Propositional attitudes

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V028-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 07, 2021, from

4. Propositional attitude ‘aboutness’

Many philosophers have been puzzled by the various ways and senses in which propositional attitudes can be about particular objects and kinds of objects (see Intentionality). Think, for example, of the beliefs which one might have about Aristotle, about Einstein, about President Clinton, about Zeus, about Mickey Mouse, about Meinong’s round square, about gold, about phlogiston, about π, and about the greatest prime number. There are several different issues which can arise here.

One issue concerns the existence of the objects and kinds of objects which are the focus of the attitudes. There is a sense of ‘about’ in which one cannot have attitudes about an object (or kind of object) which does not exist – so that, for example, in this sense, one cannot have beliefs, hopes, fears, desires, and so on, about Zeus, the round square, the greatest prime number, Mickey Mouse and phlogiston, though one can have these attitudes about President Clinton and gold. (The cases of entirely past objects – Aristotle and Einstein – and numbers – π– raise other controversial questions about existence which cannot be taken up here.) This sense of ‘about’ is relational: the point parallels the impossibility of parking near the round square, shaking hands with Zeus, or adding three to the greatest prime number.

Another issue concerns the nature of the connection which obtains between subjects and those existent objects and kinds of objects which are the focus of given attitudes. If one is not appropriately connected to an object, then – in this sense – one cannot have attitudes about it. Suppose, for example, that by an extraordinary coincidence there is a planet somewhere in the universe whose history is exactly described by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Even though there is some sense in which Tolkien’s work is true of this planet, nonetheless, the work is not about the planet (in the sense currently at issue). The reason is that the planet played no role at all in the causal history of the book. When, for example, one believes that Hawking is a genius, what makes it the case that one’s belief is about Hawking is, very likely, at least in part, that there are chains of usage of the word ‘Hawking’ which are appropriately connected to that theoretical physicist. When I believe that that tree outside my window is shedding its leaves, what makes it a belief about that tree is, at least in part, the causal processes involving electromagnetic radiation passing between the tree and my retina which are involved in the formation of my belief. In general, it seems plausible to think that some kind of causal connection is required for these kinds of attitudes about particular objects.

However, while it is clearly correct to say that there is a sense in which the aboutness of propositional attitudes is a matter of standing in a relation, an appropriate causal connection on most views, it is also clear that there is another sense of ‘about’ which cannot be analysed in this way. In some sense we can have beliefs and desires about non-existent objects – for example, some people desire to find the fountain of youth, some believe that Meinong’s round square is round, some hoped that Zeus would smite their enemies with a thunderbolt, and so on. It seems clear that those who, for example, hoped that Zeus would smite their enemies have a hope ‘about’ Zeus despite not standing in a relation, causal or otherwise, to Zeus.

How then should this final, non-relational, non-causal, sense of ‘about’ be analysed? Many alternatives present themselves. One might appeal to counterfactuals: attitudes ‘about Zeus’ are attitudes about something which does not exist, but which might have existed; attitudes ‘about phlogiston’ are attitudes about something which does not exist but which might have existed; and so on. One might hold that this sense of ‘about’ is only used in loose speech, and can be banished or paraphrased away in serious philosophical discourse: attitudes ‘about Zeus’ are really attitudes which focus on certain myths and stories; attitudes ‘about phlogiston’ are really attitudes about a false chemical theory; and so on. One might try various other options as well. The issue is too difficult to discuss adequately here: the important point is that there is at least a loose sense in which there is ‘existentially neutral’ content, that is, content which does not commit one to the existence in the actual world of the particular individuals and kinds to which the content does give apparent commitment.

There is also an important distinction between two different kinds of content: broad content and narrow content. Roughly speaking, narrow content is purely a matter of what goes on inside the head of a subject of propositional attitude states, whereas broad content is in part a matter of how things are in the world outside the head. More exactly, if two subjects are intrinsic duplicates who live under the same laws of nature and belong to the same kinds, then their attitudes are exactly alike in narrow content but may differ in broad content (see Content: wide and narrow).

Once upon a time it was more or less taken for granted that the content of belief, for example, was narrow. How things are outside the head obviously affects whether your beliefs are true or false – your belief that London is pretty can only be true if London itself is pretty – but what you believe is a matter of how you are. But in fact the belief that London is pretty is a belief with broad content. I cannot believe that London, the capital city of England, is pretty unless I am appropriately causally connected to London, and that concerns how things are outside my head. Imagine that the universe is symmetrical, so that there is a region – call it Twin Earth – which is qualitatively identical to our own at all times. It will contain a city called ‘London’ and a twin of me. This twin will be an intrinsic duplicate of me and will produce the sentence ‘London is pretty’ as expressing what he believes. Nevertheless, his belief (and his sentence) will have a different content from mine. It will be about Twin London rather than about London, and will be true just if Twin London, rather than, London is pretty.

Citing this article:
Oppy, Graham. Propositional attitude ‘aboutness’. Propositional attitudes, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V028-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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