Justified Belief in Ordinary Language

Stew Cohen once argued that, though the language of justification regarding action was part of ordinary language, the language of justification regarding belief is not. I thought at the time that this was overstated, and so I watch for such language. I found another one, if Jorge Luis Borges counts:

He meditates on how he has shown himself capable of killing an idolater, but not of knowing for certain whether a Moslem is more justified in his beliefs than a Hindu. (from “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” in Ficciones)


Justified Belief in Ordinary Language — 10 Comments

  1. Googling

    “justified * belief” -philosophy -epistemology -“justified true belief”

    yields 9110 hits. Skimming the first page, they look like natural English, and don’t look like philosophical contexts. 9110 hits isn’t a great number (by contrast, Googling

    know -philosophy -epistemology -“justified true belief”

    yields 404 million hits). But isn’t it enough to establish that justification talk about beliefs is part of common discourse? We should ask the linguists how seriously they take 9110 google-hits. (And we should look at the hits more closely; I just tried a few queries.)

  2. Hi, Jim, that’s a nice search result. It shows, I think, that there’s not a *lot* of examples of this in ordinary language, but enough to block Stew’s concerns. I don’t remember what he said exactly (it was at an APA Pacific meeting in the 80’s I think), but the idea was that we can’t be trying to characterize a term common in ordinary discourse because it’s not there.

  3. Interestingly, if you modify the search to add the constraints of:
    > -religion -god -religious
    you end up getting only 5280 of those 9000 some beliefs.

    A brief scan of those results pulls up, among other things, Theory of Knowledge lecture notes, this blog, Brian Weatherson’s blog, something about Chisholm, the regress argument, deafeasibility analysis…so maybe 5000 overall non-philosophy hits? Still a fair amount, but interesting that coming up on half of the original (non-phil) results concern religion.

  4. It’s also true that many of the uses are about actions being justified by beliefs a person holds, so those don’t count. There’s a large number in legal contexts, however.

  5. Hi Jon,
    A conjecture: Perhaps the reason Stew would be led to think that justification talk regarding belief isn’t a part of ordinary language is because its hidden in other sorts of talk, talk that really comes to justification of belief talk. “You have no justification to say that!” “He made a wholly unjustified allegation”, “He assailed my character without justification”, that sort of thing. Perhaps these sorts of sayings combine both justification of act and belief, but they could often imply unjustified belief.

  6. Robert, that’s a good point, and assertion is a really good place to find intersection between justified belief and justified action. One might even hold that justification is the norm appropriate for both belief and assertion! Wow! I think I’ll write a paper arguing that…

  7. Jon, is justification a single norm? Why not grant that `justification’ expresses positive normative standing but that, without further information, we cannot say anything more about what gives beliefs (or assertions, whatever …) that standing? Is it enough evidence? Reliable provenance? Conformity to social conventions? We might agree that the word `justification’ (or words that do the same work) figures in the evaluation of beliefs and assertions without supposing that it expresses a single concept.

  8. Andy, you’re right that the inference from single term to common meaning or nature is invalid. In this case, though, I don’t see any reason to suppose there are multiple meanings or conceptual natures. There are, of course, different goals in the practical sphere rather the cognitive sphere, but there is commonality to the uses in spite of that difference.

  9. Jon,

    Some kind of plurality behind the ordinary term “justified” when applied to belief (whether multiple meanings or conceptual natures or properties or whatever) would explain the multiplicity of analyses justified belief has received. Is there a better explanation of that analytical multiplicity?

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