Expressing a belief vs. a belief itself (independent of its expression)

Is there a real difference between the expression of a belief (that is, expressing the belief that you want to go outside) vs. the belief itself? (that is, independent of its expression, the belief that you want to go outside)

Many philosophers maintain that there is a real difference.  It is sometimes characterized in the following way:

1. Occurent beliefs: the belief S has at the time of utterance of proposition P

2. Dispositional beliefs: the belief or beliefs that S disposed to express at times other than the present moment, if given the right opportunity

This distinction doesn’t necessarily amount to the mere difference between a belief’s expression and merely its existence (remember that often we tend to think of our beliefs in two ways, both those that we express currently and those that we have or might express, given the right sort of opportunity).  One could argue that the distinction between occurent and dispositional is merely (somewhat) analogous to the distinction between an expression of a belief and a belief independent of its expression (a belief per se).  One might argue that both occurent and dispositional beliefs could be categorized within “the expression of a belief (or beliefs)” but not in “a belief per se”.  The reason is simple: dispositional beliefs may or may not have been expressed at a certain time, T1, but it is always possible for them to be expressed (at earlier times or at later times), and in that sense, since it is always necessary that a dispositional belief be expressible, one must count dispositional beliefs in general in the category of “a belief’s expression” and not “the belief itself”

But let’s consult Mr. Wittgenstein on this matter.  I refer now to page 144 of The Brown Book.  Consider the following:

We speak of a tone of conviction.  And yet it is clear that this tone of conviction isn’t always present whenever we rightly speak of conviction. “Just so”, you might say, “this shows that there is something else, something behind these gestures, etc. which is the real belief as opposed to mere expressions of belief. [my emphasis]” -Wittgenstein, The Brown Book, p.144

Clearly, this is an argument one could make: we do make the distinction between beliefs that have the “ummph” of conviction vs beliefs that are automatic, involtunary, or non-intentional (in the sense of failing to have any particular direction–I’m using ‘intentional’ here in a way similar to Franz Brentano)  This line of thought carries one to the philosophical conclusion that there indeed exists a difference between a belief itself and it’s mere expression (think: a belief with conviction vs. a mere belief, a mere expression)

Wittgenstein, however, continues:

Not at all, I should say, “many different criteria distinguish, under different circumstances, cases of believing what you say from those of not believing what you say.” [Here he seems to equivocate between the distinction of a belief and its expression and believing what one says vs. merely saying it–my feeling is that he does this intentionally to make manifest the variety of sensory modalities that this kind of thing can occur in] There may be cases where the presence of a sensation other than those bound up with gestures, tone of voice, etc. distinguishes meaning what you say from not meaning it.  But sometimes what distinguishes these two is nothing that happens while we speak, but a variety of actions and experiences of different kinds before and after. Wittgenstein, The Brown Book, 145

Wittgenstein is saying here that the family of differences that we tend to have in mind when we utter distinctions like:

  • what one actually beliefs vs. what one merely expresses as a belief


  • saying what you believe vs. saying something (that is, merely saying something without conviction)

Are needless and certainly not necessary for one to understand the use of the expression “I really did believe what I just said.”  The conclusion I drew from this conversation was the following: conviction is not a necessary condition for authentic belief!

There are many cases in which the expression “I belief what I say” or “Did you really just mean what you said?” are not predicated on the simultaneous or occurent state of “being in the state of conviction” More precisely, I doubt Wittgenstein maintains that we do know what we mean when we say “well, surely that man believes what he says, for his expressions are with conviction”–at least not in every case.  And who knows what alternative conditions, whether in the past or the future, go towards determining the sense of that kind of proposition.  For instance, consider the following:

“If you really mean it, then you will stop talking and just leave me be”

That kind of expression has a certain use for particular people in various roles.  Consider that expression as it might be used in a scenario involving a recent quarrel between lovers.  The man says, “Sweetie, I love you….don’t shut me out, I can borrow some money from my parents and we can float this.”  The woman responds, “if you really mean that, then you will stop talking me out of it and just leave me be.”

That is, if the man truly has conviction about his love, then he must silence the expression of his beliefs.  We tend not to think of conviction as a silent activity, or rather as no activity at all!  How different a sense of “he believed it with conviction” this example showcases.


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