Using and Understanding

Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh (1997)


In this dissertation I defend a claim about what we are doing in ascribing mental states and speech acts to each other, and I explain why we ascribe them in that way. In ascribing a propositional attitude to someone we are not only characterizing the conditions under which it would be true; we are also characterizing the subject's understanding of it. For example, in saying that Jones believes that the Dead Sea Scrolls are fake we are not only saying that he has a belief whose truth requires that the Dead Sea Scrolls be fake; we are also characterizing Jones's understanding of what it is for the Dead Sea Scrolls to be fake. This is a common way to think of attitude ascription: Frege's notion of sense, for example, is often glossed as "cognitive value." But in addition I claim that the sort of understanding being attributed varies with the type of mental state or speech act. For example, the sort of understanding we attribute when we ascribe beliefs is less easily attained than the sort of understanding we attribute when we ascribe statements. There are different sorts of "cognitive value," some more exigent than others. ;This makes possible a resolution of the tension between the individualistic and the anti-individualistic approaches to interpretation, represented most clearly in the writings of Davidson and Burge. Resolving this tension involves attributing attitudes of different types, some of which are themselves more or less individualistic or anti-individualistic than others in the conditions that one must meet in order to have attitudes of those types. Thus the new element in the account of ascription addresses a tension that arises within any ascriptive practice, and it shows why we don't need to choose between individualism and anti-individualism

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Mark McCullagh
University of Guelph

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