Privileged access

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In the fields of epistemology and philosophy of mind, a person (the subject, the self) has privileged access to their own thoughts. This implies the subject has access to, and knows, their own thoughts (has self-knowledge) in such a way that others do not. Privileged access can be characterized in two ways:

Epistemology A branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.

Philosophy of mind Branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of the mind

Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that studies the ontology, nature, and relationship of the mind to the body. The mind–body problem is a paradigm issue in philosophy of mind, although other issues are addressed, such as the hard problem of consciousness, and the nature of particular mental states. Aspects of the mind that are studied include mental events, mental functions, mental properties, consciousness, the ontology of the mind, the nature of thought, and the relationship of the mind to the body.

A subject is a being who has a unique consciousness and/or unique personal experiences, or an entity that has a relationship with another entity that exists outside itself.


Introspection is the examination of one's own conscious thoughts and feelings. In psychology, the process of introspection relies exclusively on observation of one's mental state, while in a spiritual context it may refer to the examination of one's soul. Introspection is closely related to human self-reflection and is contrasted with external observation.

Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness, or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning.

Evidence Material supporting an assertion

Evidence, broadly construed, is anything presented in support of an assertion. This support may be strong or weak. The strongest type of evidence is that which provides direct proof of the truth of an assertion. At the other extreme is evidence that is merely consistent with an assertion but does not rule out other, contradictory assertions, as in circumstantial evidence.


The still prevailing traditional position argues each of us do in fact have privileged access to our own thoughts. Descartes is the paradigmatic proponent of such kind of view (even though "privileged access" is an anachronic label for his thesis):

While we thus reject all of which we can entertain the smallest doubt, and even imagine that it is false, we easily indeed suppose that there is neither God, nor sky, nor bodies, and that we ourselves even have neither hands nor feet, nor, finally, a body; but we cannot in the same way suppose that we are not while we doubt of the truth of these things; for there is a repugnance in conceiving that what thinks does not exist at the very time when it thinks. Accordingly, the knowledge, I THINK, THEREFORE I AM, is the first and most certain that occurs to one who philosophizes orderly. [1]

For Descartes, we still have privileged access even in the doubt scenario. That is, for him we would retain self-knowledge even in those extreme situations in which we can't have knowledge about anything else.

Cartesian doubt form of methodological skepticism associated with the writings and methodology of René Descartes

Cartesian Doubt is a form of methodological skepticism associated with the writings and methodology of René Descartes. Cartesian doubt is also known as Cartesian skepticism, methodic doubt, methodological skepticism, universal doubt, systematic doubt or hyperbolic doubt.

Self-knowledge is a term used in psychology to describe the information that an individual draws upon when finding an answer to the question "What am I like?".

Gilbert Ryle, on the other hand, maintains a diametrically opposed view. According to the behaviorism of Ryle, each of us knows our own thoughts in the same way we know other's thoughts. We only come to know the thoughts of others through their linguistic and bodily behaviors, and must do exactly the same in order to know our own thoughts. There is no privileged access. We only have access to what we think upon evidences supplied through our own actions.

Gilbert Ryle British philosopher

Gilbert Ryle was a British philosopher. He was a representative of the generation of British ordinary language philosophers who shared Ludwig Wittgenstein's approach to philosophical problems, and is principally known for his critique of Cartesian dualism, for which he coined the phrase "the ghost in the machine." Some of his ideas in the philosophy of mind have been referred to as "behaviourist". Ryle's best known book is The Concept of Mind (1949), in which he writes that the "general trend of this book will undoubtedly, and harmlessly, be stigmatised as 'behaviourist'." Ryle, having engaged in detailed study of the key works of Bernard Bolzano, Franz Brentano, Alexius Meinong, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, himself suggested instead that the book "could be described as a sustained essay in phenomenology, if you are at home with that label."

Behaviorism is a systematic approach to understanding the behavior of humans and other animals. It assumes that all behaviors are either reflexes produced by a response to certain stimuli in the environment, or a consequence of that individual's history, including especially reinforcement and punishment, together with the individual's current motivational state and controlling stimuli. Although behaviorists generally accept the important role of heredity in determining behavior, they focus primarily on environmental factors.

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  1. Descartes, René. 1641, Principles of Philosophy , Part I, VII .

Further reading