Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Is Radical Millianism Worth its Methodological Costs? A Critique of Jonathan Berg’s Theory of Direct Belief


This article focuses on Jonathan Berg’s Theory of Direct Belief as presented in his 2012 book Direct Belief. An Essay on the Semantics, Pragmatics, and Metaphysics of Belief. After regimenting Berg’s key theses and discussing the sources of their general unpopularity (which is acknowledged by Berg), I proceed to reconstruct Berg’s book-length argument for his conclusions. I here make explicit that Berg relies on a range of strong meta-semantic principles and assumptions. I conclude that even if Berg has brought considerable methodological rigor to the on-going debate over the semantics of natural language attitude ascriptions, and has proposed an elegant and consistent theory, he has not offered compelling reasons to accept his preferred methodological constraints in light of the difficulties, which those constraints impose upon attitude ascription semantics.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

We’re sorry, something doesn't seem to be working properly.

Please try refreshing the page. If that doesn't work, please contact support so we can address the problem.


  1. 1.

    The moniker “Millianism” is traditional, even if arguably John Stuart Mill was not the first philosopher to hold this view. See Cumming 2013, Section 2.1. Salmon’s more elaborate and exact statement of the Millian position is the following: “…I maintain the following Anti-Fregean doctrine: that the contribution made by an ordinary proper name or other simple singular term, to securing the information content of, or the proposition expressed by, declarative sentences (with respect to a given possible context of use) in which the term occurs (outside of the scope of non-extensional operators, such as quotation marks) is just the referent of the term, or the bearer of the name (with respect to the context of use)” (Salmon 1989, 211).

  2. 2.

    Salmon prefers the term “mode of apprehension” for the relevant type of vehicle. See not least Salmon 1986, 112.

  3. 3.

    E.g. Frege 1893; Russell 1905.

  4. 4.

    For such a map, see e.g. McKay and Nelson 2010.

  5. 5.

    The use of examples involving the names “Superman” and “Clark Kent” is now an established tradition in the field of attitude ascription semantics. E.g. it pervades McKay and Nelson 2010. Not least since Heck 2002, 2, such Metropolitan examples have replaced old-timey favorites involving the names “Mark Twain”/”Samuel Clemens”; or “The Morning Star”/”The Evening Star”. Thus, (1) is Berg’s standard example and features prominently throughout his book. Explicitly, it is always semantically and pragmatically evaluated “assuming the truth of the original Superman story” (2012, 1). The central relevant assumptions here, of course, are that Superman typically meets Lois disguised as his human alter ego, the unheroic reporter Clark Kent, with whom Lois works on a daily basis. However, when he meets her in his famous superhero outfit, nothing suggests his being also a lowly reporter. Thus Lois would unhesitantly assent to the sentence “Clark Kent is a reporter”, but would scornfully dissent to the suggestion “Superman is a reporter”, even if Superman is identical to Clark Kent. For ease of presentation, I use Berg’s preferred examples and bracket any semantical worries concerning their uses of names deriving from a motley body of works of fiction.

  6. 6.

    See e.g. Audi 2013. See also Brandom 1994, Chapt. 8.

  7. 7.

    Russell 1912, 59: “Thus the actual occurrence, at the moment when Othello entertains his belief [That Desdemona loves Cassio], is that the relation called ”believing” is knitting together into a complex whole the four terms Othello, Desdemona, loving, and Cassio. What is called belief is nothing but this relation of believing or judging, which relates a mind to several things other than itself”.

  8. 8.

    Identifying singular propositions with plain facts is a non-starter, since it would rule out false beliefs.

  9. 9.

    The moniker “Fregean” of course pays homage to Frege’s seminal 1893.

  10. 10.

    “Mode of presentation” is the established standard translation of Frege’s “Art des Gegebenseins” (1893, 26), i.e. literally an object’s “way of being given [in thought]”.

  11. 11.

    See e.g. Heck and May 2008 for a thorough scholarly treatment of the Fregean school of semantics.

  12. 12.

    See Berg 2012, 4.3. Richard’s view is presented at length in his Richard (1990). A famous source of this “sententialist” approach is Davidson (1968).

  13. 13.

    At least Berg clearly makes that accusation. E.g. he writes: “People seldom, if ever, speak of such a thing [believing under a mode of presentation], and there seems to be no natural way of doing so” (2012, 27).

  14. 14.

    This reflects Berg’s general attitude that ”the semantic question cannot be separated from the substantive one – we cannot seriously consider what the word ‘believes’ means without considering what belief is” (2015, 2). As we shall see in section 4, this consideration is in fact mandated by Berg’s commitment to semantic austerity.

  15. 15.

    Thus Berg: “Indeed I take it as an obvious fact that correct belief ascriptions are normally acceptable verbatim.” (2012, 60). And later: “In a particular utterance of “Lois Lane believes Superman is a reporter” it would be conversationally implicated that the utterance is acceptable verbatim, i.e., that Lois would accept that very utterance, word for word, as true” (2012, 60–1).

  16. 16.

    Berg does treat on iteration (2012, 91–95), yet does not seem clearly to acknowledge the level of semantic ignorance to which his view commits him. However, he very explicitly endorses what seems to be the only correct diagnosis given DRET: Contrary to what your patterns of verbal assent would normally indicate, you do not believe that Lois does not realize that Superman is Clark Kent! (2012, 92).

  17. 17.

    In another context, Nathan Salmon has characterized such intutions as ”strong and nearly universal” (1989, 215).

  18. 18.

    Berg clarifies: ”Though Quine discusses intuitions in both directions, I use the term ‘Quinean intuitions’ to refer (however ironically) to the ones that sometimes lead us to accept [“Lois Lan believes Superman is a reporter”]”. 2012, fn6.

  19. 19.

    Salmon 1998, 291.

  20. 20.

    E.g. suppose that there are metaphysically possible worlds where certain mental actions directly cause the movement of external objects. Would such a world be a world with “magic powers”, as standardly understood? Or just a world with very different natural laws?

  21. 21.

    This is Salmon’s amusing term. See his 1998, 307.

  22. 22.

    On this account, Santa is not gendered in any normal sense.

  23. 23.

    Salmon 1998, 301 ff.

  24. 24.

    To his credit, Berg, even if Berg submits that semantics is concerns with “the truth conditions themselves” (2012, 33), he does claim that the subject of semantics is simply truth-conditions and leave it at that. For such talk is hardly clarificatory since e.g. it leaves entirely unclear if we are talking about the conditions under which what an expression literally says is true, or the conditions under which what it typically communicates is true.

  25. 25.

    Berg explicitly acknowledges that no decisive test of ambiguity exists (2012, fn16). Nevertheless, still I believe (15) is fair to his intentions: After Berg has satisfied himself that (1) fails the standard tests, claims of ambiguity are no longer taken into serious consideration or given any benefit of the doubt.

  26. 26.

    Made famous by Russell 1905.

  27. 27.

    For one prominent example, see Audi 2013, 36–37.

  28. 28.

    In contrast, in his seminal 1989, without much ado Nathan Salmon stipulates that proper names are simply “invariable variables” (1989, 215). On this picture, e.g., in (1) “Superman” contributes nothing except limning the value of x in “Lois believes believes that x is a reporter” to the individual Clark Kent/Superman.

  29. 29.

    Obviously, it would be of little help to turn being a mode of presentation into a property and then claim that none of the constituents of any ordinary semantic content have that property. For, on DRET, semantic theorems are then about that obscure property (to the effect that no parts of semantic contents have it) .

  30. 30.

    Grice 1989, 27.

  31. 31.

    This is a contentious issue. But Grice seems to have something like this use of his apparatus in mind. In his seminal 1989, e.g. he presents it as a contested issue whether sometimes the logical conjunctive operator diverges in meaning from the natural language “and” (1989, 22). Grice here stands up for synonymity (1989, 24), since he argues that once sufficient detail is paid to “the nature and importance of the conditions governing conversation”, discrepancies in meaning between logical constants and ordinary language connectives will no longer mistakenly be stipulated (1989, 24). Grice thus hopes that his framework will dispel confusions. But he hardly claims that it will authoritatively settle semantic disputes, persisting even when all pragmatic concerns are fully understood by all parties.

  32. 32.

    Grice 1989, 27.

  33. 33.

    Grice 1989, 26.

  34. 34.

    One complicating factor is that often an utterance is considered inappropriate, simply because it is considered literally false (c.f. Grice’s “Maxim of Quality”. So more precisely, Berg needs to re-frame all pragmatic intuitions in the mold “inappropriate, because false” as intuitions in the mold “inappropriate, not because false, but because of something else”.

  35. 35.

    This is the preferred phrasing of Peregrin 2008, 1214. I consider this phrasing illuminating.


  1. Armstrong, D. M. (1978). Nominalism and Realism. Universals and Scientific Realism Volume I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  2. Audi, R. (2013). Belief. A Study of Form, Content, and Reference. In: N. Nottelmann (ed.): New Essays on Belief. Constitution, Content, and Structure. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 30–54.

  3. Berg, J. (2012). Direct belief: An essay on the semantics, pragmatics, and metaphysics of belief. Mouton Series in Pragmatics, 13. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.

  4. Berg, J. (2015). Precis of Jonathan Berg, Direct Belief: An Essay on the Semantics, Pragmatics, and Metaphysics of Belief. Philosophia doi: 10.1007/s.11406-015-9663-x.

  5. Brandom, R. (1994). Making it Explicit. Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  6. Cumming, S. (2013). Names. In: E.N. Zalta (ed.): The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), URL = <>.

  7. Davidson, D. (1968). On Saying That. Synthese 19, 130–146.

  8. Frege, G. (1893). Über Sinn und Bedeutung. Zeitschrift fur Philosophie und Philosophische Kritik, 100, 25–50. Translated as On sense and reference. In P. T. Geach & M. Black (Eds.), Translations from the Philosophical writings of Gottlob Frege (Vol. 1952, pp. 56–78). Oxford: Blackwell.

  9. Grice, P. (1989). Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  10. Heck Jr., R. G. (2002). Do Demonstratives Have Senses? Philosophers’ Imprint, 2(2), 1–33.

  11. Heck, R.G. Jr. & May, R. (2008). Frege’s Contribution to Philosophy of Language. In: E. Lepore & B.C. Smith (eds.).: The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3–39.

  12. McKay, T. & Nelson, M. (2010). Propositional Attitude Reports. Zalta, N.E. (ed.): The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), URL = <>.

  13. Peregrin, J. (2008). An inferentialist approach to semantics: time for a new kind of structuralism? Philosophy Compass, 3/6, 1208–1223.

  14. Richard, M. (1990). Propositional attitudes: an essay on thoughts and how We ascribe them. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  15. Russell, B. (1905). On denoting. Mind, 14, 479–493.

  16. Russell, B. (1912). The problems of philosophy. London: Williams and Norgate.

  17. Salmon, N. (1986). Frege’s puzzle. Cambridge: MIT Press.

  18. Salmon, N. (1989). How to become a Millian heir. Noûs, 23, 211–220.

  19. Salmon, N. (1998). Nonexistence. Noûs, 32, 277–319.

Download references


Shortly after its publication, Asa Kasher encouraged me to write an article on Berg's Theory of Direct Belief. I warmly thank prof. Kasher for our discussions of the direction and format of this article and for his great patience throughout the process. Belated thanks extend to my venerable teacher prof. Nathan Salmon, who once stirred my interest in Millian attitude ascription semantics, when I was a visiting graduate student at The University of California at Santa Barbara.

Author information

Correspondence to Nikolaj Nottelmann.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Nottelmann, N. Is Radical Millianism Worth its Methodological Costs? A Critique of Jonathan Berg’s Theory of Direct Belief . Philosophia 45, 73–100 (2017).

Download citation


  • Berg, Jonathan
  • Belief
  • Semantics
  • Pragmatics
  • Attitude ascriptions
  • Millianism
  • Fregeanism
  • Meta-semantics
  • Psychological explanation