Propositional attitude

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A propositional attitude is a mental state held by an agent toward a proposition.

In philosophy, a proposition is a tentative and conjectural relationship between constructs that is stated in a declarative form. An example of a proposition is: “An increase in student intelligence causes an increase in their academic achievement.” This declarative statement does not have to be true, but must be empirically testable using data, so that we can judge whether it is true or false. Propositions are generally derived based on deductive logic or empirical observation (induction). Because propositions are associations between abstract constructs, they cannot be tested directly. Instead, they are tested indirectly by examining the relationship between corresponding measures (variables) of those constructs. The empirical formulation of propositions, stated as relationships between variables, is called hypotheses. The term proposition has a broad use in contemporary analytic philosophy. It is used to refer to some or all of the following: the primary bearers of truth-value, the objects of belief and other "propositional attitudes", the referents of that-clauses, and the meanings of declarative sentences. Propositions are the sharable objects of attitudes and the primary bearers of truth and falsity. This stipulation rules out certain candidates for propositions, including thought- and utterance-tokens which are not sharable, and concrete events or facts, which cannot be false.


Linguistically, propositional attitudes are denoted by a verb (e.g. "believed") governing an embedded "that" clause, for example, 'Sally believed that she had won'.

A verb, from the Latin verbum meaning word, is a word that in syntax conveys an action, an occurrence, or a state of being. In the usual description of English, the basic form, with or without the particle to, is the infinitive. In many languages, verbs are inflected to encode tense, aspect, mood, and voice. A verb may also agree with the person, gender or number of some of its arguments, such as its subject, or object. Verbs have tenses: present, to indicate that an action is being carried out; past, to indicate that an action has been done; future, to indicate that an action will be done.

Propositional attitudes are often assumed to be the fundamental units of thought and their contents, being propositions, are true or false from the perspective of the person. 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").

A number of software systems are now available to simulate propositional attitudes for industrial purposes, for customer relation management systems, decision support and content generation (Galitsky 2012).

Propositional attitudes have directions of fit: some are meant to reflect the world, others to influence it.

The technical term direction of fit is used to describe the distinctions that are offered by two related sets of opposing terms:

One topic of central concern is the relation between the modalities of assertion and belief, perhaps with intention thrown in for good measure. 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 .

Lie intentionally false statement to a person or group made by another person or group who knows it is not wholly the truth

A lie is an assertion that is believed to be false, typically used with the purpose of deceiving someone. The practice of communicating lies is called lying, and a person who communicates a lie may be termed a liar. Lies may serve a variety of instrumental, interpersonal, or psychological functions for the individuals who use them. Generally, the term "lie" carries a negative connotation, and depending on the context a person who communicates a lie may be subject to social, legal, religious, or criminal sanctions.

Other comparisons of multiple modalities that frequently arise are the relationships between belief and knowledge and the discrepancies that occur among observations, expectations, and intentions. Deviations of observations from expectations are commonly perceived as surprises , phenomena that call for explanations to reduce the shock of amazement.

Surprise is a brief mental and physiological state, a startle response experienced by animals and humans as the result of an unexpected event. Surprise can have any valence; that is, it can be neutral/moderate, pleasant, unpleasant, positive, or negative. Surprise can occur in varying levels of intensity ranging from very-surprised, which may induce the fight-or-flight response, or little-surprise that elicits a less intense response to the stimuli.

An explanation is a set of statements usually constructed to describe a set of facts which clarifies the causes, context, and consequences of those facts. This description of the facts et cetera may establish rules or laws, and may clarify the existing rules or laws in relation to any objects, or phenomena examined. The components of an explanation can be implicit, and interwoven with one another.


In logic, the formal properties of verbs like assert, believe, command, consider, deny, doubt, imagine, judge, know, want, wish, and a host of others that involve attitudes or intentions toward propositions are notorious for their recalcitrance to analysis. (Quine 1956).

Logic the systematic study of the form of arguments

Logic is the systematic study of the form of valid inference, and the most general laws of truth. A valid inference is one where there is a specific relation of logical support between the assumptions of the inference and its conclusion. In ordinary discourse, inferences may be signified by words such as therefore, thus, hence, ergo, and so on.

Indiscernibility of identicals

See also use–mention distinction

One of the fundamental principles governing identity is that of substitutivity [ clarification needed ], also known as fungibility  — or, as it might well be called, that of indiscernibility of identicals . It provides that, given a true statement of identity, one of its two terms may be substituted for the other in any true statement and the result will be true. It is easy to find cases contrary to this principle. For example, the statements:

(1)Giorgione = Barbarelli,
(2)Giorgione was so-called because of his size

are true; however, replacement of the name 'Giorgione' by the name 'Barbarelli' turns (2) into the falsehood:

 Barbarelli was so-called because of his size. [1]

Quine's example here refers to Giorgio Barbarelli's sobriquet "Giorgione", an Italian name roughly glossed as "Big George." The basis of the paradox here is that while the two names signify the same individual (the meaning of the first statement), the names are not themselves identical; the second statement refers to an attribute (origin) that they do not share. [upper-alpha 1]


What sort of name shall we give to verbs like 'believe' and 'wish' and so forth? I should be inclined to call them 'propositional verbs'. This is merely a suggested name for convenience, because they are verbs which have the form of relating an object to a proposition. As I have been explaining, that is not what they really do, but it is convenient to call them propositional verbs. Of course you might call them 'attitudes', but I should not like that because it is a psychological term, and although all the instances in our experience are psychological, there is no reason to suppose that all the verbs I am talking of are psychological. There is never any reason to suppose that sort of thing. (Russell 1918, 227).

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 .

Many problematic situations in real life arise from the circumstance that many different propositions in many different modalities are in the air at once. In order to compare propositions of different colours and flavours, as it were, we have no basis for comparison but to examine the underlying propositions themselves. Thus we are brought back to matters of language and logic. Despite the name, propositional attitudes are not regarded as psychological attitudes proper, since the formal disciplines of linguistics and logic are concerned with nothing more concrete than what can be said in general about their formal properties and their patterns of interaction.

See also




  1. W. V. O. Quine, Quintessence, extensions, Reference and Modality, P361


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