What belief reports might tell us about meaning

Summer / Winter School 2022

26 July 2022

Abstract
According to one tradition in philosophy of language, belief reports can tell us important things about meaning. Belief reports are sentences such as ‘Alex believes that Conrad is an author’. I will give an introduction to that tradition. I will first introduce the idea that what we believe are abstract objects called ‘propositions’. An example is the proposition that Conrad is an author, which Alex might or might not believe. I will then introduce a simple theory of belief reports according to which they report a relation between a person and a proposition that they believe. One question that arises is how many distinct propositions there are. I will describe an important argument that tries to establish a lower bound on the number of propositions. The argument relies on the simple theory, and on the observation that substitution of one name for another can change a true belief report into a false one even if both names refer to the same object. One example is substituting ‘Conrad’ with ‘Korzeniowski’. In order to accommodate this, we must say that the proposition that Conrad is an author is distinct from the proposition that Korzeniowski is an author. Propositions are often taken to be the meanings of sentences. So, if it is sound, this argument also tells us something important about meaning. In particular, it tells us that different names for the same object have different meanings.

Introduction

Outline

One line of thought in contemporary philosophy has tried to study meaning by thinking about belief reports.

This is an introduction to that line of thought.

Propositions

What are propositions?

Propositions are things that we believe, doubt, say, deny etc.

Why believe in them?

All of the following are intelligible:

• Alex believes that Conrad is an author.

• Chris doubts it (i.e. that Conrad is an author).

• Alex believes something that Chris doubts (i.e. that Conrad is an author).

• What Alex believes is true.

• What Alex believes might have been false.

Face value

If we take those claims at face value, there are things that people believe and doubt.

There are also things that are true, but not necessarily.

Contents

Sentences stand in relations to propositions which are the contents of those sentences: a sentence is true if and only if its content is.

We can ask questions about propositions, including questions about how many of them there are, and how they are related to sentences.

One of these questions is about how ‘fine-grained’ propositions are: how many different sentences have the same proposition as their content?

The substitution argument

2. Korzeniowski is an author.

It is natural to think that (1) and (2) have the same content.

Belief reports

A belief report is a sentence of the form $$\text{\textit{A} believes that \textit{S}}$$.

1. Alex believes that Conrad is an author.

2. Alex believes that Korzeniowski is an author.

It is easy to imagine a situation where it seems that (3) is true, but (4) is false.

The simple theory of belief reports

A belief report is true if and only if the subject of the report believes the proposition that is the content of the sentence in the ‘that’-clause of the report.

So, (3) is true if and only if Alex believes the content of (1).

An argument

1. If (1) and (2) have the same content, then (3) and (4) have the same content.

2. If (3) and (4) have the same content, then, necessarily, they are either both true or both false.

3. It is possible that (3) is true but (4) is false.

4. So, (1) and (2) do not have the same content.

Responses

• Accept the conclusion.

• Reject the simple theory of belief reports, and then reject premise 1.

• Reject premise 3, and accept that our judgements about the truth of sentences can be deeply misleading.

What this might tell us about meaning

Propositions as meanings

It is natural to think of the content of a sentence as its meaning, at least in one sense of ‘meaning’.

If we accept the first response to the substitution argument, then we have an argument for the conclusion that (1) and (2) have different meanings.

The meanings of names

The meaning of a sentence depends on the meanings of the words in it.

(This is generally taken as a fundamental principle about language.)

So, if (1) and (2) have different meanings, then ‘Conrad’ and ‘Korzeniowski’ have different meanings.

This is puzzling

At this point there is a puzzle, because we seem to have an argument for the claim that two names for the same object can have different meanings.

This is in tension with the natural thought that the meaning of a name just is the object that the name denotes.

Or, we could reject the substitution argument, which requires either rejecting the simple theory of belief, or accepting that our judgements can be deeply misleading.

Classic paper

German: Frege (1892)

English: Frege (1948)

On propositions

King, Soames, and Speaks (2014)

Saul (2007)

References

Frege, Gottlob. 1892. ‘Über Sinn und Bedeutung’. Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Philosophische Kritik 100: 25–50.
———. 1948. ‘Sense and Reference’. Translated by Max Black. The Philosophical Review 57 (3): 209–30. https://doi.org/10.2307/2181485.
King, Jeffrey C., Scott Soames, and Jeff Speaks. 2014. New Thinking about Propositions. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199693764.001.0001.
McGrath, Matthew, and Devin Frank. 2020. ‘Propositions’. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Winter 2020. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2020/entries/propositions/.
Nelson, Michael. 2019. ‘Propositional Attitude Reports’. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2019. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/prop-attitude-reports/.
Saul, Jennifer. 2007. Simple Sentences, Substitution, and Intuitions. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199219155.001.0001.
Speaks, Jeff. 2021. ‘Theories of Meaning’. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2021. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2021/entries/meaning/.
Zalta, Edward N. 2022. ‘Gottlob Frege’. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2022. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2022/entries/frege/.