The Embedding Objection, Part VI: The Objection from Ambiguity of Attitude Attribution Verbs

This is the sixth of a series of posts in which I try to make
clear the different embedding difficulties that, as a family, are thought to
present the most pressing objection to expressivism and to distinguish the
different kinds of expressivism toward which each difficulty is most forcefully
directed. The first post explained what I take expressivism to be. The second post distinguished four main kinds of
expressivism: Simple non-truth-evaluable expressivism (e.g., Ayer’s emotivism),
Simple minimalist expressivism (e.g., Blackburn’s projectivism), Complex
minimalist expressivism (e.g., Stevenson’s emotivism), and Complex robust
expressivism (e.g., Hare’s prescriptivism, my Expressive-Assertivism). The third, fourth, and fifth posts discussed The Objection from Truth
Ascriptions, The Challenge from Incomplete Semantics, and The Objection from
Pragmatics respectively. I actually
haven’t finished the last post yet, because I’m now not quite sure what I want
to say about it. So, for now, I’ll move on to a different embedding objection,
what I’ll call "The Objection from the Ambiguity of Attitude Attribution
Verbs," which can be directed toward any kind of expressivist theory.

Attitude-attribution verbs, such as ‘believes that’, ‘fears
that’, ‘wonders whether’, etc. attribute psychological states (belief, fear,
wonderment, etc.) whose contents are given by the sentences used in their
complements. For example, in (1),

 

  1. John believes that the Patriots will win the Super Bowl again this year.

 

‘believes that’ attributes to John a representational state
(belief) whose content is that the Patriots will will the Super Bowl again this
year. Ethical sentences can also appear as complement sentences of
attitude-attribution verbs. If expressivism is correct, then ethical sentences
have expressive content. The question arises whether having this expressive
content plays a role in determining the kind of psychological state that is
attributed by these verbs. For simple expressivism, it is hard to see how the
answer could fail to be ‘yes’, for there is nothing more to their content than
what they express. So, it appears that, in (2),

 

  1. John believes that donating to charity is right.

 

‘believes that’ attributes to John some kind of positive
conative state, rather than some kind of representational state. Thus, it
appears that simple expressivism has to hold that attitude-attribution verbs
are ambiguous, sometimes attributing a representational state to the subject of
the sentence in which they appear, sometimes attributing a conative state,
depending on whether the complement sentence is an ethical sentence.
Intuitively, however, these verbs are not ambiguous, so simple expressivism appears
to be committed to something that is false. (Copp, for example, raises this
objection in Morality, Normativity, and Society,
p. 17.)

 

This objection can also be directed toward complex
expressivist theories, since, according to complex expressivist theories,
ethical sentences have expressive content in addition to representational
content. (In Hare’s case, ethical sentences have prescriptive content, but I’ll
ignore this point.) So, it appears that complex expressivism also has to hold
that these verbs are ambiguous, sometimes attributing a simple representational
psychological state, and sometimes attributing a complex psychological state
with representational and conative components, depending on whether its
complement sentence is an ethical sentence. Roughly, the Objection is as
follows:

 

  1. ‘believes that’ is not ambiguous in English, and more specifically, it would be
    extremely implausible to suggest that what it means is affected by what complement sentence appears after ‘that’.
  2. If expressivism is true, then when an ethical complement sentence is used with ‘believes that’, a conative psychological state (or a complex psychological state with a conative component) is attributed.
  3. When a nonethical complement sentence is used with ‘believes that’, a representational psychological state alone is attributed.
  4. If a representational state alone is attributed when a nonethical sentence is used as the complement of ‘believes that’, but a different type of psychological state is attributed when an ethical sentence is used as the complement of ‘believes that’, then ‘believes that’ is ambiguous.

                        Therefore,

  1. If expressivism is true, then ‘believes that’ is ambiguous. ((3)-(6))

                        Therefore,

  1. Expressivism is false. ((3), (7))

 

I think this objection fails because (6) is false. There are
three main strategies for providing the semantics for sentences containing
attitude-attribution verbs, which I’ll call the "sentential account,"
"propositional account," and "utterance account." Any of
these strategies can be adopted by expressivist theories without their being
committed to the ambiguity of attitude-attribution verbs. I will focus on the
sentential account, but a similar story could be told, mutatis mutandis, for the propositional and utterance accounts.

 

A sentential account of the semantics of ‘believes that’
would hold that the subjects of (1) and (2) have psychological states that are
the same in content as the semantic content of their respective complement
sentences. Let’s assume for simplicity that the semantic content of a sentence
is constituted only by the sentence’s representational (truth-conditional)
content and its expressive content. A sentential account of the semantics of
(1) would then hold that John has a psychological state whose content is the
same as the semantic content of the sentence ‘The Patriots will win the Super
Bowl again this year’. Since we can safely assume that ‘The Patriots will win
the Super Bowl again this year’ does not have expressive content, the
sentential account of the semantics of (1) would hold that John has a
psychological state with the same representational content and (trivially) the
same expressive content as the sentence ‘The Patriots will win the Super Bowl
this year’. A sentential account of the semantics of (2) would hold then that
John has a psychological state whose content is the same as the semantic
content of the sentence ‘Donating to charity is right’. Since ‘Donating to
charity is right’ (according to expressivism) has expressive content, the
sentential account of the semantics of (2) would require that John has a
psychological state with the same expressive content as ‘Donating to charity is
right’, say, approval toward donating to charity. The important thing to note
here is that the semantics of ‘believes
that’, as it is used in (1) and (2), is the same: an attitude is being
attributed to the subject of the sentence in which the verb is used, which is
the same in content as its complement sentence. Of course, since the semantic
contents of the respective complement sentences differ, so does the particular
attitude being attributed to the subject of the sentence. However, this does
not mean, in turn, that the semantics of
‘believes that’ also differs, i.e., this does not mean that ‘believes that’ is
ambiguous. Analogously, even though our semantic evaluations of (9) and (10)
differ significantly (since (9), but not (10), is to be evaluated as true or
false), we do not think that ‘and’ is ambiguous.

 

  1. Jackie is a lawyer and John is doctor.
  2. Donating to charity is right and don’t forget it.

 

Rather, the semantic evaluations of the sentences are a
function of the embedded sentences interacting with a word that has a uniform
meaning. Similar stories, I believe can be told for the propositional and
utterance accounts, but I’ll leave things here for now.