In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Belief

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Historical Development of the Concept of Belief
  • Belief, Dispositions, and Functionalism
  • Propositional Attitudes and Belief Contents
  • Tacit Belief and Quasi Beliefs
  • Degrees of Belief
  • Doxastic Voluntarism and the Ethics of Belief
  • Belief and Acceptance
  • Moore’s Paradox and Transparency
  • Pathologies of Belief
  • The Norms of Belief and Epistemic Emotions

Philosophy Belief
Pascal Engel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0012


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.

    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).

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

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

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

    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.

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

    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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