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Jesse Prinz

Thanks for another fantastic interview, Shelley. You do better than any one else I know at bringing voices together from different parts of the field.

Josh, this is really a great contribution. Thanks for sharing some of your personal story as well as the latest existing work you are doing. I am a big fan of your work on the true self. I wanted to raise one question, which I think is consistent with what you have shown. In your remarks on addiction, you talk about the experience of feeling like one's true self is a self that doesn't have a dependency on the addictive substance (or activity, etc.). I think that many people who deal with addiction do have those thoughts. But I think a lot of people also identify with their addictions, and some also see the use of addictive substances as agentic -- addiction can be a way of coping with various other noxious aspects of life. There are moments in a "recovery" process when one tries to distinguish one's self from the addiction, as well as a lot of stigma and shame that make one see the addiction as bad, risky, and hurtful to others. So we can come to see addiction as alien. But I think a philosophy of the self should also be able to explain how we can come to identify with addiction (even knowing that is it viewed negatively by others). In this respect, addiction can be like mental illness and other disabilities: these are all regarded negatively by others, and all make life challenging in various ways, but some people come to feel that who they are is bound up in potentially positive ways with these aspects of life. I know you have theoretical resources for allowing each of us to decide our own true selves. I think addiction is a domain where attitudes have been so punitive that we need to think more about ways addiction can become part of identity without pre-judging those for whom this is the case.

Joshua Knobe

Hi Jesse!

So great to see you here. Your own work on people's conceptions of the self has been really inspiring, and definitely did a lot to kick off this whole surge of research on the topic.

Your comment gets at some really important issues in the psychology of addiction, but before I turn to that, just a quick, more superficial point about the relationship to our theory.

In our example about a gay man who believes that homosexuality is morally wrong, many people have the intuition that the agent's desire to refrain from being with other men is getting in the way of the expression of his true self. The theory predicts that people should *not* have this same intuition in the case of addiction, i.e., that people should not think that addicts' desire to refrain from using is getting in the way of the expression of their true self. If people do turn out to have this intuition, that result would provide evidence against our theory.

Now, on to the deeper question. I think you are completely right to say that many people cherish the pain they experience, regarding it as integral to their true selves, and that this can be a serious barrier to treatment. When people are feeling depressed, they sometimes want to feel better, but they also sometimes have the sense that the emotions they are experiencing in that moment are far more real and true than anything they experience when feeling more cheerful. I am sure that many people feel the same way about the emotions that draw them into addiction.

This is an enormously important issue, which we tried to investigate (albeit without much success) and which I hope further research will pursue more seriously.

Thomas Nadelhoffer


Thanks for a great interview. I wanted to pick up on something you said about the folk notion of the true self--namely, that "the true self is that part of us—whichever it might be—that draws us toward the good." If this were right across the board, then it seems like people would be unwilling to attribute a true self to people they deem to be without conscience or irredeemable. So, knaves and psychopaths alike would be lacking a true self. But this doesn't seem right. When people talk about Hitler, for example, they don't reference his being "drawn toward the good," rather, they say he's evil to the core (indeed, perhaps even pure evil). We are also happy to blame these individuals who seem lacking in a drive towards the good. But that, too, is puzzling. For it seems like it is the true self who gets the praise or the blame. But what to do in cases of agents without a true self? Thoughts?

Joshua Knobe

Thanks Thomas! You are picking up on a genuine error in the way I formulated that sentence. I should not have said that people always conceive of the true self as the part of the self that is good. Rather, what I should have said is that (a) there is an effect such that when people regard a part of the self as good, they are more inclined to see it as an expression of the true self and (b) this effect explains precisely the intuitions that originally led people to think that the true self has something to do with reflection.

That said, I do think that this effect would arise even for judgments about the agents we regard as most evil. Suppose that Hitler had a brief moment of doubt in which he experienced compassion for the people in the concentration camps and wondered whether he was making a mistake. My guess is that people would not say that in this moment he was betraying his true self. Whatever else they might think about his true self, I would guess that they would see this moment of compassion as a legitimate part of it.

Ben M-Y

Hi Josh,

Thanks for this great interview, and also for such interesting work on the true self. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts (or even data) on the possibility that people’s intuitions are sensitive to explanations of why someone feels or judges a particular way in a given case. Here’s an attempt to express what I have in mind:

Consider the study you published (along with Newman and Bloom) concerning homosexual feelings/judgments (Study 3 in the PSPB paper you link to). You found that intuitions about Mark’s true self tracked subjects’ personal views about the morality of homosexuality. People who disapprove of homosexuality are more likely to say that Mark’s true self tracked his anti-homosexual attitudes (beliefs or feelings), whereas the opposite was true of the intuitions of people with opposite views about homosexuality.

I wonder whether these intuitions might be sensitive to explanations of why Mark had the relevant beliefs/feelings about homosexuality. In the vignettes you present in the paper, Mark was either an evangelical Christian or a secular humanist. But what if he was a fundamentalist Muslim or the member of a free-loving cult? Do you think that the explanation why he has the beliefs (or feelings) he does might affect what people consider to be his true self? For instance, do you think that those conservatives in your study would be as likely to say that Mark’s true self believes that homosexuality is wrong if that is due to his identification as a fundamentalist Muslim? In a different version of the vignette, do you think that liberals would be as likely to say that Mark’s true self believes that homosexuality is morally acceptable if this is due to his identification as a member of a cult?

If you don’t think that people’s intuitions would be sensitive to these factors, then I’d be really interested to hear why not. If you do they’d be sensitive to them, then I’d be interested to hear why and also what significance you might take this to have.

Thanks in advance!

Joshua Knobe

Hi Ben,

This is a really nice point. I definitely do get those intuitions, and I think it would be great to pursue these issues further. I would be super curious to hear your own opinions on these phenomena, but first, let me quickly say something about how I would think about this.

Basically, our idea is that people's ordinary notion of a 'true self' is the application of people's general tendency to see things as having essences to the specific case of the self. When one looks outside the case of the self in particular, it seems like one sees exactly the same thing. For example, take the way people think about the United States. Many people think that the United States has all sorts of accidental features that it happened to develop in one way or another but that there is also something like 'the essence of the United States' or 'what the United States is really all about.' Or take the way people think about philosophy papers. Many people think that the typical philosophy paper just happens to have various accidental features that it acquires in one way or another but that there is also something like 'the essence of the paper' or 'what the paper is really all about.' Our thought is that the notion of a true self is just one part of this larger way of thinking. We have a general ability to think of things as having essences, and we can then apply that to a human being ('the essence of Ben,' 'what Ben is really all about').

In our work on this topic, we show that the tendency to think of the good things as particularly expressive of the true self isn't specific to the self but also applies equally to these other things (nations, papers, etc.). I am thinking that your effect would show that same pattern. For example, suppose that the United States had in place some really wonderful law but that this law was the product of lobbying from some special interest group of which we generally disapprove. My guess is that -- just as you suggest for the case of the self -- people would be reluctant to say that this law expressed the essence of the United States. Does that sound right to you?

Ben M-Y

Hi Josh,

Thanks for the reply. It's informative to get the bigger picture behind your project and how you're thinking about the true self. To be honest, I had the reaction, initially in response to what you said in the interview about people's true selves being what draws them to the good, that your view sounded quite Platonic. And now in response to the broader picture regarding essences, I'm having this reaction even more strongly. To be clear: this is a good thing in my view! I'm a fan of a, roughly, Platonic conception of the true self. (I borrow the Platonic label from Gary Watson.) This is part of what intrigues me so much about the view you're putting forth.

As for my thoughts about the kinds of cases I brought up in my first comment, I was thinking that maybe the tendency you (and your colleagues) have uncovered is a bit more nuanced than it seems. In broad strokes, we might say that we tend to attribute attitudes to a person's true self that align with what we also take to be good. But I suspect that the tendency is really to attribute attitudes to the person's true self that we agree with *when they were adopted for the right reasons*. The prediction is that a conservative who agrees with the belief that homosexuality is morally wrong will attribute this belief to Mark's true self only when he believes this for what the conservative takes to be good reasons. My thought was that this further condition would be satisfied when Mark is described as an evangelical Christian, but not when he is described as a fundamentalist Muslim (assuming that your subjects are Americans or Westerners).

Of course, this is a testable prediction, and I wonder if anyone has tested it. I haven't. But I think it would be interesting to find out whether the prediction has anything going for it. Thoughts?

Jesse Prinz

Hi again, Josh. Thanks for the interview and the reply. Just a quick clarification. I realize that the theory predicts, that "people should not think that addicts' desire to refrain from using is getting in the way of the expression of their true self." I guess that's what I was resisting. The theory may be right to predict this, but these attitudes that the theory uncovers (a the theoretical decision to compare these to the attitudes towards homophobia) are problematic. Homophobia is a pernicious attitude directed towards others based on false beliefs. Addiction is, in some cases, a self-medicating coping strategy. It can affect others in serious ways, but I think casual use of addiction examples in the same context as homophobia may give the wrong impression. Participants in the studies may treat the two similarly (using the formula: these are bad therefore not part of the true self), but there may also be a normative issue here. Given that the self is a construction, we can ask, what things should we try to eliminate from ourselves, and what things should we keep. It may be that bigotry should always be eliminated, but things may not be so simple with addiction and mental illness. As theoreticians who try to simple give descriptive stories, we sometimes implicitly enter into the normative sphere. By equating the cases, and saying ordinary people see both addiction and homophobia as things that are bad, hence not part of identity, one may be taken as endorsing this stance. I know that you don't endorse this stance. But then the question becomes, are there resources within the theory, to explore the differences. I think the answer you gave about the depression case, and your efforts there, speaks directly to this, so no need to respond. I just wanted to clarify. Thanks again.

Joshua Knobe

Hi Ben,

I would be really interested in hearing more about how this stuff relates to your own work. What I am suggesting is that people's ordinary concept of the true self has nothing to do with endorsement or with distinction between reason and appetite. I had thought that your own view was pretty much the opposite (i.e., that the concept of the true self was deeply related to endorsement and to the reason/appetite distinction), but in light of your comments here, I am thinking that I was actually mistaken in my understanding of your account. Could you maybe say a little bit more?


Joshua Knobe

Hi Jesse,

This is a really valuable point. Clearly, it is not enough just to reach a better understanding of people's ordinary views on these topics (an empirical project); we also need to ask whether these views are problematic in certain respects (a critical project). The specific point you make here is a very important one for that latter question.

In any case, the work we are doing might make some very small contribution to the critical project. Specifically, it seems that a first step in getting at what is most problematic in people's ordinary conception is just to have a clear understanding of what that conception is.


I want to thank you again for an excellent interview. As with the other disabled philosophers I’ve interviewed for this series, I am moved that you entrusted me with your story and your philosophical views.

As I indicated to you as we put the finishing touches on the interview, I want to make some remarks about your thoughts with respect to disability and self-identification. I hope that you will pick up on these should you respond to my comment.

First, let me make a few remarks about your writing process and your use of voice-recognition technology because, when I read your responses to my interview questions and other requests for information, this aspect of your interview affected me most deeply.

Indeed, your remarks about the ways in which you got through grad school cannot not go unremarked on here. For my part, I have been repeatedly awed, saddened (if not angered), and grateful when I have read these remarks in the interview:

(1) I’ve been awed because your remarks are a reminder of how people who, in some way, don’t conform to narrow constructions of the worlds in which they inhabit routinely manage to find ways to thrive in these worlds designed to exclude them. For one thing, I think that (once again) we should ask how much the discipline’s preoccupation with intelligence determines the way in which contributions must be made, who can make them, what form they must take, what modality they must employ, etc.

(2) I’ve been saddened (and even angered) because you seem to have thought that you were not entitled to ask for different evaluation techniques than your peers. Everyone deserves an education that is accessible to them and universities are legally required to deliver it to them.

(3) I’m grateful because you have made it easier for some other reluctant philosopher with less prestige and privilege than you to come forward and ask for what they deserve from their colleagues, from their own institutions, and from the philosophical community at large. Thank you for making a difference in the very way that you yourself describe at one point in the interview.

On the matter of disability and self-identification: I think you should identify as disabled. I also hope that you will begin to read philosophy of disability and disability theory. Anecdotal reports suggest that many people come to identify themselves as disabled after they have read in the area and become informed about the conceptions of disability (and their associations with oppression, disadvantage, marginalization, and discrimination) that disability theorists, researchers, and activists have produced. Perhaps, in the future, you would even be motivated to run some experiments on the relation between exposure to philosophy of disability/disability theory/disability activism and incorporation of disabled identity. I would be delighted to embark on such studies with you.

Ben M-Y

Hi Josh,

You're correct about my own view. In short, I think that the true self is deeply related to endorsement from the perspective of one's values. But I have come to think that what constitutes one's values is quite a bit more complicated than what it is often thought to be--i.e., one's values are not identical to one's value judgments. And I'm also coming to think that what constitutes endorsement is probably a bit more complicated than it is sometimes made out to be. But I still think that the notion of the true self is deeply related to and profitably understood in terms of reflective endorsement.

I must admit that I wasn't appreciating exactly how the work you've been discussing here shows that our notion of the true self is divorced from reflection and endorsement. It seems that your work suggests that our judgments about another person's true self do not track our assessment of their own sense of what they endorse--i.e., Mark may claim that he endorses homophobia, but one might judge, instead, that his true self holds that homosexuality is morally acceptable. One explanation of this may be that our judgments about the true self track *our own* endorsements, even when they are judgments about another person's true self. This seems to me to be one reading of the results you've obtained. But please correct me if I'm mistaken here. Another explanation may be that our judgments about the true self track what we take to be the correct endorsement--where this may come apart from an individual's explicit endorsement. This seems to me to be suggested by the predicted intuitions I was describing in my comments. It also seems consistent with the result you've obtained. Again, please let me know if you think otherwise.

So, in the end, I don't yet see that people's reactions to these scenarios show that judgments about the true self are divorced from endorsement, or even reflection. I guess I think that there are explanations of the intuitions under discussion that are compatible with reflective endorsement views, albeit ones that are more nuanced than, say, Frankfurt's view. But I would be very interested to hear what you think.

Joshua Knobe

Hi Ben,

This idea sounds very intriguing, and I want to hear more. I think we probably both agree that there is some superficial sense in which cases like the ones we have been discussing speak against the reflection-based view. (At least on an initial inspection, it seems like the part of the self that counts in these cases as the agent's true self is not the reflective part but rather the more emotional, appetitive part.) But if I understand correctly, you are thinking that this more superficial reading of the situation is mistaken. Could you say more about what you think is actually going on here?

Hi Shelley,

Thanks for writing! I really appreciate everything you've done to draw attention to issues about disability in our discipline, and also to facilitate research on questions in the philosophy of disability. I completely agree that there is a huge amount of potential for work at the intersection of experimental philosophy and disability theory.

I don't have any background in disability theory myself, so I feel like it would be a bit presumptuous of me to comment on the difficult philosophical questions that arise in that area. However, I am excited to see that some people who do have a serious background in disability theory have begun using the method of experimental philosophy (e.g., in the work of Steve Steward). It will be really interesting to see how research at this intersection continues to develop.


Josh, thanks for your kind remarks about my work in philosophy of disability and my other endeavours.

I want to take this opportunity to remind readers/listeners of the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog that the blog now has a Facebook group page where additional items are shared and posted, and on which discussion ensues. Like the blog itself, the Discrimination and Disadvantage Facebook group focuses on issues of disadvantage, oppression, exclusion, social justice, etc. within academia, especially issues that concern philosophers, but issues of social justice, oppression, exploitation, etc. more generally are also highlighted.

To join the D & D Facebook group, just click on the words "Our Facebook Page" at the top right of the screen here.


I get the feeling that there is a contradiction or at least a tension between what you want to claim in regards to addiction and what you have said in response to Jesse’s remarks about (so-called) “mental illness”. I think my concern picks up on some aspects of your remarks that Jesse noticed, though he can correct me if I have misinterpreted him.

On the one hand, you want to claim that when people refrain from addictive drug use, they have acted in accordance with their true selves. On the other hand, you seem to think that people diagnosed as mentally ill are not true to themselves if they identify with their “mental illness” and thereby do not readily avail themselves to “treatment.”

For many (if not most) people who have been diagnosed (psychiatrized) as mentally ill, treatment amounts to large doses of addictive drugs. Many people who are labelled with psychiatric conditions repeatedly “go off their meds.” Among other reasons for doing so, many of these people feel that the drugs render them unable to “be themselves,” who they really are. If I understood you correctly, you think that they would not really “be themselves” if they were to refuse to be medicated (as you put it, they “cherish their pain” which is a “barrier to treatment”).

So, we seem to have a conflicted distinction: on the one hand, some users of drugs are true to themselves when they do not use; and on the other hand, other users of drugs are true to themselves if they do use.

What seems to be at the root of this conflict is the epistemological and ontological status of mental illness. If one assumes (as I do) that (what gets called) mental illness is socially constituted, an artifact of disabling administrative, medical, and juridical discourses, then, one is inclined to say that the distinction between which users of drugs are true to themselves when they are using and which users are not true to themselves when they use is also artifactual, a matter of what is authoritatively and more generally socially permissible.

My apologies if I’ve misunderstood you, Josh. I have really enjoyed the discussion thus far.

Joshua Knobe

Hi Shelley,

Thanks for this further comment. Looking back, I can certainly see how my earlier comment might be reasonably construed as taking a position on the use of medication in psychiatry, but I had actually not been intending to take any position on those complex issues.

I was trying to advance the hypothesis that people's decisions about whether to seek treatment (either psychotherapy or medication) can be influenced by intuitions about whether the emotions they are experiencing are reflective of their true selves. There is of course a deeply important normative question here about whether people actually *should* seek such treatment (and if so, whether they should opt for psychotherapy or medication), but I would not be even remotely qualified to express an opinion on that question and was not intending to do so.

That said, I would obviously be happy to hear your thoughts on that question and would also be interested in hearing from others who have expertise in this area.


hi Josh,
thanks for your response to my recent comment. I think that we are in agreement on more than it appears, but that we have stated our ideas in different ways, with a different emphasis. Consider this remark in your most recent comment:

"I was trying to advance the hypothesis that people's decisions about whether to seek treatment (either psychotherapy or medication) can be influenced by intuitions about whether the emotions they are experiencing are reflective of their true selves."

I think that this remark aligns with my claim that at the root of people's beliefs (and here I include philosopher's claims) about their true selves with respect to mental illness are assumptions about what mental illness is (its ontological status). In my view, any position on the normative question to which you refer will also be a position on the question of what mental illness (and impairment more generally) is and constitutive of the objects it claims to merely identify and describe.

Maybe you think that my approach relies too much on conceptual analysis. I'd be interested to know if you do. My research strategy (as Jesse and others know) has been to identify how normative positions on impairment and prenatal testing, stem cell research, etc. have contributed to the constitution of the very object about which they prescribe.

Addendum: Josh, let me add this. In my view, my approach/research strategy follows from my understanding of how power operates: in brief, that power is productive of the objects that it subsequently coerces and controls.

Joshua Knobe

Hi Shelley,

I apologize for not engaging more directly with the questions you are posing here. Please believe me when I say that my reticence does not involve any kind of implicit disapproval of the approach you are taking. Rather, it is simply that you are asking about topics (disability studies, psychopharmacology) in which I really have no background at all.

As a result, I would be interested in learning about those topics from you or from others with the relevant expertise, but I am very reluctant to offer any opinions of my own.


not to worry. I wasn't expecting answers about the research itself of the approach, but rather thought you might have an observation to make about general "methodology" of the approach.

In any case, I think that I've got a better idea of what you meant in your response to Jesse. I'm sure he could make additional valuable contributions to a discussion about the social constitution of mental illness, as could Andrea Nicki who did a powerful interview with me in January that can be found here:

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