The Gettier Problem: A Study--Part 6

What is the nature of a believing act? How is the content of a belief related to a speech act? How do beliefs refer to things in the world?

The Object of Belief

What is the nature of a believing act? How is the content of a belief related to a speech act? How do beliefs refer to things in the world? In its most simple formulation, believing is having a mental state that consists of a representation of the world[1]. Many philosophers describe belief in terms of an acceptance that the world is a specific way but I think this way of speaking implies that the believer is somehow actively doing something in the act of believing. While this true in many cases, it’s too restrictive for my purposes. A belief is an apprehension of the world and need not include an affirmation of it (though belief generally does have important implications for behavior—a qualification we’ll examine later).

Beliefs are usually described in terms of propositions where the belief is of the proposition and a proposition is a that clause which can be written or spoken as a fact about the world. I believe that Megan had steak for dinner or you believe that Aidan is playing his guitar. The phrase after the “that” is a description of the world that can be expressed linguistically and this description is the object of belief. That is, the object of belief is, in an important sense, the sentence or some set of properties of the sentence and it is this that of which the proposition consists.[2] This way of understanding belief is the genesis of a whole host of mistakes that have fueled Gettier-style counterexamples to JTB and is going to be the focus of my analysis. Since speaking of belief in this way typically is established (or, in most cases, assumed) at the beginning of an analysis of knowledge, this small mistake sets things off on the wrong path at the beginning and ends up leading to much larger errors that resist correction at the end.

Instead of thinking about beliefs as being about descriptions of the world, I think it’s more correct to say beliefs are representations of the world and propositions are the content of those representations. Beliefs are a mental state consisting of a way the world possibly could be. On this model, propositions are not the object of belief but the content. Propositions make up the content of the belief itself. In order to make this idea clearer, some philosophers like Shope prefer to talk about belief in terms of states of affairs rather than propositions where states of affairs just are possible ways the world could be. These distinctions tend to be subtle and philosophy since the linguistic turn has used the term proposition in a variety of ways that are at best inconsistent. Since propositions are generally held to be at the center of a believing act and since belief is an essential component of knowledge (and thus critical to understanding Gettier cases), we will need to spend some time analyzing belief with the goal of providing some clarity as to the nature and object of the believing act.


[1] This way of speaking assumes a distinction between the mind and the world and is something I won’t argue for here. This assumption is trivial however, because on a non-referential or postmodernist understanding of belief, Gettier cases carry no water to begin with.

[2] See, for example, (Ferre, 1961). Ferre argues that the locus of philosophy as a discipline is the analysis of the meaning of language (p. 6). On Ferre’s definition, belief is completely removed from the picture and language becomes the sole object of analysis. For Ferre, words in a propositional context are the locus of meaning and the philosopher’s job is to unpack this meaning. Sentences, on this view, appear not to be representative but objective.

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