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Philosophy Belief
by
Pascal Engel

Introduction

The problem of the nature of belief lies at the crossing of a number of fields of philosophical inquiry: philosophy of mind, epistemology, philosophy of language, ethics, philosophy of religion and philosophy of social science. For this reason the notion is sometimes ambiguous and used in different ways. Most philosophical treatments deal with one or the other aspect of the notion, but contemporary treatments have attempted a most systematic outlook. The main current debates concern whether belief is a passive state of mind, to be understood mostly in causal terms or an active state of mind, involving a kind of commitment whether beliefs are essentially implicit episodes or essentially conscious ones, the relationship between beliefs and other doxastic attitudes, such as judgment or acceptance, the relationship between belief and knowledge, and whether there are degrees of beliefs.

General Overviews

Because of the diversity of domains in which the notion of belief features and the variety of approaches, there is no overall treatment, but there are some good overviews for each specific domain. Price 1969 offers a good historical account mostly within the British empiricist tradition. Fodor 1981 and Dennett 1982 present classical but controversial views in the philosophy of mind. Stalnaker 1984 is perhaps the best introduction to the semantical, psychological and epistemological issues. Vahid 2008 gives a good overview of the epistemological issues. Velleman 2000 may be the best entrance point to the various dimensions of the debate. Engel 1995 and Schwitzgebel 2006 give general presentations.

  • Dennett, Daniel C. “Beyond Belief.” In Thought and Object: Essays on Intentionality. Edited by Andrew Woodfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

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    Through an analysis of the common sense conception of belief ascription, argues that beliefs contents are relative to the “intentional stance” from which one predicts behavior, as distinct from the physical and design stance. On this view beliefs are instruments in the process of interpretation, although they correspond to real patterns in the brain. Reprinted in Dennett’s The Intentional Stance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989).

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  • Engel, Pascal. “Les croyances.” In Notions de philosophie. Vol. 2. Edited by Denis Kambouchner, 9–101. Paris: Gallimard, 1995.

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    A synthetic and historically informed presentation (in French) of the main problems of a philosophy of belief, classifying the various senses of the notion in epistemology, philosophy of mind and philosophy of religion and philosophy of social science.

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  • Fodor, Jerry. Representations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.

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    In this collection of essays, Jerry Fodor argues that beliefs are functional states associated to mental representations that are symbols in a language of thought. This view has set the agenda for most cognitive science–oriented conceptions of belief and intentionality.

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  • Price, Henry Habberley. Belief. London: Allen and Unwin, 1969.

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    Although a bit outdated and dealing mostly with the classical empiricist accounts of belief, this is still the only philosophical treatment that covers in parallel with the psychological, epistemological and religious sides of the notion, with an informed historical background. Available online.

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  • Stalnaker, Robert. Inquiry. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.

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    A great classic of the philosophy of belief, dealing with the semantical problem of the content of propositional attitudes, and with the problem of belief change within the activity of inquiry. Stalnaker introduces the distinction between belief and contextual acceptance and outlines a philosophy of inquiry.

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  • Schwitzgebel, Eric. “Belief.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2006.

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    A good synthetic presentation, oriented mostly toward the problem of the nature of belief in the philosophy of mind.

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  • Vahid, Hamid. The Epistemology of Belief. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

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    A good and informative synthetic treatment of the main problems of the epistemology of belief: their relation to reasons and to evidence, and their perceptual bases.

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  • Velleman, James David. “The Aim of Belief.” In The Possibility of Practical Reason. By James David Velleman, 244–281. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Perhaps the best analysis of what is at stake in an analysis of the notion of belief as a distinctive mental state and the normative feature of “aiming at truth,” which is not easily explained by functionalist and naturalistic theories.

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Textbooks

There are no comprehensive textbooks treatments of belief, although there are useful textbook chapters in the various subfields (philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics, religion). An apt recent treatment of the epistemological issues is Pritchard 2006. For the philosophy of mind, see Braddon-Mitchell and Jackson 1996. Pouivet 2003 discusses the virtue epistemology approach to knowledge.

Anthologies

There are anthologies devoted to the epistemology of belief including Philipps-Griffith 1976. Greco and Sosa 1999 is a complete anthology of classical texts on belief, truth, and knowledge. In the philosophy of mind and cognitive science, Bogdan 1986 reflects the main debates about the status of belief.

Historical Development of the Concept of Belief

Before Hume, who was probably the first to coin “belief” as a technical philosophical term, philosophers were mostly discussing the attitudes of doxa (opinion) assensio (assent) or judicium (judgment). They asked, as did Plato, how doxa differs from knowledge; like the Skeptics, they asked whether assent implied assertion of a full proposition or whether it could be suspended (Frede 1987); or like the Stoics and the tradition up to Descartes, philosophers wondered whether assent was voluntary (Barnes 2006). Descartes’s theory of judgment (found in Meditations on First Philosophy), which has voluntarist aspects, was much discussed in Spinoza 1972, Locke 1975, and Hume 1978, which reject the idea that belief is an active state of mind. Newman 1985 took up the debate within the context of a philosophy of religious belief. An important theme, first introduced explicitly by Peirce 1877, is that belief is a disposition to act, which led to a number of pragmatist themes taken up by James 1979 and contemporary philosophy. Ortega y Gasset 1986 took up the Husserlian theme that our beliefs may be general presuppositions structuring our whole mental life, rather than a psychological attitude.

  • Barnes, Jonathan. “Belief is Up to Us.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 106.2 (2006): 187–204.

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    An excellent analysis of the problem of assent, which most ancient and medieval writers from the Stoics and Augustine to Aquinas take to be voluntary, in contrast with belief, which is taken to be involuntary.

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  • Frede, Michael. “The Sceptic’s Two Kinds of Assent and the Question of the Possibility of Knowledge.” In Essays in Ancient Philosophy. By Michael Frede, 201–224. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

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    A classical paper on the Skeptics’ distinction between two kinds of assent and the suspension of judgment.

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  • Hume, David. Treatise of Human Nature. 2d ed. Edited by L. A. Selby Bigge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

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    First published in 1739. Hume is the first to have introduced “belief” as a technical term of art. His definition of it as “a lively idea associated to a present impression” and giving rise to causal inference sets the agenda for most of the posterior discussions.

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  • James, William. “The Will to Believe.” In The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. By William James, 13–33. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979.

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    In this classical paper, James defends the view that it is permissible, in some “vital” circumstances and for the sake of our “passional life,” to believe something as a result of willing to believe it. In that he opposed the evidentialism of Williams Clifford who claimed that it is wrong to believe anything on the basis of insufficient evidence.

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  • Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.

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    First published in 1690. Locke held belief to be involuntary and introduced into contemporary philosophy the doctrine of “degrees of assent” as well as the classical theme of an “ethics of belief” in chapter 17 of Part 4, “On Enthusiasm.”

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  • Newman, John Henry. An Essay In Aid of a Grammar of Assent. Edited by Ian Turnbull Ker. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985.

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    First published in 1870. Perhaps the only philosophical work dealing with the problem of the variety of doxastic attitudes related to belief. Taking his inspiration for Locke’s theory of degrees of assent, Newman distinguishes between acceptance and inference (roughly: belief) and between various kinds of acceptance. His objective is to propose a theory of faith, and he defends a kind of fideism.

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  • Ortega y Gasset, José. Ideas y Creencias. Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1986.

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    Ortega y Gasset’s book offers one of the most interesting accounts of the division between beliefs as occurent and short lived “ideas” and beliefs as primitive certainties structuring our mental life, a conception also present in Husserl and in the late Wittgenstein. First published in 1942.

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  • Peirce, Charles S. “The Fixation of Belief.” Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877): 1–15.

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    Peirce took from the Scottish psychologist Alexander Bain the thesis that belief is a disposition to act, and integrated it within his doctrine of pragmatism as a method of stating what the effects of our conceptions are. Reprinted in The Writings of C. S. Peirce, Vol. 3, edited by C. Kloesel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

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  • Spinoza, Benedictus de. Ethica. In Spinoza Opera. Vol. 2. Edited by Carl Gebhardt. Heidelberg, Germany: Carl Winters, 1972.

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    Against Descartes, Spinoza takes belief to be involuntary: to understand a proposition one needs already to assent to it, and not separate act of the will is needed. Originally published in 1677. Translated into English in Edwin M. Curley’s The Collected Writings of Spinoza, Vol. 5 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985).

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Belief, Dispositions, and Functionalism

The dispositional conception of belief, according to which our beliefs are dispositions to act in certain ways, was present in Hume, and has been elaborated by Ramsey 1990, then by Ryle 1949. Levi and Morgenbesser 1964, also discussing the dispositional conception, defends a nonreductionist view, according to which there is no single or univocal way to define belief in terms of dispositions to act. Its descendent is the functionalist conception (Lewis 1966, Armstrong 1973) according to which beliefs are mental states that play, along with desires and other states, a causal role in the production of actions. There are, however, various versions of the dispositional view, depending upon the way one understands the metaphysics of dispositions and of their physical or nonphysical bases (Mumford 1998).

  • Armstrong, David Malet. Belief, Truth, and Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

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    Gives a unified materialistic conception of belief inspired by Ramsey’s 1990 metaphor of beliefs as maps together with a reliabilist conception of knowledge and a correspondence theory of truth.

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  • Levi, Issac, and Sidney Morgenbesser. “Belief and Disposition.” American Philosophical Quarterly 1.3 (1964): 221–232.

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    A seminal paper about the merits and limits of the thesis that beliefs are dispositions to act, and its relationship to degrees of belief.

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  • Lewis, David K. “An Argument for the Identity Theory.” Journal of Philosophy 63.2 (1966): 17–25.

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    The classical statement of the functionalist conception of belief and desire, arguing that attitudes can be construed as functional states reducible to physical ones through their initial reduction to “Ramsey Sentences” specifying their role in a network. Reprinted in Philosophical Papers, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).

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  • Mumford, Stephen. Dispositions. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

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    A good analysis of the various kinds of views, metaphysical, semantical, and psychological, which can be held about dispositions, and a revised functionalist account of these.

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  • Ramsey, Frank Plumpton. “Truth and Probability (1926).” In Philosophical Papers. Edited by D. H. Mellor, 52–94. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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    Beliefs as dispositions to act and “maps by which we steer”; the first formulation of a complete theory of degrees of belief as subjective probabilities.

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  • Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson, 1949.

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    Ryle formulated a mild version of the dispositional conception of belief, as a “many track” disposition susceptible of giving rise to many kinds of behavior, within an overall dispositional conception of the mind as a property of the body and not as a separate substance.

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Propositional Attitudes and Belief Contents

Most contemporary theories of belief take them to be propositional attitudes relating a subject to a certain semantic content. Naturalistic theories take contents to be representations either realized in a neural language of thought (Fodor 1992) or states defined by their biological functions. Interpretationist views (Davidson 1984, Dennett 1987) take belief contents to be essentially indeterminate and posited with the process of interpreting action and language. Eliminativism says that there are no beliefs (Stich 1983). For all theories, the problem of formulating a theory of the contents of beliefs arises. Baker 1995 defends a “pragmatic realistic” account.

  • Baker, Lynne Rudder. Explaining Attitudes: A Practical Approach to the Mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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    According to Baker’s “practical realism” beliefs are neither brain states nor heuristic fictions but real states ascribable to persons, which owe their status to their role in the network of notions serving to explain our mental attitudes and actions in everyday contexts.

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  • Davidson, Donald. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

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    Davidson holds that beliefs (and meanings) are the product of an interpretation, for which the possession of language is indispensable. As a consequence, animals do not have beliefs because they do not have the concept of a belief, an argument that has been much discussed.

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  • Dennett, Daniel C. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

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    This book contains the essentials of Dennett’s “intentional systems theory,” which is essentially, much like interpretationism, an antirealist conception of belief as the product of ascriptions based on rationality principles. Depending on the stance one takes, animals and computers can have beliefs. It is a graded affair.

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  • Dretske, Fred I. Explaining Behaviour: Reasons in a World of Causes. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988.

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    Defends an informational and teleological semantics for belief states on the basis of a naturalistic biological conception of functions.

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  • Fodor, Jerry A. A Theory of Content. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

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    Fodor holds that beliefs are relations to mental representations that are symbols in an internal (brain) language of thought. In this book he states his causal conception of their content and assessed it against other theories.

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  • Marcus, Ruth Barcan. “Rationality and Believing the Impossible.” Journal of Philosophy 80.6 (1983): 321–338.

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    Against language-centered and interpretationist conceptions, R. B. Marcus holds the view that beliefs are relations to possibilities and argues that this can solve some familiar puzzles about beliefs. Reprinted in her Modalities: Philosophical Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

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  • Millikan, Ruth Garrett. Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.

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    The classic statement of the teleological conception of representations and belief contents within an evolutionary naturalistic program.

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  • Stich, Stephen P. From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science: The Case Against Belief. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983.

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    The classical statement of the eliminativist view of belief: the “folk” or common-sense conception of belief is incoherent and unsuited to an advanced cognitive science.

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Tacit Belief and Quasi Beliefs

Typical beliefs involve the conscious assent to a proposition present to the mind of the believer. But many beliefs seem rarely, or never, to occur in a mind’s life. A dispositional belief is necessarily tacit in the sense that it does not need to be present to the mind. Some beliefs are alleged to be “tacit” in the sense that they could be present to the mind if appropriately triggered. These are states enjoying the intermediary, and somewhat dubious, status of “tacit” or “implicit” beliefs (Lycan 1985, Crimmins 1992, Audi 1994). These and other similar quasi beliefs enjoy a complex status intermediary between belief proper and mere behavioral states (Schwitzgebel 2001).

Degrees of Belief

Beliefs are not simply categorical states. There are degrees of belief. But the question arises of how to define these degrees. The most influential view, inspired by F. P. Ramsey, takes beliefs to be subjective probabilities measurable as a function of degrees of desire and actions. Jeffrey 1983 is a comprehensive, but sometimes difficult introduction to the theory of decision, Maher 1986 and Kaplan 1996 give more philosophical approaches. Van Fraassen 1984 and Bovens and Hawthorne 1999 discuss paradoxes raised by certain issues about the dynamics of belief.

Doxastic Voluntarism and the Ethics of Belief

The classical debate about whether the mind is active or passive in belief has renewed by William James (see Historical Development of the Concept of Belief) and is still alive within contemporary philosophy and epistemology, opposing doxastic voluntarists, who hold that one can, within certain limits, control belief through the will, and evidentialist views, which reject voluntarism about belief. Williams 1973 set the stage with an influential involuntarist argument, which was later discussed by Bennett 1990. Hieronymi 2006 and Frankish 2007 are useful and stimulating discussions of various versions of voluntarism and involuntarism. Adler 2002 is an excellent statement of the evidentialist view (Conee and Fedman 2004).

Belief and Acceptance

A number of writers have defended the idea that there is a fundamental difference between two kinds of states, beliefs and acceptances. Acceptances differ from belief in being voluntary, contextual, not subject to degree, and motivated by practical rather than reasons. But there are different ways of making the distinction. Cohen 1992 is the most influential, while Bratman 1992 gives a more pragmatic treatment. Engel 2000 is an anthology on the theme, and Lehrer 1990 focuses on the epistemological issues. Tuomela 2002 is an interesting account of the consequences of the distinction for social ontology.

Moore’s Paradox and Transparency

Moore’s paradox of “P but I believe that not P” raises many important issues about the relationship between belief and assertion, first and third person belief, and self-knowledge. Writers such as Moran 2001 have attracted the attention on a related feature, transparency of self-ascription of beliefs. Shah 2003 gives an original interpretation of it. Green and Williams 2007 is a comprehensive anthology on the subject.

Pathologies of Belief

An important literature in cognitive neuroscience and clinical research now exists about delusive or pathological beliefs, such as those arising from the Capgras delusion (belief in impostors). Some psychologists and philosophers (see Bayne and Pacherie 2005) take the delusions to involve genuine beliefs; others (see Currie and Jureidini 2001) deny that they enjoy that status and take them to be closer to imaginative states. Coltheart 2000 provides a relevant anthology on cognitive science.

The Norms of Belief and Epistemic Emotions

Most philosophers agree that beliefs have, in addition to causal and psychological properties, normative properties, related to what one ought to believe or to what it is valuable to believe. But there are various accounts of these features, often associated with the idea that beliefs “aim at” truth. Owens 2003 and Steglich-Petersen 2006 are skeptical of the idea. Wedgwood 2002 defends the reality of the correctness norm for belief. Chrisman 2008 relates interestingly the idea to the issue of duties to believe. Another expanding field is the epistemology of emotions, which resurrects the classical analysis of belief as a kind of feeling. Brun, et al. 2008 is a useful anthology on this topic.

LAST MODIFIED: 05/10/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0012

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