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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V006-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

We believe that there is coffee over there; we believe the special theory of relativity; we believe the surgeon; some of us believe in God. But plausibly what is fundamental is believing that something is the case – believing a proposition, as it is usually put. To believe a theory is to believe the propositions that make up the theory, to believe a person is to believe some proposition advanced by them; and to believe in God is to believe the proposition that God exists. Thus belief is said to be a propositional attitude or intentional state: to believe is to take the attitude of belief to some proposition. It is about what its propositional object is about (God, the operation, or whatever). We can think of the propositional object of a belief as the way the belief represents things as being – its content, as it is often called.

We state what we believe with indicative sentences in ‘that’-clauses, as in ‘Mary believes that the Democrats will win the next election ’. But belief in the absence of language is possible. A dog may believe that there is food in the bowl in front of it. Accordingly philosophers have sought accounts of belief that allow a central role to sentences – it cannot be an accident that finding the right sentence is the way to capture what some person believes – while allowing that creatures without a language can have beliefs. One way of doing this is to construe beliefs as relations to inner sentences somehow inscribed in the brain. On this view, although dogs do not have a public language, to the extent that they have beliefs they have something sentence-like in their heads.

An alternative tradition focuses on the way belief when combined with desire leads to behaviour, and analyses belief in terms of behavioural dispositions or more recently as the internal state that is, in combination with other mental states, responsible for the appropriate behavioural dispositions.

An earlier tradition associated with the British empiricists views belief as a kind of pale imitation of perceptual experience. But recent work on belief largely takes for granted a sharp distinction between belief and the various mental images that may or may not accompany it.

A focus of recent discussions of belief has been the extent to which what a subject believes is a function of their surroundings. Everyone agrees that what subjects believe is causally influenced by their surroundings. The sun’s impact on my sense organs causes me to believe that it is sunny. But many argue that the role of subjects’ surroundings in determining what is believed outruns their causal effects.

Citing this article:
Braddon-Mitchell, David and Frank Jackson. Belief, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V006-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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