Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thoughts, Propositions, and Animals

I recently read Donald Davidson's "Rational Animals" (after re-reading Norman Malcolm's "Thoughtless Brutes"). Davidson's argument that possessing a single belief requires the possession of many beliefs, and that to be a thinking (rational) being requires language--being a "communicator" in the "full linguistic sense"--is rather impressive. I am not sure, however, what the "full linguistic sense" is, and Davidson's argument doesn't entail that (other) animals don't "think"--but that any thinking animals must be linguistic. (Do Wittgenstein's builder's think?)

Connecting thought to language is tempting. [Clarification: read that as taking thought to depend necessarily upon language.] But it strikes me that this really is a temptation. One reason to think so is that we have high-functioning autistic people like Temple Grandin who, to hear them tell it, insist that they think in non-propositional ways for the most part. And if animals that lack language still think in some sense, it is then not surprising that it would be more like what Grandin describes--and this would also enable us to make sense of why it is that her autism enables her to understand animals (or, see things as they do) better than most people.

Here's the main thing that strikes me about any Davidson-style argument: this whole way of approaching the issue privileges the proposition, and may even assume that all thinking--indeed all intentional states (all forms of thought)--are propositional. As I've seen others suggest, the temptation to think this may have to do with the tendency to begin analyses of intentional states by looking at belief, which seems inherently propositional (or incredibly easy to translate into Propositionalist language) as anything.

But as Alex Grzankowski argues in his forthcoming paper "Not All Attitudes are Propositional," Propositionalism runs into a great amount of trouble when confronted with the task of analyzing other intentional states (like fearing, liking, etc.) in terms of propositions. I'm not well-versed in this area of philosophy, but Grzankowski seems right, or on the right track. We like objects (or individuals), not propositions. (Well, we can like propositions, too, I guess, but the point is that in liking my wife, I like her, not some proposition or other.)

The next question I have (and here I have more reading to do) is how we might make sense of "animal belief" without appealing to propositions. I suspect this is related to why Malcolm talks about his dog "thinking" that the cat is up the tree, rather than of his dog believing it. In these cases it seems ok to say that our beliefs are about objects, but then we will also say that we believe certain propositions about those objects to be true. It might be that we could say that animals don't have beliefs (if we agree with Davidson that belief is inherently bound up with language), but that animals nevertheless make (and have?) observations. Malcolm's dog observes the cat go up the tree. And that observation, combined with a desire to eat the cat (the intentional state here can be non-propositional, the desire is for the cat, not for some relatable proposition), explain why the dog barks up the tree. Of course, we might ask: but is that thinking? Malcolm says, well, sure, my dog thinks the cat is up the tree. (That's why he's still barking, even though the cat isn't in that tree any more.) How do we get from observes the cat up the tree (or going up the tree) to thinks the cat is up the tree without attributing propositional content to the dog? Could we say that the dog continues to affirm a previously observed state of affairs while, not being a linguistic creature, cannot be understood as affirming the corresponding proposition? At any rate (since I'm in over my head here), could it not be that the dog thinks (believes) something about the world without believing any propositions (propositions are about the world, not part of it here)? If intentional states aren't all propositional, then must belief always take a propositional form? (Could that explain why we have thoughts that seem impossible to put correctly into words?)


  1. I agree with you about Davidson. What you said in the first part of the post made me think of someone who has argued that language as philosophers understand it doesn't exist. But that was Davidson himself, I think. Anyway, someone ought to argue that attributing a single thought to an animal should not imply that the animal possesses an entire system of language (unless the system in question is rather small). Alice Crary's "Dogs and Concepts" is good on this stuff, and I think Tal Brewer argues well against excessive propositionalism. But your friend's paper looks good too (good for him!).

    As for animal beliefs, it sounds a little odd to me to talk about an animal believing something (as opposed to thinking something). Do we ever talk this way? If so then I have no objection. There's a kind of grey area, I think, between intelligent action (which requires understanding and/or intelligence) and regular action or behavior (e.g. scratching). So a dog might think I have thrown a ball, for instance, if I pretend to do so, and go chasing after it. (Maybe that's just straightforwardly intelligent action.) If we want to call this a case of its believing that I threw the ball, why not? I don't see the need to attribute propositional beliefs to the dog, but the main thing is to describe the situation clearly and accurately. In short: I think I agree with you.

  2. I agree that talk of "belief" seems a little odd. But then I wonder why "thinks" seems better (or more natural, as the case may be). Does "thinks" better capture the (human) thought that, well, there's something conscious (and intentional?) going on in the dog's head, and conscious mental activity is thinking, so the dog thinks such and such? Does belief seem odd because it is obviously a propositional attitude (which involves language etc. etc.), and we're ok attributing a "thought" to the dog but not a propositional attitude?

    I should read that Crary paper already. And I just received Brewer's The Retrieval of Ethics and am very much looking forward to getting into it.

  3. Good questions. It's possible that Crary answers them (I don't remember), but I'll have a go. I'm more certain that 'thinks' seems more natural than 'believes' than I am about why this should be so. Perhaps it's simply that we do talk that way. But I share your sense that 'thinking' is, or can be, a general term for conscious mental activity. Generic terms are safer than more specific ones.

    Does belief imply doubt, or the possibility of doubt? If so, perhaps we don't want to talk about doggy beliefs because we don't want to talk about doggy doubts. But it seems to me that a dog might have doubts. For instance, it might catch on to the fact that I didn't really throw the stick or the ball. It might start looking or sniffing at my closed fist, looking for the ball there. Wouldn't it be reasonable to call that doubting what it had previously believed (i.e. that I had thrown the ball)? It seems reasonable to me. As to whether this could be real doubting or believing, I'm tempted to take a pragmatist line on that.

    I hope you like Brewer's book.

  4. both 'believes' and 'thinks' would naturally be used when someone meant to say that the one who believes or thinks (some specific thing) is wrong to do so. rather than say that one would reach for 'thinks' because it suggests consciousness, mental activity, etc., i would reckon that there's just hardly a more general way to talk about what one who is wrong is doing in being wrong. you could say things like 'he's looking for the ball over there but it's over here', i guess. what is it supposed to say about what we think about e.g. dogs that we have no problem saying 'he thinks...' about cases like that?

    (we don't need to talk about thinking when the dog just goes to get the ball which he has had no difficulty following or spotting.)

    i'm not all that confident that 'believes' is so much more natural for us to use in analogous human cases than 'thinks' is. it seems like an undue influence of philosophical/professional habits to think that we ought to jump straight to talking in terms of 'belief' about e.g. people who see incorrectly or people whose acts or plans misfire because of mishaps of knowledge.

    i think we often ordinarily say 'believe' when we want to indicate that though wrong we had some sort of certainty or conviction. if you come to class on the wrong day and no one is there, and later someone sees you in the hallway and to explain your presence on an unusual day, you say 'i came to class - i thought it was thursday!', that seems unexceptional. but to say in some case '... i believed it was thursday!' seems to call for a lot more going into... the formation of that belief, i guess, or the scene of activity in which you acted on the false belief.

    animals don't seem to have beliefs in that sense.

  5. j., those are interesting points--especially the parenthetical one in light of the first point about how we reach to the concepts of thought and/or belief to explain cases of error. Davidson suggests that we may have no better way of talking about animal behavior (except in terms of belief/thought) even if we have good reasons to think that animals don't *really* think. But as I suggest in the post, his reasons for saying that seem less obvious once propositionalism itself is challenged.

    (Could you make the same parenthetical point about human behavior: that we don't need to talk about thinking when the human successfully does something that would be the equivalent of the dog's getting the ball?)