Pragmatic Knowledge

Last updated on: Mar 8, 2022



            The mind is an elusive entity to try to catch, observe, and understand. On face value we accept that we are comprised of a physical substance (brain and body), but also that we have psychic or immaterial/intangible capabilities, namely those that extend from our mind. We have access to our own mind and our own body that no other individual can replicate or fully understand. In this paper I will explore two fundamental questions. How do we know about the mental states of others? Is it possible to perceive how someone feels, or what someone thinks, directly, or do we only infer that others have certain mental states?

            I will approach this topic using Gilbert Ryle’s “ordinary language” perspective that identifies a common vernacular and avoids technical jargon terms that may (and are) used by different philosophers in different contexts. Namely, I will show that we can know about the mental states of others through both internal and external analysis of our own actions and thoughts as well as the actions and thoughts of others.

            My aim in this paper is to provide reasons to accept Ryle’s view that we can know of the mental states of others in similar ways and about similar things than we can about ourselves (155).To establish my support for Ryle’s view I will provide real-world examples where first-person direct and indirect knowledge of other’s mental states holds true. I’ll then defend those examples as exemplars of support for Ryle’s view from the vantage point of the “Official Doctrine”.


The “Official Doctrine” and Privileged Access View

            The “Official Doctrine” and Privileged Access view dominate the philosophical perspective with regards to knowledge of our mental states and the mental states of others. These two views enforce a mindset that one only has infallible access and knowledge of one’s own mental states. That this intimate ability provides the photoluminescent light that grants one access to the inner recesses of one’s own mind where no mental operation escapes interrogation or mental state hides its truth value. That the mental states of others are, if not impossible to know, solely misguided inferences about others based on their behaviors and language.

            The “Official Doctrine” is Ryle’s term for describing the Cartesian view that mechanical explanations were fit for use in describing the mind (SEP, 2020). Ryle calls Cartesian Dualism “the dogma of the ghost in the machine” and reject Descartes’ philosophy arguing instead in favor of an “ordinary language” philosophy of the mind (155).

            The Privileged Access view is the assertion that each of us have a particular way of knowing about ourselves that is especially epistemically secure. This view is advocated by Brie Gertler and Bertrand Russell. Gertler believes that this concept is specifically what explains first person authority of knowledge. We can account for this access to our own state of mind through introspection and acquaintance with a state of mind (Self Knowledge, 96). That acquaintance then leads us to have direct, non-inferential awareness of a state of mind thereby constituting access to knowledge about its nature. Russell agrees that acquaintance can account for our privileged access to facts about our own minds, but not the minds of others. This is due to the fact that our senses only provide us knowledge about sense-data (colors, sounds, smells, etc.) and are thus things that describe other objects rather than provide us knowledge of them as they are (The Problems of Philosophy, 5). The controversial conclusion for Ryle is that the privilege access view only allows us to be certain of our own mental states and not the mental states of others. We’ll explore a rebuttal to this argument later.


Ryle’s View

            When we talk about the mind, we’re actually discussion the capabilities and disposition that the mind has and is made up of (see also John Heil on Dispositions). Ryle posits that we can know much about others in the same way we know about ourselves, the major difference being the amount of information or “data” available to myself about me versus about you (155). In some ways finding things out about myself is harder than finding things out about others, and in other ways it is easier (156). Importantly, Ryle differentiates that this is possible “in principle, as distinct from practice…” (156). That is, the ways I discover things about myself are also ways that I can discover things about others. Ryle’s ultimate goals are to display the inaptness and convolutedness of the “Official Doctrine” and the Privileged Access view.


Support for Ryle’s View

            We can know about the mental states of others indirectly through our understanding of our own mental capacities- namely introspection. Introspection, as Ryle describes it, is a mental state wherein an individual is directing their mental energies to scrutinize an action, process, event, or mental state in a deliberate and active sense (163). More specifically, this introspectiveness involves no optical functioning, only the use of one’s mind. In this way, introspection seems to provide us the acute ability to ascertain the potential motivations, emotions, and dispositions of others and of our environment. Through introspective analysis we can project and come to conclusions about the world, cause-and-effect relationships, innateness of objects and individuals, etc. Introspection, being a deliberate and active process, also provides us the capacity to infer and deduce information about and from our environment. In true Sherlockian fashion, the observations we make about ourselves can lead us to deduce and induce things about others just as observations we make about others can lead us to deduce and induce things about ourselves (see also Paul Boghossian Inference and Insight).  

            We can know about the mental states of others indirectly and directly through their use of common language combined with behaviors. This combination functions as a conjunction, or an inclusive disjunction) When others tell me about their experiences or current states of mind, I hear it directly from the source. We see the parallels, similarities, and differences between their experience and our own and over time and through repeated exposure develop heuristics about knowledge of themselves and ourselves. I acknowledge that there may be a lack of understanding and interpretations of the other’s own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, but nevertheless we are receiving information in an informative manner from the source. Ryle supports this view saying that “learning to talk is learning to make oneself understood” (184). Clearly this must be the purpose of language and our ability to communicate with other humans.

            The same example allows us to interpret other’s actions and speech as well while the transaction of information is occurring. An example might be the case of a therapist and their patient. The patient offers information about themselves and the therapist both interprets what they are saying, how they are saying it, and what they are doing while they say it to form an indirect and direct understanding. This analysis, combined with previous experience with the patient helps the therapist form a sharper picture of their patient’s true motives, thoughts, and beliefs, even if the patient doesn’t recognize them in themselves. Again, introspection on the therapist’s part is required to completely draw out the nuances of the interaction and in this sense the therapist still only obtains an indirect understanding of the patient. Nevertheless, the therapist can and does know about the patient directly through shared, transparent interaction in a controlled environment.

            I see another support for Ryle in his comment that “a missile cannot be its own target” (197). I interpret this to mean that we need other people to help us interrogate ourselves. We cannot fully know about ourselves without others giving us objective feedback about how our actions, thoughts, and behaviors actually manifest in the world. Because each person retains a unique albeit similar lens from which to view us, we can continue to develop a sense of self as it is interpreted by the world while retaining our own sense of self to ourselves.

            Land navigation techniques provide us a helpful visual aid here. Imagine that you are traversing through the woods, become disoriented and then hopelessly lost. You have a map (signifying your empirical experience of life to that point) and compass (signifying your unique capacity for introspection, foresight, induction, and critical thinking). You should fear not that you’ll be lost forever. You find a vantage point from which you can see some of the landscape and recognize two points on the horizon (signifying some prior knowledge of experience) and “shoot” and azimuth towards each. You calculate the back azimuths and draw lines from each of the known objects to where they intersect. You’ve found yourself! In this example, you’ve discovered your whereabouts on your own mental map using tangible experience and a priori knowledge to know where you now reside. This example also works if you have a known object in space that is identifiable on your map as well as if you are on some kind of linear object (let’s say a road). Here, the road will signify your journey along a specified track or path. Only one back azimuth is required here to find your location. This is a technique called “resection.”

            It is important to note that this process can be used in reverse as well, that is if you have two known objects and are searching for an unknown object. Imagine two guard towers on opposite sides of a large valley. Each reports that they see the unknown object at a specific distance and direction from their current location. The principle is the same as resection, except here we just need to draw out the azimuths to discover where they intersect to reveal the location of our unknown object. This technique is called “intersection.” Coincidentally, this concept of “intersectionality” has strong implications for many of the current critical social justice theories and is the linchpin from which they base their ideologies… but I digress (see New Discourses and Patricia Hill-Collins’ Intersectionality (Key Concepts)).

            These analogies may seem incompatible or inappropriate for use here, but I think they are apt. In each case the individual is able to discover knowledge of something that wasn’t evident before whether it was their own location or the location of something else. I use these examples to parallel Ryle’s ideas that we can find out about ourselves and others in similar manners. In the resection case I can use others or personal concrete experiences to find out how I’m acting or behaving by receiving feedback from those entities. In the intersection case I might be in one of the guard towers with a friend of mine in the other providing a coworker useful insight into their own seemingly oblivious and inappropriate actions at the office. A key note to add here is that commonality of language and context are key to our discoveries. That is, if my compass is off or if we’re using different compasses with different notations of degrees, or if we have different maps with different levels of detail then we are bound to make errors in our calculations and interpretations. This, I think, is yet another proof in support of “ordinary language” philosophy.

            A final, controversial example of gathering indirect knowledge about others and their mental states is when I see others behaving in certain ways, I infer from their actions their current mental state. For example, I take my coworker to be extremely busy and frustrated if they are pacing rapidly around the office, murmuring to themselves, and frantically shuffling things around on their desk. From my own experience of being task saturated and overwhelmed I attribute my coworker’s actions to be caused by her amount of work at the office. This does not necessitate that my interpretation is correct, but I nevertheless am able to interpret her behaviors in the same way I deduce my own and others induce about me. This retrospective projection of my autobiographical experiences onto another does not constitute Privileged Access to that information but does provide me a unique source of information from which I can induce things about the world (167).


An Objection

            So, is this pragmatic way of interpreting the mind a realistic one? The Privileged Access view proponents may argue a “phosphorescence” example used by Ryle. That is, that the mind’s own processes become aware to and of itself through its own introspective “light” (159). If this personal epiphany can occur at will and simultaneous with my interactions in the world, why then can I not directly explain (meaning provide tangible or a priori evidence) why I begin to doze off in the car on my drive home from work each evening? I know that I am falling asleep just as I know that I shouldn’t be falling asleep. The potential for injury is high and I know that I need to be attentive at the wheel, yet despite my conscious efforts to dispel my intense, automatic desire to shut my eyes, I cannot prevail. I continue the struggle for a period of time and then, just as quickly as the drowsiness swept over me, it has disappeared, and I arrive home with no recollection of the details of the journey itself. Now that I am sitting in the comfort and safety of my home, why can I not ascertain the causes of the episode that just occurred? Perhaps I need the assistance of science and others to aid my pursuit of knowledge here. This case may be more phenomenological and physiological than purely mental, but a similar case may be made for why I cannot recall the reasons for why I handwrite in capital letters or why I get annoyed with people when they walk by me on the street without acknowledging my existence at all. If I only have the Privileged Access view to use to understand myself then I fear I’ll be stuck in Plato’s cave for eternity.



            My aim in this essay was to support Ryle’s “ordinary language” philosophy specifically in reference to how we come to know about ourselves and others. I highlighted real-world examples of how to discover information about the unknown, whether the unknown is yourself or something else. I supported Ryle’s views with tangible examples of personal experiences and outlined the differences in Ryle’s thinking versus that of the Cartesians and Privileged Access view proponents.

            There is still much more to explore in this area, however I think it is undoubtable that we use both a priori introspection coupled with a posteriori experience to conceive of and operate in the world. The “and/inclusive or” nature of behavior and language provides us a useful framework for understanding how we can know about ourselves and others. It is important to consider context in relation to how we gather facts, information, and data to develop understanding.Instead of debasing Ryle’s thesis that we have similar ways of knowing about ourselves and others we can build off of his “universal shamming” idea to be careful about knowledge of others, not that it’s impossible to know anything about others. As Ryle aptly puts it, “to drop the hope of Privileged Access is also to drop the fear of epistemological isolationism; we lose the bitters with the sweets of Solipsism” (156).


Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy. Global Grey (2013).

Brie Gertler, Self-Knowledge. Taylor and Francis Group, (2011).

Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind. New York, Barnes and Noble (1950).

Hill Collins, Patricia. Intersectionality (Key Concepts). Wiley. Kindle Edition, p. 2.

John Heil, Dispositions. Sythese (2005). Springer.

Lindsay, James, New Discourses Encyclopedia   (

Paul Boghossian Inference and Insight, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, November, 2001, pp. 633–641.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Gilbert Ryle. (2015)

Written by <a href="" target="_self">Matt Sandoval</a>

Written by Matt Sandoval

Hi, I’m Matt. I am an active duty Soldier in the United States Army. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in NeuroExperimental Psychology and a Master’s degree in Philosophy. I am highly competitive in all activities (work and recreation), but my personality is a strange concoction of Seinfeld and Stoicism. I am interested a wide-variety of philosophical and military topics and gravitate towards discussions of human experience. I have a penchant for planning, organization, and building teams. If you’re looking for information, advice, or dialogue on leadership, metaphysics, or a bit of wit infused with some healthy cynicism then I’m your guy.
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