On revisionist reporting
Friends of singular thought typically assume that in order to have a singular attitude towards an object, one must either stand in a special acquaintance relation to the object, or have a special kind of mental representation for it. Both of these views face a challenge from our practice of attitude reports: we can seemingly attribute attitudes with singular content even if neither condition is satisfied.
In a well-known example from Sosa 1970, the army generals decide that the shortest man should go first. The Sergeant tells Shorty: 'they want you to go first'. Here the generals need not be acquainted with Shorty, and it is doubtful that they must have a "mental file" for him.
The kind of case I discussed in the previous post is even more challenging. We can report the detective as believing that each villager might be the murderer, even though she is not acquainted with any of the villagers and doesn't even know how many there are. It would be very odd if she nonetheless had a dedicated "mental file" for each villager.
In response, friends of singular thought should probably drop the assumption that the truth of an attitude report whose matrix expresses a singular proposition indicates the presence of a corresponding singular thought. That is, they should hold that 'S believes that x is F' can be true even though S does not believe* the proposition expressed by 'x is F', where belief* is an interesting type of psychological state that is under discussion when philosophers talk about singular thought.
The singularist is then in the same boat as the descriptivist: she has to explain what we mean when we say 'S believes that x is F', if not that S believes* the proposition that x is F.
To this end, singularists could, for example, endorse the descriptivist semantics that I have defended in the previous posts, but restrict it to a certain class of attitude reports. Openshaw 2018 proposes something along these lines: he suggests that 'S believes that x is F' can be true even though S only believes* a proposition of the form 'the G is F', where 'the G' is a description that picks out x.
(Openshaw does not explain how these truth-conditions come about, why they only arise for very specific descriptions 'the G', and how the case generalises to cases like the detective's, where there is no relevant definite description.)
A rather different proposal with the same apparent goal is presented in a fascinating new paper by Kyle Blumberg and Harvey Lederman (henceforth B&L). In short, B&L argue that belief reports (and desire reports, etc.) sometimes report not what the subject actually believes* (or desires* etc.), but what she would believe* (etc.) if she had further information.
B&L's main example resembles the detective case: Pete believes that every six-year-old can easily learn to play tennis; Ann is six years old; although Pete knows nothing specifically about her, we can (in a suitable context) report him as believing that Ann can easily learn to play tennis. According to B&L, this is because Pete would believe* that Ann can easily learn to play tennis if he knew that she is six.
The guiding idea is attractive: when we discuss a certain question – say, whether Ann could learn tennis – we are often interested in what a third person's beliefs would imply for this question, even if that person lacks some relevant information that's available to us. It might therefore be useful to have a shortcut for 'S believes something that, together with what we know, implies that –'.
However, as B&L note, this isn't quite how "revisionist" belief reports appear to work.
First, suppose we falsely believe that Ann is five, and we also falsely believe that Pete thinks every five-year-old can easily learn to play tennis. (In fact, Ann is still six, and Pete believes that every six-year-old can easily learn to play tennis.) We say, 'Pete believes that Ann can easily learn to play tennis'. Arguably, what we say is true, even though Pete does not have a belief* which, together with what we know, implies that Ann can easily learn to play tennis.
B&L therefore suggest that what we report are S's beliefs* enriched not by what we know, but by the true answer to a contextually relevant question (here, Ann's age).
Second, B&L argue that the "enrichment" is not simply a matter of conjunction, since S's beliefs* may be incompatible with the answer to the relevant question. As an example, B&L consider a case in which Pete believes* that every six-year-old can easily learn to play tennis, while he also believes* that Jonny is the only 6-year-old. In a suitable context, we may still report him as thinking that Ann can easily learn to play tennis, and not as thinking that Ann can easily lift a car, although both of these follow from Pete's beliefs* conjoined with the information that Ann is six. B&L therefore appeal to an AGM-style operation of belief revision. Roughly, as I said above, 'Pete believes that Ann can ϕ' is true if Pete would believe* that Ann can ϕ if he were to learn that Ann is six.
I think it is plausible that we sometimes use revisionist reporting. But I suspect the phenomenon is not as common as B&L assume. I prefer a descriptivist analysis for their main examples.
Here is a case where the descriptivist analysis isn't available, and which I would treat as revisionist.
We're riding at a steady 10 km/h on a path through the desert, looking for an oasis. Jones said the oasis should be about 40 km from our starting point. After 3 hours, you ask how much longer we have. I reply, 'Jones thinks it's one more hour'. This is a somewhat strange thing to say, but it might be acceptable. If so, I would treat it as a case of revisionist reporting. I suspect all genuine cases are as strange as this one.
Let's compare the B&L interpretation of problematic singular attitude reports with the descriptivist interpretation that I prefer.
Recall that on the "Quine/Kaplan model", 'S believes that x is F' can be true because there is a suitable role R such that (i) S believes* that the R is F, and (ii) in fact, x is the R. The relevant singular content (that x is F) is here entailed by the subject's beliefs* (that the R is F) together with the true answer to a certain question: who is the R?
So the Quine/Kaplan model looks like a special case of B&L-type revisionist reporting. To be sure, the simple model can't handle the Pete example, but the generalised model from my previous post can: roughly speaking, I suggested that Pete thinks of the group of six-year-olds that they can easily learn tennis, and we distribute this belief about the group (in our reporting) over the group members. Here, too, the relevant singular content (that Ann can learn) is entailed by a belief* (that all six-year-olds can learn) together with certain facts (that Ann is a member of the group of six-year-olds).
If my preferred interpretation is a special case of the revisionist interpretation, why do I think revisionist reports are unusual? Because I think this special case arises through a different mechanism, not through the general mechanism of revisionist reporting.
In any case, there are some differences in how the two accounts treat the cases to which they can both be applied.
For example, my descriptivist model does not involve any "revision" of the subject's belief state. As a result, it has trouble with the Jonny example.
Recall: Pete thinks every six-year-old can easily learn tennis, and also that Jonny is the only six-year-old. In a suitable context, we may still report Pete as thinking that (six-year-old) Ann can easily learn tennis. Here, the class of six-year-olds in Pete's belief worlds are all singleton classes whose sole member is a boy called 'Jonny'. To apply the model from my previous post, we would have to assume that the class of actual six-year-olds is tracked as that singleton class across Pete's belief worlds. In the relevant context, we could therefore also say that Pete believes that Ann is called 'Jonny'. But that seems false.
There's something really nice about B&L's model here. Compare the original Jonny case with a case in which Pete thinks Jonny is the only six-year-old, that Jonny is unusually strong, and that he can easily learn tennis. Here Pete thinks every six-year-old can easily learn tennis, but only because he thinks Jonny can, and he's the only six-year-old. In this case, we would not say that Jonny thinks Ann can easily learn tennis. So the report about Ann is sensitive to why Pete thinks every six-year-old can learn tennis – to whether he thinks this happens to be the case for the class of actual six-year-olds, or whether he thinks this reflects some general fact about six-year-olds. In B&L's account, the difference is reflected in how Pete would respond to learning that Ann is six.
I'm not sure how to handle this problem. I don't see a way to get around it by tweaking the proposal from the previous post. I could, of course, also treat it as genuine case of revisionist reporting. However, it seems to me that when we report Pete as thinking that Ann can easily learn tennis (although he thinks Jonny is the only six-year-old, and therefore that Ann is not six), we are really reporting only a part of Pete's belief* state: namely, his belief* that there's something about six-year-olds in general that allows them to easily learn tennis, ignoring his belief* that Jonny is the only six-year-old. I don't think this is the same as reporting his beliefs* revised by the information that Ann is six. But I don't know how to make the relevant notion of belief parts precise.
I'll shelve this problem for now. Here are some advantages of the descriptivist interpretation over the revisionist interpretation.
First, the descriptivist account has a more narrow scope. It does not apply to the desert example above, or to many other cases for which the revisionist account could be applied. This is an advantage, I think, because all the cases to which the descriptivist explanation applies sound a lot better than the other cases. This would be odd if the same interpretation rules are in play either way.
Second, though relatedly, the descriptivist model fills an important gap in the B&L account (for the cases where they both apply) – namely how to determine the "contextually relevant question". According to B&L, when we report Pete as believing that Ann can easily learn tennis, we enrich (or revise) Pete's beliefs* by information about Ann's age. So Ann's age is the "contextually relevant question". But obviously this question need not be "contextually relevant" in any ordinary sense. As B&L acknowledge, their account requires tight constraints on how to select the contextually relevant question, but they don't explain what these constraints are, how they come about, and how thy are motivated by the pragmatic purpose of revisionist reports. The descriptivist interpretation implies that the relevant question is always 'who is R?', where R is the "suitable role". (For cases like Pete's, where the simple Quine/Kaplan model doesn't apply, we only need a partial answer: R is being six-year-old, and a partial answer to 'who is R?' is 'Ann'.)
Third, the descriptivist model does not assume that the relevant role (i.e., the "relevant question", in B&L terms) is settled by transparent features of the conversational context, as B&L assume. Consider a variant of Sosa's Shorty example. The sergeant, knowing that Shorty is the shortest man in the platoon, tells the lieutenant that the generals want Shorty to go first. The lieutenant goes to Shorty and says, 'The generals want you to go first'. Here the "relevant question" has to be 'who is the shortest man?'. But nobody in the conversational context (of the lieutenant's utterance) may have any idea that this is how the generals picked out Shorty.
Fourth, relatedly, the descriptivist model allows the suitable role to vary from subject to subject. 'All the generals want Shorty to go first' can be true even if the different generals pick out Shorty in different ways: the first general wants the shortest man to go first (and Shorty happens to be the shortest man), the second wants the oldest man to go first (and Shorty happens to be the oldest man), and so on. Here we would need to revise the first general's desires by the information that Shorty is the shortest man, the second by the information that Shorty is the oldest man, and so on. How is that supposed to work? How can "the contextually relevant question" vary for each individual over which we quantify?
Fifth, the descriptivist account applies to puzzles about de re epistemic modality. For example, it explains why the detective can say 'every villager might be the murderer', even though she is not acquainted with the individual villagers. The revisionist model is not applicable here, since it essentially concerns third-person attitude reports.
Sixth, revising the subject's beliefs can have unintended effects. Consider another well-known example, due to Andrea Bonomi: Swann wants to kill his wife's lover; unbeknownst to him, that person is the chief of the army. In a suitable context, we can say: 'Swann wants to kill the chief of the army'. But suppose Swann were to learn that Odette's lover is the chief of the army. It's quite possible that he would no longer want to kill him. (Similarly, Oedipus would no longer want to kill his father if he knew he was his father.) The B&L account seems to get these cases wrong.
Relatedly, suppose my oldest daughter is six. I might say, 'Pete believes that my oldest daughter can easily learn tennis'. On the B&L account, we here update Pete's beliefs by the information that my oldest daughter is six. But suppose Pete believes* that I don't have any children, that I am a happy person, and that having children makes everyone unhappy. If we revise his beliefs* with the information that my oldest daughter is six, we therefore get a belief* state according to which I am unhappy. According to B&L, in the context in which 'Pete believes that my oldest daughter can easily learn tennis' is true, 'Pete believes that I am unhappy' is also true. But that sentence is unambiguously false.
Seventh (or eighth?), how exactly should we understand the relevant revision of a belief state, especially if the move is supposed to help friends of singular thought? If Pete has never heard of Ann, how can we revise his belief* state with the proposition that Ann is six? Will the revised state involve a singular belief* about Ann – a person he has never met and for whom he has no identifying information? Isn't this just what we wanted to avoid? Besides, how does the revision work if Pete has two "files" for Ann, in a "double vision" case?
Speaking of double vision cases, B&L want a fairly classical logic of revisionist belief, but I think double vision cases call for something less classical. Perhaps revisionist reporting is not supposed to apply to standard Ortcutt cases, but it's easy to think of quantified cases in which, say, S believes that all Fs are Gs, and that no H is G, and some x happens to be both F and H. Or suppose Pete thinks* all six-year-olds can easily learn tennis, but also that Ann, who he thinks* is 5, can't easily learn tennis. In such a case, I'm inclined to say that Pete believes both that Ann can easily learn to play tennis and that she can't easily learn to play tennis, while he does not believe the conjunction of these contradictory claims.