Merrill Ring

In his introduction to Belief Radu Bogdan[1] offers a schema in which he organizes the various positions taken on the nature of belief. He represents such views as divisible into two camps: to the question 'What is belief?' there are answers which claim that 'Belief is a something' or alternatively that 'Belief is a nothing'. Within each group, there are different versions to be found in the philosophical literature.

Bogdan himself, as one discovers in reading the essay, thinks that the only interesting group is the 'Belief is a something' class of views. Nothing in the other major position has any appeal to him whatsoever.

What I shall do here is to dispute his two-fold classification scheme. Having only those two categories is too restrictive to grasp the variety of positions which can be taken with respect to the nature of belief. Bogdan's structure papers over a distinction enormously important for our understanding of philosophical views about belief (and about other issues as well.)

To combat Bogdan's two category representation, I will employ a general scheme for exhibiting the constellation of (possible) philosophical positions on any specific issue. This scheme was developed by Simon Blackburn, initially in Spreading the Word.[2]

Blackburn holds (held) that with respect to any given philosophical problem, one can organize competing views in a three-fold manner. That tri-partite division can be exhibited by a triangle, with each of the possible philosophical positions occupying one of the angles. Blackburn's labels for the positions are 'realist', 'eliminativist', and 'anti-realist'.

Consider an illustration. About the question 'What is a number?' one can have a realist view: Platonism is the major example. Numbers have an existence which pre-dates and will post-date human existence. An anti-realist position would be that numbers are human constructions, they are abstractions which result from our numbering things. The eliminativist position would be that, numbers not being real objects, we must eliminate all talk of them. (Blackburn rightly does not insist that all three of the positions on a given problem has actually been occupied in the history of philosophy.)

Blackburn's general scheme can be applied to the question of the nature of belief. There are, in principle, three types of position possible about belief: the realist, anti-realist, eliminativist.

The conflict with Bogdan's representation is immediately clear: Bogdan's map allows for only two kinds of accounts of belief. Further, since his terminology for labeling the positions is not the same as Blackburn's, it is necessary to map the maps onto each other.

Clearly, Bogdan's group 'Belief is a something' is equivalent to what Blackburn would call a realist position about belief. Bogdan himself uses the word "realistically" to contrast this set of views with those on the other side of his primary divide. Further, the views he cites under the 'Belief is a something' heading are naturally thought of as realist: belief, for example, is a state in a Cartesian mental substance; belief is a pattern of behavior; belief is a state of a brain; or a functional state which can be instantiated in a variety of stuffs.

Given that identification of the Blackburnian realist category with Bogdan's 'Belief is a something' category, it would seem likely that Bogdan includes within his 'Belief is a nothing' category what Blackburn would distinguish as two different possible positions, the anti-realist and the eliminativist. That is exactly what he does.

It is important to notice that to the 'Belief is a nothing' group Bogdan gives the alternative title "belief eliminativists". That is, his wording identifies his second category with the eliminativist position in Blackburn's scheme. Hence, from the point of view of Blackburn's model, what Bogdan has missed is the distinction between eliminativist views and anti-realist views about the nature of belief, treating them both as forms of eliminativism.

Bogdan lists three sub-sets of 'eliminativists'. Let me start with his third sub-set. "Finally there are the ferocious eliminativists". Here he names Paul Churchland and, with some caution, Stephen Stich. Now those philosophers are genuine eliminativists. They hold that the very terminology of belief is misguided, the residue of a primitive theory, and should be eliminated, certainly from respectable science and possibly from day to day human practice.

However, Bogdan is quite mistaken in classifying his other two types of eliminativist position as eliminativists at all. Rather they are two different versions of Blackburnian anti-realism about belief. Bogdan entitles those two sub-groups "socio-linguistic eliminativists" and "strategic eliminativists" The first, for Bogdan, holds "that talk of belief is just a matter of linguistic practice and usage" - he cites J.L. Austin and J.O. Urmson as proponents. The second view, the strategic, which he identifies as Dennett's, treats "talk of belief as a useful conceptual strategy".

Notice, however, that neither of those positions wants to eliminate the concept of belief from our talk and thought, whether it be scientific or ordinary. Neither holds that the concept of belief is derived from an outmoded theory. As we shall see, the only thing either wishes to eliminate is a philosophical idea lurking behind both the realist and the eliminativist positions. Hence both of those views are, in Blackburn's terms, anti-realist.

We must now ask for an explanation of what it is to be a realist and consequently an anti-realist, probably not generally but in the present context. A realist is one who thinks that a term, here 'belief', is a referential term, that its purpose/role in human discourse is to name (denote, refer to, pick out, mean, stand for, describe (that is Bogdan's favorite) something. 'Belief' functions for the realist just like, say, 'dog' or 'scar': there is a group of objects, or instances of a condition, in the world, namely dogs or scars, and we designate them (in English) by the word 'dog' or 'scar'. Blackburnian realism should more properly be spoken of as referentialism.

Eliminativists are disappointed referentialists, i.e. chastened realists. They too assume that the role of the term 'belief' is to name some phenomenon found in human life. But they can't locate anything for it to name. Their position is that 'belief' is not really like 'scar', since there are found in the world conditions corresponding to that term, but is rather like 'witch' whose role is to be just like that of 'dog' but to which there is nothing in the world which actually corresponds. That being so, the eliminativist holds that we cannot use the term in science and if we were wise we would eliminate it in our ordinary practice also.

Blackburnian anti-realists should, however, be labeled anti-referentialists. They are not committed to holding that beliefs are not real as the name 'anti-realism' suggests. Rather, they hold that the term 'belief' and its cognates are not referring terms, not names. They do not then suffer the disappointment of the eliminativists when it is realized that the world contains no phenomenon corresponding to the term, no state of a human being which is picked out by the word. To put it very crudely, the proper analogy for the role of the term 'belief', in the anti-realist view, is neither 'scar' nor 'witch' but rather something on the order of, say, 'good' or 'guilt'.

Are there anti-realists, i.e. anti-referentialists, about belief? That is, is the slot actually filled in the philosophical literature? Yes. Dennett certainly and so too Urmson, though he is a minor player. However, Bogdan misses the main philosopher in what he calls the "socio-linguistic" camp, namely Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein, in Part II, Section X of the Philosophical Investigations takes the crux of the matter to be Moore's Paradox. It is thought, by Moore and others, that statements of the form 'I believe p but not p' are paradoxical, that they combine a claim about the speaker, 'I believe', a claim that the speaker is in a certain condition referred to by the word 'believe', with a claim about some other subject matter, p. Yet, despite that, the relevant sentences undeniably exhibit some contradiction like conflict. Wittgenstein argues that the conflict shows that we (philosophers) have been mistaken all along, that since there is a conflict between the clauses we should realize that the funny statements noticed by Moore involve two conflicting claims about a single subject matter: namely about p.[3] 'I believe' is not about the speaker, but rather performs the function of reducing one's degree of commitment to the truth of p. When one says 'I believe that Istanbul is north of Los Angeles', the person is making a more hesitant assertion about the relative positions of Istanbul and Los Angeles than if she/he were to say flatly 'Istanbul is north of Los Angeles'. The word 'believe' does not function to refer to a condition of the speaker – it is not logically parallel to 'I have a scar on my elbow.'

It is not the intent of this paper to offer a broad defense of Wittgenstein's thesis. That can be found elsewhere.[4] Nor shall I discuss the extension of the argument from the first person present case to all other occurrences of 'believes'. Here I shall continue to talk about Bogdan's picture/representation of such a thesis and to produce some explanations of what Wittgenstein's thesis amounts to.

First, it is clearly a mistake to treat Wittgenstein's (and Dennett's) view as 'eliminativist'. It is very unlike the Churchland-Stich position(s), where the idea is that, since the word 'belief' actually picks out nothing, it has no role at least in a respectable science and possibly not even in ordinary human conversation and so should be eliminated. The anti-referentialist/anti-realist views, including Wittgenstein's, do not recommend eliminating the use of the term 'belief' or suggesting that there are not really beliefs. Rather, the upshot is that since beliefs are not objects or states named by the word 'belief' to begin with, it was a realist, i.e. referentialist, philosophical confusion to think so and it is that which needs elimination. Eliminativism shares with realism precisely that assumption and so is also a target of anti-realism.

Secondly, it is clear why Bogdan cannot see the anti-referentialist view as a distinct possibility. A thoroughly committed realist, he thinks that the only way terms have a role in talk and thought is for them to pick out pieces of reality for comment. Since he recognizes that the anti-referentialists deny that 'belief' picks out something, he sees no difference between them and eliminativists who also hold that 'belief' doesn't latch on to any phenomenon. The very different conclusions which the two camps draw from that completely escapes him.

He should have heeded what Wittgenstein said about pain: "It is not a something, but not a nothing either!" (Philosophical Investigations, #304) Wittgenstein's account of belief falls exactly there also, in between the same characterizations, a nothing, a something, which Bogdan chooses to mark out as the only two possibilities he can recognize for belief.

Thirdly, Bogdan comments about the 'social-linguistic' variations of anti-realism "but why would humans want or need to talk that way in the first place; what is the rationale behind their linguistic practices?" It is fairly obvious what the answer is (and it is obvious even in what Bogdan himself says): that we need a practice which enables we humans to talk about how the world is where we are in less than a fully desirable position to say how it is. We don't always know whether a storm is coming, but often enough it is important to be able say that one is on the way with something less than compelling evidence. Hence some device ('I believe') is required which indicates that our statement as to how things are is made in those circumstances. That is the rationale of the practice.

What, taking into account all the various forms of belief talk, should we say that belief is on an anti-referentialist view? There is no time here to argue against Dennett's version: that makes our practice of talking of beliefs too much a matter of choice, an option which we can pursue or not for certain rational ends. But surely, our practice is not based on rational calculation as to its effectiveness - it is more deeply rooted in human life than that.

What, then, would be a philosophically decent characterization of belief on a Wittgensteinian version of anti-referentialism? One way of putting it would be to say that the concept of belief is part of an interpretive system by means of which we say how things are with the world and explain our actions in that world so construed. A decent analogy to the role the term 'belief' plays is to, say, the notion of guilt. To consider whether someone is guilty is not to wonder whether the person is in a state, whether it be Cartesian, behavioral or neurological. It is consider a person's status in a system of talk and thought about action and responsibility. The details about the nature and role of belief are of course quite different - but the general status of the two concepts is similar.

1. Radu Bogdan, ed. Belief: Form, Content and Function (Oxford University Press, 1986). Bogdan himself provides the introduction to the book as Chapter 1, 'The Importance of Belief', pp. 1-16. All quotations from Bogdan are from pages 4-6 of that chapter.

2. Simon Blackburn, Spreading the Word: Groundings in the Philosophy of Language (Oxford University Press, 1984). See especially Chapter 5, pp. 145-180. The presentation of the model in that text is less clear than it seems from my presentation. On the whole he contrasts realism and anti-realism: the eliminativist gets in only as an afterthought (see especially p. 162). I must add that my understanding of what is in the text has been greatly influenced by a paper I heard Blackburn read, but which I don't think he ever published, which sets out the model much more clearly than he does in the text itself. It must be pointed out that Blackburn has come to hold a four-fold way of representing philosophical positions on a given topic. The new scheme shall be presented fully in his forthcoming Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed, Chapter 5. (I wish to thank Professor Blackburn for notifying me of that development.) His earlier three-fold system can be said to remain as a limiting case of the new structure, much as the Newtonian universe remains as a limiting case of relativity theory.

3. Of course, solipsism, the idea that both statements are about the speaker, is another solution, one which Wittgenstein considers though not in that particular discussion.

4. For previous discussions describing and extending Wittgenstein's views about Moore's Paradox see Merrill Ring and Kent Linville, 'Moore's Paradox: Assertion and Implication', Behaviorism, Vol 1 (1973); Kent Linville and Merrill Ring, 'Moore's Paradox Revisited', Synthese 87 (1991), reprinted in Wittgenstein in Florida, ed. Jaakko Hintikka (D. Reidel, Dortrecht, 1991) Wittgenstein's conclusion, that the point of saying 'I believe that p' is, at least characteristically, a way of softening the assertion that p rather than offering a report on the speaker is found in other places in the literature though without the connection to the Moore's Paradox material. See, for instance, M.R. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker, Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (Blackwell, 2003), p. 202.