Medieval Approaches to Consciousness: Ockham and Chatton

Medieval Approaches to Consciousness: Ockham and Chatton

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Medieval Approaches to Consciousness: Ockham and Chatton

By Susan Brower-Toland

Philosophers’ Imprint, Volume 12, Number 17, 2012

Introduction: Taking their cue from Augustine’s account of self-knowledge in the latter books of De Trinitate, medieval philosophers hold that knowledge regarding our own mental states is epistemically distinctive in a number of ways.

It is widely assumed, for example, that we are immediately aware of a wide range of such states and that the nature of our access to them yields knowledge that not only is utterly certain but also involves a kind of first-person authority (which is just to say that no one is better positioned to ascertain our mental states than we ourselves are). For the same reason, it is also assumed, on this medieval Augustinian picture, that the judgments or beliefs constitutive of self-knowledge — call them “self-attributing” beliefs — are characterized by (a) immediacy, (b) certainty, and (c) first-person authority.

Yet, even if medieval thinkers generally agree about the basic character of self-knowledge, they disagree about what is required to explain our possession of it. They disagree, in other words, over how to explain the nature of our access to our subjective states. As I see it, their disagreement on this issue is, at bottom, a debate about the nature and structure of conscious experience.

In this paper, my aim is to advance our understanding of medieval approaches to consciousness by focusing on a particular but, as it seems to me, representative medieval debate — one which has, as its locus, a particular concern about self knowledge. The debate in question is between William Ockham (d. 1349) and Walter Chatton (d. 1343) over the existence of what these two thinkers refer to as ”reflexive intellective intuitive cognition”.

Although framed in the technical terminology of late-medieval cognitive psychology, the basic question at issue between them is this: Does the mind (or “intellect”) cognize its own states via higher-order (or ”reflexive“) representational states (namely, acts of ”intuitive cognition“)? As we’ll see, Ockham answers in the affirmative, Chatton in the negative, with each arguing that his own position best accommodates the nature and character of Augustinian self-knowledge.


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