Propositional attitudes

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

6. Scepticism about propositional attitudes

There are various sceptical doubts which philosophers have had about propositional attitudes. Only some of these doubts will be mentioned here.

Some philosophers – W.V.O. Quine, Paul Churchland, Stephen Stich, for example – deny that there are any propositional attitudes – they deny that there are any beliefs, desires, intentions and the like. Sometimes, the source for this denial is philosophy of language (dislike of intensional contexts, and so on); other times, the source is metaphysics (failure to find a physical structure with which the states in question can be identified, for example). Sometimes, the view is that propositional attitudes are convenient fictions – useful instruments for making predictions of behaviour, but not suited to the business of serious science. On this view, talk of propositional attitudes has a second grade, merely instrumental, status, but there is no reason why we should not continue with it for purposes of prediction and explanation – a common comparison is with talk about the average family. Other philosophers argue that talk of propositional attitudes is intended as first grade scientific theorizing, but that it just happens to be seriously astray. On this view, talk of propositional attitudes is like talk of phlogiston: talk which sought to capture an important feature of reality and to be part of serious science, but failed (see Eliminativism).

Among philosophers who accept that there are propositional attitudes – that is, among those philosophers who accept that some propositional attitude ascriptions are strictly and literally true – there are philosophers who are sceptical of the relational analysis of those attitudes. Thus, some philosophers suppose that propositional attitudes should be given an adverbial analysis according to which, for example, one’s belief that p is a matter of one’s believing p-ly (see Adverbial theory of mental states). They deny that the attitudes are relations to propositions. Sometimes, this denial is fuelled by worries about the candidate entities for those contents, the sets of worlds, structured set-theoretic entities, and the like we discussed earlier. Theorists who deny the relational view of the attitudes typically insist that a sentence like ‘I believe that snow is white’ is best written, from a logical point of view, as ‘I snow-is-white believe’, somewhat as ‘I have a limp’ is best written ‘I limp’.

Yet other philosophers – Stephen Schiffer, for example – despair of the project of giving any philosophical account (theory, analysis) of propositional attitudes, while nonetheless supposing that our practice of making propositional attitude ascriptions is perfectly in order as it stands. The essence of their position is a denial of the need to give an account in anything like the traditional sense of the propositional attitudes.

Theorizing about propositional attitudes is a very difficult task. This brief summary only indicates a few of the controversial questions which such theorizing is bound to confront.

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

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