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On Content Uniformity for Beliefs and Desires


The view that dominates the literature on intentional attitudes holds that beliefs and desires both have propositional content. A commitment to what I call “content uniformity” underlies this view. According to content uniformity, beliefs and desires are but different psychological modes having a uniform kind of content. Prima facie, the modes don’t place any constraint on the kinds of content the attitude can have. I challenge this consensus by pointing out an asymmetry between belief contents and desire contents which shows content uniformity to be mistaken. I do this by revisiting the arguments of Richard (Philosophical Studies, 39(1): 1–13, 1981), and show that arguments which purport to show the temporal specificity of belief contents yield the opposite results for desire contents. I defend this preliminary conclusion from various strategies to neutralize the asymmetry claim. My defense provides occasions to respond to objections by Brogaard (2012) and Recanati (2007) to the Richard argument, and to get clearer on the role of temporal adjuncts in desire ascriptions. Finally, I consider whether the construal of attitude content as centered propositions (as in Lewis Philosophical Review, 88(4): 513–543, 1979) can be invoked to vindicate content uniformity. My conclusion is that while the framework itself doesn’t vindicate content uniformity, it could, but only if it availed itself of a further, substantive thesis about desire, which itself is in need of defense.

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  1. 1.

    Italic text added by author.

  2. 2.

    Cf. also Haugeland (1985: p. 90)

  3. 3.

    By way of example, see discussions in Stalnaker (1981) and Loar (1981). Fodor (1978) doesn’t think of intentional states as relations to propositions directly, but he’s happy to endorse the claim that intentional states are mediately related to propositions (albeit via internal linguistic representations in the language of thought), and he does not give any indication (e.g., in Fodor 1975, 1978, 1985) that he’d object to content uniformity.

  4. 4.

    It might be that doubts about this presumption are more common than my discussion suggests. But if so, there hasn’t been much explicit discussion about what underlies these doubts, or about how content uniformity falters. So, an interrogation of this presumption is warranted, and I take myself to be articulating one such case against it. What discussion there is of content uniformity in the literature usually differs in focus. There is some debate about whether force is part of the (illocutionary) content of utterances (cf. Hanks (2007), for example), but this discussion usually doesn’t concern attitude content explicitly. An exception would be Archer (2015), which articulates a case against content uniformity on the basis of force being encoded in the attitude content. It should become clear that my case against content uniformity differs from these, though they may ultimately be related.

  5. 5.

    This claim is part of what Perry (1979) has called the Traditional Doctrine of Propositions. Perry was also concerned with a form of content he thought challenged the traditional picture. But he was specifically interested in belief contents whose truth values varied with person, so-called de se attitudes. Note that there is a temporal variant of a de se thought (de nunc thought). This is evidently not the same problem as the one I will be discussing, but in Section 5, I will consider the extent to which some of the resources used in the analysis of the de se help with the problem at hand.

  6. 6.

    Frege (1956: p. 296) points out that expressing the same proposition at different times may require a change in the linguistic form in which it is expressed. So, “if someone wants to say the same today as he expressed yesterday using the word ‘today’, he must replace this word with ‘yesterday’.” Frege further contends that this is because “the time of the utterance is part of the expression of the thought.” (emphasis added) Cf. also Moore (1927), Cartwright (1962).

  7. 7.

    The intended reading of (1a) is the so-called “simultaneous” reading, where the action or state described by the embedded clause is simultaneous with the action or state described by the verb in the matrix sentence. In other words, it is the reading where Clinton’s being president is simultaneous with Josef’s thinking. There is another, “back-shifted”, reading where the embedded past tense is not vacuous (as it is in the simultaneous reading), but instead shifts the time of the Clinton’s being president back with respect to Josef’s thinking. The simultaneous reading is the more natural reading here. But besides this, we focus on the simultaneous reading because it showcases the different verdicts of eternalism and temporalism more clearly.

  8. 8.

    People confronted with the inference in (1) will sometimes respond that what makes it bad is that (1b) is wildly implausible; who believes everything they once believed? I’m sympathetic to this line of thinking, but it makes little difference to the problem Richard presents the temporalist with. The inference could just as easily be run with Josef believed that Clinton is president. Josef still believes that. Therefore, Josef believes that Clinton is president. creating much the same problem for the temporalist. It’s worth noting that this way of setting up the inference contains no quantifiers, so it side-steps potential temporalist-friendly solutions that appeal to the context-sensitivity of natural language quantifiers like everything. In sections that follow, I will sometimes revert to describing the relevant inference schema as containing anaphoric that as opposed to the quantifier everything when doing so would make the point more perspicuous.

  9. 9.

    The schematization in (2), and those like it, represent the relevant sentences in a way that serves to tease out features of the attitude content. It should be clear that this doesn’t purport to give a semantics for a fragment of natural language which includes the world believe, the way this project is understood in, for example, Heim and Kratzer (1998) or von Fintel and Heim (2002).

  10. 10.

    This way of presenting an eternalistically satisfactory way of schematizing the inference owes to Aronszajn (1996)’s discussion of Richard’s argument.

  11. 11.

    This is because temporalism would validate the following schema.

    1. i.

      \((\forall \mathit {x})((\mathit {x} = [\mathrm {P}\mathit {c}]_{t}) \leftrightarrow (\mathit {x} = [\mathrm {P}\mathit {c}]_{t^{\prime }}))\)

    The content of [Pc]t and \([\mathrm {P}\mathit {c}]_{t^{\prime }}\) is identical, but the truth of [Pc]t and \([\mathrm {P}\mathit {c}]_{t^{\prime }}\) may come apart – [Pc] and \([\mathrm {P}\mathit {c}]_{t^{\prime }}\) may be true at t but false at \(t^{\prime }\). Of course, temporalism does countenance temporally specific contents as well as temporally neutral contents. We would just need a different way to denote the kind of temporal indication that temporally specific contents have on a temporalist framework.

  12. 12.

    E.g., cf. the assessments of the argument in Glanzberg (2009, 2011); King (2003, 2007); Salmon (1986, 1989, 2003); Schaffer (2012); Soames (1999, 2011). Cf. also similar discussions of belief content in Evans (1985); Stalnaker (1984). Lewis also seems to endorse eternalism about attitude content in Lewis (1980), which he famously amends in Lewis (1979).

  13. 13.

    As pointed out by Larson (2002) (cf. also Larson et al. 1997, Larson 2011), a sentence like (i) is in fact fully clausal. The complement of want is a fully saturated predicate, but the subject of the embedded clause is the unpronounced pronominal element PRO.

    • i. Bill Clinton wants to be president.

    • ii. Bill Clinton wants [PRO to be president].

    (ii) is a subject-controlled expression, so PRO is obligatorily interpreted as co-referring with the subject of the main clause. I make PRO explicit in the sentences set out in the main text in order to be on guard against objections like the one in Ben-Yami (1997), which rejects the view that desire contents are propositional on the grounds that the complements of some attitude verbs (like want in (i)) aren’t sentences. In fact, I have some sympathy with Ben Yami’s argument, but not because the complement isn’t fully clausal.

  14. 14.

    Cf. the citations in fn. 12.

  15. 15.

    This goes by the name of the Operator Argument; cf. Kaplan (1977: pp. 503-4, fn. 28). Though cf. Cappelen and Hawthorne (2009); King (2003, 2007) for a case against the Operator Argument.

  16. 16.

    Cf. Lewis (1980) for this proposal. Adopting this proposal would effectively divorce P5 from P1 in the taxonomic roles of propositions given in the introduction. This proposal still commands considerable influence in philosophy of language with the distinction between the compositional semantic value of a sentence in context, and its assertoric, or informational, content, cf. Ninan (2010), Rabern (2012), Yalcin (2014). Note that even Rabern (2012: §3.2) argues that keeping the notion of compositional semantic values temporally neutral will still allow one to accommodate Richard’s contention about attitude content in a principled way.

  17. 17.

    A reviewer provided the example in (10). An example similar to (11) is considered in Richard (2015: Ch. 4).

  18. 18.

    Cf. the discussion in Comrie (1976), for example.

  19. 19.

    Vendler (1957) is the classic discussion of this, though cf. Kenny (1963) and Ryle (1949) for similar kinds of observations. Bach (1986); Dowty (1979); Mourelatos (1978); Smith (1991) also provide relevant discussion.

  20. 20.

    For this, cf. Cowper (1998) or Ogihara (2007).

  21. 21.

    There is a little bit of apparent cross-linguistic variability here, but it is superficial. In English, for a non-stative predicate to appear in the present tense, if it is to have an episodic reading, it must be in the progressive, which most authors say converts the predicate into a kind of state description. This is why John is going to the store is acceptable, but John goes to the store is not, unless the latter has a habitual (and so not episodic) meaning. Certain languages allow for event verbs (especially non-telic ones) to occur in the present tense. In German, for example, Er rennt. (lit. “He runs.”) is acceptable, but the predicate has an ongoing (and so, imperfective) meaning, akin to the progressive He is running in English. The point is that other languages allow “on-going”, imperfective readings of lexically non-stative verbs without progressive morphology, whereas English doesn’t. But this is evidence that these languages can coerce these lexically non-stative verbs into a state-reading without an overt progressive. Also: the fact that the embedded clause is inflected for present tense is also not essential. Belief attributions can embed non-finite clauses in what are called ECM (Exceptional Case Marking) constructions. But as a rule, in belief ascriptions these embedded clauses are interpreted as occurring at the time of the matrix verb. In other words, they have an interpretation as though they were inflected for present tense. (Think: Leni believes him to be president.) And finite or not, the embedded clause in a belief ascription is always stative. The stativity is essential, and will secure the on-going reading. The present tense morphology is inessential.

  22. 22.

    Impeachment aside, that is.

  23. 23.

    Not all proponents of content uniformity claim that desire contents are temporally specific for a future time, though some do. It’s not Searle’s position, for example. But in his endorsement of content uniformity that I quoted above, it seems to be what Schroeder (2006) has in mind.

  24. 24.

    For example, Fara (2003) considers the possibility of a future operator in desire ascriptions. Such an operator could serve the purpose suggested above. (Her motivations for considering the suggestion are a bit different than mine. In her 2003, she is interested in notional/ relational variants among the purported readings of desire ascriptions containing definite descriptions. The intervention of a future operator would yield readings she suspects one could diagnose in such desire ascriptions.) However, she is cautious to accept the presence of a future operator too hastily and ultimately rejects the suggestion. After all, she argues, the source of the future tense operator would be mysterious, insofar as want is inflected for present tense and the clause embedded under want is infinitival. She rejects the suggestion on these grounds alone. That might be a little hasty, since the future-directed operator in question could, after all, be an unarticulated constituent of the complement clause inserted via free enrichment, allowing a future time to be specified without there being any linguistic expression in the complement that sanctions it. Cf. Perry (1986) and Recanati (2002, 2004) on unarticulated constituents; Cf. Bach (1994); Carston (1988); and Hall (2008) on free enrichment.

  25. 25.

    I’m not sure that this is the right schematization, but it’ll suffice for present purposes. Still, it’s worth flagging a worry here. If ‘[ ]’ is a kind of operator, then there are non-trivial scope interactions with the future operator under consideration here. A natural suggestion is for the temporal quantifier to take narrow scope with respect to [ ], something like what we’d expect if we could make use of a Prior-style F operator, rendering (7a) as (i) below, instead of (14a).

    1. i.

      \((\exists \mathit {p})(\exists \mathit {t}^{\prime })(\mathit {t}\succ \mathit {t}^{\prime } ~\&~ \mathit {p} = [\mathbf {F}(\mathrm {P}\mathit {c})]_{t^{\prime }} ~\&~ \mathrm {D}\mathit {lpt}^{\prime })\)

    However, (i) introduces a novel operator into our schematization here. Since the previous schematization employs first-order quantification over times, we’d need to reconstrue (i) into our preferred ideology—something along the lines of (ii).

    1. ii.

      \((\exists \mathit {p})(\exists \mathit {t}^{\prime })(\mathit {t}\succ \mathit {t}^{\prime } ~\&~ \mathit {p} = ([(\exists \mathit {t}^{\prime \prime })(\mathit {t}^{\prime \prime }\succ \mathit {t}^{\prime } ~\&~ [\mathrm {P}\mathit {c}]_{t^{\prime \prime }})]_{t^{\prime }} ~\&~ \mathrm {D}\mathit {lpt}^{\prime })\)

    However, this supposes that we can iterate the [ ]-operator, and so probably pushes it beyond what Richard and Aronszajn had in mind as a logical device. (Indeed, part of its usefulness in denoting propositions hinges on it being able to take widest scope with respect to any material to the right of the identity relation in the ‘p = ... ’ conjunct.) (ii) seems right, but we’ve essentially adverted to Kaplan’s notion of content with this move. That may be innocent enough, but the device was supposed to help probe Kaplan’s notion of content and not presuppose it. In any event, the different scopal readings which troubled me here are largely immaterial to the larger point being pressed in this section. I thank a reviewer for very helpful discussion here and for catching an error I initially made in the presentation of this point.

  26. 26.

    On this picture, truth conditions are simply a species of satisfaction conditions. At least, this describes Searle’s position. But Searle is more explicit than most about what undergirds his commitment to content uniformity.

  27. 27.

    Or, that he be president at some time within a relevant future interval or at some particular future time, or what have you. It makes no difference to the present point.

  28. 28.

    Matters could be complicated considerably by one’s conception of the future, especially if one subscribes to a version of the open future. To the extent possible, I’d like to sidestep these complications. Moreover, the fact that it’s hard to know the outcome of an election may also confound the present point. If you think either of these issues makes a difference, run the example with Franz and his cake, where intuitions about what will happen are less unruly.

  29. 29.

    A reviewer makes points out that if desire contents are identical to satisfaction conditions, we’d have an even simpler argument for the temporal neutrality of desires: whether a particular desire is satisfied can change over time. The content must be temporally neutral if this is the case. I grant the reviewer’s point. The intuition that a desire’s being satisfied can change over time is a very natural one. Ultimately, it’s the intuition that underwrites the lesson of the examples I used above to illustrate Stampe’s point. That is, the most natural explanation of Franz’s cake eating is that his desire went from unsatisfied to satisfied when he ate the cake.

  30. 30.

    Lycan (2012, 2020) argues for and elaborates a similar point.

  31. 31.

    Stampe actually seems to endorse content uniformity for beliefs and desires. (In particular, cf. Stampe (1986: pp. 160–170, fn. 3).) His comments suggest that he thinks that we should not construe the differences in the linguistic expression of desire and belief ascriptions as indicative of a difference in content. This advice may be sound, but his arguments about the temporal neutrality of desire contents indicate an asymmetry with belief contents that doesn’t hinge on particularities of the expression of desire ascriptions.

  32. 32.

    If desire contents are temporally neutral, what happens to the intuition that desire contents are actually future-oriented? This is fairly easy to accommodate, by supposing that contents will only be evaluated with respect to future times as a matter of necessity. This constraint may be justified by the assumption that it won’t turn out that our desires are retroactively satisfied, so the provision of past times are ruled out. Still, such times are not part of the informational content of the desire. This idea will prove instrumental for the response to the second strategy for defending the temporal specificity of desire content. In fact, on the Hintikka (1962)-inspired modal semantics which dominates the formal semantic treatments of attitude reports, you can get this effect trivially, simply by giving want a circumstantial modal base.

  33. 33.

    Thanks to the reviewer for providing these examples and pressing me to discuss them in detail.

  34. 34.

    A word of caution: as I said in fn 21, present tense morphology on a verb embedded under an attitude verb in a belief ascription is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for being indexed by the subscript notation. It is not necessary because belief ascriptions can have non-finite complements (like Leni believed Bill Clinton to be president) with the same temporal interpretation as their counterparts with finite complements like (19a). And it’s not sufficient because, in some languages, the complements of desire ascriptions are finite, but still behave in a way that suggests they are temporally neutral.

  35. 35.

    Cf. what is sometimes called the “death of desire principle”, for example as described by Gordon (1986). It’s been argued (by McDaniel and Bradley 2008, e.g.) that this feature of desire warrants a rejection of content uniformity, but Shaw (2020) denies this. (Shaw also acknowledges that the temporal neutrality of desires may pose a problem for content uniformity, but doesn’t pursue the issue.) I take no stand on the whether the death of desire principle requires rethinking desire content, or even if this is a general feature of desire. I am suggesting simply that it seems like a plausible feature of some desires, and we may navigate this feature of those desires in our desire ascriptions in part through the use of temporal adjuncts.

  36. 36.

    There’s a benefit to saying that Elsa wants Sanders to be president doesn’t have a different content than Elsa wants Sanders to be president next term. If the temporal adjunct provided a time indication to the content, then assuming that Elsa wants Sanders to be president next term, it would be incorrect to describe her as having a desire which could be described by saying that Elsa wants Sanders to be president. But that doesn’t accord with our desire ascription practices. This is the temporal version of a well known problem for desire ascriptions, what Lycan (2012) calls the “grain problem” for desires and what Grant and Phillips-Brown (2020) call the “ways specificity” of desire. (Cf. also Fara 2013.) My proposal provides a natural way of dealing with the temporal version of this problem. I don’t suppose it provides a way of dealing with all instances of it.

  37. 37.

    A reviewer suggests the following alternative formalization for something like Leni wants to go swimming next week, where D is now a 4-place predicate relating an agent, a content, an interval, and a time.

    1. i.

      Leni wants to go swimming next week.

    2. ii.

      (∃p)(∃s)(p = [Sl] & one week from ts & Dlpst

    When no temporal adverbial is provided, the middle conjunct is left out, and the interval variable is simply existentially bound.

    1. iii.

      Leni wants to go swimming.

    2. iv.

      (∃p)(∃s)(p = [Sl] & Dlpst)

    I like this proposal, but I kept mine so as to avoid increasing the arity of D. I leave it to future investigation whether this approach is preferable to the one I presented.

  38. 38.

    For this really to count as a vindication of content uniformity, belief contents would have to similarly be sometimes temporally neutral and sometimes temporally specific. As I’ve argued in Section 3, we should resist this move.

  39. 39.

    A reviewer asks some questions worthy of discussion: 1) Is the proposal supposed to imply that “Leni wants to go swimming now”, “Leni wants to go swimming tomorrow”, and “Leni wants to go swimming in two weeks” are all synonymous expressions? 2) Do they attribute the exact same mental state to Leni? The reviewer then suggests that if my proposal from this section commits me to a “yes” answer to both questions, this an implausible consequence of the proposal. These are good questions. But they raise issues I’ll ultimately have to address elsewhere. For now, though, I can outline how I am inclined to respond. The proposal I advocate in this section has it that the content of the desire ascribed to Leni is the same in all three ascriptions. But I don’t think this commits me to the view that the three desire ascriptions are synonymous. This raises a further question about how the conclusions I draw would be integrated into a semantics of desire ascriptions. The present paper hasn’t been about semantics, so this is a matter for another paper. But I suspect that the point I am making can be accommodated in the semantics without too much trouble. (I’ll note, though, that the reviewer’s suggestion of making desire a 4-place predicate, as described in fn 37, could provide us with a way of supporting both of these claims.) Without going into considerable detail, consider: one of the dominant frameworks for the semantics of attitude ascriptions is that proposed by Hintikka (1962), where attitude verbs are a bit like modals in that they quantify over sets of worlds— namely, those worlds compatible with the ascribee’s attitude. It quickly becomes clear (cf. the pioneering work by Heim 1992) that various issues conspire to complicate the simple picture. It’s generally accepted that for volitive verbs like want, for example, we need to avail ourselves of an ordering source in their semantics. We might accommodate my proposal by saying that, in A wants toϕ at t, ϕ denotes the desire content whereas at t contributes to the ordering source. Of course, this glosses over some technical issues that would need to be sorted out if we were to take this suggestion seriously.

    With respect to the second question, if mental states are individuated solely by their contents then I would have to say that Leni’s mental state is exactly the same in these three attributions. Such a posture may be natural for beliefs (though cf. arguments in Stich 1983), but I’m less convinced of it for desires.

    For example, if on Monday around 11:30am, I want to eat lunch, but I’m in the mood for a burrito, and on Tuesday at around the same time I want to eat lunch, but I’m in the mood for a salad, then I’d have a desire on both days with the same content—that I eat lunch. But I’d be willing to deny that my mental state is exactly the same on both days. I’m unsure what these considerations ultimately suggest. This might just be a version of the grain problem discussed earlier. It might suggest an inclination toward holism about mental states on my part. But either way, it does make it seem plausible that the individuation of mental states isn’t due solely to their content—at least for desires—and it gives me the latitude to answer the second question in the negative. But both of these questions deserve more attention than I can give them here.

  40. 40.

    Cf. Lewis (1979: p. 520 & p. 528), but also Egan (2006)’s presentation of the idea.

  41. 41.

    There is considerable variation on how to model the center. Construing centers as a pair of an individual and a time is Lewis (1979)’s view. Quine (1968) thought of centers as an ordered set of spatial coordinates. Though it’s easy enough to get a rough idea for what a center is, adequately precisifying and modeling this idea is more difficult. Cf. Liao (2012) for discussion.

  42. 42.

    Cf. Cappelen and Dever (2013), Cappelen and Hawthorne (2009), Cresswell (1985), Lycan (1988: Ch. 4), Magidor (2015), Stalnaker (1981).

  43. 43.

    Moreover, the point is not limited to centered propositions. Temporally neutral content can be easily represented with any so-called context-index theory which includes a time coordinate as a parameter of the index. Quite apart from any consideration of centered propositions, one could accept Lewis (1980)’s context-index framework, which includes world, time, and location parameters in the index. In the case of belief, content would be temporally specific in virtue of the time coordinate of the index being “initialized” by the time of the context, as follows: \(\lambda \mathit {w}.\llbracket \phi \rrbracket ^{\mathit {c},<w,t_c,l_c>}\). By contrast, time coordinate of the index would not be so initialized by the context for desire content, leaving it neutral with respect to this parameter: \(\lambda <\mathit {w},\mathit {t}>.\llbracket \phi \rrbracket ^{c,<w,t,l_{c}>}\).

  44. 44.

    Or something close enough to a traditional proposition. The notion of self-ascription is essential to Lewis’s account of de se content, unlike for the more coarse-grained world account. The property associated with a de dicto belief would be the property of occupying one of a certain set of worlds (the set determined by the belief). Cf. Holton (2015) for discussion.

  45. 45.

    Though, as the variations on the Modified Richard Argument showed (compare (7) and (8)), the desire content appears to be temporally neutral with or without a control interpretation. For more recent accounts along the lines of Chierchia’s proposals, cf. Stephenson (2010) and Pearson (2016). It’s worth noting that semantic accounts such as these provide the tools for modeling temporally neutral desire content based on a semantics for want, but, since their concern is mostly semantic, their explanation for why such a semantics is required will hinge on the lexical properties of verbs like want. If my arguments are right, we can say something more here—that such a semantics is required for want but not believe because of the underlying attitude content.

  46. 46.

    Otherwise, to say that desire contents are obligatorily interestingly centered with respect to their temporal parameter is just a recapitulation of the claim I’ve been arguing for, but from within the centered worlds framework. Moreover, the arguments in Nolan (2006) convince me that the strategy of arguing that desires are always indexical isn’t a promising one.


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This work was presented at the University of Illinois, at the 2017 meeting of the Illinois Philosophical Association at Northern Illinois University, at the 2018 Central APA, and at the 46th Annual Meeting of the Society for Exact Philosophy at the University of Connecticut in 2018. I’ve received helpful comments by Brittney Currie and Kyle Dickey at two of these events. I recall conversations about this material with Geoff Giorgi, Emily McWilliams, Peter van Elswyk, Tyler Hanck, Nader Shoaibi, Sam Fleischacker, Deborah Haar, William Lycan, Bruno Whittle, Peter Baumann, Gregory Ward, Andrei Moldovan, Adrian Bricui, and Victor Verdejo that impacted my thinking about the subject matter. Michael Glanzberg and Fabrizio Cariani read multiple drafts and provided valuable discussions. Finally, I thank the reviewers for this journal— in particular “reviewer 2”, who (contra their fabled reputation—de dicto, at least) provided particularly insightful comments that prompted me to rethink entire sections much to the paper’s benefit, and Paul Egré, who provided sage editorial advice.

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Skibra, D. On Content Uniformity for Beliefs and Desires. Rev.Phil.Psych. 12, 279–309 (2021).

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  • Propositions
  • Content
  • Belief
  • Desire
  • Intentional attitudes
  • Attitude ascriptions