The Entertaining of Propositions
We have now at last reached the ‘central topic’ of these lectures—the examination of two very different analyses of belief, the Traditional Occurrence or Mental Act Analysis on the one hand, and the modern Dispositional Analysis on the other.
In this lecture and the next I shall try to state the traditional Occurrence Analysis. I want to state it as plausibly as I can. We may still have something to learn from it, and should not just reject it out of hand, as many contemporary philosophers are inclined to do.
Now if we are to make the Occurrence Analysis plausible we need a terminology which will not prejudice us against it. We could of course speak of ‘belief-occurrences’ or ‘occurrent believings’ or ‘acts of believing’.1 But such language is technical and artificial, and gives critics an opportunity to say that the occurrences which these queer phrases purport to describe are obviously fictitious entities. As Professor Ryle has pointed out, it sounds very odd indeed to say ‘at half past three, I was engaged in believing that Oxford would win the Boat Race’.
But fortunately there is another word available. Several of the Occurrence theorists have used it, and I have been using it myself quite often already. This is the word ‘assent’—used by Locke, by Newman, and occasionally by Hume. The word ‘assent’ is quite naturally used in an occur rent sense, to denote an introspectible mental event or mental act which can be more or less precisely dated. It does make sense to say that I assented to a proposition p at half past three today. (As the corresponding occurrence-word for disbelieving we may use the verb ‘to reject’.) Let us say then that the Occurrence Analysis of belief is primarily an analysis of assenting.
If this terminological recommendation is acceptable, the first point to consider is, what we assent to, or what is the object of the act of assenting. What we assent to, it would be said, is always a proposition—something which is either true or false. And in order to assent to a proposition, or indeed in order to reject it, or again, in order to doubt it, or wonder about it, one has to entertain that proposition, or have it in mind, or think of it. So the first thing we have to do is to consider what entertaining a proposition is.
Assenting to a proposition is, of course, something more than just entertaining it. But entertaining it is an essential precondition for assenting to it—or for rejecting it either, or for questioning it, or for taking up any other mental attitude about it. The ‘priority’ here involved is logical, not temporal. It may happen, sometimes, that a proposition is assented to as soon as it comes into your mind at all—whether it comes there as a result of mental processes of your own, or because of what you hear someone else say, or of what you read. The important point is that in assenting to it one must also be entertaining it, whether the assent comes at once, as soon as the entertaining begins, or only comes later when one has already been entertaining the proposition for some time.
There are, however, a number of different cognitive acts or attitudes concerned with propositions; ‘propositional attitudes’, as Russell calls them. Assent is one of them. But there are others, for instance, questioning, supposing, wondering, doubting, imagining (in the sense of imagining that…). In all of them there is a common factor, and this is what is called ‘entertaining a proposition’. What distinguishes assent, supposal, questioning, etc. from one another is some further attitude over and above the bare entertaining which is the common element in them all. Likewise, if I change from one of these attitudes to another—for instance, if I first feel doubt about a proposition p, then suppose it for the sake of argument and finally assent to it—the entertaining of p continues through this change of attitudes. Again, if I assent to p and you reject it, we must both entertain the proposition p. To that extent, your attitude is the same as mine; and if it were not, we could not disagree. Alternatively, the relation between entertaining and these further attitudes may be brought out by the use of adverbs (cf. Hume's phrase ‘manner of conceiving’). One may entertain a proposition doubtingly, or wonderingly, or assentingly.
We may notice in passing that the entertaining of propositions also enters into many of our conative and emotional states. When I desire, or hope, or fear that there will be kippers for breakfast, I am entertaining the proposition ‘There will be kippers for breakfast’ and having an additional attitude towards it; though this time the additional attitude is not a purely cognitive one, as it was in my previous examples. The old-fashioned way of putting this is to say that conative and emotional states ‘have objects’ or are ‘directed upon something’. One does not just hope, or wish or feel anxious. One hopes for something, wishes for something, feels anxious about something.
Sometimes the object of an emotion is an actually-existing thing, or event, or state of affairs. For instance, I am afraid of the Alsatian dog which I see rushing towards me, or distressed at the fact that you are angry with me. But quite often, the object of an emotion is something which does not actually exist. ‘They were afraid where no fear was’ (i.e. when there was in fact nothing to be afraid of). And in desire this is always so. What one desires, the ‘object’ of desire, is something which does not yet exist. It may even be something which cannot exist. I may wish that I had a happy day yesterday, instead of a wretched one. It is now too late for yesterday's happiness to exist. But still, in order to have this wish, I must entertain the proposition ‘Yesterday was a happy day for me’.
So much to illustrate the importance of what is called ‘the entertaining of a proposition’. It plays a fundamental part not only in our cognitive life, but in our emotional and volitional life as well. One might almost be inclined to define a rational being as a conscious being capable of entertaining propositions.
It is a curious question whether there is such a thing as bare or pure entertaining; just ‘thinking of’ a proposition without any further attitude at all, either cognitive or emotional or volitional. I am inclined to say that there is, though it is not very common. It seems to me that sometimes when I understand a sentence which I hear or read or which floats into my mind, I entertain a proposition in a perfectly neutral way, without either assent or dissent, doubt or supposal, hope or fear, desire or aversion.
But it is not necessary for our present purpose to decide this question. It is sufficient if we agree that we do very frequently entertain propositions, and that this entertaining is the common factor in the various cognitive, emotional, and volitional attitudes which have been mentioned.
What is Entertaining a Proposition?
We have now to ask what entertaining a proposition is. This may seem rather a queer question. In a way, everyone knows already what it is to entertain a proposition. The entertaining of propositions is the most familiar of all intellectual phenomena. It enters into every form of thinking and into many of our conative and emotional attitudes as well. Indeed, one might be inclined to say that it is the basic intellectual phenomenon; so fundamental that it admits of no explanation or analysis, but on the contrary all other forms of thinking have to be explained in terms of it.
I have some sympathy with this view. Perhaps all one can do is what I have tried to do already: give you instructions to enable you to identify for yourselves the occurrence which this technical phrase ‘entertaining a proposition’ denotes. Still, let us see whether any further elucidation is possible. (In what I am going to say I shall confine myself to the entertaining of empirical propositions.)
The first suggestion which occurs to us is this: entertaining a proposition p is knowing what it would be like for an indicative sentence s to be true—without necessarily believing (still less knowing) that the sentence is true. If you entertain the proposition ‘It is raining’, you know what it would be like for this sentence to be true; you know what sort of an actual situation would be described by this sentence. But to state this view fairly, we ought to add something. It is possible to entertain a proposition in a nonverbal way, by means of mental images, or again by means of pictures or diagrams or gestures or dumb show—whether one produces the pictures, gestures etc. oneself, or observes those produced by other people.
So the right way to put this view is as follows: entertaining a proposition p is knowing what it would be like for an indicative sentence s to be true, or for some non-verbal symbol equivalent to it to be true. If it is a sentence, you know what sort of a situation would be described by the sentence; if it is a visual image or a picture, you know what sort of a situation would be correctly represented or depicted by the image or the picture.
But in future, to avoid making things too complicated, I shall speak mostly about knowing what it would be like for an indicative sentence to be true, and shall ask you to remember for yourselves that we can entertain at least some propositions in non-verbal ways as well.
As we have seen, one can entertain without assenting. But one cannot assent without entertaining, if the traditional analysis of belief is right. So if we are to understand the traditional analysis of belief, we must try to isolate the entertaining from the further attitude which has to be added to it when we also assent to what we entertain (or when we dissent from it, or reject it).
Let us consider the sentence ‘There is a mouse in the bathroom’. If you understand that sentence when you read it, or hear it uttered, or utter it or write it yourself, you are entertaining the proposition ‘There is a mouse in the bathroom’. (To put it in a more old-fashioned way, you are ‘having the idea’ or ‘having the thought’ of a mouse's being in the bathroom.) The proposition might quite well be true—mice do sometimes go into bathrooms—and equally it might be false. You have no reasons for accepting it, and no reasons for rejecting it. You just entertain it without either belief or disbelief. But though you certainly do not know that the proposition is true (nor even believe it to be true) surely you do know what it would be like for it to be true? You do know what sort of a situation the sentence would describe.
If, however, you do not know what it would be like for a certain sentence to be true, then you are hearing or reading that sentence without understanding. For you, it is ‘mere words’, and in hearing it or reading it, uttering it or writing it, you are not entertaining any proposition at all, though other people may charitably suppose that you are. It is the same when you see a picture or diagram or map or piece of dumb show without knowing what sort of situation would be correctly represented or depicted by them. Here again, in seeing these visible objects (or in having similar visual images of your own) you will not be entertaining a proposition. The same applies if you yourself provide the picture or diagram or map or piece of dumb show.
This requirement, that to understand a sentence we must know what it would be like for the sentence to be true, has some resemblance to the Verification Principle laid down by the Logical Positivists. But it is much less stringent. Knowing what it would be like for an indicative sentence to be true does not entail that one knows of any way of finding out whether it is in fact true, nor that anyone else does. Sometimes, of course, we do know of a way of finding this out. In the example about the mouse in the bathroom we obviously do. We just have to go and look. But quite often we ourselves do not know of any way of finding out whether there actually is the situation which the sentence would describe or the map or diagram would depict.
Even if someone else knows of a method of verifying the sentence (some very clever scientist or archaeologist perhaps)—or if someone is going to discover a method of verifying it some day, it does not follow that you and I have or know of such a method. An instance would be ‘It rained three hours ago on the planet Neptune’. We know what it would be like for this sentence to be true; what sort of a state of affairs would be correctly described by this sentence. It may be that some very clever astronomer or physicist knows of a method of verifying it, or will some day discover one: for example, he may have succeeded in discovering that it is always raining on Neptune, which entails that it must have been raining there three hours ago. Or again, he may now know or some day discover a method of getting some evidence for or against the truth of this sentence, even though not conclusive evidence. (This would be so-called ‘weak’ verification.) But most of us know of no method of finding out whether this proposition is true; and yet we can entertain it perfectly well—we do know what sort of a situation this sentence about rain on the planet Neptune would describe.
Let us agree, then, that if a man entertains a proposition p, he does have to know what it would be like for a sentence s (or other equivalent symbol) to be true. He has to know what sort of a situation this sentence would describe. The difficulty, however, is that this does not take us all the way. The knowledge of what it would be like for a sentence or other symbol to be true is a necessary condition for entertaining a proposition, but not a sufficient one.
For the word ‘know’ is (at least usually) a dispositional word; but entertaining a proposition is an occurrence—or as old-fashioned philosophers would have said, it is a mental act. Your entertaining of the proposition ‘There is a mouse in the bathroom’ is something that happens now, when you hear me utter the sentence; or perhaps a little time afterwards. (It may take a little time for the meaning of a sentence to ‘dawn on you’, or to ‘sink in’.) But in any case, entertaining is something which happens. It is an event, or occurrence. But knowing something is not an event or occurrence, at least in the way the word is ordinarily used (though some philosophers in the past have talked about ‘acts of knowing’).2
There would be a similar difficulty if one said (as some would) that entertaining a proposition consists just in understanding a sentence or other symbol; for the word ‘understand’, too, is most commonly used in a dispositional sense. If we do want to define ‘entertain’ in terms of ‘understand’, we shall have to use the verb ‘understand’ in an occurrence sense, to mean something which happens at a particular moment, or something which someone does at a particular moment (an ‘act’ of understanding). And then it would be necessary to ask what sort of an event or activity this can be.
It would surely be very odd to say that you did not understand the sentence about the mouse in the bathroom before you heard me utter it, and that your understanding of it ceases a minute or two later, when you cease to attend to this sentence about the mouse, and think of something else. Perhaps the best way to use the word ‘understand’ in this context is to use it adverbially. You hear my sentence about the mouse understandingly, or with understanding. But I suggest that this is only another way of saying that you know what it would be like for the sentence to be true. And as we have seen already, this is indeed a necessary condition for entertaining a proposition, but not a complete account of what entertaining is, because entertaining is an occurrence.
Considering and Realizing
Shall we say, then, that when you entertain a proposition you are ‘realizing’, or, ‘actually realizing’, what it would be like for an indicative sentence, or some non-verbal equivalent for it, to be true? (This rather tiresome and rather colloquial word ‘realize’ is sometimes used by contemporary philosophers as the occurrence-word corresponding to the dispositional word ‘know’.) Or again, shall we say that when you entertain a proposition, you are considering what it would be like for a sentence to be true, considering the sort of a situation the sentence would describe? Considering is certainly an occurrence, or perhaps we should rather say an activity. It is something that happens at a particular time.
The trouble, however, is that both these words—both ‘consider’ and ‘realize’—say rather too much. The word ‘consider’ suggests that when you entertain a proposition you must be pondering on or ruminating about the situation which the sentence would describe—thinking it over, as we say. Considering the proposition ‘there is a mouse in the bathroom’ involves attending to some of the consequences which would follow (either certainly or probably) if this sentence described an actual situation. It also involves asking questions and thinking of possible answers to them. Thus if there is a mouse in the bathroom, it must have got in somehow. Did it come in through the door, or through a hole in the wainscoting? Or perhaps it was brought in by the cat and then escaped from him? Or again, our considering may involve asking practical questions. What would be the best way of getting the mouse out again, since it is a nuisance if it is a permanent inhabitant of the bathroom?
The word ‘realize’ suggests something similar. To realize what it would be like for this sentence about the mouse to be true, you do have to survey at least some of the consequences which would follow (certainly or probably) if the sentence described an actual situation. And to realize fully what it would be like, you would have to ‘think out’ all the consequences, positive and negative, certain or probable, which would follow if the sentence described an actual situation.
There is another important point about this ‘realizing’ which we may easily overlook. Most of the indicative sentences which we understand have some degree of generality about them; indeed they all have. They describe something, but they do not describe it in full detail, with complete specificity. They leave alternatives open. It follows that many different states of affairs would be correctly described by the same sentence, though certain common features would be present in them all.
Thus our sentence ‘There is a mouse in the bathroom’ does not specify just whereabouts in the bathroom it is. (In the bath? Under the wash-basin? Just inside the door?) Nor does it specify what the creature is doing—running about or sitting still, awake or asleep—nor how large a mouse it is, nor whether it is a young one or an old one, nor even whether it is a house mouse or a field mouse. Realizing at all fully what it would be like for the sentence to describe an actual situation involves taking account of these alternatives, all of which are consistent with the sentence's being true. The same applies to considering what it would be like for the sentence to be true, at any rate if one considers at all fully what it would be like.
No doubt we do sometimes entertain propositions in this sort of way, considering or realizing fairly fully what it would be like for the relevant sentences to be true. But this is not essential to entertaining, nor is it at all usual. Ordinary entertaining is something much more cursory, much less thoughtful than this. Remember how quickly one can read. (Reading is entertaining propositions conveyed by written words.) Or think how one can follow a very rapid sequence of spoken sentences. I suppose that a rapid talker can easily utter twenty sentences in a minute, and yet we can manage to understand what he says, at least sometimes. That is, we manage somehow to be aware of what it would be like if each of his sentences were true, although they succeed each other so quickly. Or again, when we think in words ourselves, or in images either, how very quickly the words or the images succeed each other.3 Yet we are thinking. We are producing the words or the images understandingly; that is, we are entertaining a series of propositions.
In all these cases of rapid understanding, we are in some sense being aware of what it would be like for each of the sentences (or other symbols) to be true. We are being aware of what it would be like for each of them to describe an actual situation. But we are certainly not considering what it would be like if each of them were true. Nor are we realizing what it would be like in the ordinary sense of the word ‘realize’. And if we did have to consider or to realize, this rapid understanding of sentences we hear or read or produce for ourselves would be quite impossible. We should be like a revered Oxford teacher of mine when he read a philosophical book. He was such a careful and conscientious thinker that he felt bound to consider very carefully and to realize very fully what it would be like for each sentence to be true, and to think out all its consequences both positive and negative. It took him so long that he hardly ever got beyond the end of page two.
Entertaining and ‘Inspecting’
Our conclusion so far is this: it is not sufficient (though it is true) to say that when we entertain a proposition we know what it would be like for a certain indicative sentence (or other equivalent symbol) to describe an actual situation, because the word ‘know’ is a dispositional word, whereas entertaining is an occurrence. On the other hand, when we look for a suitable occurrence-word, neither ‘realize’ nor ‘consider’ seems quite right. They suggest that entertaining is a much more thoughtful and a much more lengthy process than it usually is. ‘Realize’, moreover, is itself often a dispositional verb. (‘Of course, I realize that this country's economic situation is a very difficult one: but still…’)
It is indeed very difficult to decide what is the best word for what we want. We could say, perhaps, that when we entertain a proposition we are being aware (possibly for a very short time) of what it would be like for an indicative sentence or other symbol to be true. Or again, we could say that for a time we actually have in mind what it would be like for the sentence to be true or for it to describe an actual situation. But what kind of awareness is it, or in what way do we have this in mind? It is extremely difficult to answer these questions, though the entertaining of propositions is something so familiar to us that it seems perfectly simple and obvious. And in a way (as I hinted at first) no-one can tell you what kind of an awareness or ‘having in mind’ it is, when you are being aware of what it would be like for a sentence or other symbol to describe an actual situation, or are having this in mind. There is something ultimate and unanalysable here, which can only be indicated and not explained. As I suggested earlier, the entertaining of propositions is the basic intellectual phenomenon.4
But perhaps two points may be made about it. The first is a negative one. Though we cannot say fully what entertaining is like (because there is nothing else which it is quite like) we can mention something which it is not like. It is not very like inspecting an entity, inspecting something. It is worth pointing this out, because some philosophers (Bolzano and Meinong, for instance) have supposed that propositions are timeless and subsistent entities, and that when we entertain a proposition we are inspecting one of these entities. The word ‘subsistent’ is used to indicate the peculiar sort of ‘being’ which propositions are supposed to have. They do not exist as tables or persons do, nor do they happen as lightning-flashes do. They are timeless and non-spatial. So we are invited to say that they subsist. And Meinong tells us that we must try to get rid of our prejudice in favour of the actual—as Plato also told us long ago, in rather different words.
Others, again, e.g. Stout and Broad, have held that entertaining a proposition consists in inspecting a subsistent possibility, a possibility which there is though it need not ever be actualized. Thus there is the possibility that fifteen resident cats live in New College kitchen (though in actual fact there are only two). And when you entertain the false proposition ‘there are fifteen resident cats in New College kitchen’ you are supposed to be inspecting this unactualized possibility.
There is no doubt a temptation to speak of entertaining—and other forms of thinking—in this quasi-visual way, as if it were a kind of seeing. ‘Inspecting’ is a visual word; so is ‘intuiting’. Again, we often say ‘I see now what you mean’, and we say this even when we do not believe what he has said. Sight is our most important source of information about the world, and it is very natural to describe thinking in terms of visual metaphors, as if it were a kind of intellectual seeing or gazing.
The danger is that these metaphors may be mistaken for an explanation, and thereby prevent us from trying to notice for ourselves what thinking actually is. When we do try to do this, to attend to what is actually going on in us when we entertain propositions, we find that it is not at all like looking at something—taking a brief look at something with our intellectual eyes, or giving it a long stare, when we entertain a proposition in the ‘considering’ manner which I described earlier.
Perhaps it will be said that image-thinking is rather like looking at something, even though verbal thinking is not. And one must agree that imaging (visual imaging) does indeed resemble seeing. And one must agree, too, that it is possible to entertain propositions (or some propositions) by means of images. But entertaining a proposition by means of images does not just consist in having these images, still less in inspecting the images which one has. One must also be aware of, or have in mind, what sort of actual situation would be depicted or represented by these images. If images are used for entertaining propositions, the images have to be understood (or interpreted, if you like) and not just contemplated. And the same applies when we entertain a proposition by means of public visible entities or happenings—for example, by means of pictures or diagrams or dumb show, or indeed by means of written words. To entertain a proposition we must understand or interpret these things that we see.
So much for my negative point: entertaining a proposition is not like inspecting something. We must not allow ourselves to be misled by the visual metaphors which we often use in describing thinking, and must not take them for more than they are worth. If we take them literally, or anywhere near literally, we shall give a quite unrealistic account of what entertaining actually is.
Entertaining and Readiness
But there is also a positive point, which it is not at all easy to state clearly. You will remember my discussion just now of considering and realizing (considering what it would be like for a certain sentence to be true; realizing as fully as you can what it would be like). I said that entertaining is not ordinarily so thoughtful— nor so lengthy—a process as this. Ordinarily it is a much briefer and less laborious thing, sometimes almost instantaneous.
Nevertheless, though such considering and realizing does not ordinarily occur when we entertain a proposition (and certainly need not occur), it is not irrelevant to the analysis of entertaining. Even in ordinary entertaining, however rapid and cursory it may be, there is a readiness to do some considering or some realizing, a readiness to consider what it would be like for the sentence to describe an actual situation, or to realize what the situation described would be like, though as a rule this considering or realizing does not actually occur.
Moreover, this readiness is not something purely and simply dispositional. It is not just that we are capable of considering or realizing what it would be like for the sentence (or other symbol) to be true; though we do of course have to possess this capacity if we are to entertain the proposition. The readiness I speak of is rather like being poised to run in a certain direction, if need arises; this is something more than just having the capacity to run—and also something less than actually running. This readiness to consider or to realize is something actually felt or experienced. It is a feature—and an important one—of the actual experience of entertaining. It is part of what we mean by saying that we are ‘being aware of’, or ‘having in mind’, what it would be like for the sentence to describe an actual situation.
I find it difficult to give any further account of what this felt or experienced readiness is (though I think we are all perfectly familiar with it). All I can do is to reformulate my point in more technical phraseology: when we entertain a proposition our capacity for considering or realizing what it would be like for a certain sentence to describe something is always subactivated, though it is only completely activated or rather special and rare occasions.
Moreover, a readiness of another sort is also a part of the experience of entertaining a proposition: a readiness to recognize a situation such as the sentence describes, if we should happen to observe such a situation. And this readiness again is something more than just a capacity. The capacity to recognize a mouse-in-the-bathroom situation is something you have all the time. You have had it ever since you first learned the meaning of the words ‘mouse’ ‘bathroom’ and ‘in’. From that time onwards, it has always been true of you that you have the capacity of recognizing that there is a mouse in the bathroom if ever you happened to see one there.
But when you are actually entertaining the proposition ‘there is a mouse in the bathroom’, it is not merely that you are capable of recognizing a situation which would make that sentence true; you are ready to exercise that capacity—even though you disbelieve the proposition, and therefore do not at all expect that the need or the possibility of recognizing the described situation will in fact arise. And this readiness too, like the other (the readiness to consider or to realize what it would be like for the sentence to be true) is something actually experienced or felt or ‘lived through’, a part of what it actually ‘feels like’ to entertain a proposition.
The readiness to consider what it would be like for the sentence to be true is, roughly, a readiness to attend to the consequences which would follow (certainly or probably) if the sentence were true. This attention to the consequences is also what is usually meant by ‘realizing’ what it would be like for the sentence to be true.
But sometimes, I think, ‘realizing’ may just mean being ready to recognize a verifying situation, if there should be one. In that case if we are ready to recognize a situation which would make the sentence true, this would be equivalent to saying that we do realize what it would be like for the sentence to be true—not merely that we are ready to realize this.
I have already complained that ‘realize’ is a vulgar and illiterate word, and I doubt whether it can be pinned down to any precise sense. Still another sense it sometimes has is cashing the sentence by means of images, and/or feeling in some degree the emotions you would have if the situation described did actually exist, and you did actually witness it. (Cf. ‘I did not realize till now what is meant by saying “There is an inflation going on”’ or ‘I did not realize till now what is meant by “the blocking of the Suez Canal”.’)
However this may be, and whether we use the word ‘realize’ or not, these two readinesses are present whenever we entertain an empirical proposition: the readiness to follow out the consequences there would be if the sentence described an actual situation, and also the readiness to recognize the situation described, if we were to encounter it.
But I do not claim that entertaining is nothing but these two readinesses combined. I think that there is something about it which cannot be explained or analysed at all, but only indicated. Nor is this surprising. No one can explain to you what it is like to have the thought of something if you do not know already. And entertaining a proposition is just what ordinary people call ‘having the thought of some situation or state of affairs, without necessarily either knowing, or even believing, that the state of affairs actually exists. So much—too much, perhaps—for the entertaining of propositions. It was necessary to consider this difficult subject first, before discussing the traditional theory of assent, since one cannot assent to a proposition unless one entertains it.