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October 19, 2008


a student

Did your book ever come out? Against Representation?

Ever since it was mentioned at the front of Bob Martin's The Meaning of Language I've been waiting, he said you would "revolutionize the field" or something.

Amazon France and Amazon Japan have listings for it, but both say it's unavailable.

What's the story?


Thanks for your question.

Cambridge University Press unequivocally refused to publish Against Representation on the dis-recommendation of Ernest Sosa and an anonymous referee.

Since Cambridge had had the book very publicly under contract for a dozen years this rejection effectively killed its chances of publication.

This prompted me to leave the profession (a decision I have never for a moment regretted) to live by my wits in Southern California.

In the course of my many subsequent adventures I have, of course, continued to think about philosophy.

I recently realized that the internet would allow me to make the argument of Against Representation directly.

Hence this blog.


You write: "The only behavior that beliefF and desireF can explain is linguistic behavior"

Yet in an earlier post, you acknowledged that it was "notional situations" (i.e. de dicto beliefFs), not de re beliefs, that explain behaviour. Why does Oedipus marry Jocasta? "Because he believes that Jocasta is not Jocasta" is no explanation at all. Attributing a de dicto belief ("that Jocasta is not his mother") is far more informative and explanatory here.

There are general reasons why this must be so. Behaviour stems from what goes on in our heads. But wide content (de re belief) is fixed by stuff outside the head. So it's explanatorily impotent, adding nothing whatsoever to narrow content.

Or consider the Jacksonian argument I set out here: we want a notion of representational content that captures how an agent takes the world to be, and what possible worlds they distribute their credence over. Only narrow content can do this job.

Final objection: de re beliefs, being limited in scope to things that actually exist, seem incapable of accounting for the full range of human beliefs. Some people believe in the existence of Santa, or God, or pixies. How do you account for such beliefs?


Thank you very much for your comments.

You object

"in an earlier post, you acknowledge that it was "notional situations" (i.e. de dicto beliefsF), not de re beliefs that explain behavior.

I fear you are confusing "notional situations" with "notional beliefs". The term "notional belief" originates with Quine who does indeed use it as a synonym for "de dicto/opaque" or what I call "Fregean" belief. The terms "Notional world" and "notional situation" (situation = place and time in a world) come from Dennett. As I use it: a notional situation it is a location in possible space at which someone’s de re psychological state would be realized by true beliefs. Thus, the Twin Earthers have lots of false beliefs about XYZ, but if they had been located hither they would have nothing but true (de re) beliefs about H20. So the Earth is among the twin earthers' notional situations .

You can find all of this discussed here, http://tomkow.typepad.com/tomkowcom/2008/08/psychology-in-t.html though maybe I should post a separate lexicon. The terminology in this area is a mess.

In any case talk about notional situations is-- in my hands at least -- a way of talking about de re states and I claim to be able to perfectly explain all of Oedipus's behavior in these de re terms. You can find an detailed account of his case here http://tomkow.typepad.com/tomkowcom/2008/08/psychology-in-t.html.

Now You say:

Behavior stems from what goes on in our heads. But wide content (de re belief) is fixed by stuff outside the head. So it's explanatorily impotent, adding nothing whatsoever to narrow content.

But this isn't so even on the conventional view you are appealing to. Even on that view, wide content is determined in part by stuff outside the head but also in part by "narrow content" which is in turn fixed (somehow) by what's in the head. If Oedipus had had different stuff going on in his head he might not have a de re desire to marry anyone. That means that to say what someone de re believes is to say something about what's "inside their heads". Enough, I claim, at the end of the day, to explain everything that needs explaining. Once again you will find this story told here .

But you make a very strong claim: not just that de re beliefs are not enough to explain behavior but that they are "explanatorily impotent, adding nothing whatsoever to narrow content". This seems to me quite wrong.

What behavior of Oedipus's do you claim you can explain (apart from his linguistic behavior) in narrow terms? Do not say "marrying this woman, Jocasta". Marrying this woman is indeed a behavior, but his de dicto/opaque/notional/narrow desire to marry Jocasta does nothing to explain why he marries this woman unless we understand that this woman, Jocasta, is such that Oedipus believes she is Jocasta, the woman he wants to marry. And that is a fact about what Oedipus thinks de re.

Or here's an experiment you can try at home. Ask one of your friends to touch his nose. As I a friend I'm sure he will comply. Now I invite you to try to explain this behavior in purely de dicto/opaque/notional/narrow terms. I think you will find this a frustrating exercise since there is no way to explain why he touches what he does (his nose) without invoking the fact that his nose, that thing between his eyes, is such that he believes it is his nose. And that again is a de re fact about what your friend believes.

Experiments in this vien will I hope soon convince you of at least this much: that it is impossible to explain any behavior, properly so called, without invoking attitudes de re.

As for "beliefs about Santa". I don't believe in them. Why is a longish conversation but lets make a start by asking you this. What behavior is it that you think "beliefs about Santa" explain? It seems to me that little Johnny's stocking hanging and letter writing and 'Santa' speaking can be wholly explained by little Johnny's Russellian beliefs about Jollity, Fatness and so on. Properties that actually exist and that Johnny has had actual causal commerce with.

Now if you want to say that "beliefs about Santa" just are Russellian beliefs that there is a unique jolly fat... etc, that's fine by me. But now your argument isn't with me it's with Little Johnny, because my Little Johnny is precocious: he's read Kripke and he insists, "'Santa' rigidly designates Santa and the beliefs I have about him can't be cashed out in Russellian terms". I think you are going to find yourself trying to convince little Johnny that he has fewer beliefs than he thinks he has. Welcome to the club.

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