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«Forthcoming in Philosophical Perspectives 15 (2001) Russellianism and Explanation David Braun University of Rochester Russellianism is a semantic ...»

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Forthcoming in Philosophical Perspectives 15 (2001)

Russellianism and Explanation

David Braun

University of Rochester

Russellianism is a semantic theory that entails that sentences (1) and (2) express the same

proposition, as long as the names 'Mark Twain' and 'Samuel Clemens' refer to the same person.

(1) Albert believes that Mark Twain is an author.

(2) Albert believes that Samuel Clemens is an author.

Many philosophers think that the Substitution Objection decisively refutes Russellianism. This objection claims that sentences (1) and (2) can differ in truth value. Therefore, it says, the sentences express different propositions, and so Russellianism is false.

Russellians have replied at length to the Substitution Objection (McKay, 1979; Salmon, 1986, 1989; Soames, 1988, 1995; Braun, 1998). Indeed, one could easily get the impression that the Substitution Objection is the only criticism to which Russellians need to respond. But, in fact, there are others. For example, Michael Devitt (1996), Mark Richard (1990, 1997a), and Richard Heck (1995) have argued (roughly) that if Russellianism were true, then attitude ascriptions could not explain (certain sorts of) behavior. Call objections that take this sort of line Explanation Objections.

Here is a rough version of one Explanation Objection. Suppose that Albert waves, and suppose that we attempt to explain his behavior by uttering (3).

(3) Albert wanted Twain to autograph his book, and he believed that if he waved, then Twain would autograph his book.

A critic might claim that (3) explains Albert's behavior only if it's generally true that people with beliefs and desires like his wave. But consider Bob: he assents to 'I want Twain to autograph my book' and to 'If I wave then Clemens will autograph my book', but he dissents from 'Twain is Clemens' and so does not wave. Yet according to Russellianism, Bob believes and desires propositions that are like those that Albert does. Therefore, if Russellianism is true, then it's not the case that, generally, those who have beliefs and desires like Albert's wave. So, if Russellianism is true, then (3) cannot explain Albert's behavior. But it can, so Russellianism is false.

In this paper, I formulate a number of Explanation Objections against Russellianism, and provide Russellian replies to each. I argue that some of these objections presuppose unreasonably strict requirements for explaining behavior (and for explaining in general). Other objections rest on mistaken judgments that certain attitude ascriptions do (or do not) explain certain bits of behavior, or that certain ascriptions provide (or fail to provide) certain sorts of explanatory information about the relevant behavior.

Though the Explanation Objections that I consider target a semantic theory, they rely very heavily on assumptions about explanation. As a result, I discuss explanation in this paper at least as much as I do semantics. Unfortunately, the critics I discuss do not make their assumptions about explanation entirely explicit. I therefore formulate some views about explanation that support their objections to Russellianism. I criticize those views, and argue for some alternatives. I show that these alternatives support the claim that attitude ascriptions could explain behavior, even if Russellianism were true. Critics of Russellianism who find the following Explanation Objections attractive might think of this paper as a challenge to them to state and defend their views about explanation explicitly, and to find fault with my alternative views.1 Some readers who are familiar with Nathan Salmon's (1986, 1989) and Scott Soames's (1988, 1995) replies to the Substitution Objection might find my replies to the Explanation Objections surprising. Salmon and Soames hold that (1) and (2) really do express the same proposition; speakers who think that (1) and (2) can differ in truth value are confusing the proposition they semantically express with the propositions that they pragmatically convey.

Readers who know Salmon's and Soames's work might expect me to argue that utterances of attitude ascriptions pragmatically convey explanatory information that is not semantically expressed by those utterances.2 But I am skeptical of Salmon's and Soames's attempts to use pragmatics to explain away our anti-substitution intuitions (see Saul, 1998 and Braun, 1998). I am equally worried about using pragmatics to explain away our intuitions about explanation.

Therefore, I provide replies to the Explanation Objections that do not force Russellians to rely on Salmon's and Soames's claims about pragmatics (though my replies are consistent with their claims).

There are closely related objections to Russellianism that I do not address here. Some philosophers who press Explanation Objections also argue that attitude ascriptions could not be used to predict behavior, if Russellianism were true. Some say that the property of being-abelief-with-Russellian-content-P cannot be causally relevant to any effect of a belief (some say similar things about all species of "broad content"). Unfortunately, I do not have space to address such objections here (though I have addressed some of the issues concerning causal relevance in Braun, 1995). In this paper, I focus exclusively on objections concerning explanation.

1. Russellianism and Ways of Taking Propositions The theory I want to defend might better be called 'neo-Russellianism', because Bertrand Russell rejects some of its main claims. (Its other popular names--'Millianism', 'the "Fido"-Fido theory', 'the naive theory', 'the direct reference theory'--are misleading in other ways.) I call it 'Russellianism' (following Richard, 1990) because it says that the objects of certain attitudes, such as believing and desiring, are Russellian propositions: structured entities whose constituents are individuals, properties, and relations. These propositions are also the semantic contents (or simply contents) of sentences, with respect to (or in) contexts, and the objects that sentences semantically express, in contexts. The constituents of the proposition that a sentence expresses in a context are the contents of the parts of the sentence in that context. The content of a predicate, in a context, is a property or relation. The content of a proper name, or an indexical such as 'I' or 'she', in a context, is its referent, in that context. The truth value of a sentence, in a context, is the truth value of the proposition it expresses, in that context. So on this view, the sentence 'Mark Twain is an author' expresses a proposition whose constituents are Mark Twain and the property of being-an-author, which can be represented by the following ordered pair.





Mark Twain, being-an-author The sentence 'Samuel Clemens is an author' expresses exactly the same proposition.3 Russellianism says that the content of the predicate 'believes', in any context, is the binary believing relation. The referent, and content, of a 'that'-clause, #that S#, in a context, is the proposition expressed by S in that context. So according to Russellianism, (1) and (2) express the same proposition, whose constituents are Albert, the proposition that Twain/Clemens is an author, and the believing relation. It can be represented as follows.

Albert, Twain, being-an-author, believing Thus (1) and (2) have the same truth value. Similar remarks hold for attitude sentences whose complements are infinitives with explicit subjects, such as 'Albert wants Twain to smile'. The infinitive clause here refers, in a context, to the proposition expressed by 'Twain smiles', in that context.4 Its content is its referent. The proposition expressed by the sentence can be represented by the following sequence.

Albert, Twain, smiling, wanting There are various reasons to think that Russellianism might be true, despite its unintuitive consequences. It is appealingly simple. It is naturally suggested by the arguments of Keith Donnellan, Saul Kripke, David Kaplan, and others against descriptivist theories of proper names and indexicals. It easily accounts for our free-wheeling use of indexicals in complement clauses of attitude ascriptions. It gives the most straightforward account of quantification into complement clauses of attitude ascriptions. Finally, and very importantly, it avoids many of the difficulties that afflict its rivals. For more details, see Salmon (1986, 1989), Soames (1988, 1995), and Braun (1998).

The Russellian view that I wish to defend includes a certain metaphysics of attitudes.

According to it, the binary believing and wanting relations are mediated: an agent stands in the believing or desiring relation to a proposition in virtue of standing in another psychological relation to an intermediary entity that determines the proposition that the agent believes or desires.5 The intermediary entity is a way of taking the proposition. We could also call it a 'guise' or 'mode or presentation' for, or a 'way of grasping', the proposition; when the relevant attitude is believing or desiring, I shall call such a thing a 'way of believing' or 'way of desiring'.

Different Russellians have different views about the nature of this intermediary. It may be said to be a natural language sentence, or a linguistic meaning, or a mental state, or a mental representation. An agent may accept a sentence or linguistic meaning; or be in a certain mental state; or have a certain mental representation in his head in the right way. When he does, he believes the proposition determined by the entity, and we can say that the agent believes the proposition in a certain way. A rational agent can believe the same proposition in two distinct ways; he can believe a proposition in one way without believing it in other ways; and he can believe a proposition in one way, while also believing its negation, in another, suitably different, way. Analogous points hold for desiring.6

–  –  –

According to Russellianism, (4) and (5) express the same proposition, but an agent can believe that proposition in various different ways. If an agent believes the proposition in one way, then he will be inclined to assent to sentence (4) and think that (4) is true; but believing the proposition in that way will not incline him to assent to (5) or think that (5) is true.7 There is a second way of believing the proposition that has just the opposite effect. An agent could believe the proposition in the first way but not the second; he would then be inclined to assent to (4) but not to (5). An agent could even rationally believe the proposition and its negation, in suitably different ways; for instance, he could believe it in the first way, but believe its negation in a way that "corresponds" to the negation of (5). Such an agent would then be inclined to assent to (4) and dissent from (5), and think that (4) is true but (5) is false.

Similar phenomena can occur when the relevant sentences are attitude sentences, such as (1) and (2).

–  –  –

These sentences express the same proposition. An agent could believe that proposition in a way that corresponds to (1), but fail to believe it in a way that corresponds to (2). She would then be inclined to assent to (1) and think (1) true, but have no such inclinations with respect to (2). In fact, she could believe the proposition in a way that corresponds to (1) and believe that proposition's negation in a way that corresponds to the negation of (2). She would then think that (1) is true, and be inclined to assent to it, while thinking that (2) is false, and be inclined to dissent from it. (These points lie at the core of my response to the Substitution Objection; see Braun, 1998.) Clearly, the way in which an agent believes or desires a proposition can make a difference to that agent's behavior---for instance, to whether that agent will assent to certain sentences. But according to Russellianism, attitude ascriptions do not semantically express any information about the ways in which agents believe and desire propositions. Thus one might suspect that, if Russellianism were true, then attitude ascriptions could not explain behavior. The following objections to Russellianism attempt to make that suspicion more precise.

2. The Ordinary Explanation Objection I wish now to turn to the objection that I sketched in the introduction. But I first need to make a few more assumptions explicit.

Suppose that Carol sincerely assents to 'If I wave, then Twain will see me' and 'I want Twain to see me'. Russellians and non-Russellians alike can agree that, under these conditions, (6) and (7) are true.8

–  –  –

Russellians and non-Russellians can also agree that utterances of (6) and (7), and the propositions they express, are, in a certain sense, made true by occurrences of events of certain sorts. They can agree that, necessarily, the proposition expressed by an utterance of (6) is true iff there occurs a certain sort of "believing event" that involves at least Carol, the entity denoted by the 'that'-clause of (6), and a certain relation between them. Call such events beliefs. (Two terminological points: (i) I use the term 'belief' for events of a certain sort, and not for the propositional objects of the believing relation. (ii) Some might prefer to say that beliefs (in this sense) are states, rather than events. I use the term 'event' for both events and states; I think of the latter as long-lived events.) Russellians and anti-Russellians can agree on these matters even if they disagree about the denotation of the 'that'-clause of (6) or about the constituents of the propositions expressed by utterances of (6). Similarly, Russellians and their critics can agree that, necessarily, an utterance of (7), and the proposition it expresses, are true iff there occurs a certain sort of "wanting event" that involves at least Carol, the entity specified by the infinitival clause of (7), and a certain relation between them. Call these events desires.9 Since utterances of (6) and (7), and the propositions they express, are made true (in this sense) by events of these sorts, let us say that they describe beliefs and desires. Similarly, utterances of (8), and the propositions they express, describe events in which Carol waves.

–  –  –



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