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What is the difference between representing beliefs vs other thoughts?

23 November, 2015 - 10:08
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Is there a difference between belief and thought? Beliefs are more like attitudes because they are propositions - hence the term 'propositional attitude' - A propositional attitude is a mental state held by an agent toward a proposition. Propositional attitudes are often assumed to be the fundamental units of thought and their contents, being propositions, are true or false. An agent can have different propositional attitudes toward the same proposition (e.g., “S believes that her ice-cream is cold,” and “S fears that her ice-cream is cold”).

So propositional attitudes are different from propositions - what a proposition is, is one thing. How we feel about it, or how we regard it, is another. We can accept it, assert it, believe it, command it, contest it, declare it, deny it, doubt it, enjoin it, exclaim it, expect it. Different attitudes toward propositions are called propositional attitudes, and they are also discussed under the headings of intentionality and linguistic modality.

So when assertion differs from belief is a topic of concern. For example, we frequently find ourselves faced with the question of whether or not a person's assertions conform to his or her beliefs. Discrepancies here can occur for many reasons, but when the departure of assertion from belief is intentional, we usually call that a lie.

So any proposition is a thought, and any thought could be considered to be a proposition. What role does attitude or beliefs play? If you believe something, then it is likely you have an attitude about it. That is probably why you came up with the proposition in the first place - because you had an attitude or desire to think or do something. So all propositions really have attitudes attached, but thoughts that aren't propositions don't necessarily have.

So what is the difference between a representation that is of an object in the world, an internal representation, a belief or other thoughts? Here Sam Scott references Dennett:

  • In Dennett's Making Tools for Thinking (Dennett, 1998), he invites us to speculate along with him on the difference between what he terms “florid” and “pastel” representations. Florid representations are those that become explicit as objects in the world, by being encoded in language or some other physical medium (drawings on paper, for instance.) He notes that the capacity to form florid representations seems to imply the ability to manipulate the representations themselves, which leads him to raise the slogan “no florid representation without metarepresentation.” He further speculates that “belief about belief” may not be the same thing at all as “thinking about thinking” – that is, having the ability to self-consciously reflect, compare notes with other thinkers, and so on.

I would say there is a big difference between thinking thoughts that are emotional and have attitudes attached, between representing things that are emotional, and between representing and thinking things that don't have much to do with beliefs or emotion.