2. Reference and Justification

In my first post I sketched an argument for a principle connecting aboutness and justification. Here is the sketch version again as a little graphic:

The resulting principle, which I call in the book ‘Reference and Justification’, brings out the significance for accounts of aboutness of the fact that justification is truth conducive.

Today I’ll say a bit to cash out the argument, and try to give an idea of how the account of aboutness-fixing built around Reference and Justification works.

Imogen Dickie, Fixing Reference (Oxford, 2016)

Let’s start with the argument. Suppose that subject S has a belief about object o (we’re going to show that, in that case, if the belief is justified, S will be unlucky if it does not match what o is like):

1 S’s belief that <a is F> is about o [Assumption]

Add the aboutness and truth principle:

2 An <a is F> belief is true iff the object it is about is F.

1 and 2 entail 3:

3 S’s belief that <a is F> is true iff o is F.

Now add the truth and justification principle

4 If S’s belief that <a is F> is justified, S will be unlucky if it is not true.

Feeding the account of what it takes for the belief to be true at 3 into 4, we get 5:

5 If S’s belief that <a is F> is justified, S will be unlucky if o is not F.

Now, Reference and Justification is a biconditional. It says that there is aboutness iff there is cognitive focus. The 1-5 argument gets us one direction of the biconditional: where a justified belief is about an object, the belief will match what the object is like unless some unlucky spoiler intervenes. Of course, to prove a biconditional you have to prove both directions, but the argument for the other direction – from cognitive focus to aboutness – is a bit of a mouthful, so I won’t try to present it here. (It’s in Ch 2 §2 of the book.) Instead I’ll use the case of perceptual demonstrative thoughts – the kind of thoughts about ordinary things standardly made available by perceptual links with them – to show how the account of aboutness-fixing built around Reference and Justification works.

Suppose you are looking at a grapefruit rolling along the table in front of you and forming beliefs by uptake from perception in the ordinary way. <That is round>; <It’s rolling>; <It’s about to fall> you think. I take it that your beliefs in this case are about the grapefruit, and that you’re in a position to think about the grapefruit because it is the thing at the other end of your perceptual link. But to say this much is to leave the question of how the perceptual link puts you in a position to think about the grapefruit completely unaddressed.

To be clear about exactly what the question is here, it’s useful to bear in mind some extant answers. Searle said that the perceptual link puts you in a position to think about the grapefruit by providing you with a descriptive means of identifying it (as the satisfier of the description ‘the cause of these experiences’). Evans said that the perceptual link puts you in a position to think about the grapefruit by putting you in a position to discover its location and kind. Campbell noted that a perceptual link that enables perceptual demonstrative thought is attentional; argued that attention to an object makes the object the target of downstream information-processing; and suggested that an attentional perceptual link secures aboutness by performing this target-setting role.

In the Fixing Reference framework, the suggestion is that the perceptual links which underpin perceptual demonstrative thought do their aboutness-fixing work by making available a means of justification for a body of beliefs – justification by uptake from the perceptual channel – which (as I say) ‘converges’ on the object: a means of justification such that you will be unlucky if beliefs justified in this way do not match the object, and not merely lucky if they do.

If I’ve succeeded in making myself clear, some readers will be thinking ‘OK. But how are the beliefs justified. And why isn’t there just a circle here – she’s explaining aboutness in terms of justification, but justification has to be explained in terms of truth (a belief is justified only if formed by truth conducive means), and truth has to be explained in terms of aboutness (an <a is F> belief is true iff the thing it is about is F).’ That’s where I’ll start next time.


  1. Josh Weisberg

    Very nice stuff, Imogen! Thanks for doing this.

    A question about the proposal (and if you’ll get to this in a future post, I’ll get it then): what does “make available” mean? To the subject? To a subject with fully developed adult human cognitive abilities? To interpreters/atributors? To God?


  2. Thanks Prof. Dickie,
    Could you please clarify what you take to be the relationship between your suggestion and Evans’ and Campbell’s views? Their views and yours appear to be “in the same ballpark,” right? For example, perhaps being the target of downstream information processing (Campbell) is necessary for having a means of justification such that “you will be unlucky if beliefs justified in this way do not match the object.”

    In short, is your view in conflict with Evans’ and Campbell’s or is it a sort of generalization or deepening of theirs? Would you say that they are basically right, but their view is superficial in some respect, or misses something crucial?


    • Imogen

      Thanks Assaf.

      Well, I could go on about this all day…. Yes, my view is ‘in the ballpark’ of Evans’s and also Campbell’s in some ways. But it’s in conflict with both.
      a) Evans – *The Varieties of Reference* is a beautiful thing, of course, but right at the foundations Evans has his claim about a ‘fundamental level of thought’: he thinks that all our thought about ordinary objects rests on a level of thought at which we identify them by their locations ad kinds, and this foundational claim percolates through is entire system. I don’t think anything like that. And when I’ve got some more details in place you should be able to see that what I have about particular cases (perceptual demonstratives, proper names, descriptive names) is just miles from Evans. I moralise about this at some length in the ‘Evans’ section of Ch 5 of the book.
      b) Campbell – *Reference and Consciousness* is also a beautiful book. And I’m going along with Campbell on the claim that the fact that the perceptual links that enable perceptual demonstrative thought are *attentional* is vital to the account of perceptual demonstrative reference-fixing. But Campbell thinks that the fact that the perceptual link is attentional (so establishes a target for downstream information processing) can *itself* carry the burden of explaining how our perceptual demonstrative beliefs are justified. I say something very different from that – see post 3.

      So I’ve got very different foundations from either Evans or Campbell, though you’re right that in many respects I want similar things, and in each case the differences at the foundational level generate many differences with respect to details and applications.

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