Belief ascriptions, prototypes and ambiguity


A belief ascription such as “Oedipus believes that his mother is the queen of Thebes” can be understood in two ways, one in which it seems true, and another in which it seems false. It can seem true because the woman who was, in fact, Oedipus’ mother was believed by him to be the queen of Thebes. It can seem false because Oedipus himself would have sincerely denied that Jocasta could be correctly characterized as “Oedipus’s mother.” Belief ascriptions thus seem to admit of two interpretations, and this has suggested to many that belief predicates such as “________ believes that his mother is the queen of Thebes” are ambiguous between a de dicto and a de re reading.1 However, the impression of ambiguity is a function of the narrow ranges of examples that philosophers focus on. When we consider our ascriptional practices as a whole, the suggestion that belief predicates are ambiguous is neither plausible nor needed to explain the de dicto/de re distinction. The following will argue that understanding paradigmatic de dicto and de re ascriptions in terms of disavowals from a more basic sort of ascription is preferable to positing a simple ambiguity in which each of the two sorts of ascription are conceptually primitive.



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Henry Jackman
York University

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