept of practical knowledge have attracted a lot of attention recently. In this paper I explain the main features of the concept and examine whether it is in tension with Wittgenstein’s views about our epistemic relation to our ‘mental states'.



by Désirée Weber

What can we know about our own intentions? Maria Alvarez explored this question for its philosophical import and for the insights it yields about the relationship between the thought of Elizabeth Anscombe and Ludwig Wittgenstein. A recent return to Anscombe’s book Intention, in which her formulation of practical knowledge is at the heart of her account of intention, raises questions about the extent to which Anscombe’s views are in line with Wittgenstein’s persistent disavowal of our ability to have knowledge about our own intentions.
After establishing philosophical self-knowledge as first-person psychological avowals, Alvarez introduced Wittgenstein’s well-known contrarian position about the very possibility of self-knowledge, or at least its epistemological function. And to a certain degree, Anscombe seems to follow this line in her own work. And yet, Anscombe does argue that we can have self-knowledge – understood as knowledge without observation – about some cases of intention such as whether we intended to knock over a vase or not. Even if their views are not entirely contiguous on this point, Alvarez noted a similarity in their method: both thinkers’ writing is a representation of actually working through a philosophical problem instead of just presenting the results of such work.
Central questions regarding self-knowledge include whether it meets the criteria for knowledge, such as whether it is falsifiable, and what its relation is to practical knowledge. Nevertheless, the nature of the mistakes that we can make when it comes to practical knowledge are unique, according to Anscombe who says we are “not quite straightforwardly wrong” in such instances. Alvarez here explained the example of what one would say one’s intention was in opening a window which both lets the breeze in to cool the room but also squashes a bug in the process. The important point is that “I know without observation what I am doing intentionally, but not that I do what I do intentionally without observation.” This position does not dissolve the questions entirely, but it does help to parse the complexity between Wittgenstein and Anscombe’s positions as well as the category of knowledge and its relation to self-knowledge.
In the end, Alvarez suggested, Anscombe on intention is a more significant contribution to developing the conceptual tools to do moral philosophy, than to the epistemology of self-knowledge as such. If her work is seen in this light, then the degree of her overlap with Wittgenstein becomes less central, as do the difficulties in pinning down whether certain cases of self-knowledge do or do not meet the criteria for knowledge.

About the reporter

Dr. Weber’s expertise includes modern and contemporary political theory, with a particular focus on language, discourse and argumentation in political thinking. Her area of specialization is the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein and other language philosophers on political understanding and judgment. She teaches a variety of political theory courses and coaches the Moot Court team.
She is currently working on a book about the role of teaching and learning in Wittgenstein’s biography and later work – and the implications for understanding our capacity to make meaning as well as judgments about meaning. In partnership with Badlands Unlimited Press, she is also working to produce a new edition of Wittgenstein's Wörterbuch für Volksschulen [Dictionary for Elementary Schools] which will appear in summer 2020.

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