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Conscious Belief

Author(s): D. H. Mellor
Source: Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 78 (1977 - 1978), pp. 87-101
Published by: Wiley on behalf of Aristotelian Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4544919
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VI*-CONSCIOUS BELIEF
by D. H. Mellor
I
How is it that I can unhesitatingly answer almost any 'yes or no'
question I understand? My answer may be 'I don't know', but
how do I know that? My answer when I think I do know may be
wrong (or self-deceived: my actions may show that I do not really
believe what I think I believe-see IV below), but still I always
have an answer. My knowledge of my beliefs and doubts, although
fallible, is vast, and immediately available to me as it is to no one
else. Why is that?
The short answer is that when a question is put to me I become
conscious of my belief, or doubt, on the matter. I take it that is
true, so far as it goes. The experience of conscious belief or doubt
is familiar enough, as is the fact that it is what enables us to answer
questions, and generally to converse. But the question remains:
how is it that I so readily become conscious of my own beliefs?
It is not just because my beliefs are mine that they come so
readily to my consciousness. I am as little conscious as anyone, or
less, of many of my bodily and mental states. My doctor may easily
know more of my blood pressure and my colour blindness than I
do, or than he knows of his own. I have no 'privileged access' to
those states. Why should my beliefs be different?
It is no use building privileged access into the meaning of the
word 'belief'. There is too much else to belief besides privileged
access. I believe, for instance, that traffic here keeps left in two-way
streets, and this belief continually preserves me without my having to be conscious of it. The word 'belief' could be reserved for
when I am conscious of it, or for my disposition to become so when
the question is put. But what would belief, so construed, have to do
with the state of mind that actually guides my steps about the
streets? It is my easy and accurate consciousness of that state which
needs explaining: making 'belief' imply (accessibility to) consciousness would merely overstate the fact to be explained. So I
* Meeting of the Aristotelian Society at 5/7, Tavistock Place, London,
\J.C. , on Monday gth January 1978, at 7.30 p.m.

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shall resistthe implication.If beliefsmust be capableof becoming


conscious (which in fact I deny), that is somethingto be shown,
not stipulated.
I thereforeneed anotherword for the new state of mind I come
into when a belief of mine becomesa consciousone. Althoughthe
term is not ideal, I follow Price (I969, p. I89) and othersin calling
it 'assent'.(It must be kept in mind that all I shall mean here by
'assent'is the state of mind, not a public displayof acquiescence.)
There is conscious disbelief-dissent-too, of course, and the
various degreesof consciousdoubt. But for my presentpurposes
assent can stand in for them too; where the differencesmatter I
shallnote them.
Hume took belief to be what I call 'assent',and he took it to be
'somethingfelt by the mind' (I739, p. 629). I, like many others,
think Hume was wrong on both counts. Assent is not like other
feelings; and if it were, callingit one does nothing to explainhow
it relatesto beliefs in their role as 'the govemign principlesof all
our actions' (loc. cit.). Whatever assent is, I take it to be settled
now that belief in general neither is assent nor is explainablein
terms of it. The directionof explanationmust be the other way.
Assent is ratherthe consciousawarenessof one's own belief; the
concept of assentpresupposesthat of belief and is to be explained
in terms of it, not vice versa.

II
We need an accountof belief,therefore,that doesnot appealto the
phenomenonof assent.Such an accountis offeredby the so-called
The
dispositional theory of belief (e.g., Braithwaite I932-3).
theory'sbasic idea I take to be right, but the name is most inapt,
and it will be importantin what follows to see why. Opponents
of the theory,which I shall call the 'actiontheory'of belief, do not
deny that belief can be a disposition;only for them it is if anything
a disposition,not to action, but to assent. The action theory indeed relatesbelief to action, but not as a dispositionwould relate
to it. Take solubilityas a stockexampleof a disposition.A soluble
object is one that dissolvesin water whateverits other properties.
The only way to stop an object dissolvingin water is to make it
insoluble;which is preciselywhy solubilitycan be characterisedas
a dispositionto dissolve.
Beliefsare not like that. Believingthe pub is open will only take
me thereif I want a drink.Likewise,wantinga drinkwill only take
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CONSCIOUS BELIEF

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me to a pub that I believe to be open. If belief is a dispositionto


action, so is desire;and what each disposesto can only be statedin
terms of the other. Neither can be characterisedjust in terms of
the actionsto which togetherthey give rise.Neitheron its own disposesme to act at all.
These facts of courseare commonplace.I need them later (V) to
distinguishsome beliefsfrom relateddispositionsto assent.I must
add, however, that they do not make me think that inferringa
man's beliefs from his actions is an arbitraryprocess.No doubt a
singleactioncould displaydiversebeliefs,dependingon the agent's
wants.But alternativeexplanationsof all his actionstakentogether
are harderto find, especiallyas they must also take into accountall
that he has seen and heard, and the beliefshe must have acquired
in that way. The debate is well worn (e.g., Davidson 1974; Lewis
1974), and I shall not pursueit further.I assumemerelythat there
are facts about what people believe,facts which we often come to
knowby observinghow they act.
I take it, moreover,that while beliefs are not dispositions,they
are like dispositionsin being real states of people's minds, in the
sense (Mellor 1974, pp. 157-8) that changes in them have real
causesand effects. In particular,a change of belief-for example,
in whether the pub is open-will, against a (temporarily)fixed
backgroundof otherbeliefsand desires,causeactionwhichis thereby explained.
III
So much for the action theoryof belief. It is not my object here to
expound or defend it, except by developing it to cover assent.
Accounts of assent on action theory amount usually to no more
than an opaque and apologeticrequirementthat propositions,to
be believed, must at times be 'entertained'(Braithwaite,p. 30;
Price, p. 25I). Entertaininga propositionmeans, in part, identifying it; which, for those of us with a languageis typically'knowing
[somethingof] what it would be like for an indicativesentenceS
to be true' (Price,p. I93). So much is easy to say; what it leaves
out is the consciousnessinvolvedin assentingto a proposition.But
assentis more than belief plus even consciousidentificationof the
propositionbelieved. In assentingI am consciousnot just of the
proposition,but of believingit.
Even given belief, therefore,entertainmentdoes not sufficeto
generateassent.In fact, assentdoesnot need the entertainmentof a
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D. H. MELLOR

proposition; I maintain, indeed, that this form of disinterested


hospitalitynever occurs.Price (p. i9i) admitsthat it is 'a curious
questionwhether there is such a thing as bare or pure entertaining; just "thinkingof" a propositionwithout any furtherattitude
at all, either cognitiveor emotionalor volitional'.Unlike Price, I
find that whateverother attitudesmay be absent, I cannot 'think
of' a propositionwithout assent,dissentor consciousdoubt. I may
not carewhich attitudeI have-my interestin the propositionmay
have nothingto do with its truth-but I cannothelp havingone or
other of them. If I am right about this, it will be a blessingon at
leasttwo counts.First,the existenceof propositionsfor us to entertain is far more doubtful than is the existenceof beliefs for us to
be consciousof. Secondly,this supposedstate of entertaining,just
becauseit is detachedfrom any specificattitude-belief, intention,
fear etc.-that might show up in action, is hard for an action
theoryto accommodate.
Fortunately,however, even if 'bare or pure entertaining'does
occur, it need not be a constituentof assent. To be consciousof
believing p, I need not be separatelyconsciousof p. My action
theory of conscious belief neither appeals to nor explains bare
consciousnessof propositions,and it is I reckon none the worse
for that. I deny Armstrong's (I973, p. 22) claim 'that an
accountof having a belief beforethe mind, as a currentcontentof
consciousness,doesnot demanddevelopmentof the theoryof belief
but rather of the quite general notion of consciousness'.On the
contrary,an action theoryof belief can directlyaccountfor assent
and, by so doing, show just what one central kind of consciousness is.

IV
My main thesis (Ti) is that assentingto a propositionis believing
one believes it. Some abbreviationwill help to simplify parts of
the ensuing discussion.Let 'B' stand for belief, 'g' for disbelief;
and let 'Btap' mean that at time t, a believesp. Then 'BtaBt'bp'
meansthat at t, a believesthat at t', b believesp; and so on. In the
case of assent, t = t' and a= b. Where only one time, believeror
propositionis involved and what it is does not matter,furtherabbreviationis in order: e.g., to 'BaBbp'or 'BtBt'p'.The bare 'BRB'
I use to signifyany state of believingone believes.
An action theory of assent must of course go on to say wNvhat

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CONSCIOUS BELIEF

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actionsBB explainsthat B does not. My second thesis (T2) is that


linguistic action-speech

and writing-needs

BB. This does not

mean that only linguisticaction needs BB, nor that BB needs linguistic ability. The latter claim is especially contentious. It has
indeedbeen held that all believersmust be linguistsand, of course,
if that is so, so must all who have beliefsabout beliefs.And even if
dumb animalsare grantedsome beliefs,they may well be denied
others,perhapsincluding all beliefs about beliefs. Bennett (1976,
?34) in fact persuadesme otherwise,but the questioncan stayopen
here.
TI needs somethinglike T2 to give it content acceptablein an
<actiontheoryof assent.Still, TI can be recommendedto some extent independentlyof almostany theorythat does not actuallytry
to define belief in terms of assent. Let us thereforesee how Ti
fareson its own.
There is primafacie such a thing as believingone believessomething. I have beliefsabout all sortsof other things; why not about
my own beliefs? You can certainly believe that I believe some
propositionp; and if you can, why can't I? Of course we need
some reasonto supposethat my believingI believe p differsfrom
my just believingp. Where I believe that someoneelse believesp,
or that I believedp yesterday,that thereis a differenceis obvious.
BaBbpobviouslydiffersfrom Bbp becauseit is a state of a's mind
ratherthan of b's. SimilarlyBtBt'p differsfrom Bt'p becauseit is
a state at time t ratherthan t'. It is not so clear that there is a differencebetweenBtaBtapand Btap.
We recognisea differencenonetheless,as our conceptof a state
of self-deceptionshows. (I say 'state' advisedly: the activity, setting out to deceive oneself, is much more problematic.See, for
example, Champlin (I977). All I mean by 'self-deception'is what
the following exemplifies.)A husband, we suppose,can (subconsciously)believe his wife to be unfaithful,while (consciously)believingthat he believesnothingof the sort. We see these two beliefs
in differentaspectsof his behaviour.Typically we see the latter in
his sincere rationalisationsof those actions that to us reveal the
former.
I need not labourdetails.People'sactionsdo sometimeslead us
to credit them with Bp, Bqp and 1Bp;thus showing that then at
least we distinguishBB from B. The distinctionhere must, moreever, be amenableto an action account,since it has only actionsto

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explain. In the nature of the case there is no consciousnessto be


accounted for: I cannot be consciousat the time of being selfdeceived.
It seemsto me that I could be deceivedabout, as well as in, any
of my 'external'beliefs (that is, beliefs not about any of my own
presentstatesof mind). But wheneverthe possibilityof self-deception is admitted,the statesBBp and Bp must likewisebe admitted
to be distinct.Opportunitiesfor displayingself-deceptionare, after
all, also opportunitiesfor displaying self-knowledge.If one (for
example,linguistic)kindof action can manifestBgp and gBp independentlyof action manifestingBp, it can likewiseindependently
manifestBBp (and usually of courseit does, self-deceptionbeing,
as we observe,ratherrare).
Self-deceptionmay not be limited to externalbeliefs; but some
limit on 'internal'self-deceptionis called for to forestallan endless
regressof beliefsabout beliefs,which are manifestneitherin action
nor to introspection.Supposep is an externalproposition,say that
it's raining.My plain Bp makesme drivemorecarefullyfor fear of
skidding.To my distinctBBp I creditmy saying'It's raining'when
I want someoneelse to learn from me about the weather (seeVII
below).But I see nothingelse for a distinctBBBpto makeme do. I
might say 'I believe it's raining',but BBp is quite capable-given
some more complex wants-of making me say that. I conjecture
that we have in fact no more distinctstatesBBBp,BBBBp,etc.
(Similarly,incidentally,with beliefs about one's presentdesires
and aversions.I can no doubt deceive myself about my present
wants (W); that is, I can want somethingand yet deny sincerely
that I do. But no action or introspectiblestate that I can see reveals a BBWp distinctfrom BWp.)
With somesuch exceptions,we are undeniablywillingto ascribe
to peoplestatesof mind BBp distinctfrommereBp. And if we have
such statesat all, they surelyoccurwhen we assentto propositions.
A propositionp is then in mind, consciouslydistinguishedfrom
other propositions-not as in 'pureentertaining',but as what distinguishesbelief in p from belief in q. Assentis the consciousbelief
in p that is requiredfor the sincereaffirrnationof p's truth. In coming to assentto p I have perceived (or in cases of self-deception,
misperceived)my belief in p: if that does not involvebelievingone
believesp, what does? Perceptionhere, as elsewhere,may not be
just acquiringor reinforcingbeliefs about whatever is perceived,
but it is surelyat least that. Why, after all, is it pointlessto ask me
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CONSCIOUS BELIEF

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if I believep afteraskingme the question'p ?'? Obviouslybecause


my firstansweralso automaticallysuppliesthe only answerI could
sensiblygive to the second question.A 'yes' answerexpressesmy
assentto p and thus that I believeBp (theanswermay be insincere,
but then so will that to 'Bp?' be).
V

Assenting then undoubtedly entails believing one believes. The


converse is less obvious; indeed the self-deceivedman seems to
show it false. We have supposedhim to believesome p and also to
believethat he does not do so; we take his combiningBp and Bap
to be his self-deception. But our jealous husband is not selfdeceivedonly when he has his wife in mind: he thinkshe believes
she is faithful, we would say, whetherhe has her in mind or not.
If so, however,BBpcan occur without dissentfrom p. But then so
presumablycan BBp occur without assent to p. Self-knowledge
can hardlybe restrictedto periodsof consciousbelief if self-deception is not.
Self-knowledge(andself-deception)can certainlyoccur without
assent;but they do not amount to belief as the action theory construes it. Self-knowledge(self-deception)is just a dispositionto
assentto (dissentfrom)what one believes,and belief accordingto
the action theory is more than a disposition(see II above). This
no doubt shows, in common parlance,that action theory is false
of some beliefs, but all that shows here is that common parlance
needsreform.Whateverwe call them, we have threestatesof mind
to account for: (i) plain belief that p; (ii) assentto p; (iii) the disposition to assent to p that constitutes self-knowledge.Action
theory can account for (i); and (ii) relates to the (typicallylinguistic) action it explains in the same complex, want-dependent
way that (i) does (see VII below). (iii) does not: self-knowledge
yields assentto what I believe, regardlessof my wants. Given action theory accountsof belief and assent,self-knowledgeand selfdeception can be simply characterisedas dispositions.That does
not mean they are not real statesof mind, whose changeshave no
causes or effects (see II above; Mellor 1974, PP. 157-8); it does
give reason not to call these states 'belief', and nor I do. That
makesmy statementof TI agreeablyconcise;but the substanceof
TI, in an action theory, will remain whether these mere dispositionsare called'beliefs'or not.
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D. H. MELLOR

On my action theory construalof belief, then, self-knowledge


and self-deceptiondo not show BBp occurring without assent.
What else could show it? Take the most explicitcase of BBp. Suppose I am asked, for some external p (say that it's raining),not
whether p but whether I believe p. It is made clear that the enquiry really is psychological: my questionerhas no interestin the
weather, which he knows about; what he wants to know is my
belief. I am anxiousto oblige, and so I reportto him sincerelythat
I do believe p. My answeris promptedby my assentto Bp rather
than to p. On my theory there is indeed no differencebetween
these states,but that assumeswhat I am here trying to show. On
any theory, however,my answerat least expressesmy belief that
I believe p, whatever else it does. Now can I be in this state, of
assentingto Bp and thus at least believingBp (giventhat I am not
here self-deceived),and yet not be assentingto p itself? Given that
I have a language, I should have to be able to say sincerelythat I
believep and yet unable, without more mental research,sincerely
to assertthat p. That is incredible;it is surelynot possibleto have
a conscious belief about whether one believes some proposition
without at the same time having the correspondingconsciousbelief in that propositionitself. And similarlyfor consciousnessof
BBp, BBBp, etc.-if these indeed exist as distinctstates of mind;
which I deny,largelyfor thisreason.
Where p is not involved in consciousness,I see no groundson
actiontheoryto ascribemorethan the beliefthat p (orlackingthat,
a dispositionto believe p) and a dispositionto assentto p. I have
no proof, but I can think of no case that calls for BBp without
assentto p; and so conjecturethat BBp occursjust when assentto
p occurs. Seeing no other differencebetween these states, I ventureto explaintheir coincidenceas a consequenceof theiridentity.
HenceT i : assentingis believingone believes.
VI
It inay well be objected that this theoryleaves out the consciousnessit purportsto explain. If belief is not consciousunlessbelieved
in and assent is a belief, then presumablyassentis not conscious
unless believed in. But I have suggested that consciousnessof
assent, BBBp, is nothing differentfrom assent itself, which is in
turn only a sort of belief that, like all beliefs,is to be explainedin
tenns of actions. Hence, it may be objected, assent comes out
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CONSCIOUS

BELIEF

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UWOnsciousafter all, whereas consciousness was precisely what

distinguishedassentfrom plain belief in the firstplace.


This objection rests partly on a false belief, and partly on two
non sequiturs. The belief is that the consciousnessinvolved in
assentis some kind of feeling or sensation,as the consciousnessof
pain is. If that were so, an account of assentwould indeed have to
referto consciousness,becausekinds of consciousnessis just what
kindsof feelingsand sensationsare. That this belief is false I shall
assumewithout much argument.The elusivenessof supposedfeelings of assentis sufficientlynotorious,especiallyin connectionwith
the idea that its strengthmeasureshow strongour consciousbeliefs
are. 'When we realise that 2+2= 4, we do not sweat with any
feeling of supreme intensity' (Kneale I 949, p. I 5). Belief, conscious
or not, indeed comes by degrees,but not by degreesof feeling. It
comes by degrees of subjective probability,of which the action
theory-of action under uncertainty-is well developed (Ramsey
I 926; Savage 1954; Jeffrey I965) and certainly has no rival based

on feelings.Now the idea of feeling assentis surelythat assentfeels


differentfrom dissentand from consciousdoubt. But these differences are just what subjectiveprobabilityexplains; and the idea
that what these stateshave in common,namely consciousness,is a
feelinghasonly to be distinguishedto be denied.
The non sequiturs are

i)

that one has to be consciousof assentif assentis to be consciousnessof belief,and


(ii) that to explainconsciousnessin otherterns is to denyit.
(i) I have indeed conjecturedthat we are never independently
consciousof our present assent (since BBBp is no different
from BBp), although we can of course consciouslyrecollect
past assenting (BBtBBt'p,where t>to). But whether consciousnessof assentoccursor not (whetherBBBpever differs
from BBp) is a relativelyminor question,settledneitherway
by the thesisT i.
(ii) The main claim is that assent,as consciousnessof plain belief,
just is believingone believes.If my accountof belief, and thus
of believing one believes, appealed to this sort of consciousness it would be viciouslycircular.That it does not do so is a
virtue,not a defect. I do not deny a sortof consciousnesswhen
I set out to say in other termsjust what it is.
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D. H. MELLOR

VII
So much for Ti. What of T2, that linguistic action needs BB
ratherthan just B? The case for T2 is very simple; all it needsis a
couple of Griceantruismsabout language (Grice 1957). Whether
a theory of linguisticmeaning can be founded on such truismsis
anothermatter;fortunatelyI need not take sideson that. My first
truismis that speakersof a languagemustbe able to communicate.
My second is that, in communicating,people mean to induce in
their hearersbeliefs about what they themselvesbelieve. In particular, when I tell you sincerelythat it's raining,I mean at least to
convince you that I believe it's raining even if I fail to convince
you that it really is. So when a tries sincerelyto tell b that p, he
meansat leastto give b a correctbeliefabouta's beliefthat P. What
makes b's belief correct, of course, is a's having the belief b believes he has; so in this case b's having the correctbelief is Bap &
BbBap.Thus when a believeshe has done what he meantto do, he
believes that at least he has brought about this state of correct
belief in b; that is, Ba(Bap & BbBap). Now even if Ba(p&q) does
not always follow from Bap and Baq, the converseinferencesare
safe enough; hence, in particular,we have here BaBap.
As a speaks, of course, he is not yet in the state Ba(Bap &
BbBap); but that is only because he does not yet know whether
his wordswill have their intendedeffect on b. He does know what
he is tryingto communicate,that is, what belief of his b wil have
to acquirebelief in for the communicationto succeed. So, even to
try and tell someonesincerelythat p, I must believe that I believe
p; the plainBp is not enough.
So communicationneeds BB. That it needs assentI have taken
to be a familiarfact, which T i thus explainsand-by the principle
of inference to the best explanation (Mellor 1976, pp. 233-4)-is
confinned by. Assent, moreover,is not merely needed for communication;it relatesto it just as beliefs relate to the actionsthey
explain.Assentingto p is not just a dispositionto assertthat p. My
assentto p will not make me say anythingunlessI want to; and it
will not makeme say that p if I want to misleadmy hearers.These
facts too aboutassentthe actiontheoryand Ti explain,and to that
extent they are again confirmed.

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VIII
Our theory of assentallows for lying, therefore,since on it people
can if they want say thingsfrom which they dissent.Assenton this
accountthuspassesone of BernardWilliams'(I 970, p. I 45) central
tests for being a kind of belief (as opposed to his 'B-states',of a
machine that can only 'say'what it 'believes'-'B-states' are mere
dispositionsto assert).Sincerityand insincerity,however,turn out
on thistheoryto be morecomplexthan is usuallysupposed.Sincere
assertionis not just saying what one believes,as the possibilityof
self-deceptionshows. When I am self-deceived,I am disposedto
dissentfrom propositionsI in fact believe. If I assertthem, I indeed say what I believe,but I cannot,since I dissentfrom them, be
doing so sincerely.Sincereassertionis saying what one assentsto,
that is what one believesone believes,not just what one believes.
That this is indeedthe rightconceptionof sinceritymay perhaps
be better shown by its capacity to cope with the case of Moore's
paradox that self-deceptionpresents.What is wrong with saying
'p but I don't believep' is not that such a statementcannotbe true
-obviously it can. Nor is it in this case that the speakercannot
believe it. If our subconsciouslyjealoushusbandcould bring himselfto say 'my wife is unfaithfulbut I don'tbelieveshe is', he would
believe everythinghe said. Still, as Moore (I942, p. 543) puts it, it
would be 'a perfectlyabsurdthing' for him to say. Why? Obviously because he cannot say 'My wife is unfaithful'sincerely,even
though he believes she is. He cannot say it sincerely,because he
doesnot assentto it; he doesnot believehe believesshe is unfaithful.

Ix
I returnat last to the questionsI startedwith. How do I know so
much about my own beliefs? Why, that is, do people'sbeliefs almost alwaysgo with dispositionsto assent,and their disbeliefswith
dispositionsto dissent?
My answersof coursewill be causal, not conceptual.Belief, on
an action theory,guaranteesneitherconsciousnessnor self-knowledge. Belief is not self-intimating,as pain is. My beliefs are not
always being perceivedby me and, when they are, they may be

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misperceived.What we want then is an account of the causal


mechanismby which my beliefsare revealedto me when I assent
to propositions.
When I perceiveother people'sbeliefs (and wants),part at least
of the mechanismis that of my outer senses.I see people act, and
explain their actions by their beliefs and wants. Often I see the
explanationin the action: I see you run for coverin the rain, and
in so doing I see whereyou believethe nearestcoveris. But whether
I see your beliefsdirectly,or by inferencefrom what I see you do,
I must at least use my eyes. If I see nothing of you, I shall in
particularnot see what you believe.
Not so with assent.I perceivemy own beliefswithout using my
outersenses.But someperceptualmechanismtheremustbe. Assent
does not occur by magic, nor is it an accidentthat it generallyreveals what I believe. So we must have an 'innersense' (Armstrong
I 968, ch. I 5), which I take the libertyof calling 'insight'.And just
as neurophysiologymust account for the workingsof the eye and
ear, so it must accountfor the workingsof insight.
Many objectionshave been made to the idea of an innersense.
I accept most of Armstrong's(I968, ch. I5, ?H1)rejoinders;in
what follows, I merely sketch the main parallelswith the outer
senses.One may object,for example,that insightis not a sensebecause it deliversno sensations.But the main point of the sensesis
to deliverperceptions,and insightcertainlydoes that. Anyway insight often does deliversensations.Feelingsof conviction,or other
sensationsor emotions,often accompanyassenteven if they do not
constituteit. In particularit is no accidentthat they do so when we
see (or hear, or taste or touch) things. Our eyes typically deliver
assent,not just belief, along with visual sensations.Insight is part
of the normalworkingof the outersensestoo, and involvedin producingtheirsensations.*
Insight is like the outer sensesin other ways. Considerhow we
can direct our senses. I can generallydecide what to look at (or
listen to, or taste or touch). SimilarlyI can generallydecide what
beliefs to be consciousof, that is, what to think about. Of course,
thereare limitsto my decisionsin each case. Sincewhat I see is outside me, my surroundingsmay impede my vision, and it may take
* (For a case in which, as a result of brain damage, eyesight delivers true
belief in - capacity to point to - the position of visual stimuli without either
assent or visual sensation, see Weiskrantz et al. 1974.)

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CONSCIOUS BELIEF

99

physical effort to get and keep somethingin view. The objectsof


my insightbeing internal,so are the obstaclesto my thought.Thus
while a stone on my foot may in itself prevent me moving to see
someone, it takes the pain in my foot to prevent me thinking of
him. In such a case it may take as much mental effort to get and
keep that person in mind as it takes physical effort to move the
stone.
So I can decidewhat to thinkabout, just as I can decidewhat to
look at, subjectto the differentlimitationsset by the differentobjectsof insightand eyesight.But equallyI can no moredecidewhat
I think than I can decide what I see. Just as I can decide to look
at the table but not what colourI then see, so I can decideto think
of the weather but not whether I think it's raining (cf. Wiiams
1970, pp. I48-5I).
The whole point of insight, as of the outer
senses,is to deliverbeliefsaboutits objects,not to leave them for us
to decide.
We can of course decide to avoid situationswhere our senses
are apt to deceiveus; and thisis alsotrue of insight.Just as I decide
to try and avoid a badly lit staircasefor fear of unconsciouslymiscounting the steps and tripping, so I decide to try not to think,
while jealous, of my jealousy'sobject. I know that if I do, I am
likelyto deceivemyself-to thinkthingsI do not reallybelieve,for
example about someone'sactionsor motives.
Again, I may cultivateor neglectmy insightjust as I may cultivate or neglectmy other senses.And people differwidely in insight,
as they do in these other ways. Just as my eyesightis sharperthe
more objects I can discriminatevisually,so my insight is sharper
the more beliefs I can discriminate.The sharpermy insight, the
moreprecisemy perceptionsof my own (andotherpeople's)beliefs
can be. Dumb animalsno doubt have only very impreciseperceptions of theirown beliefs; although,like Bennett (I976, ?36), I incline to credit them with some. Anyway, even the most adept of

linguistshas less than perfectinsight (just as he has less than perfect eyesight), since no one is conscious of all the logical consequences that distinguish propositions from each other. But insight,
like eyesight, can be developed, by learning to discriminate propositions previously confounded. No doubt the resources of our lan-

guage limit most of us: these resourcesshow what insight I may


attain, while my use of language shows what insight I have at-

tained.

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IOO

D. H. MELLOR

Test it as you will, insightprovesitselfa sense,differingfromthe


others only in consequenceof its differentobjects, as they differ
amongthemselves.It has goneunnoticedonly becauseit is internal.
Its mechanismis in the brain. Whetherit is in some definitepart
of the brainis a moot point, but a triflingone. There may be some
definite part of the brain responsiblefor these aspects of selfconsciousness,and specificallyfor our linguisticabilities.If so, the
perceptuallink between that part and where the plain beliefs are
embodiedmay be as readilypickedout as is the optic nerve.But it
need not be so; and the existenceof insightwill not be impugnedif
it turnsout otherwise.
The existenceof insightprovidesthe broadanswersto my questions (the details are for science to supply).Its mechanismis the
mechanismof my privilegedaccessto my own beliefs. I can know
so much about my own beliefs because I happen to have an internal sense that informsme of them; it links my consciousness,
and no one else's,directlywith these statesof my mind. The sense
is fallible,more or less well developedin differentpeople; and it is
of coursesupplementedby the outer senses.So it can happen that
othersperceivebeliefsof mine which I do not perceive;even without self-deception,you may thinkof my believingit's rainingwhile
I quite unselfconsciouslyput on my coat. But generally,concerning my beliefs, I know most and I know best; I think, thanksto
insight.
NOTE AND REFERENCES
An earlier version of this paper was prepared during my tenure in 1975 of a
Visiting Research Fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the
Australian National University, and has been discussed there and at the
Universities of Melbourne, Adelaide, Queensland, Cambridge, Wales and
Leeds. I have been much helped in extensively revising it by commentsmade
on these occasions and also by Casimir Lewy, Richard Braithwaite, Thomas
Baldwin, Albert Weale, James Cargile, David Armstrong,Jonathan Bennett,
John Dupre and BernardWilliams.
The following are the works referred to:
D. M. Armstrong (I968) A Materialist Theory of the Mind. London:
Routledge& Kegan Paul.
D. M. Armstrong (I973) Belief, Truth and Knowledge. Cambridge:
CambridgeUniversity Press.
Jonathan Bennett (I976) Linguistic Behaviour. Cambridge: Cambridge
UniversityPress.

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CONSCIOUS

R. B. Braithwaite

(I932-3)

"The nature of believing". Proc. Arist. Soc., Vol.

129-146.
Repr. in Knowledge and Belief. Ed.
(i967). London: Oxford University Press, pp. 28-40.

33,

to the reprint.
T. S. Champlin (1977)

10I

BELIEF

A. Phillips Griffiths
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Donald Davidson (I974)

"Belief and the basis of meaning". Synthese 27,

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H. P. Grice (I957) "Meaning". Philosophical Logic. Ed. P. F. Strawson


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Bigge. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


Richard C. Jeffrey (I965). The Logic of Decision. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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Ed. P. A. Schilpp. 2nd edition (1952). New York: Tudor Publishing Co.
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and

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