In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 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
Davide Fassio
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0165


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 it has received special attention in the philosophical debate only since the early 1990s, no comprehensive treatments of it are found in manuals and textbooks. There are also few introductory entries to the topic in philosophical companions or encyclopedias. In addition, a few articles provide general and introductory overviews of the topic. Fassio 2015 is an encyclopedia entry providing a general introduction to the topic. Zalabardo 2013 and Chan 2014 are two recently published collections of articles on the aim of belief. The claim that beliefs aim at truth is 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. The first section of Shah and Velleman 2005 contains 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.

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

    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.

    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.

  • Fassio, Davide. “The Aim of Belief.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Geneva, Switzerland: University of Geneva, 2015.

    An entry providing a general introduction to the topic. It focuses on three main issues: (1) The nature and explanatory roles of belief’s truth-aim, (2) the main interpretations of the aim, and (3) whether belief aims at truth or other properties such as knowledge. The entry also includes a discussion of the relevance of the topic for other contemporary debates and a detailed literature.

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

    DOI: 10.2307/1522874

    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 114.4 (2005): 497–534.

    DOI: 10.1215/00318108-114-4-497

    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.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230584471

    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.

    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/CBO9780511621253.011

    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 he argues that the aim explains why it is impossible to believe at will.

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

    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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