Some people think that reasons are propositions. When you form a belief or perform an action, they say, your belief is based on a proposition, not another belief, an experience, a desire, or anything else mental. The basis of belief and action is one or more propositions. Call this view “abstractionism” about reasons (where ‘reasons’ picks out the basis of belief or action).
Here’s an argument against abstractionism:
- You can have reasons.
- You can’t have propositions
- So reasons aren’t propositions.
The argument is valid. 1 is obvious. But taking a cue from Mark Schroeder’s work, someone might object to 2, on the following grounds.
‘X has Y’ means ‘X stands in salient relation R to Y’ (or vice versa). For example, ‘I have a father’ means that someone stands in the father relation to me, not that I possess a father. And while we can’t possess propositions, we can of course stand in relations to propositions. So we can understand ‘I have a reason’ to mean that a proposition stands in the reason relation to me. Perhaps 2 seems true because we’re thinking of ‘have’ to mean ‘possess’. But really, it should be understood as naming the reason relation, in which case, 2 is false.
I don’t think this works, partly because I don’t think ‘have’ can be understood in the relevant way.
In general, when context serves to assign Y to X, via some salient relation R, it will sound fine to say ‘X has Y’. That’s because by uttering ‘X has Y’ in the context, we end up expressing the proposition that X stands in relation R to Y, that is, R(x,y). Depending on what relation is salient, this works fine where ‘X’ names a person and ‘Y’ a proposition. But it doesn’t seem to work when the salient relation is the reason relation. This spells trouble for the abstractionist’s response. [Ed. note: As comes out in an exchange with Brad C. below, I don’t think this paragraph is essential to my point here. This is good, because it’s not clear that the “in general” point is true.]
We can contrive contexts where it sounds okay to say ‘I have the proposition <Sarah published a book>’. Suppose you and I are playing a strange game. The game is to see who can think about their assigned proposition for the longest time. You get assigned <Barack published a book>, and I get assigned <Sarah published a book>. A third party asks, “Who’s supposed to be thinking about Sarah?” I respond, “I am. I have the proposition <Sarah published a book>.” This sounds fine.
Given that we can generate this effect in the context of our strange game, if the abstractionist proposal under consideration were correct, then we should expect it to sound okay to say ‘I have the proposition <Sarah published a book>’ when it’s salient that this proposition is my reason for believing something. But that doesn’t happen. Consider: I say, “Sarah published something.” Everyone asks what my reason is for thinking this. I respond, “Sarah published a book.” Everyone believes me. It still sounds ridiculous for me to say, “So I have the proposition <Sarah published a book>.” It would likewise sound ridiculous for others to say of me, “He has the proposition <Sarah published a book>.” I don’t even understand what that’s supposed to mean. (It would be fine, though, for others to say, “He has the belief that Sarah published a book.”)
Consider a different case. Barack and Joe both believe that Sarah published something. We ask them what their reasons are for thinking this. Barack says, “Sarah published a book.” Joe says, “Sarah published a journal article.” We all believe that they’re being sincere. Now someone asks, “So, which of these two gentleman has the proposition <Sarah published a book>?” The question is unintelligible. But why should it be unintelligible, if the abstractionist proposal currently under consideration were true? If it were true, we should understand the question to be ‘which of these gentleman stands in the reason relation to <Sarah published a book>?’. But we don’t. (It would be intelligible, though, for someone to ask, “Which of these two gentleman believes that Sarah published a book?”)
[Update: Here it might be worth repeating something I said in the comment thread below, since it helps further clarify the trouble I’m trying to articulate for abstractionism. “My point about the abstractionist proposal is this. Even when the reason relation is salient — we’ve just been asked what our reason is for believing Sarah published something, and we respond by saying ‘She published a book’ or whatever — it still sounds awful to say ‘I have the proposition [Sarah published a book]‘. I can think of other contexts where it makes sense to say ‘I have the proposition [Q]‘ — I understand what relation it’s picking out. (This is the point of my “strange game” example.) But it makes no sense in the context of the reason relation. Why would that be, I wonder, if the reason relation relates us to the proposition in question, and that’s very salient in the context? Why would ‘have’ have such a hard time picking out the reason relation? Why can’t we hear it that way?]
[Later update: Tomorrow’s headline: Philosopher changes his mind.]