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Disbelieving the Normativity of Content


Adherents as well as detractors of the normativity of mental content agree that its assessment crucially depends on the assessment of a principle for believing what is true. In this paper, I present an alternative principle, which is based on possession conditions for pure thinking or mere entertaining. I argue that the alternative approach has not been sufficiently emphasised in the literature and has two important merits. First, it yields a direct analysis of the normativity of mental content, which is, furthermore, independent of arguably non-normative notions such as truth. Second, the approach suggests new and challenging lines of response to central non-normativist objections.

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  1. Many different versions of (NB) circulate in the literature. They involve different views regarding, for instance, its direction of entailment, scope or subjective/objective character. None of these differences affect the discussion to follow and therefore I will not spell them out here.

  2. It must be acknowledged, however, that assent to (NB) is not universal. Several authors have proposed normative views that, at least in principle, do not venerate and are quite independent of (NB). Examples include Brandom’s (1994) inferentialist view, McCullagh’s (2005) attitude requirements, Jarvis’ (2012) teleological approach or Zangwill’s (2010) account in terms of horizontal norms. I agree with all these authors in that the normativist position can and should seek for an analysis independent of (NB) principles. In this paper, however, I articulate this idea in a distinctive way by reflecting on a sort of normativity whose source is content itself (as opposed to content embedded in a particular attitudinal state). More on this below.

  3. For simplicity’s sake, I will be assuming that the expression ‘thinks’ in (PC), and (NC) below, expresses occurrent or conscious thinking or entertaining. Hence, for present purposes, the converse of (PC) and (NC) are not true.

  4. This is so even if IRS theorists may advocate a reductive program for the normativity associated with inferential roles (e.g. Horwich 2005). For the present argument to go through, it is enough to note that, in the literature, there are prominent IRS accounts of the required sort —i.e. of the sort that accept (i) and (ii) as commitments. On the other hand, it must be emphasised that, as conceived here, (NC) principles directly depend upon the correctness of IRS accounts of possession conditions for at least some concepts. More Fodorian alternatives (e.g. Fodor 1998) would be ready to cast doubts on the credibility of the former by arguing against the viability of latter.

  5. For ease of exposition, I will be assuming that finding a transition primitively compelling just refers to a disposition, however basic, to accept/carry out the target transitions in thought. In what follows, I will also speak directly of obligations to respect certain transitions (without the ‘primitively compelling’ gloss). Note that this dispositional assumption tells nothing against their alleged normative nature. Even if C(p) refers to dispositions, these dispositions are still, on the present account, something that regulates a subject’s thinking practices and, to that extent, something a subject ought to comply with or follow for p-thinking. Wedgwood (2007, Chap. 7; 2009), for instance, explicitly defends a kind of normative dispositionalism along these lines. Alternative analyses are of course ready to hand. Thus, (NC) theorists need not embrace a dispositional reading of C(p) or be committed to a derivation of normative principles out of possession conditions in exactly the way described in the text. Indeed, as an anonymous referee points out, these theorists may take (NC) principles as primitive without pursuing any such derivation.

  6. Objection: ‘(NC1) does not really capture the normativity of desire transitions. For instance, I might desire peanut butter and jelly but not peanut butter because, say, I actually cannot have jelly.’ I do not think this is a real counterexample however. The case involves two distinct kinds of desire: The desire for peanut butter and the desire for peanut butter alone. Plausibly enough, I may desire peanut butter and jelly—and hence on the one hand peanut butter and on the other hand jelly—even though I may not want peanut butter alone or jelly alone. If we keep the meaning of the conjuncts constant in the relevant transitions, it is hard to find a plausible violation of (NC1) in which a rational subject can be said to desire A&B without desiring A or desiring B. And the same holds for indefinitely many attitudes that are not belief attitudes.

  7. Note that I am not claiming, nor do I need to claim for present purposes, that the relevant normativity can be completely specified in every case independently of the attitude. I thank an anonymous referee for calling my attention to the case of the concept conditional for which this is clearly not the case. Let us assume that modus ponens is the fundamental norm one must respect or find primitively compelling for possession of conditional. It should then strike one as puzzling that whereas one has probably an obligation to believe that q, if one believes that p and that p entails q; one patently does not however have an obligation to doubt q, if one doubts that p and that p entails q. On reflection, it seems that modus ponens only defines the normativity of the concept conditional in the case of assertoric attitudes. Note however that we are still in this case faced with a kind of cross-attitude normativity. It seems thus just correct to suppose that one has to desire that q if one desires that p and desires that p entails q; or hope that q if one hopes that p and hopes that p entails q; or fear that q if one fears that p and fears that p entails q; or expect that q if one expects that p and expects that p entails q; and so on and so forth for so many non-doxastic attitudes.

  8. Of course, as Glüer and Wikforss (2009) have emphasised, this may mean that the prescriptive nature of the target constitutive C(p) roles cannot be understood as involving a decision or motivation to have a particular thought. Except perhaps in some extremely stipulative and other special cases, one cannot simply decide or be motivated to have the occurrent thought that p. It does not follow however that other forms of motivation and decision do not hold: One may decide and be motivated to improve oneself to comply with a particular C(p) role (e.g. just suppose that p is the true answer in an exam one wishes to pass). All the same, one’s failure to comply with the C(p) clause is, under the present analysis, a failure in actually thinking that p (this is what it means that C(p) is constitutive of p). I will return to issues surrounding motivation in subsection (iii) below.

  9. This is an undesired consequence for which Horwich’s account (e.g. 2005, 2006) is, as far as I can tell, not liable. The reason is that the normativity Horwich opposes is stated through a principle of the (NB) sort, derived as a device of generalization from meaning principles governing the use of expressions. In other words, Horwich’s non-normativism is by and large a non-normativism about the correct use of our expressions and not directly about thinking. On the other hand, Horwich is ready to accept that ‘there are correct norms concerning truth and meaning’ (Horwich 2005, p. 104) even if neither truth nor meaning are inherently or constitutionally normative. Accordingly, his account (Horwich 2005, Chap. 5) provides a rationale for the normativity of meaning and truth by proposing an alternative source for the normativity of meaning, namely, social utility. Note, however, that it is hard to see what role, if any, could social utility and the like play in an account of the normativity of thinking itself, as specified in (NC). To be sure, there are all sorts of socially pernicious or useless things one may come up thinking, for which relevant (NC) obligations will still hold.

  10. I owe this formulation to an anonymous referee for Acta Analytica.

  11. See, e.g. Jarvis 2012 for a teleological account that rejects the prescriptive or regulative character of norms. To refuse the thesis is, however, not the most dialectically effective move in this context, or so it seems to me (see below).

  12. In terms of the analysis nicely presented by Broome (1999), we may say that C(p) obligations result in non-detachable wide-scope normative requirements, as opposed to detachable normative relations about what one ought to do or has reasons for doing (see also Broome 2007). As Bykvist and Hattiangadi (2007, pp. 283–284) have pointed out, a similar strategy is unavailable for the defender of (NB) because a wide scope reading of the principle will not capture the intuition that gives rise to (NB) in the first place, namely that one ought to believe what is true. This is probably the reason why illustrious proponents of (NB) (e.g. Boghossian 2003, 2005) have explicitly endorsed a detachable version.

  13. The point is even clearer in other cases, such as sensation cases. The following principle has an initial plausibility: If S thinks the sensation content p, then S ought to believe that p iff S feels that p. However, only brave souls would defend that the principle involves an obligation to feel that p, even if it clearly involves an obligation comply with a psychological role involving feelings.

  14. Adherents of the normativity for true believing might complain about this. Is it not possible to combine (NB) normativity with (NC) normativity? This is a difficult question. Supporters of obligations for true believing might try to derive (NB) from the fact that possession conditions in (NC) analyses would generally be truth- or validity-conducive in belief contexts. I am however sceptical about the ultimate viability of such derivation since, as my response to Glüer and Wikforss’s objection suggests, the correct kind of content-constituting obligations would generally be, at most, obligations to respect a belief-involving role, as opposed to obligations to believe such and such. If this is sound, any derivation will therefore fall short of and perhaps be in competition with standard (NB) principles. Full explanation of this point, however, must be left for another occasion.


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I would like to thank Åsa Wikforss, an anonymous referee for Acta Analytica, Javier González de Prado and the audiences of the 2012 ESPP and SLMFCE conferences, held in London and Santiago de Compostela respectively, for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this material. This work has received financial support from the Spanish government, through the Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad (research projects FFI2009-08828/FISO and FFI2012-35153) and from the Catalan government, via the consolidated research group GRECC (SGR2009-1528).

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Correspondence to Víctor M. Verdejo.

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Verdejo, V.M. Disbelieving the Normativity of Content. Acta Anal 29, 441–456 (2014).

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  • Mental content
  • Normativity of content
  • Normativity of belief
  • Inferential role semantics
  • Possession conditions