Friday, July 31, 2015

Against Intellectualism about Belief

Sometimes what we sincerely say -- aloud or even just silently to ourselves -- doesn't fit with the rest of our cognition, reactions, and behavior. Someone might sincerely say, for example, that women and men are equally intelligent, but be consistently sexist in his assessments of intelligence. (See the literature on implicit bias.) Someone might sincerely say that her dear friend has gone to Heaven, while her emotional reactions don't at all fit with that.

On intellectualist views of belief, what we really believe is the thing we sincerely endorse, despite any other seemingly contrary aspects of our psychology. On the more broad-based view I prefer, what you believe depends, instead, on how you act and react in a broad range of ways, and sincere endorsements are only one small part of the picture.

Intellectualism might be defended on four grounds.

(1.) Intellectualism might be intuitive. Maybe the most natural or intuitive thing to say about the implicit sexism case is that the person really believes that women are just as smart; he just has trouble putting that belief into action. The person really believes that her friend is in Heaven, but it's hard to avoid reacting emotionally as if her friend is ineradicably dead rather than just "departed".

Reply: Sometimes we do seem to want to say that people believe what they intellectually endorse in cases like this, but I don't think our intuitions are univocal. It can also seem natural or intuitive to say that the implicit sexist doesn't really or wholly or deep-down believe that the sexes are equal, and that the mourner maybe has more doubt about Heaven than she is willing to admit to herself. So the intuitive case could go either way.

(2.) Intellectualism might fit well with our theoretical conceptualization of belief. Maybe it's in the nature of belief to be responsive to evidence and deployable in reasoning. And maybe only intellectually endorsed or endorsable states can play that cognitive role. The implicit sexist's bias might be insufficiently responsive to evidence and insufficiently apt to be deployed in reasoning for it to qualify as belief, while her intellectual endorsement is responsive to evidence and deployable in reasoning.

Reply: Zimmerman and Gendler, in influential essays, have nicely articulated versions of this defense of intellectualism [caveat: see Zimmerman's comment below]. I raised some objections here, and Jack Marley-Payne has objected in more explicit detail, so I won't elaborate in this post. Marley-Payne's and my point is that people's implicit reactions are often sensitive to evidence and deployable in what looks like reasoning, while our intellectual endorsements are often resistant to evidence and rationally inert -- so at least it doesn't seem that there's a sharp difference in kind.

(It was Marley-Payne's essay that got me thinking about this post, I should say. We'll be discussing it, also with Keith Frankish, in September for Minds Online 2015.)

(3.) Intellectualism about belief might cohere well with the conception of "belief" generally used in current Anglophone philosophy. Epistemologists commonly regard knowledge as a type of belief. Philosophers of action commonly think of beliefs coupling with desires to form intentions. Philosophers of language discuss the weird semantics of "belief reports" (such as "Lois believes that Superman is strong" and "Lois believes that Clark Kent is not strong"). Possibly, an intellectualist approach to belief fits best with existing work in these other areas of philosophy.

Reply: I concede that something like intellectualism seems to be presupposed in much of the epistemological literature on knowledge and much of the philosophy-of-language literature on belief reports. However, it's not clear that philosophy of action and moral psychology are intellectualistic. Philosophy of action uses belief mainly to explain what people do, not what they say. For example: Why did Ralph, the implicit sexist, reject Linda for the job? Well, maybe because he wants to hire someone smart for the job and he doesn't think women are smart. Why does the mourner feel sorry for the deceased? Maybe because she doesn't completely accept that the deceased is in Heaven.

Furthermore, maybe coherence with intellectualist views of belief in epistemology and philosophy of language is a mistaken ideal and not in the best interest of the discipline as a whole. For example, it could be that a less intellectualist philosophy of mind, imported into philosophy of language, would help us better see our way through some famous puzzles about belief reports.

(4.) Intellectualism might be the best practical choice because of its effects on people's self-understanding. For example, it might be more effective, in reducing unjustified sexism, to say to an implicit sexist, "I know you believe that women are just as smart, but look at all these spontaneous responses you have" than to say "I know you are sincere when you say women are just as smart, but it appears that you don't through-and-through believe it". Tamar Gendler, Aaron Zimmerman, and Karen Jones have all defended attribution of egalitarian beliefs partly on these grounds, in conversation with me.

Reply: I don't doubt that Gendler, Zimmerman, and Jones are right that many people will react negatively to being told they don't entirely or fully possess all the handsome-sounding egalitarian and spiritual beliefs they think they have. (Neither, would I say, do they entirely lack the handsome beliefs; these are "in-between" cases.) They'll react more positively, and be more open to rigorous self-examination perhaps, if you start on a positive note and coddle them a bit. But I don't know if I want to coddle people in this way. I'm not sure it's really the best thing in the long term. There's something painfully salutary in thinking to yourself, "Maybe deep down I don't entirely or thoroughly believe that women (or racial minorities, or...) are very smart. Similarly, maybe my spiritual attitudes are also mixed up and multivocal." This is a more profound kind of self-challenge, a fuller refusal to indulge in self-flattery. It highlights the uncomfortable truth that our self-image is often ill-tuned to reality.


Although all four defenses of intellectualism have some merit, none is decisive. This tangle of reasons leaves us in approximately a tie so far. But we haven't yet come to...

The most important reason to reject intellectualism about belief:

Given the central role of the term "belief" in philosophy of mind, philosophy of action, epistemology, and philosophy of language, we should reserve the term for the most important thing in the vicinity.

Both intellectualism and broad-based views have some grounding in ordinary and philosophical usage. We are at liberty to choose between them. Given that choice, we should prefer the account that picks out the aspect of our psychology that most deserves the central role that "belief" plays in philosophy and folk psychology.

What we sincerely say, what we intellectually endorse, is important. But it is not as important as how we live our way through the world generally. What I say about the intellectual equality of the sexes is important, but not as important as how I actually treat people. My sincere endorsements of religious or atheistic attitudes are important, but they are only a small slice of my overall religiosity or lack of religiosity.

On a broad-based view of belief, to believe that the sexes are equal, or that Heaven exists, or that snow is white, is to steer one's way through the world, in general, as though these propositions are true, not only to be disposed to say they are true. It is this overall pattern of self-steering that we should care most about, and to which we should, if we can do so without violence, attach the philosophically important term "belief".

[image source]


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Aaron Zimmerman replies: I think you've framed the issue in an unfair way that privileges your view over mine and Tamar's. The concept of sincerity is much more problematic than you let on. I've never argued that just asserting p (or even asserting p with a feeling of conviction) is sufficient for believing p. Instead, I argue that you believe at t all and only those propositions (or pieces of putative information) that are poised to guide your attentive self-controlled behaviors at t. I think non-human animals and pre-verbal infants have beliefs and so don't privilege linguistic or discursive behavior. Do you know the experiments showing differential startle response to different races? Suppose someone exhibits this but is otherwise insensitive to race in her deliberations and actions. Do you want to say she doesn't fully believe (eg) that black people are neither more nor less dangerous than white people? At any rate, I've been developing my view further over the last few months and would be happy to discuss these issues further with you. Thanks for tagging me and keep up the good blogging.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I have somewhat modified the language of the post to reduce the suggestion that Zimmerman is committed to intellectualism in its simple form. I do think his view will tend to yield broadly intellectualist results in most human cases; and I still want to credit him with making the second and fourth objections.

Gendler also has a more nuanced view than the simple intellectualist view I criticize here, though again like Zimmerman's view, it will tend to yield broadly intellectualist results in most human cases.

Perhaps the baldest form of intellectualism in the philosophical literature is the "disquotational principle" in philosophy of language:

Wesley Buckwalter said...

Hey Eric interesting post two quick thoughts. Implicit bias may not be the best example to motivate the broad-based view of belief concerning how we live our lives. The reason is that this research is often criticized precisely because the impact of implicit reactions on larger and lasting behavioural profiles or dispositions is typically either small or not satisfactorily experimentally measured to make those inferences, which in turn would probably create less of problem for egalitarian belief ascriptions. Of course, sexism of agents in some of your examples seems quite explicit, which is a different story and probably would result less egalitarian belief ascriptions resolving the force of the example.

I think you make a really great point about getting clear on belief because of frequent uses in say epistemology and philosophy of mind. But I was wondering, doesn't that typical usage tend to involve something like basic representational states, as opposed to say, what someone sincerely endorses and/as just part of larger patterns of behavior? In other words, the lines there seems to be drawn much earlier between something like representation on the one hand, and things like both assertions and dispositions on the other you were using to draw the intellectualist distinction above, which might suggest a different kind of taxonomy to explore the issue.


Brad Cokelet said...

Hi Eric!

I am a big fan of the anti-intellectualist line but I have some cases to share and wonder if you discuss ones like this.

(Jim) Jim says he believes that skin color and dress are no guide to threateningness in his neighborhood. But when he walks around at night he feels fear in degrees that track people's skin color and dress. Luckily he exercises perfect self-control and is able to stop the fear from affecting his interactions and actions. I take it that you think this counts against his fully believing. I am tempted to agree!

(Stan) Stan is looking at a stick in water. Stan says he believes the stick is not bent, but reports that it looks bent to him. I assume that this does not tell against his fully believing it is straight.

One difference is that we think it is normal to have sticks in water appear bent to humans. But consider

(Stan Sr.) Stan Sr. has an odd eye condition that makes sticks look bent to him when it is hot out. Luckily he knows about the condition. He needs a straight stick and gets one when it is cool out. He then sees it when hot and it looks bent. He says he believes it is straight while admitting that it looks bent in the heat. Here again I am inclined to say he fully believes it is straight.

Do you share my reaction to the cases? If so, why should we treat the fear case differently (or do you restrict the dispositions to ones that involve voluntary action or something?)

Wesley Buckwalter said...

My intuition @Brad Cokelet is that Jim and Stan and Stan Sr believes each of those things. But I also think we should be very careful about wording and framing effects when trying to generate cases to get people to waver or not waver about belief ascription. It is very easy to shove things about our brains and lives into cases to make ascriptions waver on this topic that are not necessarily diagnostic.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Wesley and Brad!

Wesley, you write: "Implicit bias may not be the best example to motivate the broad-based view of belief concerning how we live our lives. The reason is that this research is often criticized precisely because the impact of implicit reactions on larger and lasting behavioural profiles or dispositions is typically either small or not satisfactorily experimentally measured to make those inferences, which in turn would probably create less of problem for egalitarian belief ascriptions."

I assume you're thinking of something like Edouard Machery's criticism? My take is that individual tests like the IAT probably do have only very limited predictive power and so we cannot attribute a broad and strong bias on the basis of those alone. And yet there is, I think, a broadly recognizable pattern of people with fairly substantial bias across the board, at variance with their explicit endorsements, even if no one practical experimental measure is going to get at it with high validity. That's the kind of case I have in mind.

On representationalism: Right, that's probably the core architecture behind most intellectualist views (although one could be a dispositionalist intellectualist too). I wanted to focus on intellectualism per se for this post, saving discussion of representationalist architecture for another time. My general reaction is similar to my reaction of Aaron Zimmerman's comment above: As typically developed, representationalist views will often generate similar attribution patterns to simpler forms of intellectualism, for the human case. So they are close cousins of intellectualism -- amenable to defenses 1-4. I also think they will be vulnerable to my main critique of intellectualism, though that would take more work to show, since it depends on my not thinking that representational architectures that generate close-to-intellectualist attribution patterns get at the most important aspect of our psychology. (Roughly: They are too System 2 is, and System 2 is not where most of the important cognitive action is.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Brad: Interesting cases! I'm not inclined to rest on human normality for the stick-in-water case. Instead, I would look at how broadly the illusion penetrates action, reaction, and downstream cognition. Known illusions will tend not to penetrate very broadly, and one can segregate off the outlying dispositions with some sort of caveat or excuser.

Now suppose the illusion *did* penetrate further in across the behavioral dispositions -- for example, he experiences surprise when seeing the stick come out of the water straight, he chooses to point at the stick when asked to point at a bent thing (but then maybe corrects himself), he finds himself wondering how it is that putting the stick into water can cause it to bend like that, he expects to feel a turn as he runs his hand down the stick.... Then, even if he intellectually appreciates that it's an illusion, it's more of an in-between case. Anyhow, that's my view!

Wesley Buckwalter said...

Hey Eric, so implicit attitudes have very limited predictive power in that way, but they still result in variance in behaviour at the level explicit judgments do on the broad-based view? I don't doubt that human beings are biased in all kinds of ways, but if I was really taking a broad based view, I'd want to estimate the % contribution the implicit attitudes actually made in the reality of that broad-base. The extent to which seems exaggerated and doesn't really deter me from ascribing egalitarian beliefs.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wesley, I'm happy to let that be an empirical question. Impressionistically, it seems to me that there is a non-trivial number of cases in which people sincerely endorse egalitarian beliefs but show enough of a range of bias in their others reactions and behavior that it's appropriate to regard them as "in-between" cases. For my argument it doesn't matter if this is a majority of people (say, most of the ones who show bias in the IAT) or only a smallish minority (say 5%) as long as it's a real phenomenon worth discussing and accommodating within a theory.

I tend to agree with Edouard talk of "implicit attitudes" is problematic, especially if the model is supposed to be that a behavioral test shows some real underlying representation with lots of predictive power. Rather, I think we have a confused muddle of biased and egalitarian reactions, and I am dubious of cognitive models that try to pin that muddle down into discrete attitudes (say one explicit and one implicit).

Brad Cokelet said...

Hi Wesley,

I can't see much in the way of ordering and framing effects here, unless it is the race stuff. But I have the same intuitions in stoic-in-the-cage-above-the-chasm cases discussed by Hume and others. I agree that order and framing effects are interesting of course and that we also have to worry about implication and such.

lucas said...

Interesting text. I wondered how the conflict between these two views (broad-view and intellectualism) respond to a more or less orthodox reading of Wittgenstein`s argument against private language. On the one hand, Wittgenstein also rejects the privilege of "intentionality" as a mental act that authenticates the belief (The difference between to target this particular colour and to target an universal color, while species, depends only on the rules and grammar). On the other, it does not seem to me that he would endorse a broad-view, because this last approach would still stick to the dicotoy between soething more authentic, more incorrigible, against the most inauthentic, untrue, etc. It seems that the broad-view can fall prey of another type of cartesianism. I think this passage is enough to create some polemic:

But imagine the following case: We give someone who can
read fluently a text that he never saw before. He reads it to us—but
with the sensation of saying something he has learnt by heart (this
might be the effect of some drug). Should we say in such a case that
he was not really reading the passage? Should we here allow his
sensations to count as the criterion for his reading or not reading? (PI 160)

I suspect that some interpreters - maybe Rorty - would say that the discussion about real intentions or real beliefs are only a alternative way of discussing the possibility of grasping some sort of selected and abstract ideas trought an "internal eye". The paradigmatic and standard view criticized by Rorty and by the second Wittgenstein is that If there is any sort of entities that are more apt to develop discussion and help the search of truth, like "absract ideas", "logical forms", "universals", then they should be something hidden inside the distortions of our language, our prejudices, etc.

Greetings.Sorry if the intervention seems out of context. (And sorry for my bad english - I am not a native speaker)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, lucas!

Although I'm not a huge fan of the private language argument, perhaps my view is broadly Wittgensteinian in the sense you articulate here. Perhaps some of the attraction of intellectualism is a Cartesian-esque view on which your attitudes stand before your mind, obvious to you upon inspection and ready to be reported; and I, perhaps like Wittgenstein, would rather locate them in a broad mashup of ways of living. On the other hand, there's an expressivist strand in some of Wittgenstein that seems to see a tighter connection between believing P and being inclined to say "P" than I am inclined to accept. (See, e.g., Dorit Bar-On on this.)

Callan S. said...

Someone might sincerely say, for example, that women and men are equally intelligent, but be consistently sexist in his assessments of intelligence.

Broader picture - everyone doesn't have the exact same level of intelligence (nor is there just one intelligence type, despite what D&D stats have to say). What if, by chance he just is surrounded by people who are female and are, by the way you'd measure intelligence, less intelligent?

Then the chauvinism isn't his - and perhaps one might say 'Oh, I get that', but deep down you perhaps keep hating on that sexist asshole.

Ones inner witch hunter.

Probably the thing about intellectualism is how it feels clean, like 2+2=4 is clean. But really it's got its fingers dirty in the pie - its just so blinkered it can't see why it's adding up 2+2 to begin with and the why of that isn't clean like 2+2 is. A clean knife doesn't make the deed less dirty.

Unknown said...

"This is a more profound kind of self-challenge, a fuller refusal to indulge in self-flattery. It highlights the uncomfortable truth that our self-image is often ill-tuned to reality."...

Then is there a use for our self-imagery that 'endorses' oneself and becomes material for transformation toward 'actions' in reality or are we only to suffer our 'reactions'...

Richard Dub said...

Here's another argument against intellectualism: it doesn't have enough resources to distinguish beliefs from assumptions. Suppose a person believes not-p but assumes p for the sake of argument or for the sake of smoothing over social interactions. They are disposed to assert p, it guides their deliberative reasoning, it guides their public behavior, etc. But for various reasons this assumption never gets discharged; the person continues to assume p and they eventually forget that p was an assumption of theirs. They form a metacognitive belief that they believe p. So when they assert that p, from their perspective, they take it to be a sincere assertion.

Yet all that has changed over time is a metacognitive belief. Is this metacognitive belief enough in itself to turn their assumption that p into a belief that p? I don't think so: assumptions and beliefs do not differ solely in virtue of metacognitive attitudes that we have towards them.

I suspect that most of the mental states that non-philosophers save the word "belief" for (religious convictions, political convictions, etc.) are just assumptions or acceptances of this sort. We all publicly commit ourselves to propositions without really believing them and without knowing at the time whether we really believe them, and then we carry on.

There are probably moves to make, but I suspect intellectualists will probably have to say that some assumptions are beliefs, which is rather unwelcome.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Hey Eric, nice post. A few thoughts that seem relevant to the discussion.

Intellectualism really seems to me to fit best with the idea that our beliefs are typically transparent to us, i.e., that introspection is a reliable method for determining what we believe. Suppose, for example, that a theory theory account of belief were widely held. Intellectualism about belief would be completely coherent, but a very odd view. If we typically sincerely endorsed something as a belief only after considering how we behave, it would be much more natural to characterize the belief itself as a determinant of behavior.

So perhaps a lot of the disagreement can be understood in terms of what people fasten on to as a stereotypical belief. Interestingly, philosophers and ordinary people seem to differ a great deal in this respect. I think if you ask a typical analytic philosopher to identify one of her beliefs, she'll pick something normatively neutural and evidentially unproblematic, like the sky is blue or 2 + 2 = 4. I think ordinary people have to be convinced that these are beliefs at all (they'll say, that's not a belief, that's a fact!) and they will usually choose something that is neither normatively neutral nor evidentially unproblematic.

I suspect that intellectualists as a group are more inclined to take belief seriously as a natural kind, or at least as a fully determinate concept that we are just trying to reveal through analysis. The language they tend to prefer suggests that they are figuring out what belief IS, not what would would be a useful way to analyze the concept for this or that purpose. I like your point that we should connect it to the thing that is most important about belief, but I think an intellectualist tends to find that view repugnant: if it turns out that belief is not as important as we hoped, so be it. At least we have discovered its true nature.

I'm inclined to say that when we sincerely endorse something we are saying what we believe we believe. Do you think it would make sense to adopt an intellecualist position on second order beliefs and a behaviorist position on first order beliefs?

philosophercj said...

Why should we stick with the belief category at all? It seems all of these cases of tension between sincere assertions and behavior give us good reason to think that we are dealing with more than one kind of mental state. I think Tamar Gendler is right to suppose that there are at least two states involved. However, I think your criticisms of her intellectualist notion of belief are convincing insofar as they show that there is no reason to suppose the intellectualist conception is the "real belief" rather than it being what she calls "alief." So, why not drop this unwieldy category of belief altogether and posit categories that do the explanatory job we want them to do. There are already some options on the table. For example, Sterelny posits decoupled representations, robust tracking systems, and detection systems in Thought in a Hostile World. Keith Stanovich also has some good candidates in Rationality and the Reflective Mind. Finally, I have recommended automatic representations and control representations in my paper The Belief Illusion. I would now probably add a third type, expert representations. Historically, science has been a series of instances where common sense concepts have been shown to be inadequate. Why would we expect "belief" to be any different?

Lisa Bortolotti said...

Hi Eric and thank you for this useful post.

I would agree that when A sincerely asserts something that is not sufficient for A to believe what she asserted, but I think sincere assertions by A that p are behavioural evidence that A believes that p. Obviously, that is defeasible evidence, but I have not seen so far any convincing justification in philosophy or psychology for the often assumed claim that verbal behaviour is less valuable as evidence for belief than non-verbal behaviour. There are situations where it might be the case, but I don't think the claim should be generalised as it is.

The insistence that verbal behaviour is second-rate as evidence for belief, and the thesis that a mental state needs to be stable and action-guiding in a consistent way to be a belief concern me, as you know, because they seem to excessively idealise beliefs and to rule out the possibility of conflicting beliefs.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Terrific continuing comments, folks -- thanks!

Unknown: Of course aspirational self images can be useful too, though I think people have a tendency to give themselves credit too soon.

Richard: Interesting argument. The political and religious cases seem to me to be typically less like undischarged-assumption cases than cases in which a verbal endorsement feels right (perhaps partly because of group solidarity) but then other aspects of behavior aren't fully shaped accordingly. The are probably interesting cases of "let's assume for the sake of argument that P" where the provisionality of that assumption gets lost track of down the line -- maybe for example in reading a long, complicated book of philosophy. "Let's spot Kant this for now..." or in disputes with one's spouse "okay, I'll accept P for now if that's what you think...." But maybe then it will also tend to penetrate other reactions too, in the long run? It would be interesting to explore this a bit more.

Randy: I'm inclined to agree with most of that, esp. about transparency fitting much better with intellectualist accounts. In a 2011 essay, I ride that arrow both directions: When transparency seems to get you the right results something close to intellectualism is true for those beliefs, when intellectualism seems less plausible then transparency too will fail. (Contrast cases: "Sacramento is the capital of California" [transparent] vs. "poor people deserve as much respect as powerful, wealthy people" [non-transparent].) I am inclined to think that second order beliefs are closer to tranparent. The disposition to utter "I believe that P" is much more central to the stereotype for believing that one believes P than to the stereotype for believing P.

philosophercj: Your paper looks interesting -- thanks for the heads up! I'm looking forward to reading it. The short version of my answer is that I think you're rightabout this but that existing scientific categories are insufficiently clear and well-supported for us to jettison belief talk, so at least for the short term and maybe for the long term we're stuck with it. I would compare with science vs. folk categories of "seeing" and "remembering": the scientific categories are a complicated mix of stuff that doesn't match onto the folk categories very well -- probably the same will be true of belief. It doesn't mean that talk of "seeing" and "remembering" isn't very useful! We just need to be careful not to be too robustly realistic about it and to know what kinds of cases to expect that talk to break down in.

Lisa: My inclination is to think that more most beliefs -- especially the approximately value-neutral ones -- verbal behavior is the best guide as you say. But I don't think it's as good a guide as is generally assumed in most survey methodologies. And for belief where it matters to you whether you have them (e.g., sexist beliefs, for people who identify as politically liberal), then verbal behavior might be a poorer guide than other types of behavior. So I don't think our views need to be super far apart on this issue. However, they are probably at least a little apart in how much weight to give avowals vs. other behaviors. Also, my model of belief doesn't allow people to have baldly contradictory beliefs: One can't simultaneously match the stereotype for believing P and for believing not-P. You would have to have metaphysically inconsistent dispositions, e.g., the disposition to usually say P and the disposition to usually say not-P, when asked. I haven't seen what I take to be a compelling case for ascribing baldly contradictory beliefs, which I didn't think my own approach could handle at least as well. But Cristina Borgoni has recently been defending a contradictory belief approach to the kinds of cases I would call "in between".

Unknown said...

"aspirational self images can be useful"... for-what is my question...

That aspiration would be one's intellectual behavior, from any kind of intelligent belief... That then would allow one's images of any kind, from instinctive behaviors to be, in part useful, in providing real food for our minds to work with....

chinaphil said...

I'm a bit confused by the nature of the work you're trying to do in this post. It seems like a funny mixture of the descriptive, normative and analytic. Of course, word definitions do combine all those aspects, so I guess that makes sense, but I don't really see how combining them together makes for a stronger argument - these arguments don't seem to me to be "additive" in that sense.

To break it down into the separate elements, there's:

A) Descriptive questions: How is the word "belief" used in ordinary language? How is it used in the philosophical literature?

B) Analytic questions: Which bundle of features would make most sense together in a definition? Which ones are compatible, which are synonymous, and which are incompatible?

C) Normative questions: How should philosophers use this word? How should philosophers interpret uses of this word a) in the philosophical literature, and b) in ordinary language?

So your (1) seems to address the descriptive issue; your (2) seems to be about the analysing the meaning; your (3) seems to be a combination of analysis and description of philosophical use of the word; and your (4) seems to be engaging with the normative question. Then your own argument at the end seems to be a purely normative one, about usage. And the "without violence" let out clause seems to rather deflate its purpose: philosophers are surely inclined to see violence in any definition that doesn't conform with their own descriptive and analytic understandings of the word, and your chances of herding philosophers with a term like "importance" are surely slim...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting comment, chinaphil -- as usual!

Among the defenses of intellectualism, I'm trying to be eclectic, so a consistency of methodology is not among my aims in 1-4. My own positive argument is normative (C) in light of (A) of (B) and our interests and purposes. Roughly, if (A) and (B) yield mixed results, that makes a choice for how to use the term possible "without violence". Maybe "violence" is too loaded a term, but the kind of thing I have in mind is that if you said "by 'world peace' I mean a ham sandwich" (Chalmers' example), that would be "violence" in the relevant sense. There are good pragmatic reasons, e.g., avoiding confusion, to not choosing formal philosophical accounts that are sharply at variance with (A) and (B).

Scott Bakker said...

Excellent argument. But sometimes you knap a tool so much, you gotta toss it in the rubbish pile, Eric. The folk will continue using it in the contexts that are its home, but I think specialists need to be keen to the way specialized redefinitions of folk-concepts turn them into discursive arenas. There's no knock down arguments at this level of abstraction: so if the idea is to develop an effective terminology, perhaps we're better off using terms that cue less baggage, that can be more readily assessed in terms of theoretical utility.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I've no objection to that in principle, Scott. But I also don't think that our scientific understanding of the mind is sophisticated enough to offer a suitable alternative that is also useful in everyday contexts. I'm open to the possibility that this might happen in the future, though. In strictly neuroscience and cognitive architecture contexts, "belief" already doesn't play a big role, compared to "representation", "activation", etc. I see a variety of ways this could play out in the long term.

Richard Dub said...

It would be interesting to explore this a bit more.

I agree! I discuss a few similar cases in this paper, if you're interested. But it's something I'm still following up on.

Michael Crawford said...

I'm inclined to Scott Bakker's diagnosis here. While I appreciate the sort-of-pragmatist and revisionistic move, I am sympathetic to the idea that it might be doing more harm than good to use the same sort of term for this sharp divide between folk and specialist usage of the term. Maybe we ought to just do what we often do sometimes in philosophy and invent a term. The worry here can't be that it won't catch on, since the point is just to distinguish the specialist usage from the lay one.

Nice post. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

been worrying a related (I think) notion that Robert Brandom's sense of what we commit to when we take/assert certain positions (for him a whole pre-established/authorized host of related intellectual commitments) is more normative than prescriptive, that in fact what we end up being committed to or not by anything like a particular speech-act is to be determined in the following interactions/responses (conscious/verbal and not) among the players at hand in any given and evolving situation.