Sunday, March 04, 2018

Frege's Reference Shifts for Propositional Attitudes

What follow is the first draft of a paper I am writing for a philosophy course.

It concerns propsitional attitudes.

Readers familiar with my work know that I place a lot of weight on desires as propositional attitudes. The very name 'desirism' stresses the weight that desires carry in this theory. Desires are propositional attitudes. I have known that I have needed to discuss propositional attitudes in more detail. This philosophy course has given me an opportunity to do so.

I must confess that I am not well versed in the philosophy of language. I am interested in value theory. However, that interest has included an interest in desire as a propositional attitude.

So, I was interested in the optional paper topic:

Fully but succinctly reconstruct Frege’s account of reference shifts in attitude reports. Exactly what’s the role of substitutivity and context in the account? And why must such shifts be shifts to the customary senses of the relevant expressions rather than to whatever other entities? Is the account satisfactory? Why or why not?

My plan was to use ‘desires’ rather than ‘beliefs’ as the token attitude report.

Unfortunately, I could not find a way to make this work. When I tried to apply Frege’s account of reference shifts to desire reports, I could not see a reference shift. It appeared to me that Lois Lane desired that Clark Kent accompany her on a dangerous mission if and only if she desired that Superman accompany her on a dangerous mission.

At first glance, what I wrote above may appear to be mistaken. After all, Lois Lane would deny wanting Clark Kent with her on a dangerous mission and not deny wanting Superman with her. However, it would be a mistake to confuse what Lois Lane says that she desires with what she desires. Her statement about what she desires expresses a belief, which subject to reference shifts. The presence of a reference shift in her beliefs does not imply a reference shift in her desire.

In this paper, I want to explain this thesis in a bit more detail, beginning with an account of reference shifts in belief reports.

Since I am not a parrot, I try to avoid repeating what others say (thus, my interest in using ‘desires’ rather than ‘beliefs’). However, I think it would be best to do so in this case since people are familiar with these illustrations.

The standard description of the problem of reference in attitude reports begins with the hypothesis that, in any regular sentence, one can replace a term with a co-referent and not change the truth value. Thus (assuming a world where Superman exists as described in the comic), the following sentence would be true:

(1) Superman is not human,

In this sentence, we can replace ‘Superman’ with its co-referent ‘Clark Kent’ and get a statement that is still true.

(2) Clark Kent is not human,

In fact, every statement about Superman is true if and only if that statement is also true of Clark Kent, since Superman and Clark Kent are the same person.

However, this is not the case when we talk about Lois Lane’s beliefs about Superman.

Assuming that we are looking at the period before Lois Lane discovered Superman’s identity, the following would be true:

(3) Lois Lane believes that Superman is not human

However, if we replace ‘Superman’ with its co-referent ‘Clark Kent’, we get a statement that is no longer true:

(4) Lois Lane believes that Clark Kent is not human

This seems to leave us with two options:

Option 1: Give up the idea that replacing a term with a co-referent preserves truth value, or

Option 2: Hypothesize that terms in propositions that are the objects of belief reports refer to the same thing as those terms in regular sentences.

Frege preferred the second option. He argued that attitude reports – not just belief reports – involved a shift in reference from Superman or Clark Kent to Lois Lane’s senses of the terms ‘Superman’ or ‘Clark Kent’ (i.e., what the terms meant to her). Since ‘the sense of the term Superman’ and ‘the sense of the term Clark Kent’ are not co-referents, we need not expect – under the principle that substituting co-referents preserves truth value – that replacing one term with the other will preserve truth value.

Intuitively, this response makes sense. After all, when I am talking about what Lois Lane believes I am not talking about Superman or Clark Kent. I am talking about the organizational structure of Lois Lane’s brain and how it influences her behavior. There must be some difference between Lois Lane’s beliefs about Superman and her beliefs about Clark Kent that explains and predicts the different ways she may respond with respect to each term. Specifically, they must explain why she would answer, “Yes” to the question, “Did Superman come from another planet?” and, “No” to the same question asked about Clark Kent.

However, I could not get this to work when talking about Lois Lane’s desires.

To evaluate desires, we first need to distinguish belief statements from desire statements. This is not an easy thing to do. If Lois is asked whether she desires to take (desires that she take) Clark Kent with her on a dangerous assignment, she can sensibly answer, “No. I will have enough to worry about without worrying about Clark.” But, is this a desire claim, or a belief claim?

When Lois makes the claim, “Superman is human,” we do not take the phrase, “Superman is human” as being true merely because Lois asserts it. In fact, we know that it is false. Similarly, we need to ask whether we should take Lois’ assertion that she desires that Clark stay behind as proof that the proposition, “Lois desires that Clark stay behind” is true.

Let us assume that Jimmy Olson has accidentally discovered that Clark Kent is Superman, and Clark has sworn him to secrecy. When he learns that Lois is about to go on a dangerous assignment, he tells Lois, “Take Clark with you.”

Lois responds as above by saying that she does not want to take Clark with her, that the assignment is dangerous enough already.

It would make good sense for Jimmy to respond, “You want to take him with you. Trust me.”

Here, Jimmy is saying that Lois’ statement, “I desire that I go without Clark” is false. Furthermore, it is false in the same way that her statement, “I desire that I go without Superman” is false. Jimmy’s statement about Lois’ desires treat the terms ‘Clark Kent’ and ‘Superman’ as co-referents – referring to the same person, not to Lois’ attitudes about those people.

So, let’s take the statement:

(5) Lois desires that Clark not go with her on the dangerous assignment

The question to answer is whether this is true or false. Kripke’s theory says that the statement is true, since, in virtue of being the object of an attitude, “Clark” refers to Lois’ sense of Clark Kent, who is clumsy and would make the assignment more dangerous.

Jimmy’s theory says that the statement is false, given that Clark is Superman and Lois does desire that Superman go with her on the dangerous assignment. If we listen to Jimmy, Lois falsely believes that she desires to go without Clark because she falsely believes that Clark is clumsy and would make the assignment more dangerous.

Who is right?

I would like to call forth another example. This one comes from Bernard Williams, who asks us to consider the case of a person he identifies only as the Agent who orders a gin and tonic. In this case, Jimmy is also in the bar, and Jimmy sees that the bartender actually filled the glass with gasoline (in Williams’ example) or with a deadly poison (to make our story more interesting). As the Agent goes to take a drink from the glass, Jimmy puts his hand over the glass and tells the agent, “You don’t want to do that.”

Here, I want to note that the Agent’s response is not necessarily to assert that Jimmy is obviously mistaken. Instead, it would be perfectly rational for him to ask, “Why not?” Note that, in asking this question, the Agent is asking for reason to believe that the proposition, “I do not desire that I take a sip of what is in this glass” is true. This admits to the possibility that the proposition could be false, and the Agent knows that it could be false.

In fact, the proposition, “I desire that I take a sip of what is in this glass” could be false is due precisely to the fact that the Agent’s representation of “what is in this glass” does not match what is in the glass. On Frege’s account, to determine whether the statement is true we should look at the Agent’s representation of what is in the glass – which is gin and tonic. However, in fact, even the Agent recognizes that the truth of the claim depends on what is actually in the glass.

Once Jimmy points out that he saw the bartender add a deadly poison to the drink, the Agent recognizes that the statement, “I do not desire to take a sip of what is in this glass” is true. It did not become true once Jimmy gave him the new information. It was true before Jimmy told him, and Jimmy simply provided the Agent with a reason to believe what was already true. The Agent did not want to drink what was in the glass.
Let me try a third case.

On this dangerous assignment, Jimmy is left behind to help a local mechanic repair their damaged vehicle while Clark and Lois go on ahead to the villain’s stronghold. The mechanic tells Jimmy to hand him a 10mm socket. However, the 10mm socket is too small. The bolt actually requires an 11mm socket.

There is a couple of ways that this can play out.

One way is to say that Jimmy knows that bolt in question requires an 11mm socket. He has worked on this vehicle before and happens to remember that fact. Therefore, he hands the mechanic the 11mm socket. Yes, the mechanic asked for the 10mm socket. However, Jimmy really knew that the mechanic was asking for the socket that would work on that bolt, and “the socket that would work on that bolt” is co-referential with the 11mm socket. The mechanic’s representation of what would work on that bolt is not relevant to what the mechanic wants.

Or we could have it that Jimmy handed over the 10mm socket. The mechanic tries it, finds out that it does not work, and hands it back, saying, “That’s not the one I want. Give me the 11mm socket.” The mechanic, in discovering his mistake, will say that, just a minute ago, he believed that he wanted the 10mm socket, but he had been mistaken. The only way that a belief that P can be mistaken is if the agent believes that P, and P is false. So, the only way that the mechanic’s belief that he wanted the 10mm socket to have been mistaken is if the proposition, “I wanted the 10mm socket” (I desired that I had the 10mm socket) was false.

Either way, desire-based propositional attitudes do not experience anything like Frege’s reference shift. That seems to be a feature of belief attitudes only.


Martin Freedman said...

Very interesting analysis.

I still think one can use Frege-Russel Belief-Desire theory although your analysis here indicates it might not be as we normally consider it. Or, is that just a challenge on the issues developed later by Quine on substitutability? Or, are beliefs and desires not as dual as expected (e.g. Searle's direction of fit approach)?

As you might recall I never used the word "mind" in my approach to philosophical psychology applied to desirisim. We both look more at brain states underlying propositional attitudes. A possibly complementary and radical way of looking at this is through neuroscientist Friston's free energy - a sort of modern version of applied elimininative materialism, if you will.

A journalistic-like article on this topic was just published today on this that might prompt or inspire some new approaches, more in terms of goal directed energy minimisation (whilst that is too simplistic, it gives you an idea of why I am suggesting this). See

Doug S. said...


Are Clark Kent and Superman *logically* identical? After all, Clark Kent wears glasses and works for The Daily Planet, but Superman does neither of those things. :)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Doug S. Are you asking whether the person referred to by the name "Clark Kent" is identical to the person referred to by the name "Superman"? If this is your question then, according to Frege, the answer is "Yes."

If you are asking whether the concept of "Clark Kent" is identical to the concept of "Superman" then, according to Frege, the answer is "No." If the concepts were identical, then it would not be possible to believe that Clark Kent is weak and that Superman is strong.

This was Frege's main point - that object terms have both a reference (that in the world that they point to) and a sense (that which matches the thought the person has in using the term). Two terms can have the same reference but represent different thoughts.

Another example: Morning star and evening star. The terms have different senses but both refer to the same object (Venus).

Another example: Water and H2O. They both refer to the liquid made up of H2O molecules, but it is possible to know that a glass contains water without knowing that it contains H2O.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Martin Freedman: I am not certain we have a "Frege-Russell Belief-Desire theory."

The points that I raised above suggest that all we have is a "Frege-Russell Belief Theory" and that nobody has actually done any work on desires. Frege and Russell wave their hands in the direction of desires saying that the same is true of them. However, that is exactly what I am calling into question.

So, we can keep the Frege-Russell Belief Theory, but we need to attach a desire theory to it.

I think that Searle's Direction of Fit approach has something to do with the difference. The reasons that desires (unlike beliefs) do not have a reference shift is because desires aim at making propositions true in the world. Statements about beliefs take the world as a constant and ask if the brain state matches the world (so they are about brain states). Statements about desires take the brain state as constant and ask if the world matches the brain state (if not - then change the world).

Thank you for the reference. This "goal directed energy minimisation" sounds promising.

Martin Freedman said...

Don't get too distracted by it (Friston) - a rabbit hole waits - as the linked article implies!

Better to pursue Searle.

One thing I always liked about your writing from the beginning was it had a clarity akin to Searle's and unlike say Dennett (or Pinker but then he is not philosopher) It is worth pursuing his later work on the construction of social reality - which summarizes much of his earlier work on speech acts and intentionality that you might find useful - although he argues that deontology is built into language constructs - that is one of his weakest arguments IMHO and not picked much elsewhere anyway. Further, that is about all he ever says about ethics anywhere.