Tag: propositional attitudes

Response to de Villiers’ Language for Thought: Coming to Understand False Belief

The following is a short response I wrote to de Villiers and de Villiers’ Language for Thought: Coming to Understand False Belief. (de Villiers, J.G., and P. A. de Villiers. Language for Thought: coming to understand False Beliefs. Chapter prepared for Whither Whorf? (in press)) You can view a version of it here, although I’m not sure it is the final version.


de Villiers and de Villiers, in Language for Thought, articulate the view that language is prerequisite to thought and not merely an effect of it. They focus exclusively on the issue of false belief and our ability to reason and form explanations about them. Specifically, the acquisition of language is a necessary condition for the ability to describe not the content of false beliefs (others’ false beliefs).


De Villiers and de Villiers offset their hypothesis that language is prerequisite for thought with the following dilemma: any appropriate experimental design results in either triviality or incoherence, depending on the criterion for acceptable results and/or the encouraging of participants (children, in this case) to use intentional language capable of describing false beliefs. (351) To resolve this tension, de Villieres and de Villiers propose two solutions:


1) Select tasks that do not require the explicit use of “linguistic complements”—the propositional content of an intentional expression—and thus accept responses that fail to denote ‘what about the belief is false’.

2) (a). Select tasks that require very little regarding the understanding of linguistic complements, so in effect children would merely be required to imitate (i.e. “repeat”)—and not grasp–the false intensional expressions they hear. (b) Inquire as to whether children have “mastered complements with nonmental verbs, such as verbs of communication that require precisely the same complement structures syntactically and semantically as mental verbs, but with none of the reference to invisible mental events.” (352)


I want to focus on the latter half of the second proposed solution. The authors seem to imply a sort of dualism concerning mental predicates such that so-called folk psychological states—i.e., intensional verbs—necessarily denote a state with content that cannot be confirmed in an empirical sense; hence de Villiers and de Villiers use of “invisible mental events”. This is the hallmark of 20th century theories of mental content-intentional states like to believe, to think, to remember, and to wish, are understood as states having objects that do not refer to anything physical and/or confirmable; at least not in the sense that “The ball is front of the desk” is.


Without getting into the matter of how best to think about the meaning of such expressions, it should be acknowledged that anyone, let alone children, need not be using intensional verbs in such a Cartesian way (‘Cartesian’ because such verbs are taken to denote mental, ‘invisible’ things). In many circumstances one might be disposed to say that his or her use of the predicate ‘to think that’ ought not be thought of as denoting a mental state but rather as merely ‘directing the audiences’ attention’. Here the meaning of intensional verbs becomes less mysterious and more socially embedded. Thus, the use of intensional verbs might be merely for emphasizing what follows the intentional verb. Compare “I think that the Patriots are too good” with “The Patriots are too good”: with regard to syntax alone, the latter expression would not fall under de Villiers and de Villiers’ notion of complement structures since it lacks an intensional verb conjoined with a corresponding ‘mental’ or representational content. In a room of crowded people, someone who uses ‘I think’ or ‘I wish’ might be more realistically be thought of as an attention-grabber. I suppose the use of intensional verbs might be looked at in both ways simultaneously, and certainly I don’t think that the two are incompatible.


That said, if it’s the case that, on many occasions, an individual might not use intensional verbs in the strict sense that the authors require in order to resolve the alleged dilemma, then they need to rethink just how pressing the tension is in the first place.


Note: After reviewing this rather hasty response, I need to qualify my critique, to an extent. Yes, the description of intensional predicates as ‘invisible’ sounds or seems to imply a sort of Cartesian dualism-the fact is, the authors do not require a separate ontological category of “mental substance”, so its not entirely (that is, ontologically) dualistic.

Support for ‘theories of propositional attitudes and their objects’? I think not

8.What is the point of Wittgenstein’s claim that ‘it is in language that an expectation and its fulfilment make contact’? Does it improve on other accounts of the relation between propositional attitudes and their objects?

The above question is from what looks to be either a class-related website or a site dedicated to a follow-up discussion for some presentation on Wittgenstein’s later philosophy.  Credit goes to Oxford University–you can view it here–but I have no clue who the author is.  Anyway, it raises some interesting issues.

What immediately comes to my mind is the fact that it presupposes a degree of relevance concerning ‘accounts of the relationship between propositional attitudes and their objects’.  But my reading of that quote doesn’t really include ‘objects’ in the sense of ‘referents’ or ‘that which an extensional expression or word is causally connected to’.  It appears that Wittgenstein is refuting the idea that there is some epistemic relationship between ‘what is expected’ and the ‘mental state called ‘to expect’.

I might rephrase the above to something like the following: “it is within language–and not ‘[merely] expressible within language’ or represented in language–that an expectation and its fulfillment ‘make contact'”.  Properly speaking, any talk of the relation between ‘an object’ and ‘the state that has that object as referent’ is made possible, already presupposed by, the language that makes that relation intelligible in the first place. I take that quote as dismissive to the account of language and meaning which says that intentional states are representative of the objects they are ‘about’ or ‘directed towards’, to put it one way.

The connection between ‘state’ and ‘object’ is fulfilled within language, not merely explained by it.  Language doesn’t merely serve the function of explaining the causal link between a state and what the state is about: language is necessary for the relation in the first place.  In that sense, language is as much responsible for the relation as the state and the object conjointly.

Its hard for me to take the quote in context, since I’m not sure exactly where it comes from, though it does look familiar to me–I may have seen it reproduced in Philosophical Grammar. But given what I just elaborated on, it would seem unreasonable to presume that the quote above improves or fails to improve upon theories of propositional attitudes and their objects.  Indeed, the quote seems to criticize talk of ‘theories of propositional attitudes and their objects’ since it presumes language ‘represents’ what already existed ‘absent it’.

My answer to the question, then, is that the quote above undermines the fundamental distinction between ‘word and object’ or ‘intentional state’ and ‘intentional object’.   Or put another way: it dissolves the fundamental difference between state and object (and more generally, between word and object)–a distinction that is necessary to ask that question in the first place.  So in that sense, does the above quote improve upon it?  I have no idea.