Random thoughts on random topics

East Goodwin

On belief and introspection

Wittgenstein claims that belief (like doubt, expectation, etc.) is ‘introspectively accessible”: if we believe that p, we know that we believe that p. Hence, we cannot say, Wittgenstein claims, that we thought we believed something, but actually did not believe it. Knowledge is not like that: we can think that we know something, only to find out that we didn’t. The reason is (presumably, but Wittgenstein does not discuss this explicitly) that belief concerns a certain state or disposition, whereas knowledge in addition involves a particular relation to the world (this is where truth comes in). 

Does this hold up if what a person believes ultimately must show itself in his or her actions, i.e., if belief is a disposition to act in a certain way? That is a view that Wittgenstein seems to endorse as well, so the issue at hand can also be formulated as follows: does it make sense to say that one can somehow be mistaken about what it is one is doing, or is disposed to do? 

Stepping back: is there at this particular point a difference between belief in the ordinary, epistemological sense, and religious beliefs and ethical convictions? If we grant Wittgenstein that, indeed, it does not seem to make sense to say “I think I believe that Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, but maybe I’m wrong, maybe I don’t believe that”, are we then forced to also hold that it does not make sense to answer “I don’t know” if someone asks us “Do you believe in an after-life (transubstantiation, Last Judgement, …)”, and that we cannot meaningfully express doubt concerning an ethical prescription, as in “I’m not sure I believe that one should always respect the right to bodily integrity” ? It would be interesting to try to construct different cases and see whether doubt concerning belief is possible, and if so, what it means to express it. In that way we might also get a better picture of how various kinds of beliefs are related to action, on the one hand, and reality on the other (cf. above, concerning knowledge) 

It is true that what people say and what they do all too often diverges, but that does not mean that what they believe and what they do diverges as well. For saying something is one thing, believing it is another. It is only a sincere utterance that allows an inference to a belief (cf., Grice’s Maxim of Quality). This is the gist of what is known as “Moore’s Paradox” (which Wittgenstein regarded as Moore’s most important contribution to philosophy): an utterance of the form “p but I don’t believe that p” may very well be true, but it cannot be sincere. 

So, the crux of examples about a person saying one thing and doing another concerns that person’s sincerity : that cannot be taken for granted, but has to be argued for. 

That many (most) of our beliefs are unreflected, unanalysed, is an important here: in fact, explicitly held beliefs seem to be the exception, rather than the rule. And that seems to make the way a person acts the primary source for belief-ascriptions. 

This observation itself raises some other questions: Can we as outside observers always derive distinct beliefs from the way a person acts? Can a person himself do this? What kinds of beliefs lend themselves to such investigation? Aren’t these more like certainties, rather than cognitive beliefs? What about the requirement that it should always be possible to explicate a belief derived from a way of acting? 

Consider the case of the egalitarian who does not act upon his beliefs: would that be a case of a person being wrong about what he believes (he thinks he believes in equal rights, yet his failure to act shows that he does not), or is it rather a case of failing to act upon one’s beliefs? Given his beliefs the egalitarian also believes that he should act in a particular way in particular situations. That he does not, might also be attributed to weakness in character, or some other circumstance, and not to a mistake about the beliefs he holds. Of course, if he consistently acts in opposition to what we would expect on the basis of the beliefs he confesses to, we would start to doubt. And his sincerity would be the first thing we would doubt. 

Note finally that the phrase “I believe” itself can be used in a variety of ways: as a statement of a firmly held conviction; but also as a way of indicating that we are not sure (yet), that we actually leave room for the opposite. “I think” is more like “I believe” in the latter sense than in the former. And for Wittgenstein’s  argument we do indeed need the former sense. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: October 2002

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