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«Philos Stud (2014) 168:211–239 DOI 10.1007/s11098-013-0127-5 Belief ascriptions and social externalism Ronald Loeffler Published online: 7 April ...»

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Philos Stud (2014) 168:211–239

DOI 10.1007/s11098-013-0127-5

Belief ascriptions and social externalism

Ronald Loeffler

Published online: 7 April 2013

Ó The Author(s) 2013. This article is published with open access at Springerlink.com

Abstract

I outline Brandom’s theory of de re and de dicto belief ascriptions,

which plays a central role in Brandom’s overall theory of linguistic communication,

and show that this theory offers a surprising, new response to Burge’s (Midwest

Stud 6:73–121, 1979) argument for social externalism. However, while this response is in principle available from the perspective of Brandom’s theory of belief ascription in abstraction from his wider theoretical enterprise, it ceases to be available from this perspective in the wider context of his inferential role semantics and his doctrines of scorekeeping and of the expressive role of belief ascriptions in discourse. In this wider context, Brandom’s theory of belief ascriptions implies that Burge’s argument trivially fails to have the disquieting implications for psychological explanations that it is widely taken to have. Yet since this is not trivially so, Brandom’s theory apparently provides a false picture of our practice of interpreting belief ascriptions. I then argue that Brandom might as well accept the alternative picture of interpreting belief ascriptions that Burge’s argument presupposes: even in the context of his overall project, Brandom’s take on our practice of interpreting them does not afford belief ascriptions with the discursive significance Brandom claims they have.

Keywords Semantic externalism Á Social externalism Á De re/de dicto belief ascriptions Á Semantic holism Á Linguistic communication Á Interpretation Á Psychological explanation Á Mental content Á Brandom Á Burge R. Loeffler (&) Department of Philosophy, Grand Valley State University, MAK B-3 206, Allendale, MI 49401, USA e-mail: loeffler@gvsu.edu 212 R. Loeffler (I) Between the late-60s and the 80s, in the context of the great debates about reference and singular thought, the contrast between de re and de dicto belief ascriptions (the de re–de dicto contrast, for short) was subject to intense discussion.1 It was argued that de re ascriptions demarcate beliefs of a special type that relate with particular intimacy to their referents. Today most people accept one or another version of this claim. More recently, Robert Brandom has looked at the de re–de dicto contrast from a different angle. While denying that de re ascriptions demarcate beliefs of a special type, he still argues that the de re–de dicto contrast is deeply significant: the contrast allows us to express—make explicit—our differences in linguistic understanding to each other in discourse.2 I shall outline therelevant aspects of Brandom’s theory of the de re–de dicto contrast and show that this theory offers a surprising new perspective on Tyler Burge’s original (1979) argument for social externalism. From this perspective, Burge’s argument establishes externalism but straightforwardly fails to have the disquieting consequences for psychological explanations that it is widely taken to have. Yet while this perspective is in principle available if we accept Brandom’s theory of belief ascriptions in isolation from the context of his larger theoretical enterprise—in particular, his holistic semantics and his theory of successful communication (his theory of scorekeeping)—it implies in this context that Burge’s argument trivially fails to have these disquieting seeming consequences. And since this is not trivially so, Brandom’s theory, in this context, is mistaken: it provides a false picture of our practice of interpreting belief ascriptions. Moreover, I shall argue that even in this wider context Brandom’s theory does not, after all, afford the de re–de dicto contrast with the discursive significance Brandom claims it has: whether we interpret belief ascriptions as Brandom proposes or in accordance with the standard picture presupposed by Burge’s argument, they fail to allows us to make differences in linguistic understanding explicit to each other in discourse. Accordingly, Brandom might as well accept this standard picture: the larger context of his overall enterprise does not provide him with any special theoretical or prudential reason for favoring his proposed alternative take on the de re–de dicto contrast over the standard picture Burge presupposes.

(II) The de re–de dicto contrast is often introduced as a contrast in logical form of belief ascriptions, revealing belief as either a two-place or a three-place relation.3 Take the unregimented ascription (1) Jones believes that water quenches thirst immediately The surface grammar of (1) disguises a systematic ambiguity in logical form, which the analyses of (1) as either de dicto or de re reveal. Analyzed de dicto, (1) has the form I use the term ‘de re–de dicto contrast’ here exclusively to mark a difference between two types of belief ascriptions, not between two types of beliefs (so-called de re and de dicto beliefs).

Brandom does not deny that there are so-called de re beliefs—he calls them epistemically strong. He only denies that de re belief ascriptions classify these beliefs. According to him, every belief is, in principle, ascribable both de dicto and de re (e.g. Brandom 1994, p. 526). Brandom develops this theory of belief ascriptions most fully in his 1994: Chaps. 8 and 9. For further discussion, cf. especially Brandom (2002, Chap. 3; 2007, pp. 663–670; 2011, pp. 210–214).





For a distinction between syntactic versus semantic de re ascriptions cf. e.g. McKinsey (1999, p. 521).

Belief ascriptions and social externalism 213

(2) Jones believes that water quenches thirst immediately or (20 ) Believes \Jones, that water quenches thirst immediately[ Thus analyzed, (1) specifies, in its oblique that-clause, a complete (truth-valued) propositional content or dictum—that water quenches thirst immediately—and represents Jones as standing in a two-place belief relation to that dictum.4 Analyzed de re, (1) has the form (3) Jones believes of water that it quenches thirst immediately or (30 ) Believes \Jones, water, that Uwater quenches thirst immediately[ So analyzed, (1) represents Jones as standing in a three-place belief relation to, first, what per se appears to be the incomplete content of an open sentence (that it quenches thirst immediately or that U quenches thirst immediately), and, second, the natural kind water. Given the anaphoric relation between the pronoun ‘it’ and the term ‘water’ in (3), (1), thus analyzed, moreover represents water as the referent (the res) of the ascribed belief.

In general, de dicto ascriptions represent believers as standing in two-place belief relations to complete (propositional) contents, whereas de re ascriptions represent believers as standing in three-place belief relations to, on the one hand, incomplete (or at least incompletely specified) contents and, on the other hand, the individuals, properties, or kinds that these contents are about.

Cognitive verbs like ‘believes that’ prima facie create intensional contexts— contexts in which the substitution of co-extensional terms for each other does not necessarily preserve the truth-value of the overall ascription. Accordingly, a wellknown substitutional test indicates whether ordinary belief ascriptions should be analyzed de dicto or de re (e.g. Quine 1956, pp. 181–182; Kaplan 1968, pp. 179–180; Burge 1977, pp. 341–342). Substitute into an ordinary ascription, such as (1), any co-extensional term for a term that, according to surface grammar, occurs in oblique context (for example, substitute ‘H2O’ for ‘water’ into (1)). If the substitution does prima facie not necessarily preserve the truth-value of the ascription, the substituted-for expression (‘water’) occurs indeed in oblique context at the level of logical form, and the original ascription is de dicto. Otherwise, it is de re.

This way of introducing the de re–de dicto contrast is contentious in various respects, and also potentially at variance with some of Brandom’s views on belief ascriptions.5 Yet, these points of contention and potential variance have no bearing on the argument I wish to make.

I shall use Quine’s terms ‘oblique’ versus ‘transparent’ to refer to contexts that, at the level of logical form, are inside versus outside the that-clause of belief ascriptions (cf. Quine 1960, pp. 144–151).

For example, some (e.g. Cresswell 1985; Bach 1987, Chap. 10) argue against the systematic ambiguity of sentences like (1). Moreover, the relational analysis of de dicto and de re belief ascriptions is

214 R. Loeffler

(III) Brandom develops his theory of the de re–de dicto contrast in the context of an elaborate semantic theory—a version of inferential role semantics—and a correlative theory of linguistic communication. I outline the relevant aspects of these theories in this and the next two sections.

Very briefly, Brandom assumes that a web of norms of material inference and material incompatibility, relating any atomic assertoric sentence to some (but not all) other atomic assertoric sentences of the language, partially constitutes the meaning of these sentences.6 For instance, the meaning of the English sentences (4) Water quenches thirst immediately and (5) H2O quenches thirst immediately is partially constituted by two norms of inference, one licensing the material inference from (4) to (5) and another one licensing the material inference from (5) to (4). Moreover, the meaning of (4) and (6) Water stirs thirst immediately is partially constituted by a norm certifying the mutual material incompatibility of (4) and (6).7 Brandom extends this material inferentialist approach to (atomic assertoric) sentence meaning to a substitutional approach to (non-logical singular and general) term meaning. According to this extension, certain norms governing the substitution of terms for other terms in the generation of material inferences and material incompatibilities constitute the meaning of these terms. For example, the meaning of the English terms ‘water’ and ‘H2O’ is partially constituted by a norm according to which, for every occurrence of ‘water’ in an extensional context, substituting ‘H2O’ for that occurrence generates a valid material inference, and by another norm according to which, for every occurrence of ‘H2O’ in an extensional context, substituting ‘water’ for that occurrence generates a valid material inference.

(Treating the two norms as a single conjunctive one, we may speak here of a single Footnote 5 continued contentious. For an alternative view cf. e.g. McKinsey (1999). Furthermore, assuming the relational analysis, the claim that one of the relata of belief is a (complete or incomplete) content, rather than, say, a (closed or open) sentence or the linguistic meaning of such a sentence, is potentially controversial. Again, Brandom regards the cognitive verb ‘believes that’ as an expressive locution and he may, accordingly, deny that it denotes any relation(s) (e.g. Brandom 1994, pp. 498–499). Finally, he prefers to supplant talk about belief with talk about (assertional) commitment (e.g. Brandom 1994, pp. 195–196, 596; 2000a, p. 174).

‘Partially’, because certain further norms determining, on the one hand, the proper use of an atomic assertoric sentence under certain non-linguistic observable circumstances (language entries) and, on the other hand, proprieties of non-linguistic actions (language exits) in the context of endorsements of the sentence also partially constitute the meaning of the sentence, according to Brandom.

‘Material’ in the sense that these inferences are valid, and these incompatibilities obtain, independently of sentences containing logical (formal) vocabulary. Brandom insists that the inference from (4) to (5), for example, is not enthymematic, that is, that it is valid independently of, say, the premise ‘If water quenches thirst then H2O quenches thirst’. And similarly for the incompatibility between (4) and (6).

Belief ascriptions and social externalism 215

symmetric substitution-inferential norm, governing the pair of terms ‘water’ and ‘H2O.’) Similarly, the meaning of the general terms ‘x quenches thirst immediately’ and ‘x stirs thirst immediately’ is constituted partially by a norm according to which, for every occurrence of ‘x quenches thirst immediately’ in an extensional context, substituting the term ‘x stirs thirst immediately’ for that occurrence generates a material incompatibility.

In general, an ordered pair of (non-logical singular or general) terms \‘A’, ‘B’[ is governed by what might be called a substitution-inferential norm iff every two sentences ‘___A___’ and ‘___B___’ (where ‘A’ and ‘B’ may occur several times in the respective sentences), such that (a) the latter sentence may be generated from the former in a single step by substituting ‘B’ for some occurrence(s) of ‘A’, and (b) the context(s) in which the substitution(s) of ‘B’ for ‘A’ take place are extensional, are in relation of valid material inference (with ‘___A___’ as the premise and ‘___B___’ as the conclusion). Similarly, an ordered pair of (non-logical singular or general) terms \‘A’, ‘C’[ is governed by what might be called a substitutionincompatibility norm iff every two sentences ‘___A___’ and ‘___C___’ (where ‘A’ and ‘C’ may occur several times in the respective sentences), such that (a) the latter sentence may be generated from the former in a single step by substituting ‘C’ for some occurrence(s) of ‘A’, and (b) the context(s) in which the substitution(s) of ‘C’ for ‘A’ take place are extensional, are materially incompatible. Substitutioninferential and substitution-incompatibility norms (let’s call them substitution norms) thus codify patterns of material inference and material incompatibility.

Brandom’s semantic thesis is that the meaning of each non-logical term is partially constituted by all the substitution norms relating the term to other terms (of the same syntactic category) of the same language.8 The details of this semantic theory do not matter for present purposes. For argument’s sake, let’s accept this theory without further discussion.



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