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First-Person Authority and reflection in Aquinas

When we say things like "I think dinner is at six" or "I love that movie", what we say is treated as authoritative in a particular way. A listener might think that we are wrong about when dinner is or that the movie we love is actually awful, but it would be quite odd to think that what we say incorrectly ascribes our state of mind. That is, if you said, “I love that movie”, it would be quite odd if I were to respond “No, actually you hate that movie”. It would be odd for me to think that you are simply incorrectly ascribing mental states to yourself. That what we say in first-person speech that ascribes a mental state to ourselves is presumed to correctly do so is what philosophers call first-person authority.

Yet the ground of this authority is not clear. Is it because we know our own minds better than others that our first-person self-ascriptions are presumed to be correct? Is it because we are the authors of our thoughts? The below poster and explanation goes over a few ways of thinking about Aquinas's notion of reflection in relation to our own minds, and how it might ground first-person authority. One way is to ground first-person authority epistemically in the knowledge we have of our minds in comparison to others, while another way is to ground it agentially insofar as being the agent of a thought provides one with authority in self-ascribing said mental states.

This poster was presented at the 2023 American Catholic Philosophical Association's Annual Meeting, and the contents below are part of ongoing research. If you have feedback, criticism, or ideas you want to share with me please don't hesitate to reach out! (also, please do not cite or reproduce any of the content below as it is part of a project I'm working on.)

What is reflection in Aquinas?

Aquinas uses the verb reflexo and nominalizations of reflexo in a variety of contexts that all have to do with the ability of the immaterial powers of the soul to take the acts (including their own), species, powers, and nature of the soul as an object. Only immaterial powers are fully reflexive, whereas Aquinas will say that material powers can only partially reflect or return to themselves. 



One way to think of reflection is a kind of inference. Robert Pasnau (2001), describes reflection in Aquinas as a kind of "cognitive ascent" in which one's mind shifts from thoughts about an object like "The cheese is moldy" to thoughts about the thought itself like "I am thinking that the cheese is moldy".

While Robert Pasnau does not describe such reflection as inferential, his interpretation of reflection as a "cognitive ascent" bears a resemblance in some ways to Alex Byrne's (2018) view of reflection as an inference. Byrne describes this using the BEL schema in the case of beliefs. If p, then believe that you believe p. If the cheese is moldy, then believe that you believe that the cheese is moldy. In other words, we infer from our world directed thoughts to belief about our thought itself.

Shift in Attention?

Another way to think of reflection in Aquinas is as a kind of shift in attention. Therese Cory (2014, Chapter 6) thinks about reflection in Aquinas in this way in describing the way our attention can shift from the object of our intellectual understanding to the act of understanding itself. For example, in thinking about the nature of triangles, on Cory's view, I experience triangularity-as-understood-by-me, where triangularity is the explicit focus on my attention but I have an "implicit" awareness of my understanding insofar as I experience triangularity-as-understood-by-me. When we reflect on our acts, we shift our attention to what we were already aware of implicitly.


A similar contemporary view is put forward by Matthew Boyle (2019) who draws on Jean-Paul Sartre's notion of a non-positional consciousness to describe a kind of "tacit" knowledge or awareness that is presupposed in our positional awareness of objects in the world. For example, the thought "This cat is purring", which makes demonstrative reference to a cat, can only make sense to oneself on the presupposition that one is aware of perceiving a cat. Reflection makes explicit what we are already aware of tacitly or non-positionally, as when we shift from thinking "This cat is purring" to "I perceive a purring cat" (1032-33).


When thinking about reflection on the model of inference, the thought  or speech "I am thinking the cheese is moldy" is made inferentially from the awareness of "The cheese is moldy". That is, one's thought about the world acts as evidence from which one infers knowledge of one's own mind.

On the way Bryne (2018) think of such inferences, they are self-verifying insofar as they are safe when applied to oneself but not to others. That is, a thought like "the cheese is moldy" is evidence that "I am thinking that the cheese is moldy" is true, but not good evidence that you are thinking the cheese is moldy is true. 

Bryne and other inferentialist, like Quassim Cassam (2015, 138-139) think that reflective thoughts such as "I am thinking that the cheese is moldy" are epistemically inferential, but not necessarily psychologically inferential. In applying this to Aquinas, the view would be that something like inference guides our thought process when turning from the world to our own minds, but this does not necessitate that we have an awareness of such inferences occurring.

When thinking about reflection as a shift in attention, our reflective thoughts or speech (such as "I am thinking that the cheese is moldy") are not empirically justified, but just are expressions of what we were aware of all along "implicitly" or "tacitly". In other words, the ascriptions of mental states in such thoughts or speech are not justified by having any kind of empirical evidence for such states.

Instead, the implicit/tacit awareness of our acts warrants us in self-ascribing them in reflective thoughts and speech such as "I perceive a purring cat" or "I am thinking that the cheese is moldy". The perception of a purring cat already includes an awareness of our act, so reflection just is expression of this awareness.

In this way, reflective thought just is a shift in attention to what we were aware of all along in a tacit or non-positional way. It is not that we have an awareness of both the cat and our perception in the same way, but that the experience of a cat as seen is constituted by a perceptual act which is experienced implicitly or in the mode of experience whereas the cat is the object of said act.


These different ways of thinking about reflection also ground different ways of thinking about first-person authority. If one takes an inferential approach to reflection, then the first-person authority of statements like “I think dinner is at six”, are grounded in the speaker having a greater knowledge of their own mind than they do of other’s minds and vice versa. Thus, a speaker is not authoritative when ascribing mental states to others in speech, such as “John thinks dinner is at six” because the speaker is not in a superior epistemic position to know John’s mind than the speaker’s own mind.


The other approach to reflection, which describes it as a kind of shift in attention, supports an agentialist approach to first-person authority insofar as the ability to reflect on one’s mental states in this way is tied to being the author or agent of said states. As described above, the implicit or tacit awareness we have of our mental states warrants us in ascribing said states in reflective thought. Yet that we have such tacit or implicit awareness ties back to being in an agential relationship to our own thoughts which others are not. This comes through in Aquinas’s treatment of the difference between angelic cognition of a humans thought and a human’s cognition of her own thought in places like ST I q. 57 a. 5, DV q. 8 a. 13, and DM q. 16 a. 8 (See Cory (2015) for an excellent exegesis of DM q. 16. 8). We do not experience others’ thoughts as they do, because we are not the thinker of their thoughts and vice versa. Thus, our experience of our own thoughts and operations of our powers implicitly is tied to us being the one’s who engage the world through the operations of our powers. Our first-person authority is thus tied to our agency in thinking rather than to our epistemic position in relation to our thoughts on this view.

References and Resources

For places in which Aquinas uses the language of reflection see...

cognition of singulars: DV q. 10 a. 5 co. Also, DV q. 2 a. 6, ST I q. 86 a. 1.

cognition of intelligible species: ST I q. 85 a. 2 DV q. 10 a. 9 ad. 10 .

cognition of one’s nature: DV a. 2 q. 2 ad.2.

will’s ability to move powers of the soul: DV q. 22 a. 12.

act of judgement: DV q. 1 a. 9DV q. 24 a. 2 2.


For contemporary work on self-knowledge and self-awareness references above see..

Byrne, Alex. Transparency and Self-Knowledge. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2018

Cassam, Quassim. Self-Knowledge for Humans. First edition. Oxford University Press, 2014. 

Boyle, Matthew. “Transparency and Reflection” Canadian Journal of Philosophy Vol 40 No. 7 (2019): 1012-1039

For Aquinas on self-cognition references above see..

Cory, Therese.“Attention, intentionality, and mind-reading in Aquinas’s De malo, q. 16, a. 8” in Aquinas’s Disputed Questions on Evil: A Critical Guide, edited by M. V. Dougherty, 164-191. Cambridge University Press. 2015

——— Aquinas on Human Self-Knowledge. Cambridge University Press, 2014

Pasnau, Robert. “Knowing the Mind” in Thomas Aquinas on Human Nature, 330–360. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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