The Pragmatic Metaphysics of Belief



Eric Schwitzgebel

Department of Philosophy

University of California at Riverside

Riverside, CA  92521-0201



August 2, 2017



The Pragmatic Metaphysics of Belief



Abstract: On an intellectualist approach to belief, the intellectual endorsement of a proposition (such as “the working poor deserve as much respect as the handsomely paid”) is sufficient or nearly sufficient for believing it.  On a pragmatic approach to belief, intellectual endorsement is not enough.  Belief is behaviorally demanding.  To really, fully believe, you must also “walk the walk”.  I argue that the pragmatic approach is preferable on pragmatic grounds: It rightly directs our attention to what matters most in thinking about belief.



Word Count: approx. 11,000 words including references and notes


Keywords: propositional attitudes, pragmatism, intellectualism, belief, metaphilosophy, implicit bias





The Pragmatic Metaphysics of Belief


1. Introduction.

If asked to list three beliefs that matter to me, I might offer the following:

1.      that my children’s happiness is far more important than their academic or financial success;

2.      that women and men are equally moral and equally intelligent;

3.      that most people are basically good at heart.

I care that I believe these things.  I want to be the kind of person who believes such things.  I feel as though, if I didn’t believe those things, it would be rather sad.

I also feel like I am saying something true when I assert those propositions.  When I pause to reflect on the matter, I feel sincere inner assent.  I feel confident that these claims are right.  I explicitly and consciously judge them to be so.  In other words, I intellectually endorse these propositions.

On one view of belief, intellectual endorsement is sufficient for belief – or nearly sufficient, or sufficient in normal circumstances.  If upon reflection I say “most people are basically good at heart” with a feeling of confidence and sincerity, then that’s what I believe.  My beliefs are, as it were, written on the face of my intellectual endorsements.  Let’s call this view intellectualism about belief.

On another view, intellectual endorsement isn’t enough for belief.  To determine whether I genuinely believe the propositions I sincerely affirm, we must inquire farther.  We must look at my overall pattern of actions and reactions, or at how I live my life generally.  Do I in fact tend to treat my children’s happiness as far more important than their academic success?  For instance, am I generally more heartened by signs of their emotional health than by their good grades?  Similarly, in my day-to-day interactions with women and men, do I tend to treat them as intellectually and morally equal?  For instance, am I as ready to attribute academic brilliance to a woman as to a man?  If I do not generally act and react in a way that reflects the wise, egalitarian, uncynical vision that I proudly endorse in affirming propositions 1-3, then, on this second type of view, it’s not quite right to say that I really or fully have those beliefs.  I might simply fail to have those beliefs.  Alternatively, it might be best to describe me as in a muddy, inconsistent, indeterminate, or in-betweenish state (Schwitzgebel 2002, 2010).  Let’s call a view of belief pragmatist if it treats belief as behaviorally demanding in this way.

In this essay, I will argue for a pragmatic approach to belief and against an intellectualist approach.  I will argue that the pragmatic approach is preferable because it better expresses our values, keeps our disciplinary focus on what is important, and encourages salutary self-examination.  It directs our attention to what we ought to care about most in thinking about belief: our overall ways of acting in and reacting to the world.

The approach I favor is pragmatist in two distinct ways.  First, it fits with the pragmatist tradition of Bain (1868/1973), Peirce (1877, 1878), James (1896/1912, 1907/2004), and Dewey (1920/1957, 1938[1]) in emphasizing behavioral patterns as central to belief.  Second, it is metaphilosophically pragmatic in relying on pragmatic criteria to choose among competing metaphysical approaches, as I will now explain.[2]


2. Pragmatic Metaphysics Generally.

Sometimes the world divides into neat types – neat enough that you can more or less just point your science at it and straightforwardly sort the As from the Bs.  Sometimes instead the world is fuzzy-bordered, full of intermediate cases and cases where plausible criteria conflict.  When the world is the latter way, we sometimes face antecedently open cases.  In antecedently open cases, the world does not force a classificational scheme upon us.  More than one classificational option fits things well enough; you could legitimately go either way.  You could classify the case as an A, without doing too much violence to the phenomena, or you could classify it as a B, or you could just leave it indeterminate or intermediate.

Antecedently open cases are, or can be, decision points.  If there’s more than one way to build a legitimate metaphysics or classificational scheme, you have some options.  You can consider, do you want to classify the thing in question as an A?  Would there be some advantage in thinking of category “A” so that it sweeps in the case?  Or is it better to think of “A” in a way that excludes the case or leaves it intermediate?  Such decisions can reflect, often do at least implicitly reflect, our interests and values.  Such decisions can also shape, often do at least implicitly shape, future choices and values, influencing both how we think about that particular type of case and how we think about Category A in general.

Pragmatic metaphysics is metaphysics done with these thoughts explicitly in mind.  For instance: There are lots of ways of thinking about what a person is.  Usually the cases are not antecedently open.  You are a person; I am a person; this coffee mug is not a person.  It wouldn’t be reasonable to adopt a classificational scheme that yielded a different result than that!  However, some interesting cases appear to be antecedently open, breaking in different directions depending on what criteria are emphasized: a fetus, a human without much cortex, a hypothetical conscious robot, a hypothetical enhanced chimpanzee.  The world does not seem to force a classificational scheme that sorts all such cases neatly into persons and non-persons.  We can choose to think of personhood in a way that includes various antecedently open cases, excludes them, or leaves them intermediate.  In doing so, we both express and buttress certain values, for example, about what sorts of beings deserve the highest level of moral consideration.

I am drawing here on three strands of thought in recent philosophy.  One is the self-avowed later pragmatists, such as Richard Rorty (1980/2010, 1993/2010) and Hilary Putnam (1990), who saw all classificational decisions as pragmatically governed, but who are also sometimes interpreted as embracing more radically open views about the classificational possibilities than the view I intend.[3]  Another strand is the pragmatic strand in post-Kuhnian philosophy of science, especially in the “Stanford school” thinkers, who see the world as sufficiently complex that it defies simple modeling.  On this view, theory choice and model choice nearly always involve evaluating, on pragmatic grounds, tradeoffs among virtues such as simplicity, social utility, future research promise, and relative accuracy across ranges of phenomena of interest (Cartwright 1983, 1999; Dupré 1993; Horst 2016; and relatedly Carnap’s 1950 pragmatic approach to “explication”).  A third strand is the view in metaethics and meta-metaphysics that treats some of the debates in these areas as linguistic disputes but does not dismiss such disputes as trivial.  Given how much can ride on choices of language, disputants in ethics and metaphysics can sometimes be interpreted as (implicitly or explicitly) disagreeing not primarily about non-normative facts but instead about the normative issue of how words such as “race” or “torture” should be used (Haslanger 2012; Plunkett and Sundell 2013; Plunkett 2015; Thomasson forthcoming).

Pragmatic metaphysics requires that there not always be a single best way of classifying things, independent of our projects and interests.  It requires enough fuzziness or multivocality that we can legitimately appeal to our projects and interests in pushing for one articulation of our metaphysical categories over another.

The human mind is a complex, fuzzy-bordered thing, right at the center of our values.  Because it is complex and fuzzy-bordered, tricky classificational questions will arise, with lots of antecedently open cases – cases that are intermediate or where the usual classificational criteria point in different directions.  And because the mind is at the center of our values, it often matters how we classify such cases.  Does being happy require feeling happy?  Is deep compassionate concern that doesn’t privilege its object as special love?  Answers to these classificational questions aren’t compelled by the phenomena.  Instead we can decide.  What ranges of phenomena deserve such culturally important labels as “happiness” and “love”?

We might think of metaphysical battles over the definitions of important disciplinary terms partly as political battles between philosophers with different visions and priorities, for control of our common disciplinary language.


3. Intellectual Endorsement Versus Spontaneous Lived Behavior: The Case of Daniel.

Some classificational decisions about belief are straightforward.  I believe that my car is parked in Lot 30.  You believe that Confucius lived in ancient China.  Neither of us believes that the moon is made of cheese.  Other cases appear to be antecedently open: cases of marginal confidence, cases in which faith is coupled with serious doubt, certain sorts of conceptual confusion, certain sorts of instability or fragmentation or partial forgetting.[4]

The type of antecedently open case that interests me most is intellectual endorsement of a proposition coupled with widespread failure to act and react generally as though that proposition is true.  If intellectualism is correct, as I defined it in the introduction, then we should generally classify these cases as cases in which the person believes the endorsed proposition.  If pragmatism is correct, then we should not generally classify these cases as straightforward belief – either classifying them as outright failures to believe or instead (as I prefer) treating them as intermediate and “in-betweenish”.

In earlier work (Schwitzgebel 2010), I argued against intellectualism primarily on theoretical grounds.  The in-betweenish approach, I argued, makes better psychological sense.  Here, I set those arguments aside.  Instead, I will argue as follows: It is practically and morally important that philosophers reject intellectualism and accept some sort of pragmatic view instead.  It’s like the cases in Section 2.  In defining “person” or “torture” or “happiness” in one way rather than another, we express and buttress a vision of the world.  We suggest that this case is importantly like that one; they deserve to be classed together.  We also suggest that the case is importantly unlike this other one; they deserve to be classed differently.  These differences matter more; these other differences matter less.  Our classificational decisions highlight selected features of the cases, rendering certain phenomena more visible.  Other phenomena become less visible.  Some projects are implicitly encouraged, while other projects are implicitly discouraged.  This is obvious with “happiness” and “torture”.  It is less obvious but still true, I will argue, with “belief”.

To see why, we need examples.  I will develop one example in detail, then sketch a few others.

Daniel[5], let’s suppose, sincerely says that low-wage workers deserve as much respect as do people who are handsomely paid, maybe even more respect.  Politically, he tilts left.  He’s thirty years old, an advanced graduate student in philosophy.  He votes liberal Democrat.  When political candidates say that existing social structures give working-class people a raw deal, he cheers them on.  He went to an elite undergraduate university, and he admires his classmates who chose personally meaningful careers over money-oriented careers.  He makes it his policy to tip generously.  He says, to friends and family – especially in arguments with his right-leaning uncle Jordan – that undocumented farm laborers and hotel staff, people who work at the lowest level in food service and retail, day-laborers and custodians, deserve as much respect as do lawyers and engineers and professors of philosophy.  Maybe they deserve even more respect.  Life is full of hard knocks for them, he says.  They don’t have the same safety net.  It can be a struggle for them just to get by.  Viewed properly, they are often more admirable, overall, than are full professors cozily ensconced in tenure.  He says this passionately, maybe too passionately.  He feels immensely confident that he is right.  He doesn’t feel at all ambivalent about it.  He even tries to be especially nice to these people.

Here’s the twist.  He tries to be nice.  Usually, there is something ill-tuned in the way he goes about this.  He doesn’t find it natural to be nice to them, to think of them as equals.  He has to work his way toward it.  It’s forced, sometimes even condescending.  “Oh, bussing tables at Denny’s diner is just as valuable as writing philosophy!” he says to a busser he has somehow cornered.  He’s not intentionally lying or misrepresenting himself – he means it in a way – but it has the air of inauthenticity, and both he and the busser know it.  He’s trying to be respectful but he’s failing, and this failure is typical of him.

Daniel admires eminent professors.  He is spontaneously deferential to doctors, lawyers, managers, engineers.  He does not admire or respect food service staff in the same way.  He loathes the most vapidly ostentatious Maserati drivers, but of course that’s only a small portion of the wealthy.  If someone who looked like a well-dressed engineer and someone who looked like a migrant laborer were both sitting in the coach section of an airplane, the laborer spread out comfortably in an exit row aisle seat with extra leg room, the engineer jammed into a tiny middle seat, Daniel might passingly think that something was wrong with that situation.  Maybe after further reflection he’d decide it was fair turnabout – but he wouldn’t usually give the matter further reflection.  Who will Daniel listen to more respectfully, who will he step aside for in the hallway, whose approval or disapproval matters to him more?  Usually the well dressed, financially successful person, rarely a member of the working poor.  Sometimes, if the situation is right, he can really connect with a poor person, in an admiring and respectful way, if he stops and listens, notices some common ground, hears a story about some impressive obstacles they have overcome.  When he does this, maybe he feels a little proud of himself in retrospect.

Likewise, usually but not always, when other people show more deference and respect to the socially powerful, that seems appropriate to Daniel.  In a department store, it would usually not seem jarring to him to watch a well-dressed man interrupt a conversation between an employee and a poorly-dressed customer, but if the poorly-dressed customer were to interrupt the well-dressed man, that would strike him as rude.

Daniel, let’s suppose, knows all of this about himself, or at least suspects it.  Let’s also suppose that it’s not a matter of temporary vacillation.  He has all of these tendencies stably and can manifest different ones simultaneously – for example, pontificating against classism in a way that manifests disrespectful classism toward the housekeeper to whom he is speaking.

I like Daniel.  I don’t mean to be harsh.  I see a lot of myself in him – though how much of myself, exactly, I’m not in a great position to judge.

So here’s the question: Does Daniel believe that the working poor deserve at least as much respect as do those of higher social status?

I have described the case in detail for two reasons.  One is to display the wide range of seemingly relevant dispositions, some behavioral, some phenomenological, and some cognitive, splitting into different subtypes within these broad classes.  The other reason for the detail is psychological realism: It is a mere cartoon to suppose that in implicit bias our dispositions align neatly so that all of the explicit judgments are egalitarian and all of the swift, implicit processes are biased. 

We can imagine similarly convoluted cases on a range of topics: Duy-Anh sincerely says that God sees all and damns the wicked to Hell; but he does not tend to act and react in the way we would expect of someone who believes that to be true.  Alejandro sincerely says that people in wheelchairs are just as rewarding to befriend as those who can walk easily without aid; but in fact he tends to act and react in ways more consistent with assuming that people in wheelchairs are not worth his time.  Kennedy sincerely says that money doesn’t matter much, really, above a certain basic income; but her choices and emotional reactions tell a different story.  Nancy sincerely says that her underachieving adult son will soon become one of the top salespeople in his company, but lots of her other behavior seems more realistically pessimistic.

How should we think about such cases?


4. Situating Intellectualism.

Intellectualism, as I’ve characterized it, is the view that we should think of Daniel and the others as genuinely and unambiguously believing the propositions that they intellectually endorse.  The alternative view I’ve aspirationally labeled pragmatism – “aspirationally” because I hope that this alternative view will appeal to pragmatically motivated philosophers.  According to this alternative view, how you live your life, how you walk through the world, the choices you make, the spontaneous reactions you have, and what you unreflectively take for granted – such things are sufficiently central to belief that Daniel and the others don’t deserve to be called straight-up, unambiguous believers, despite what they would sincerely say about the topics in question.  On the intellectualist approach, intellectually endorsing a proposition is sufficient, or nearly sufficient, for believing it.  On a pragmatic approach, intellectual endorsement is not enough.  To qualify as someone who fully or truly believes, you must also live that way.

It’s possible that the majority of philosophers who have written extensively about belief would reject intellectualism.  Daniel Dennett (1978) is pretty clear about it, contrasting belief with the more intellectual “opinion”.  Brian Loar (1981), John Searle (1983), Donald Davidson (1984), Ruth Millikan (1984), Robert Stalnaker (1984), Jerry Fodor (1987), Fred Dretske (1988), Lynne Rudder Baker (1995), Robert Cummins (1996), Robert Matthews (2007), and Peter Carruthers (2015) all characterize belief in ways that suggest that its manifestation in choice and action is at least as important as its relation to sincere assertion.  Still, it’s not always clear how these philosophers would handle cases like Daniel’s.  One complication derives from the commonly accepted notion of “occurrent belief”.  In the mainstream literature, intellectual endorsement appears typically to be assumed sufficient for “occurrent belief” which is in turn assumed to be sufficient for belief.[6]

Some philosophers are explicitly committed to intellectualism about belief or to principles from which intellectualism appears to follow.  For example, Saul Kripke recommends a “disquotational principle” according to which “If a normal English speaker, on reflection, sincerely assents to ‘p’, then he believes that p” (1979/1988, p. 112-113).  L. Jonathan Cohen writes:

belief that p is a disposition, when one is attending to the issues raised, or items referred to, by the proposition p, normally to feel it true that p and false that not-p, whether or not one is willing to act, speak, or reason accordingly (1992, p. 4).

Matthew Boyle argues that “the very existence of [a rational subject’s] belief that P is constituted by her persisting assent to P” (2009, p. 143).  Aaron Zimmerman (2007) and Tamar Gendler (2008a&b) explicitly consider cases like Daniel’s and defend views on which their Daniel-like characters are properly described as “believing” what they explicitly endorse.  On such views, the behavior at odds with the person’s endorsements is best explained by appeal to such non-belief causes as habit, association, emotional reaction, or (in Gendler’s terminology) “alief”.[7], [8]

Intellectualism also fits nicely with optimism about self-knowledge or “first-person authority”.  Daniel would probably say “I believe that the working poor deserve equal respect”.  Kennedy would probably say, “I believe that money isn’t really very important”.  If knowledge of one’s own beliefs is sufficiently easy that Daniel and Kennedy easily have it, presumably what they know about their beliefs is that they have the ones that they intellectually endorse.

That we have privileged self-knowledge of our beliefs is widely accepted among philosophers.  Sydney Shoemaker (2009) argues that second-order beliefs contain the first-order beliefs that they self-ascribe as a part, and that therefore, necessarily, if a person genuinely believes that they believe something, they do in fact believe that thing.  Alex Byrne (2005) describes a “transparency” procedure of answering questions about what one believes by investigating the outside world, arriving at conclusions, and then self-attributing belief in those conclusions.  Self-attributions that arise in this way, Byrne argues, are “self-verifying” in the sense that if the procedure is followed, the resulting second-order belief must be true.  Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich characterize self-knowledge of belief as a “trivial” matter of detecting representations in the Belief Box, appending “I believe that _____” to them, and placing them back in the Belief Box (2003, p. 161).  Dorit Bar-On (2004) argues that when we speak our minds or express our opinions, those avowals have a special epistemic security.  In general, the more a philosopher emphasizes the ease, simplicity, or near-infallibility of self-knowledge of belief, the more they invite us to treat intellectual endorsement as nearly sufficient for belief.  Knowing what you believe is much more challenging if it requires knowing not only what you intellectually endorse but also how you act and react in general.

When faced with dissonant cases where intellectual endorsement and practical lived behavior diverge, I favor an in-betweenish approach over a view on which we flatly deny belief in the endorsed proposition.  Since the intellectual side of ourselves matters, we have a conflicting case of mixed criteria, defying a simple yes-or-no answer, if we wish to be careful.  (Compare: Is a person courageous who is very courageous in some ways and cowardly in others?)  I will sometimes rely on that in-betweenish view; but I am unconcerned about defending myself from those with even more behaviorally demanding views than my own, who flatly deny belief if one does not walk the walk.  I also favor a “dispositional” approach to belief over a representational realist approach (see Schwitzgebel 2006/2015 for a taxonomy), and I will sometimes rely on that background view, though I hope that my arguments here can be readily adapted to fit with a broad range of representational realist views.


5. The Trunk-and-Branch Argument Against Intellectualism.

We have a metaphysical choice.  “Belief” is in part a technical term in philosophy.  “Belief” is a mushy, multi-valenced term in ordinary use.[9]  We can adopt, cheer for, and push relatively intellectualist conceptual and linguistic practice, or we can adopt, cheer for, and push relatively less intellectualist conceptual and linguistic practice.  Even if we aren’t aware of choosing, we implicitly favor one approach over another when we use the term “belief”, or decline to do so, in disputable cases.

I will now argue that a relatively less intellectualist approach to belief better serves our interests.  My argument has a trunk and three branches.

The Trunk.  Belief is one of the most central and important concepts in all of philosophy.  It is central to philosophy of mind: It’s the most commonly discussed of the propositional attitudes.  It is central to philosophy of action: It’s standard to view actions as arising from the interaction of beliefs, desires, and intentions.  It is central to epistemology: Much of epistemology concerns the conditions under which beliefs are justified or count as knowledge.  Religious belief is a central topic in philosophy of religion.  “Belief reports” is a central topic in philosophy of language.

A concept this important to philosophical thinking should be reserved for the most important thing in the vicinity that can plausibly answer to it, unless there is some exceptional reason to do otherwise.  Central terms should track matters of central importance.  The most important thing in the vicinity is not our patterns of intellectual endorsement and our most thoughtful, attentive behavior.  It is our overall patterns of action and reaction.  Although what we say matters, and what we do when we are most on our guard matters, it matters even more what we do in general and how we live and think in general.  Since this general pattern matters more, we should attach this powerful word, this very central word in our discipline, to this general pattern.  As I will elaborate in three “branch arguments”, because it attaches “belief” to the more general and important cognitive pattern, the pragmatic approach to belief (1.) better expresses our values, (2.) keeps our disciplinary focus in the right place, and (3.) discourages noxiously comfortable self-opinions by forcing us to examine our behavior and implicit assumptions in thinking about our most cherished attitudes.

We can use a different word to capture the intellectual side of ourselves.  I recommend “judgment”.  We can say that Daniel judges and is disposed to judge that the working poor deserve equal respect.  “Judgment” is an important term too in philosophy, even if not as important as “belief”.[10]  And “judgment” sounds a bit conscious and intellectual, well suited to capture the thoughtful, intellectual side of Daniel.

The argument of this section is trunk-and-branch in the following sense: The trunk argument – attach the most important term (“belief”) to the most important phenomenon (the general pattern) – creates only a default supposition, barring countervailing considerations.  To be convincing, the trunk argument requires elaboration, some more specific reason or reasons to match important to important.  Hence the branches.  But not all the branches are necessary: The argument can survive the lopping of one or maybe two of the three.

Since the argument of this section is a pragmatic one, it admits of pragmatically justified exceptions.  Some individual philosopher or group of philosophers might have compelling practical reason to employ an intellectualist approach to belief despite the considerations advanced here.

Each branch depends on a mix of plausibility considerations and assumptions about what is relatively more and relatively less valuable.  They are conjectural and will not speak to everyone’s values, priorities, and guesses about the practical consequences of philosophizing one way rather than another.  This is perhaps an unavoidable feature of philosophical pragmatism.

Branch 1.  A pragmatic approach to belief better expresses our values.  As I argued in Section 2, our terminological choices express our values.  In classifying an antecedently open case as an A, rather than leaving it intermediate or classifying it as a B, we implicitly suggest that the case is more like the other As than it is like the Bs, at least with respect to the classificational task at hand.  In classifying a fetus as a “person”, we implicitly suggest that a fetus is importantly like a normal human infant or adult with respect to what matters in thinking about personhood.  In classifying a mixed-ancestry person as “Black”, or a particular type of act as “torture”, we similarly express a set of values: With respect to what matters most in classifying races or rights violations, these cases are similar enough to the canonical As that they deserve to be called As.

An intellectualist approach, then, implicitly commits us to the following valuation, unless we make sufficient effort to disown that valuation: With respect to what matters most in thinking about belief, cases like Daniel’s are similar enough to canonical cases of belief that they deserve to be classified as belief.  In other words, we implicitly commit to the view that intellectual endorsement is what matters most in belief.  We treat intellectual endorsement as the central feature of importance that philosophers’ usage should track.  How people live in general, their patterns of thinking in general, including their implicit assumptions and lived choices and emotional reactions, we treat as secondary.

Since belief is the most important propositional attitude term, and one of the most important terms in all of philosophy, this implicitly expressed valuation is not as innocent as it might be with a less central term like “judgment”.  In adopting intellectualism about belief, we invite the view that, in general, in thinking about attitudes, we care most about what people would sincerely say or consciously endorse.  Here’s one way to think of the situation: Suppose we have two sets of phenomena we want to label.  Phenomenon X is the phenomenon of generally acting and reacting, reasoning and feeling, as though P is true, implicitly as well as explicitly, spontaneously as well as in thoughtful moments.  Phenomenon Y is the phenomenon of being disposed, upon reflection, to intellectually endorse P.  Now here we have two labels which might apply to either phenomenon, without too much violence to our conflicting and unstable patterns of ordinary and philosophical usage: the disciplinarily central term “belief” and the disciplinarily secondary term “judgment”.  To which phenomenon shall we affix which label?  Absent a compelling reason to do otherwise, to affix the more important word “belief” to the intellectual phenomenon unwisely overvalues our endorsements.

It is as though we say to Daniel, to Kennedy, to Duy-Anh, and the rest: You have what matters most in thinking about belief, and in thinking about attitudes in general, according to us philosophers.  Your intellectual endorsements are what should carry the classificational weight.  How you otherwise act is secondary.

But how you act is not secondary.  It’s easy to talk.  It’s hard to change your life.  I don’t want to say to Daniel that he believes what he says he believes – that he has the attitude that matters most to us philosophers – just because he feels sincere when he says certain handsome-sounding things.  I don’t want to let him off the hook that easily.  And I don’t want to let myself off the hook.  I don’t want to say that I really believe all the lovely truths I tell myself I believe, if I don’t live accordingly.  My unlovely habits and reactions partly constitute my basic attitudes toward the world.  They speak as eloquently for me as do my lovely intellectual endorsements, or more eloquently.[11]  (And the same is true in Huck Finn cases where the intellectual endorsement is ugly but the emotional reactions and practical choices admirable.)  If I don’t walk the walk, then I don’t want to be able to say that I really, or fully, or unambiguously have that attitude that philosophy treats as so central, belief.  If I don’t treat women as well as I treat men, in my practical choices and implicit assumptions, then I don’t think I’ve earned the right to say that I really or fully or unambiguously believe in their equality.  If my pattern of living doesn’t reveal more concern for my children’s emotional well-being than for their grades, I don’t think I’ve earned the right to say that I really or fully or unambiguously believe that their emotional well-being is more important.  If we care about the non-intellectual aspects of belief as much as or more than we care about the intellectual aspects, then we should highlight our Daniel-like dissonances rather than disregard them in our classificational practice.

 Branch 2.  A pragmatic approach to belief keeps our disciplinary focus in the right place.  One might react to Branch 1 with the following thought: Even if people’s overall patterns of action and reaction are generally more important than their patterns of intellectual endorsement, philosophy as a discipline works better if it focuses on the intellectual – or at least philosophy of mind works better, and philosophy of action, and epistemology.  For this reason, the argument continues, it’s practically desirable to dedicate our disciplinarily central term “belief” to our intellectual patterns.

I find this a strangely narrow view of philosophy.  Our discipline ought to focus on the big picture, rather than privileging the intellectual aspects of life.

Why should philosophers of mind and action, for example, be so interested in belief that we stand the concept near the center of the discipline?  Is it because we want to theorize about our intellectual endorsements?  In part, yes.  But that is not primarily what animated Davidson, Searle, Millikan, Fodor, Dennett, and most of the others who set the agenda for recent mainstream Anglophone philosophy of mind and action.  They aimed higher.  They wanted to theorize cognition and action generally, and they used the term “belief” to capture a general attitude ranging widely across our thought and behavior.  Why should epistemologists care about the justification of belief and its relation to knowledge?  Is it because they care whether our intellectual endorsements are justified or qualify as knowledge?  In part, yes.  But epistemology should be, and I believe is, animated by the larger goal of theorizing a more general fact about our cognition: the whole pattern of our knowledge in action, our background assumptions, what we take for granted and implicitly rely on, as well as what we would explicitly endorse upon reflection.  If we treat “belief” as fundamentally a matter of intellectual endorsement, then we do a disservice to those who have worked to centralize the concept of belief in the field with the aim of theorizing something more important and central to our cognitive structure than our patterns of intellectual endorsement.  If we treat “belief” as fundamentally a matter of intellectual endorsement, we risk trivializing work on belief, and we invite a distorted reading of previous work on belief by seeing it through an intellectualist lens.

Even philosophy of language and logic need not focus primarily on what we would say or endorse on reflection.  As important, maybe more important to those subfields is, or should be, what we implicitly accept and respond to, the preferences and assumptions beneath our words, conclusions, and choices, the worldviews we enact and unwittingly spread.

If philosophy were a narrowly focused discipline, like volcanology, our discipline might rightly home in on some limited aspect of the world, like volcanoes.  But philosophy is not like this.  Philosophy, by its nature, goes after the big and the important.

Similarly, if philosophy would make better progress by temporarily setting aside larger issues in favor of smaller more tractable issues, that too might justify focusing on the small.  Maybe patterns of intellectual endorsement are relatively tractable, so that focus on them enhances disciplinary progress, in some areas of philosophy.  But if so, this is not generally the case across the discipline.  Debates about functionalism, consciousness, and representational architecture, for example, don’t primarily concern intellectual endorsement.  Indeed, recently influential work in philosophy of mind often requires that we notice, rather than deprioritize, the non-intellectual side of ourselves – in implicit and embodied cognition; in delusion, self-deception, confabulation, irrationality, and self-ignorance; and in the recent emphasis on “System 1” over “System 2” processes.[12]  We ought to cast our eyes widely across the psychological landscape.  Any practical advantages of a more limited focus on the intellectual apply, at best, to smallish sub-debates.

My point here can partly be made in terms of the intrinsic value of philosophy.  What is it that makes philosophy a great discipline?  I submit that it is this: Philosophy encourages us to explore the most fundamental questions there are, questions about life, value, meaning, mind, society, causation, knowledge, time, the nature of the universe.  Exploring these fundamental questions is an intrinsically worthwhile thing to do.  Part of human flourishing, indeed part of the awesomeness of life on Earth, is that there are moments when complex bags of mostly water can step back and reflect seriously about the big picture.  It is simply great, without need of further justification, that we can devote our minds to thumpingly hard questions of fundamental importance.  It is simply great that our world hosts a thriving academic discipline that encourages us to do just that.  Philosophy surrenders some of this greatness if we philosophers focus too much, without good reason, on matters of secondary importance.  This is one reason to insist that our central disciplinary terms prioritize what is important.

Alternatively, consider making a case for the philosophical centrality of our concept of “belief” to a non-philosopher – your cousin Alfredo the firefighter maybe.  Would you rather tell him that this concept, belief, around which so much of our discipline is structured, is primarily about what one would intellectually endorse upon reflection?  Or would you rather tell him that this central concept of ours, belief, is as much about whether you walk the walk as about whether you talk the talk? – that we philosophers, in thinking about what people’s attitudes are, are interested in people’s general posture toward the world, what they implicitly accept and rely on, as much as on what they would sincerely assent to when questioned?  I know which vision of the discipline makes me prouder.  Maybe Alfredo is particularly interested in religious belief, or belief in the goodness of humanity, or the belief that all people were created equal.  I want to tell him that, according to us philosophers, to believe these things is not just to be ready to endorse them upon reflection, but to live them.

Branch 3.  A pragmatic approach to belief discourages noxiously comfortable self-opinions by forcing us to examine our behavior and implicit assumptions in thinking about our most cherished attitudes.  People care immensely about what they believe.  Our beliefs – especially our big-picture beliefs – are crucial to our sense of who we are.[13]  The pragmatic account encourages those of us who care about our beliefs to take a salutary hard look at our practical behavior.  The intellectualist account, in contrast, risks flattering us and encouraging us toward noxiously comfortable self-assessments.

In Section 4, I mentioned the natural fit between intellectualism and privileged self-knowledge.  If self-knowledge of our beliefs is easy, presumably what we know about our beliefs is that we have the beliefs we intellectually endorse.  It’s much harder to know how you comport yourself toward the world generally.  Intellectualism encourages Daniel, for example, to assess his belief about the working poor as follows: Determine what he is inclined to intellectually endorse (“the working poor deserve at least as much respect as the handsomely paid”), and then conclude that, since intellectual endorsement is approximately sufficient for belief, he must have that handsome-sounding belief.

A pragmatic approach requires Daniel to cast his eye more widely in thinking about what he believes.  It encourages him to examine not only his intellectual endorsements but also his patterns of spontaneous behavior, his emotional reactions, his unreflective assumptions about individual people.  This is a more difficult, less comfortable, and more revealing exercise.  In the self-assessment of belief, the pragmatic approach brings our non-intellectual side forward into view, while the intellectualist approach tends to hide our non-intellectual side.  On an intellectualist view, we might happen to notice the stark conflict, when it exists, between what we intellectually endorse (or “believe”) and how we act in the world, but we are not forced to notice this conflict in order to assess whether we believe in the first place.  The very heart of the pragmatic view, in contrast, consists in a commitment to be attuned to such possible conflicts.  To be satisfied with equating your intellectual endorsements with your beliefs is not to live according to the pragmatic view of belief.  I hope it won’t sound too involuted if I express it in this way: The mere intellectual endorsement of a pragmatic approach to belief is insufficient, by pragmatic standards, for believing that pragmatism is the best approach to belief.  To fully believe in the pragmatic approach to belief, you must also act and react, think and feel, as though pragmatism is the right approach.  And central to such acting, reacting, thinking, and feeling is a disposition to consider your lived behavior as well as your intellectual endorsements in assessing what you believe.  In this sense, the pragmatic view requires that we regularly examine ourselves for conflicts like Daniel’s, Nancy’s, Alejandro’s, Duy-Anh’s, and Kennedy’s, while an intellectualist approach at worst encourages facile self-assessments and at best requires that we rely on a separate mechanism for behavioral self-examination.

People do not reliably live according to the opinions and values they intellectually endorse in the matters they care about most.  Indeed, it is this very caring about what our attitudes are that tempts us into self-deception and wishful thinking and which makes frank self-examination so unpleasant.  I am stunned by the breadth and diversity of our failures.  How do we really treat our family, our colleagues, our students, strangers in the world around us?  What do we really prioritize in our choices?  What we sincerely say we believe about ourselves and about the people around us, what we sincerely say we find valuable, and how we actually steer through the world – so often they are so far out of line with each other!  I see no better way to highlight this important and disappointing fact than to refuse to put the intellectual side of ourselves at the center of philosophy.


6. Two Roles for Belief Attribution.

Another way of thinking about the fundamental issue at stake is this: Belief attribution, both in philosophy and in ordinary language, normally serves two different types of role.  One is predicting, tracking, or reporting what a person would verbally endorse.  When we attribute belief to someone we are doing something like indirect quotation, speaking for them, expressing what we think they would say (e.g., in the simple versions of the “myths” of Sellars 1956/2000, 1969 and Wettstein 2004).  The other role is predicting and explaining non-linguistic behavior (e.g., Dennett 1987; Fodor 1987; Andrews 2012).  We might call the first role testimonial, the second predictive-explanatory.  In adult human beings, when all goes well, the two coincide.  You attribute to me the belief that class starts at 2 pm.  It is true both that I would say “Class starts at 2 pm” and that I would try to show up for class at 2 pm (assuming I want to attend class).  But what happens when these two roles for belief attribution come apart, as with Daniel, Alejandro, and the others?

Typically, self-attributions of belief are testimonial.  If we ask Daniel whether he believes that the working poor deserve equal respect, he would presumably answer with an unqualified yes.  Any other answer would be misleading.  If he said “kind of” or “it’s complex”, he would probably give his conversational partner the wrong idea.  If he went into detail about his spontaneous reactions to people, he would probably be missing the point of the question.  Rejecting intellectualism thus risks complicating testimonial practice.  Daniel might have to shift to talking about his “judgments” rather than his “beliefs”, or at least we might have to reinterpret him in that way if we mean to be careful.  This is a potential pragmatic cost of my proposal.

On the other hand, consider Daniel’s grandmother.  She scolds him: Do you really believe that the working poor deserve equal respect?  You sure don’t act that way, for all your fine talk.  Or consider a couple of custodians gossiping about Daniel behind his back.  They say, with some justice, that he doesn’t think that people like them deserve much respect.  Or consider Daniel at age sixty, after a miserable experience in academia as a long-term adjunct, followed by a series of disappointing jobs, under horrid bosses, as a bartender and low-level librarian.  His visceral respect for the elite is long gone.  He can say, looking back: When I was thirty, I didn’t deep-down believe that the working poor deserved equal respect.  Now I do believe that.  Not all folk attribution is testimonial.

It is a simplifying assumption in our talk of “belief” that these two roles of belief attribution – the testimonial and the predictive-explanatory – converge upon a single thing, what one believes.  When that simplifying assumption breaks down, something has to give, and not all our practices can be preserved without reinterpretation.


7. Is This Too Harsh?

Here’s a worry.  Daniel might react negatively to being spoken of, or spoken to, in the way I recommend.  He might react defensively, angrily.  He might feel that we have undercut his authority to speak for himself about what he believes.  We might do better, if our aim is to help him see and change his behavior, if we use a lighter touch, if we say instead something like “of course you believe that the working poor deserve equal respect, but look at all these reactions you have that don’t fit with that belief”.[14]

This is an open empirical question.  Some evidence suggests that it can be helpful to ascribe traits or virtues to people aspirationally, even if they don’t entirely live up to those traits (Alfano 2013).  However, other evidence suggests that frank confrontation can be more effective than too soft a touch, and it remains unclear what level of aggression or assertiveness is most effective in dealing with prejudice (Czopp, Monteith, and Mark 2006; Becker and Barreto 2014; Scaife, Stafford, Bunge, and Holroyd 2016).  The empirical case is not currently clear enough either way, I think, to overcome the considerations I’ve advanced concerning the costs of too intellectualist a conceptualization of a term so central to philosophy as currently practiced.

Also note that it is not a commitment of the pragmatic view that we simply say that Daniel doesn’t believe what he is saying, much less that he believes the opposite of what he says.  We can, instead, as I would recommend, decline to give a simple answer and instead attribute to Daniel a complex, mixed-up state that is not helpfully summarized by saying either that “he believes” or that “he fails to believe”.  This might be easier for him to hear than flat denial that he believes.

Another softening move is this.  Once we recognize how pervasive cases like Daniel’s are, the negativity we feel toward Daniel ought to lose some of its sting.  If all we cared about were classism, and if we see ourselves as non-classist, then in not taking Daniel’s testimony about his beliefs at face value, we raise ourselves above Daniel and distance ourselves.  But if we see Daniel’s condition as just the normal human condition, including in ourselves, our feelings toward him should take a different color.  It would be a rare person who was immune to Daniel-like manifestations of sexism, racism, ageism, and the many forms of ableism.  Do you think you respond in the same way to people you regard as physically beautiful as you do to people you regard as unattractive, in matters on which physical appearance should have no bearing?[15]  Consider also other idealistic attitudes you endorse.  Maybe you’re a professor, like me.  You probably endorse a generous attitude toward the welfare of your students, a generous attitude toward other members of the department, a positive attitude toward the balance of work life and home life, and so forth.  But do your spontaneous reactions and actual lived choices consistently reflect these aspirational attitudes, which are so pleasant to express and flow so easily from the tongue?

Looking at myself, I sympathize with Daniel.  I still want to say that his beliefs aren’t as handsomely egalitarian as he probably thinks they are.  But I have no desire to say this in a stinging way.  After all, what kind of model am I?


8. Five Objections.

Objection 1.  Is this an unrepresentative selection of beliefs?  You might ask: What about mathematical beliefs?  The belief that snow is white?  The belief that there’s a pen in my hand?  Have I cherry-picked a few weird beliefs?

Reply.  I have focused on beliefs that we care about having (beyond our general desire to believe what’s true).  Often these are beliefs about norms and values, but they don’t have to be.  Some are closer to purely factual in content (e.g., that women and men are equally intelligent, that Nancy’s son will soon become one of the top salespeople).  Intellectualist and pragmatist approaches tend to diverge mostly regarding big-picture beliefs that are important to people’s self-conceptions.  However, in principle they might diverge even for mathematical beliefs.  Consider the belief that the number of points in a line segment is the same cardinality as the number of points in all of space.  If someone assented to that proposition upon reflection and yet regularly drew mathematical inferences that depended on its falsity, that might be a straight-up belief on an intellectualist view, but non-belief or in-between belief on a pragmatic view.

Objection 2.  Couldn’t we just urge more attention to behavior, implicit assumptions, and spontaneous emotional reactions while favoring intellectualist usage for “belief”?  This is probably Gendler’s (2008a-b) intended strategy, in urging the importance of her new concept of “alief”.

Reply.  I have no objection to that strategy in principle.  Still, my best guess about the sociology of the discipline is that a reduction of intellectualism in philosophy would be more swiftly and thoroughly achieved by emphasizing and reinforcing the non-intellectualist strands that the term “belief” already contains, rather than reinforcing the intellectualist strands while also saying “look over here at this other important stuff!”

Objection 3.  Could we decide to say that there are two types of belief, one for which intellectual endorsement is sufficient and one which requires more?  We might call the first “thin belief” and the second “thick belief” (Buckwalter, Rose, and Turri 2015); we might call the first “superbelief” and the second “basic belief” (Frankish 2004); we might call the first “belief de dicto” and the second “belief de mundo” (Sommers 2009).

Reply.  I doubt that cases like Daniel’s splinter as cleanly as a simple two-types-of-belief model appears to suggest (Schwitzgebel 1999, 2002, 2011).  Furthermore, it’s confusing to attribute two different belief attitudes with different adjectival modifiers.  Since we don’t normally use adjectival modifiers in belief attribution, the practice threatens to make unmarked use of “belief” ambiguous.[16]

Objection 4.  An intellectualist approach to belief, when coupled with attention to behavior, might more effectively motivate us to match our behavior to our intellectual judgments than does a pragmatic approach.  If Daniel can say, based on a pragmatic view, that he doesn’t fully or completely believe that the working poor deserve equal respect, then maybe his disrespectful behavior will seem less jarring to him, since he can acknowledge that it’s not entirely discordant with his beliefs. 

Reply.  I’m disinclined to think that most Daniel-like implicit classists would, upon endorsing a pragmatic view of belief, decide that their biased behavior doesn’t need changing, since after all it partly reflects their beliefs.  But even if that were so, the objection goes astray with other cases, where the spontaneous reactions have more merit.  Kennedy might be naive in her intellectual judgments about money; Duy-Anh might be wiser in his atheism than in his religious assertions; Nancy might do well to be emotionally cautious about her son’s prospects.  If thinking of their belief state as conflicting, mixed, or in-betweenish permits them more happily to act at variance with their explicitly endorsed judgments, so much the better.

Objection 5.  Public statements of aspirational “beliefs”, justified by intellectual exchange of reasons, are a crucial means of social change.  It’s important that we can publicly avow “these are my beliefs”.  “These are my judgments” doesn’t have the same ring.

Reply.  I wouldn’t want to disrupt that practice.  Here’s one way in which my approach might even enhance that practice: First, we celebrate people’s desire to publicly avow handsome beliefs, intellectually defended.  Second, we point out that if they wish to continue really believing what they say they believe they must be ready to live up to those handsome declarations by acting accordingly.


9. Conclusion.

Condensing to a motto: What you believe is not what you say you believe, it’s how you live.

We have a choice in constructing a metaphysics of belief.  We can emphasize our patterns of intellectual endorsement, our most thoughtful responses, and what we would say or judge upon reflection.  Alternatively, we can emphasize our overall patterns of lived behavior, reaction, and thought, spontaneous as well as reflective, implicit as well as explicit.  The latter pattern, the bigger pattern, being the more important, is the better choice as referent for this word “belief”, which is so central to our discipline.

I am especially concerned about our tendency to endorse handsome attitudes – egalitarianism of various sorts, the unimportance of money and prestige, our concern for the welfare of people around us – while we behave in ways that align poorly with those attitudes.  My empirical, pragmatic conjecture is that it better helps us to frankly confront our frequent failure to live up to our handsome ideals if we demote intellectual endorsement from the center of philosophy, that is, if our basic philosophical terminology does not treat intellectual endorsement as the decisive thing.

Wang Yangming, the 16th-century neo-Confucian philosopher, argued for the unity of knowledge and action: To know a truth, especially a moral truth, is to act accordingly.  If you claim to know but do not act, you do not really know (Wang Yangming, c. 1500/2009).  There is a type of moral excuse-making that Wang Yangming saw as common: the excuse of saying that although you know what is right to do, you are having trouble putting that knowledge into action.  To make such an excuse is to claim a kind of moral half-credit.  You have your heart in the right place, but are just a bit weak or need some practice.  Wang Yangming did not want to give people that half-credit.  To know the Confucian way to treat your parents is just to treat your parents that way.  Your lived choices express your knowledge.  If you really knew it was wrong to neglect your parents you would not neglect them.

I’m not sure I would go all the way with Wang Yangming here.  Our affirmations and avowals, our heartfelt judgments in our most reflective moments, they do matter a lot.  Maybe they are worth half or quarter credit – especially if we feel genuine guilt, shame, and regret when we act contrary to those expressed opinions.[17]  But if our affirmations and avowals are important it’s not because of anything about them that makes them especially speak for us, or that makes them especially central to who we are or what we believe.  Rather they matter because they are one piece of what it is to live a rich human life, neither more nor less.[18]



Alfano, Mark (2013).  Character as moral fiction.  Cambridge: Cambridge.

Andrews, Kristin (2012).  Do apes read minds?  Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Arendt, Hannah (1963/1965).  Eichmann in Jerusalem, revised ed.  New York: Penguin. 

Arpaly, Nomy (2002).  Unprincipled virtue.  Oxford: Oxford.

Baker, Lynne Rudder (1995).  Explaining attitudes.  Cambridge: Cambridge.

Bar-On, Dorit (2004).  Speaking my mind.  Oxford: Oxford.

Becker, Julia C. and Manuela Barreto (2014).  Ways to go: Men’s and women’s support for aggressive and nonaggressive confrontation of sexism as a function of gender identification.  Journal of Social Issues, 70, 668-686.

Bortolotti, Lisa (2010).  Delusions and other irrational beliefs.  Oxford: Oxford.

Brown, Matthew J. (2015).  John Dewey’s pragmatist alternative to the belief-acceptance dichotomy.  Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 53, 62-70.

Bain, Alexander (1868/1973).  Mental science.  New York: Arno.

Borgoni, Cristina (2016).  Dissonance and irrationality: A criticism of the in-between account of dissonance cases.  Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 97, 48-57.

Boyle, Matthew (2011).  Transparent self-knowledge.  Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supplementary vol. 85, 223-241.

Brownstein, Michael, and Alex Madva (2012).  The normativity of automaticity.  Mind & Language, 27, 410-424.

Buckwalter, Wesley, David Rose, and John Turri (2015).  Belief through thick and thin. Noûs, 49, 748-775.

Byrne, Alex (2005).  Introspection.  Philosophical Topics, 33, 79-104.

Carnap, Rudolf (1950).  Logical foundations of probability.  Chicago: University of Chicago.

Carruthers, Peter (2015).  The centered mind.  Oxford: Oxford.

Cartwright, Nancy (1983).  How the laws of physics lie.  New York: Oxford.

Cartwright, Nancy (1999).  The dappled world.  Cambridge: Cambridge.

Cohen, L. Jonathan (1992).  An essay on belief and acceptance.  Oxford: Oxford.

Cummins, Robert (1996).  Representations, targets, and attitudes.  Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Czopp, Alexander M., Margo J. Monteith, Margo J., and Aimee Y. Mark (2006).  Standing up for a change: Reducing bias through interpersonal confrontation.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 784-803.

Davidson, Donald (1984).  Inquiries into truth and interpretation.  Oxford: Oxford.

De Sousa, Ronald B. (1971).  How to give a piece of your mind: Or, the logic of belief and assent. Review of Metaphysics, 25, 52-79.

Dennett, Daniel C. (1978).  How to change your mind.  In Brainstorms.  Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Dennett, Daniel C. (1987).  The intentional stance.  Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Dewey, John (1920/1957).  Reconstruction in philosophy, enlarged ed.  Boston: Beacon.

Dewey, John (1938).  Logic: The theory of inquiry.  New York: Henry Holt.

Dretske, Fred (1988).  Explaining behavior.  Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Dupré, John (1993).  The disorder of things.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

Elga, Adam, and Augustin Rayo (2015).  Fragmentation and information access.  Manuscript.

Evans, Jonathan St. B. T. (2008).  Dual-processing accounts of reasoning, judgment, and social cognition.  Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 255-278.

Evans, Jonathan, and Keith Frankish, eds. (2009).  In two minds.  Oxford: Oxford.

Fodor, Jerry A. (1987).  Psychosemantics.  Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Frankish, Keith (2004).  Mind and supermind.  Cambridge: Cambridge.

Freud, Sigmund (1923/1960).  The ego and the id, trans. J. Riviere, ed. J. Strachey.  New York: Norton.

Freud, Sigmund (1933/1933).  New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis, trans. W.J.H. Sprott.  New York: Norton.

Gendler, Tamar S. (2008a).  Alief and belief.  Journal of Philosophy, 105, 634-663.

Gendler, Tamar S. (2008b).  Alief in action, and reaction.  Mind & Language, 23, 552-585.

Haslanger, Sally (2012).  Resisting reality.  Oxford: Oxford.

Heiphetz, Larisa, Casey Lee Landers, and Neil Van Leeuwen (2017).  Does “think” mean the same thing as “believe”? Linguistic insights into religious cognition.  Unpublished manuscript.

Heiphetz, Larisa, Nina Strominger, and Liane L. Young (2017).  The role of moral beliefs, memories, and preferences in representations of identity.  Cognitive Science, 41, 744-767.

Horst, Steven W. (2016).  Cognitive pluralism.  Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Huddleston, Andrew (2012).  Naughty beliefs.  Philosophical Studies, 160, 209-222.

James, William (1896/1912).  The will to believe and other popular essays in philosophy.  New York: Longmans, Green & Co.

James, William (1907/2004).  Pragmatism.  Project Gutenberg:

Kahneman, Daniel (2011).  Thinking, fast and slow.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kraus, Stephen J. (1995).  Attitudes and the prediction of behavior: A meta-analysis of the empirical literature.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 58-75.

Kripke, Saul A. (1979/1988).  A puzzle about belief.  In N. Salmon and S. Soames, eds., Propositions and attitudes.  Oxford: Oxford.

Langlois, Judith H., Lisa Kalakanis, Adam J. Rubenstein, Andrea Larson, Monica Hallam, and Monica Smoot (2000).  Maxims or myths of beauty? A meta-analytic and theoretical review.  Psychological Bulletin, 126, 390-423.

Loar, Brian (1981).  Mind and meaning.  Cambridge: Cambridge.

Mandelbaum, Eric (2016).  Attitude, inference, association: On the propositional structure of implicit bias.  Nous, 50, 629-658.

Marley-Payne, Jack (2015).  Against intellectualism about belief.  Minds Online conference:

Matthews, Robert J. (2007).  The measure of mind.  Oxford: Oxford.

Millikan, Ruth G. (1984).  Language, thought, and other biological categories.  Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Myers-Schulz, Blake, and Eric Schwitzgebel (2013).  Knowing that P without believing that P.  Noûs, 47, 371-384.

Nichols, Shaun, and Stephen Stich (2003).  Mindreading.  Oxford: Oxford.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1886/1966).  Beyond good and evil, trans. W. Kaufmann.  New York: Vintage.

Page, Sam (2006).  Mind-independence disambiguated: Separating the meat from the straw in the realism/anti-realism debate.  Ratio, 9, 321-335.

Peirce, Charles S. (1877).  The fixation of belief.  Popular Science Monthly, 12 (Nov), 1-15.

Peirce, Charles E. (1878).  How to make our ideas clear.  Popular Science Monthly, 12 (Jan), 286-302.

Plunkett, David (2015).  Which concepts should we use?: Metalinguistic negotiations and the methodology of philosophy.  Inquiry, 58, 828-874.

Plunkett, David, and Timothy Sundell (2013).  Disagreement and the semantics of normative and evaluative terms.  Philosophers’ Imprint, 13 (number 23).

Putnam, Hilary (1990).  Realism with a human face, ed. J. Conant.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

Rorty, Richard (1980/2010).  Pragmatism, relativism, and irrationalism.  In C.J. Vorparil and R.J. Bernstein, eds., The Rorty reader.  Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Rorty, Richard (1993/2010).  Putnam and the relativist menace.  In C.J. Vorparil and R.J. Bernstein, eds., The Rorty reader.  Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Ryle, Gilbert (1949).  The concept of mind.  New York: Barnes & Noble.

Saul, Jennifer (2013).  Implicit bias, stereotype threat, and women in philosophy.  In K. Hutchison and F. Jenkins, eds., Women in philosophy.  Oxford: Oxford.

Scaife, Robin, Tom Stafford, Andreas Bunge, and Jules Holroyd (2016).  The effects of moral interactions on implicit bias.  Manuscript.

Schwitzgebel, Eric (1999).  Gradual belief change in children.  Human Development, 42, 283-296.

Schwitzgebel, Eric (2002).  A phenomenal, dispositional account of belief.  Noûs, 36, 249-275.

Schwitzgebel, Eric (2006/2015).  Belief.  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 edition).  URL: 

Schwitzgebel, Eric (2010).  Acting contrary to our professed beliefs, or the gulf between occurrent judgment and dispositional belief.  Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 91, 531-553.

Schwitzgebel, Eric (2011).  Knowing your own beliefs.  Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 35, supplement 41-62.

Schwitzgebel, Eric (2015).  Names in philosophical examples.  Blog post at The Splintered Mind (Nov. 25).

Searle, John R. (1983).  Intentionality.  Cambridge: Cambridge.

Sellars, Wilfrid (1956/2000).  Empiricism and the philosophy of mind.  In W.A. deVries and T. Triplett, eds., Knowledge, mind, and the given.  Indianapolis: Hackett.

Sellars, Wilfrid (1969).  Language as thought and communication.  Philosophy & Phenomenological Research, 29, 506-527.

Shoemaker, Sydney (2009).  Self-intimation and second-order belief.  Erkenntnis, 71, 35-51.

Sommers, Fred (2009).  Dissonant beliefs.  Analysis, 69, 267-274.

Stalnaker, Robert (1984).  Inquiry.  Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Smith, Angela (2005).  Responsibility for attitudes: Activity and passivity in mental life.  Ethics, 115, 236-271.

Smith, Angela (2008).  Control, responsibility, and moral assessment.  Philosophical Studies, 138, 367-392.

Smith, Wilfred Cantwell (1977).  Belief and history.  Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Talavos, Sean N., Kenneth I. Mavor, and David I. Perrett (2016).  Blinded by beauty: Attractiveness bias and accurate perceptions of academic performance.  PLoS One 11 (2).

Thomasson, Amie (forthcoming).  Metaphysical disputes and metalinguistic negotiation.  Analytic Philosophy. 

Wang Yangming (circa 1500/2009).  Wang Yangming.  In P.J. Ivanhoe, trans., Readings from the Lu-Wang school of neo-Confucianism.  Indianapolis: Hackett.

Watson, Gary (1975).  Free agency.  Journal of Philosophy, 72, 205-220.

Wettstein, Howard K. (2004).  The magic prism.  Oxford: Oxford.

Zimmerman, Aaron Z. (2007).  The nature of belief.  Journal of Consciousness Studies, 14 (11), 61-82.

Zimmerman, Aaron Z. (2016).  The nature of belief: A pragmatic picture.  Manuscript.

[1] However, Dewey tended to prefer the terms “judgment”, “knowledge”, or “assertability” to “belief” (see 1938, p. 7; Brown 2015).

[2] For a similarly pragmatic metaphilosophical approach to belief, see Zimmerman 2016.  For some contrasts between Zimmerman’s view and my own, see note 8.

[3] See Page 2006 in defense of a relatively moderate reading of Rorty and Putnam.

[4] For a range of such cases, see Stalnaker 1984; Dennett 1987; Schwitzgebel 2002; Sommers 2009; Myers-Schulz and Schwitzgebel 2013; Elga and Rayo 2015.

[5] Names in all examples were selected randomly, after the examples were already drafted, from lists of former lower-division students in my classes.  To avoid confusion or offense, I exclude “Jesus”, “Mohammed”, and very uncommon names.  See Schwitzgebel 2015 for discussion.

[6] For example, de Sousa 1971; Fodor 1987; Audi 1994; Huddleston 2012.

[7] Though see Brownstein and Madva 2012 and Marley-Payne 2015 for some problems with the division between the rational and the arational that this version of intellectualism appears to require.

[8] Zimmerman 2016 argues extensively in defense of “pragmatism” and against “intellectualist” views that deny belief to non-human animals.  So it might seem odd to classify him as an intellectualist here.  Zimmerman does reject the necessity, for belief, of the most intellectual of intellectual dispositions, such as the disposition to assert P linguistically or to self-ascribe belief that P.  Also, he shares my metaphilosophical pragmatism.  However, in defining belief Zimmerman still privileges the attentive and self-controlled, and one’s best judgment upon considering the matter carefully, over the spontaneous, inattentive, uncontrolled, and seemingly thoughtless; and he classes cases like Daniel’s in the characteristic intellectualist manner.

[9] For example, mainstream Anglophone philosophical usage and ordinary English language usage appear to be somewhat at variance (Heiphetz, Landers, and Van Leeuwen 2017), and usage of the term has evolved considerably over time (Smith 1977).  It’s also not clear how cross-culturally stable the concept is.  Many languages appear not to have a term that clearly translates “belief” in the broad philosophers’ sense, according to which the theist not only believes that God exists but also I believe that there’s a pen in my hand.  For helpful discussions, thanks to Kati Farkas, philosophers at University of Vienna who emphasized this issue in conversation with me, and the many commenters on my public Facebook post on this topic at

[10] Some quantitative evidence for this claim: A search of Philosopher’s Index abstracts for belief* or believe* from 2000 through 2016 yields 13,480 results, compared to 6,497 for judg*.  The table of contents of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains a main-page entry for “belief” but none for “judgment”.  Similarly, “belief” is a subcategory in the PhilPapers taxonomy (with 1,475 classified papers and 11 subheadings), while “judgment” is not.  (All data collected July 21, 2017.)  “Believe” and its cognates also rate much higher in word frequency counts of English than “judge” and its cognates (e.g., http://wordfrequencyinfo; [both accessed Aug. 1, 2017]).

[11] See Nietzsche (1886/1966) and Freud (1923/1960, 1933/1933) historically, and Arpaly (2002) and Smith (2005, 2008) more recently.  See also Arendt’s (1963/1965) portrayal of the notorious Nazi Adolf Eichmann, who would endorse high-sounding phrases that gave him a feeling of “elation” but which bore little connection to his actually lived values and choices.  I worry that intellectualism flatters the Eichmann in us.

[12] On dual-process models of cognition see Evans 2008; Evans and Frankish 2009; Kahneman 2011.  Admittedly, some contributors to these debates favor views I regard as too intellectualist, e.g., Zimmerman 2007, 2016; Gendler 2008a-b; Bortolotti 2010.

[13] See Heiphetz, Strohminger, and Young 2017 for one recent piece of empirical evidence in support of this claim.

[14] Tamar Gendler, Karen Jones, and Aaron Zimmerman have all expressed this concern in conversation.  See also Saul 2013, sec. 4.3.

[15] On the relationship between judgments of beauty and other traits such as academic intelligence, see Langlois, Kalakanis, Rubenstein, Larson, Hallam, and Smoot 2000; Talavas, Mavor, and Perrett 2016.  From the Langlois et al.: “Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is strong agreement both within and across cultures about who is and who is not attractive. Furthermore, attractiveness is a significant advantage for both children and adults in almost every domain of judgment, treatment, and behavior we examined.  The magnitude of attractiveness effects is roughly the same as or larger than that of other important variables in the social sciences.  In most cases, the benefits of attractiveness are large enough to be ‘visible to the naked eye’ and are of considerable practical significance” (p. 404 with in-line citations removed).

[16] A related strategy would be to attribute contradictory beliefs: both P and not-P at once (Shoemaker 2009; Borgoni 2016; Mandelbaum 2016).  However, to simply attribute contradictory beliefs would be baffling.  To be clear, one must add: in these respects the person acts or reacts or reasons belief-that-P-ishly, and in these other respects the person acts or reacts or reasons belief-that-not-P-ishly.  Once such clarifications are made, it’s not clear why we must then proceed to add the contentious and confusing claim that the person in question genuinely believes both that P and that not-P.

[17] In addition to the qualification highlighted in this paragraph, I would add two others.  First, Wang Yangming is discussing knowledge rather than belief, and knowledge attribution might work differently from belief attribution.  In fact, I favor a “capacity-tendency” account on which one can sometimes be described as knowing that P (because one has the capacity to act accordingly) without fully or determinately believing that P (because one lacks the tendency to act accordingly); Ryle 1949; Myers-Schulz and Schwitzgebel 2013; contra standard JTB or JTB+ theories of knowledge.  Indeed, on my view Daniel is just such a case.  Second, we can rationally aim at moral mediocrity.  Our action tendencies thus normally reflect and partly constitute our all-things-considered values, which might differ from our purely moral values.  Consequently one might know, endorse, and believe in, the moral correctness of the Confucian way while failing to act on it because one doesn’t sufficiently care about morality.

[18] For helpful discussion, thanks to Rima Basu, Michael Brownstein, Linus Huang, Karen Jones, Dan Kelly, Janet Levin, Neil Levy, Alex Madva, Randy Mayes, Dana Nelkin, Jeremy Pober, Kathryn Pogin, Richard Vulich, Ralph Wedgwood, Jesse Wilson, and Aaron Zimmerman; audiences at the Pacific APA in 2015 and 2016, University of Hong Kong, University of Southern California, Northwestern University, and the universities of Nijmegen, Vienna, Leuven, Graz, Antwerp, and Cambridge; and the many commenters on related posts on my blog and my public Facebook page.