The paper analyzes the nature and scope of Moore’s paradox, articulates the desiderata of a successful solution and claims that psychological expressivism best meets these desiderata. After a brief discussion of prominent responses to Moore’s paradox, the paper offers a solution based on a theory of expressive acts: a Moorean utterance is absurd because the speaker expresses mental states with conflicting contents in commissive versions of the paradox and conflicting states of mind in omissive versions. The paper presents a theory of expressivism for self-ascriptions of mental states (avowals). In addition, it introduces the idea of expressive denegation—the speaker’s expressing the absence of a mental state—as an analysis of negative self-ascriptions of mental states (disavowals). Some of the consequences of expressivism for (dis-)avowals are explored.
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“It is a paradox that it should be perfectly absurd to utter assertively words of which the meaning is something which may quite well be true – is not a contradiction” (Moore 1993, p. 209). For the sake of completeness, let us note that sentences of forms (1) and (2) are true only given a suitable choice for “p”. If, for example, “p” is a contradiction, (1) is necessarily false. And if “p” is a tautology, (2) cannot be true. Note further that, for reasons of simplicity, we assume that “p” represents a simple proposition which is not a (negative) self-ascription of a mental state.
Some philosophers strive for a common solution for Moorean paradoxes in speech and thought giving explanatory precedence to belief (see, e.g., Shoemaker 1995; Kriegel 2004). We have doubts about the priority-of-belief thesis (see also Williams 2013) and will here only consider Moore’s paradox in speech.
The commissive form is standardly formulated as “p, but I believe that not-p”, but obviously it can also be represented as “not-p, but I believe that p” (see Williams 2015, p. 12).
We don’t think that all affirmative uses of Moorean sentences give rise to paradox. Wittgenstein (1980a, §§ 485–487; 1980b, § 290), for instance, considers the example of a frustrated clerk in a train station, announcing the immediate arrival of a train and adding that he himself does not believe so, as a non-absurd Moorean utterance. To keep things simple, we will not discuss such cases.
Moore himself speaks of “assertively utter” or “assert” (see Moore 1993, p. 207; 1968, p. 541). But given recent analyses of assertion (for an overview, see MacFarlane 2011; Goldberg 2020), this choice of words might unduly imbue the phenomenon of the paradox with a positive theory on the type of speech act involved.
Non-doxastic psychological versions of Moorean utterances are, for instance, discussed by Black (1952, pp. 32–33), Searle (1983, pp. 9–10; 1991, p. 187), Searle and Vanderveken (1985, pp. 18–19), Shoemaker (1988, pp. 204–205), Goldstein (1993, p. 97), Rosenthal (1986, p. 74; 1993, pp. 50, 53; 1995a, p. 195; 1995b, p. 317), and Woods (2018). Searle and Vanderveken generally hold that “it is paradoxical to perform an illocution and to deny simultaneously that one has the corresponding psychological state” (1985, p. 19). Green (2007b, p. 210 fn 19, p. 211), by contrast, doubts that non-indicative mentalistic cases of Moorean absurdity exist.
Rarely noted have been cases in which the sphere of the psychological has been left altogether. There are illocutionary analogues to Moore’s doxastic paradox, such as “p, but I don’t assert it” and “p, but I assert that not-p” (compare Rosenthal 1995b, p. 332 endnote 29; Searle and Vanderveken 1985, p. 161; Woods 2018). Given suitable circumstances, the affirmative utterance of any of these sentences is no less absurd than that of its doxastic sibling. And needless to say, there are illocutionary analogues to non-doxastic psychological Moorean absurdities. We will not discuss here the illocutionary forms of Moorean paradoxes, as this would require intricate debates of illocutionary acts. Furthermore, as knowledge is not a mental state or, at least, not an ‘ordinary’, non-factive psychological state, we will here not discuss knowledge versions of Moore’s paradox as prominently discussed by, e.g., Williamson (2000).
We think that the commutation of (5), “I believe that p, and p”, can also be Moore-redundant, but we will not discuss this case here.
According to Schroeder, an “attitude A is inconsistency-transmitting just in case two instances of A are inconsistent just in case their contents are inconsistent” (Schroeder 2008, p. 43). We generalize the notion and speak of “conflict-transmitting” attitudes or modes of presentation. We take it that an attitude A (or mode of presentation M) is conflict-transmitting in case two instances of A (or M) conflict if their contents themselves are in conflict (compare Schroeder’s A-type inconsistency; Schroeder 2008, p. 48). We presuppose in this paper that believing and wishing are both conflict-transmitting attitudes. Similarly, we assume that assertion and expression are conflict-transmitting modes of presentation (see Sect. 3 in the main text below).
The knowledge account of X’ing can be understood as a further development of Moore’s position: “the sense of ‘imply’ in question is similar to that in which, when a man asserts anything which might be true or false, he implies that he himself, at the time of speaking, believes or knows the thing in question” (Moore 1968, p. 541).
Besides Austin, Searle, and Green, we take Williams (1979, 1994), and Rosenthal (1995a, b, 2010) to defend variants of this type of approach. (Observe that the different proponents do not necessarily agree on the analysis of the notion of expression. Note further that Austin often talks of “imply” instead of “express”, see Austin (1962, pp. 48–49).)
Neither Austin nor Searle explain why, in their views, it is inconsistent to both express a mental state and to deny being in it; however, see Searle (1991, p. 188) and Searle and Vanderveken (1985, p. 91) for passages which might suggest an explanation in terms of speaker commitment. Green and Williams (2010) explain the absurdity of expressing/asserting contradicting propositions by reference to the notion of a severe violation of the norms of assertion, but we cannot here discuss to what extent this solves the problem of cross-modal conflict transmission. Note also that the representing-as-knowing theories may not have a problem here if knowledge is factive.
Some claim that a speaker’s assertive utterance of (1b), “I don’t believe that p”, denies p, and apply Wittgenstein’s solution also to (1) (see, e.g., Goldstein 1993, p. 95). This position would naturally lend itself to a neg-raising analysis (for a discussion of neg-raising, see Sect. 3 in the main text below).
That illocutionary acts are typically accompanied by expressions of mental states is well known and often explained by reference to the sincerity conditions of illocutionary acts: “Wherever there is a psychological state specified in the sincerity condition, the performance of the act counts as an expression of that psychological state” (Searle 1969, p. 65; see also Austin 1962, lect. IV).
An expressive act, as portrayed above, is a linguistic act. But an expressive act is not an illocutionary act as traditionally conceived. In particular, it does not belong to what John Searle calls the category of ‘expressives’. In our view, the expressive character of speech cannot be covered by reference to a specific type of illocutionary act at all, but actually forms a dimension of speech in addition to the illocutionary dimension.
Searle (1983, p. 6) speaks of a “psychological mode” here.
Observe that only expressions of propositional attitudes can be so characterized. Arguably, there are also psychological states with a non-propositional content (“I love you”) or no subordinate content at all (“I am in pain”).
We hold that an expressive act need not be expressively correct; a speaker can express a mental state that she is not actually in. In this respect, we side with Searle (1969, p. 65) in assuming that expression is non-factive (for non-factive notions of expression, see also Harnish 1976; Kemmerling 2002; Davis 2003; Eriksson 2010; Marsili 2016). Others however, for instance, Rosenthal (1986, 1993), Malcolm (1991), Green (2007a, 2008), and Williams (2013), have a factive understanding of (self-)expression. On their views a speaker expresses a mental state only if she indeed possesses the mental state in question. Whether ‘express’ refers to a factive or non-factive relation is of no significance for our main thesis.
Mental force might also be encoded in sentence adverbs such as ‘hopefully’ and ‘unfortunately’. For a discussion in relation to Frege’s notion of colouring (“Färbung”), see Freitag (2014).
Let us emphasize that this analysis of (I-ψ)-affirmations holds only for the explicit-expressive use thereof, and that we do not assume that this is the only possible use. In some contexts (e.g., the context of psychotherapy), there may also be a non-explicit-expressive (or descriptive) use, where the speaker is indeed talking about her mental state. The expressive form of utterances of the form (I-ψ), in its non-explicit-expressive use, is then indeed Exp(β(ψ(p)), as the descriptivist would hold. Given a non-explicit-expressive use of (negated) self-ascriptions, Moorean affirmations may well be unproblematic (compare fn 4 above).
Our expressivist solution for the commissive case is similar to the one presented by Dorit Bar-On (2004, pp. 218–219), but there are significant differences. Contrary to Bar-On, we agree with the classical approach that the first conjunct is asserted. Furthermore, we don’t share Bar-On’s causal understanding of what she calls ‘a-expression’, and we don’t defend a dual-expression thesis. We see ourselves in the anti-intellectual tradition of Wittgenstein and leave it open whether an additional higher-order mental state (usually belief in the first-order mental state’s obtaining) is expressed. Moreover, we hold that in uttering a disavowal, the speaker usually expresses the absence of the mental state named. For other differences, in particular with respect to the analysis of the omissive case, see the discussion in the main text below.
The absurdity of (2) might also be explained by reference to expressive correctness and norms of theoretical rationality. Linguistic expression is a mode of presentation which commits the speaker to the presence of the mental states that are expressed (see also Searle and Vanderveken 1985, p. 19; Searle 1991, p. 188): if one expresses a mental state, then one presents oneself as being in that mental state. In affirming (2) the speaker is, therefore, committed to both believing that not-p and believing that p. If both expressive acts performed with (2) are expressively correct, the speaker has an inconsistent set of beliefs. If it is a norm of theoretical rationality to have a consistent set of beliefs, a speaker affirming (2) violates this norm. As the inconsistency is rather obvious, an affirmation of (2) is hence absurd (for the link between linguistic absurdity and easily detectable contradiction, compare Baier 1954; Nagel 1971; Green 2007b; Green and Williams 2010). The absurdity of (1) might be explained by reference to norms of theoretical rationality in a similar way.
Another attempt to treat instances of (1b) as hidden positive avowals is made by Bar-On (2004, pp. 219, 334). She suggests that, at least sometimes, “I don’t believe that p” serves to express the speaker’s uncertainty whether p. We will not discuss this view here.
Compare Williams (1998, pp. 297–298) for the suggestion that a doxastic disavowal serves to express the speaker’s lack of belief. Also, Marek (2011) proposes that with an utterance of “I don’t believe that p” the speaker can express her “failing to believe” (p. 59) that p. Neither of them provides an analysis of these notions (but see Marek 2011, p. 59 fn 3, for some comments).
We model expressive denegation in syntactic parallel to illocutionary denegation “whose aim is to make it explicit that the speaker does not perform a certain illocutionary act” (Searle and Vanderveken 1985, p. 4; see also Searle 1969, pp. 32–33). The many parallels can, however, not be pursued here.
Note that the problem of expressive denegation is distinct from the problem for non-factive accounts of expression. The former problem is to explain the expression of the absence of a mental state, the latter to account for the possibility of expressing an absent, but positive mental state.
We here implicitly invoke a distinction between self-presentation and self-representation, the latter being a mode of presentation requiring prior reflection. For some remarks on the distinction, see Fallis (2013, p. 339). For the possibly parallel distinction between presentation and representation in Kant, see Kraus (2020, pp. 120ff.).
Kaplan suggests, for example, that “whereas one might intuitively say that my shriek displays fear, I shall say that it displays the fact (if sincere) that I am in fear” (Kaplan 1999, p. 8).
For an explicit-expressivist interpretation of Kant’s “I think”, see Freitag and Kraus (2020).
To hint at but one possible direction: if one were to conceive of linguistic expression of (the absence of) a mental state as a form of self-presentation—as presenting oneself such as described by the proposition expressed (see above)—one might therefrom derive the fact that only propositions pertaining to one’s own state of mind can be expressed.
We thus maintain the difference between, in Bar-On’s (2004) terminology, s-expression (expression in the semantic sense) and a-expression (expression in the action sense). See also fn 19 above.
According to Wittgenstein, “I hope he’ll come” is the expression of the speaker’s hope (Wittgenstein 1953, § 585; see also 1967, § 78), “I am in pain” is the expression of pain (Wittgenstein 1953, §§ 244, 404; also 1958, p. 68), and “I expect a bang” is the expression of an expectation (Wittgenstein 1967, § 53). Compare also Wittgenstein (1980a, §§ 469, 472, and 477).
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We thank Dorit Bar-On, Mitchell Green, Alexandra Zinke, the participants of the conference “Perspectives on First-Person Thought” (Mannheim, 2019), the members of the research colloquium of the Chair for Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Mannheim and three anonymous referees of this journal for helpful comments on previous drafts. Christopher von Bülow did the proof-reading and editing.
The research was generously supported by the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung.
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Freitag, W., Yolcu, NM. An expressivist solution to Moorean paradoxes. Synthese (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-020-03012-4
- Moore’s paradox
- Expressive Denegation