Noncognitivism in Metaethics and the Philosophy of Action


Noncognitivism about normative judgment is the view that normative judgment is a distinctive kind of mental state, identical neither to belief or desire, but desire-like in its functional role and direction of fit. Noncognitivism about intention (also called the “distinctive practical attitude” theory) is the view that intention is a distinctive kind of mental state, identical neither to belief or desire, but desire-like in its functional role and direction of fit. While these theories are alike in several ways, they have rarely been discussed in concert. This paper studies the relation between these two theories, focusing on the question of whether noncognitivism about intention faces an analogue of the well-known Frege-Geach problem for noncognitivism about normative judgment. I argue that whether it faces the Frege-Geach problem depends on how it treats the distinction between what Anscombe called expressions of intention and personal predictions. I show that there is substantial pressure to treat that distinction as semantic, and that a variant of the Frege-Geach problem arises for versions of noncognitivism about intention that go this route. Yet some philosophers of action may be willing to resist this pressure, and I develop a pragmatic account of the distinction that would allow such philosophers to avoid the Frege-Geach problem altogether. I argue that this pragmatic account has significant independent appeal. Notably, it provides a way for noncognitivists about intention to undercut the force of a recent argument for cognitivism due to Berislav Marušić and John Schwenkler.

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  1. 1.

    For a defense of both mutual exclusivity and exhaustiveness, see (Sinhababu 2017).

  2. 2.

    Strictly speaking, the broadly Hobbesian view that normative judgments are desires is a form of noncognitivism. But even early contemporary discussions of NNJ deny the Hobbesian view; c.f., e.g., (Stevenson 1937, p. 16).

  3. 3.

    See, e.g., (Blackburn 1993, 1998; Gibbard 2003, 1990, 2012, p. 284ff). Noncognitivists about normative judgment do not challenge the mutual exclusivity of belief and desire (usually called the “Humean theory of motivation,” as in (Smith 1994, chap. 4)).

  4. 4.

    On noncognitivism about intention, see (M. E. Bratman 1987; Mele 1992; Paul 2009; M. E. Bratman 1999). Sarah Paul calls it the “distinctive practical attitude” theory.

  5. 5.

    See (Gibbard 2003, chaps. 1–3). Compare also (Schroeder 2008, p. 42ff), as well as (Baker and Woods 2015; Beddor 2020).

  6. 6.

    (Marušić and Schwenkler 2018).

  7. 7.

    That desires are not subject to requirements of rationality is a widespread assumption in this dialectic. For defenses of that idea, see, e.g., (M. E. Bratman 1987, chap. 1; Baker 2010), as well as (Shah and David Velleman 2005; Velleman 2000; Broome 2013, chap. 6). For defenses of this assumption in metaethical contexts, see (Stevenson 1937; Schroeder 2009, chap. 7). For the contrary view, see (Smith 1994).

  8. 8.

    Bratman (1987).

  9. 9.

    See, e.g., (Harman 1976; Velleman 1989; Setiya 2007a, b; Chislenko 2016; Marušić and Schwenkler 2018).

  10. 10.

    See, e.g., (Audi 1973; Davis 1984; Ridge 1998; Sinhababu 2013).

  11. 11.

    Thompson (2008).

  12. 12.

    Grice (1971).

  13. 13.

    This is, roughly, the “quasi-realism” of Blackburn and Gibbard. See (Blackburn 1993, 1998; Gibbard 2003, 1990, 2012, 284ff).

  14. 14.

    As in (Blackburn 1993; Gibbard 2003; Schroeder 2008), respectively.

  15. 15.

    While quasi-realists hold that normative judgments are beliefs in a deflationary sense, plausibly, they must hold that normative judgments have a different functional role than descriptive beliefs. Compare (Gibbard 2003, chap. 3; Dreier 2004; Schroeder 2008, chap. 7).

  16. 16.

    See (Gibbard 2012, 284ff) and (Schroeder 2008). Whether expressivism is best understood as a semantic or metasemantic theory is controversial; see, e.g., (Woods 2017).

  17. 17.

    For an overview, see (Schroeder 2009, chap. 4).

  18. 18.

    See (Gibbard 2003).

  19. 19.

    Compare also (Schroeder 2008, 101–3; Beddor 2020).

  20. 20.

    Schroeder (2008), pp. 10–12.

  21. 21.

    Or, that solving it requires paying too steep a theoretical price; see, e.g., (Schroeder 2008).

  22. 22.

    For overviews, see, e.g., (Geach 1960, 1965; Gibbard 2003; Schroeder 2009, chaps. 6–7, 2008; Woods 2017).

  23. 23.

    Here I follow (Woods 2017).

  24. 24.

    On these points, see (Schroeder 2008; Baker and Woods 2015).

  25. 25.

    Contrast (Gibbard 1990, 2003, 2012) with, e.g., (Unwin 2001; Schroeder 2008).

  26. 26.

    See (Anscombe 2000, secs. 1–3). Here I set aside Anscombe’s distinction between predictions and estimates.

  27. 27.

    Note that Grice famously used the phrase “expressions of intention” differently, at (Grice 1971, 11–12). This terminology should not lead us to prejudge the question of whether NI should adopt expressivism.

  28. 28.

    Historically, in Britain (excluding Scotland), “I will” was reserved for expressions of intention, while “I shall” was used for both expressions of intention and personal predictions, as was the progressive. See the entries for “will, v.1” (esp. 11 and 16), and “shall, v.” (esp. 8) in (“OED Online” 2018), as well as sections 5.131, 5.151 and 5.250 in (Chicago Manual of Style 2017), and 5.149 of (Chicago Manual of Style 2010). Notably, while Anscombe uses progressive sentences as her examples of expressions of intention, in Intention itself she routinely uses “I shall” to express her own intentions and to make personal predictions (cf. Anscombe 2000, pp. 90, 92).

  29. 29.

    Compare (M. E. Bratman 1993, 103–4).

  30. 30.

    Anscombe (2000), p. 7.

  31. 31.

    Anscombe (2000), p. 4.

  32. 32.

    Anscombe (2000), p. 4.

  33. 33.

    Anscombe (2000), pp. 4–5.

  34. 34.

    Compare the failure of speaker-subjectivism for NNJ in Section 2. See also, e.g., (Schroeder 2009, chap. 4).

  35. 35.

    Compare (Anscombe 2000, 92).

  36. 36.

    Compare (Harman 1976).

  37. 37.

    Though a full development of this account would need to provide an explanation of cases such as (f).

  38. 38.

    (Gibbard 2003, chap. 1).

  39. 39.

    Whether Anscombe would accept this approach is unclear. On related issues, see (Moran and Stone 2009).

  40. 40.

    And, assuming sentences like (g) can be read as material conditionals, (g) and (i) are logically equivalent.

  41. 41.

    But see (Ferrero 2009; Ludwig 2015; Ferrero 2016).

  42. 42.

    This was suggested to me by Jack Woods.

  43. 43.

    For discussion, see (Castañeda 1975, chap. 4,6).

  44. 44.

    This point is in the spirit of (Charlow 2014).

  45. 45.

    See (Gibbard 2003, chaps. 1–3). Compare also (Schroeder 2008, 42ff), as well as (Baker and Woods 2015).

  46. 46.

    As in (Grice 1975).

  47. 47.

    As emphasized by (Marušić and Schwenkler 2018). Compare also, e.g., (MacFarlane 2011).

  48. 48.

    Stalnaker (1973), among others.

  49. 49.

    For a Gricean account of why we believe ourselves to be effective agents, see (Paul 2009). For the role of this commitment in Bratman’s influential version of NI, see (M. E. Bratman 1989, p. 450). Note that all versions of NI hold that we do not always believe we will do what we intend to do.

  50. 50.

    Compare (Grice 1971, p. 722).

  51. 51.

    Unless there is some other Gricean route available, of course.

  52. 52.

    What about cases in which a speaker does not intend to ϕ, but falsely believes that they intend to ϕ, and so expresses an intention to ϕ? Are they sincere or insincere? The criterion above counts them as sincere, but some may wish to hold that, if the false belief is unjustified, the expression of intention is insincere. I thank an anonymous referee for raising this question.

  53. 53.

    Anscombe (2000), pp. 4–5.

  54. 54.

    Of course, in the right context, any arbitrary inference can be made by Gricean reasoning.

  55. 55.

    Marušić and Schwenkler 2018).

  56. 56.

    That is, assertions about what we will do, rather than about our attitudes.

  57. 57.

    Marušić and Schwenkler (2018), p. 10. Compare also (Marušić 2015, chap. 3).

  58. 58.

    Compare, e.g., (Williamson 2010).

  59. 59.

    Marušić and Schwenkler (2018), pp. 13–15.


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For helpful discussion and comments, I thank Avery Archer, Michael Bratman, I-Sen Chen, Eugene Chislenko, Carlos Núñez, RJ Leland, David Taylor, Peter Hawke, Peter Hanks, Katy Meadows, Huw Duffy, Valerie Tiberius, Paul Tulipana, Jack Woods, Al Mele, numerous anonymous referees for several journals, the participants in a seminar on intention and normative judgment at Stanford, and audiences at the Berkeley-Stanford-Davis Graduate Conference, the Pacific APA, and the University of Minnesota.

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Asarnow, S. Noncognitivism in Metaethics and the Philosophy of Action. Erkenn (2020).

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