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Rules of Belief and the Normativity of Intentional Content


Mental content normativists hold that the mind’s conceptual contents are essentially normative. Many hold the view because they think that facts of the form “subject S possesses concept c” imply that S is enjoined (i.e., bound or genuinely obligated) by rules concerning the application of c in theoretical judgments. Some opponents independently raise an intuitive objection: even if there are such rules, S’s possession of the concept is not the source of the enjoinment. Hence, these rules do not support mental content normativism. Call this the “Source Objection.” This paper refutes the Source Objection, outlining a key strand of the relationship between judgments and their contents in the process. Theoretical judgment and mental conceptual content are equally the source of enjoinment; norms for judging with contents do not derive from one at the expense of the other.

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  1. Examples include Boghossian (2003, 2008), Brandom (1994), Bridges (2011), Ginsborg (2012), Hlobil (2015), Morris (1992), and Verdejo (2014). Gibbard’s position qualifies, given his expressivist standards for essential prescriptive normativity (Gibbard 2003, 2012). Others basically agree, but would not consider the content-related “oughts” to be prescriptive (Jarvis 2012; Zangwill 2005, 2009).

  2. Many authors in this literature use “content” and “concept” interchangeably (e.g., Boghossian 2003, 2008; Gibbard 2012). The thesis that content is essentially normative is probably more plausible for mental conceptual content than any other type.

  3. Glüer and Wikforss reject that there are genuine prescriptive rules of belief (Glüer and Wikforss 2013). But this part of their anti-normativist effort is independent of the Source Objection.

  4. The rule is objective, not subjective (Boghossian 2003, pp. 100–101). Additional defenses of this rule (or broadly similar ones) include Engel (2013), Jarvis (2012), Millar (2004, pp. 42–158), Shah (2003), Shah and Velleman (2005), Wedgwood (2002, 2007, pp. 153–73), and Whiting (2010, 2013).

  5. Wedgwood and Fine provide more detail, carefully separating properties/propositions/facts as they concern constitution. Their circumspection is not needed here.

  6. I will not pause over the rationale here (but see, e.g., Boghossian 2003, 2008; Green 2014, pp. 147–96). Although there are dissenters within belief and content normativism, this is the majority normativist view on the relationship between rules and judgment. For an attempt to defend content normativism while judgment altogether, see Verdejo (2014).

  7. Acts and activities have multiple constitutive patients, for all this framework says. Judgment may have constitutive patients other than contents. Much of the following, however, suggests that contents are the most plausible candidates (see also §§3.2.1 below).

  8. The descriptions of the activity of judgment suppose that content is a literal component of a propositional attitude or act. The attitude or act “takes up” something that is already there to be taken up. This may appear to ignore a major recent, novel alternative offered by Peter Hanks (2015). On Hanks’ theory, propositional contents are not components of attitudes separable from the attitudinal component (“belief that,” “wishing that,” “mere entertainment that,” etc.). All propositions are predicative, and there is no “pure,” attitudinally neutral predication, hence no attitudinally neutral propositional content.

    Yet, the description of the activity of judgment above can accept Hanks’ view of content. Indeed, given that view, nothing is content if it is not amenable to integration into judgment or any propositional attitude, each of which are different modes of predication. The acts of judging that x is F and merely entertaining that x is F apply the same predicate to the same object—a predication that would not be what it is were these two attitudes towards it not by essence tokens of the type, “predicating F of x.” So, the constitutive relation between judgments that x is F and the content x is F remains in place (For some comments on the relationship between my description of the judgment-content relation and Russellianism about content, see note 12 .).

  9. See note 11.

  10. I switch here from “fact talk” to speaking about states of affairs because judgments can be about facts that do not obtain. (This is not a deep ontological claim about truthmakers.)

  11. A full defense of propositional contents’ dependence upon the possibility of being judged with merits more treatment than space permits. But it certainly seems plausible. (The claim is defended in Green 2014, pp. 162–78.)

  12. On Russellian views, the contents of judgments are sets of their truthmakers (facts and states of affairs, hence objects and properties). If that is true, judgment’s contents are, more or less, what I have been calling their objects, and any old fact or state of affairs would be per impossible normative.

    The worry disappears once the account of the network of judgment is translated into a Russellian idiom. These theories still posit intensions that relate judgments to the right sets of truthmakers. Claims about the constitutive patiency of content facts can be translated into claims about the constitutive patiency of the relevant intensional facts, themselves functions of judgers, contexts, and Russellian contents.

    My thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pressing for clarity on how this paper’s claims about judgment and content sit with respect to non-Fregean views.

  13. For “implies by essence,” see the “§1”.

  14. It equals possession or, for platonists, in-principle possessability by a judger. If platonic senses are essentially the type of thing graspable by judgers, then they conditionally imply the judgers’ enjoinment by rules. The in-principle possessability would preserve the platonic sense’s status as a constitutive patient of judgment. (My thanks to an anonymous reviewer for prompting this clarification.)

  15. Some views of content would reject even this minimal relationship with judgment (e.g., Dretske 1988; Fodor 2008). They would probably not be interested in replies to the Source Objection, as they view ENMC as a non-starter, whatever ENMC’s relation to rules for judgment.


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Previous versions of this paper benefitted from audiences and commentaries at the Central Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association and the Chicagoland Graduate Philosophy Conference (both in Chicago IL, USA). Special thanks are due to Sanford Goldberg, Mark Alznauer, Fabrizio Cariani, and Michael Glanzberg.

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Correspondence to Derek Green.

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Green, D. Rules of Belief and the Normativity of Intentional Content. Acta Anal 36, 159–169 (2021).

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  • Content normativity
  • Doxastic normativity
  • Aim of belief
  • Judgment