In This Article Truth and the Aim of Belief

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works and Collections
  • The Explanatory Role of the Aim
  • Aims and Norms as Constitutive Features of Belief
  • Other Candidates for the Aim of Belief

Philosophy Truth and the Aim of Belief
by
Davide Fassio
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0165

Introduction

With the claim that “belief aims at truth,” philosophers designate a specific feature of belief according to which believing a proposition carries with it some sort of commitment or teleological directedness toward the truth of the believed proposition. The hypothesis that beliefs involve an aim at truth has been used by philosophers to explain a number of features specific to this type of mental state, such as the impossibility of believing at will, the absurdity of asserting Moorean sentences (e.g., “I believe that it is raining, but it is not raining”), and the normative dimension of evidential considerations in the processes of belief-formation. Many consider aiming at truth constitutive of belief, individuating belief as that type of mental state and distinguishing beliefs from other mental attitudes. In the contemporary debate there is disagreement over how to interpret the claim that belief aims at truth. Different accounts of the aim have been suggested in normative, teleological, and minimalist terms. Some philosophers even deny that beliefs involve an aim in any interesting sense. A view that has recently gained popularity is that beliefs do not aim at mere truth, but at knowledge. Although the two issues may be related, questions about the aim of belief must be distinguished from questions concerning whether having true beliefs is valuable, and whether truth is the ultimate goal of inquiry.

Introductory Works and Collections

As the topic of the aim of belief is relatively new, and has received special attention in the philosophical debate only since the early 1990s, there are no comprehensive treatments of it in manuals and textbooks. There are also no introductory entries to the topic in philosophical companions or encyclopedias. In addition, there are a few articles providing general and introductory overviews of the topic. Two collections of articles on the aim of belief have been recently published: Zalabardo 2013 and Chan 2014. The claim that beliefs aim at truth was first articulated in Williams 1973. Railton 1994 provides an early discussion of the aim of belief. The best-known treatment of the topic is in Velleman 2000. Engel 2004 and Vahid 2009 offer comprehensive and critical discussions of the main interpretations of the claim that belief aims at truth. In the first section of Shah and Velleman 2005 there is a useful overview of several ways in which belief is related to truth. The introduction to Chan 2014 is also helpful, even if it has a particular focus on normativist interpretations of the aim of belief. An online podcast of a 2009 conference, “The Aim of Belief,” offers an overview of the different perspectives by the main experts on the topic.

  • Chan, Timothy, ed. The Aim of Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    Collection of articles on the aim of belief written by leading researchers on the topic. The introduction (pp. 1–16) offers a survey of some debates related to the topic. In particular, it provides a good overview of some leading interpretations of the aim, with a special focus on normativist interpretations (see Accounts of the Aim of Belief, Normativist Accounts).

  • Engel, Pascal. “Truth and the Aim of Belief.” In Laws and Models in Science. Edited by Donald Gillies, 77–97. London: King’s College Publications, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the main articles on the aim of belief. It presents and discusses three interpretations of the aim, and defends a normative interpretation against causal and intentional ones. The article also includes a discussion of whether the aim of belief is truth or knowledge. It is good also as an introductory reading on the topic.

  • The Aim of Belief. Conference held at the University of Oslo from the 11th to the 13th of June 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    An online audio resource. These podcasts of the conference talks offer an overview of different perspectives on the topic given by the main experts. Abstracts of the talks are also available. The talks of Engel and Gluer and Wikforss, in particular, provide good introductory discussions of the aim of belief and its interpretations.

  • Railton, Peter. “Truth, Reason, and the Regulation of Belief.” Philosophical Issues 5 (1994): 71–93.

    DOI: 10.2307/1522874E-mail Citation »

    An early discussion of the nature of belief’s aim at truth. It suggests that this aim explains several features of belief and distinguishes belief from other propositional attitudes.

  • Shah, Nishi, and J. David Velleman. “Doxastic Deliberation.” Philosophical Review 114 (2005): 497–534.

    DOI: 10.1215/00318108-114-4-497E-mail Citation »

    At the beginning of the article there is a useful review of several ways in which belief is related to truth, including an in-depth presentation of the ways in which belief is truth-directed.

  • Vahid, Hamid. The Epistemology of Belief. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    In chapter 1 (pp. 7–32), Vahid provides an informed and critical discussion of the topic, though less introductory than other articles quoted in this section. The article surveys the various debates on the topic, critically examines various interpretations of the aim, and suggests an alternative deflationist account of this property.

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

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    This can be considered the main reference in the contemporary discussion, and the most important article on the topic (even though Velleman substantially revised his view in Shah and Velleman 2005). It characterizes and distinguishes the aim of belief from other properties relating belief to truth. It argues that this property is necessary in order to distinguish beliefs from other types of mental attitude, and to explain a number of other features of belief.

  • Williams, Bernard. “Deciding to Believe.” In Problems of the Self. By Bernard Williams, 136–151. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511621253.011E-mail Citation »

    This is the first place where the claim that “belief aims at truth” appeared. Williams identifies the aim with a set of properties of belief, and argues that the aim explains why it is impossible to believe at will.

  • Zalabardo, José. Special Issue: The Aim of Belief. Theorema 32.3 (2013).

    E-mail Citation »

    A recent collection of papers on the aim of belief. Includes original contributions by experts on the topic such as Pascal Engel, David Owens, Asbjorn Steglich-Petersen, Daniel Whiting, Katrin Glüer, and Asa Wikforss.

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