Thursday, September 28, 2006

Reflections on the possibility of a method

Finding the actual beliefs of people is of great practical importance. Whether or not questioning and searching for them is a profoundly difficult or relatively easy activity is of course vital, though I will presume to take the latter until the former rears its head. I think it’s more worthwhile to get some grasp on the beliefs of people as far as practically possible than to worry in the first instance where those beliefs will probably escape our grasp.

On any account it must be admitted that many of the beliefs people in the same society hold are shared between them objectively, and that in the defence of the view that beliefs can be uncovered with relative ease it must be admitted that we have a very special and important affinity with each other when we share ways of life. It is not difficult to infer what a person believes given some imagination (in particular the ability to see yourself in someone else’s shoes) and a set of data about their experiences etc. This is because whatever meaning our world has it is necessarily an objective meaning (we can demonstrate with ease that it must be non-subjective). Telling apart useful ‘beliefs’ from actual beliefs should involve on the ground level honesty in reflection on what things actually do mean, since it is here that we are bound together. What has thus occurred to me as being crucial to excavating beliefs is that the systems of meaning we must employ constitute in themselves basic shared beliefs. This I hope puts the lie to mixing everything up and formulating problematics in the first instance, since without this information the attempt to uncover true beliefs threatens to fall into psychological mumbo jumbo.

That we have two instances of the word ‘belief’, and that we have a belief that useful beliefs are in fact beliefs (if you catch my drift), has struck me since the beginning of my questioning as an example of where the meaning of a word is shifting. If such shifts are objective (because the meaning of words is objective), does this mean that the old use of the word belief has ceased to be an objectively shared meaning and thus has lost its meaning?

This cannot be the case because the old definition is still there behind the new definition; convincing people that we believe what we do not believe, if I can put it this way, requires the old definition. Indeed, the new use of ‘belief’ is parasitic on the old and would not be effective (remembering that the new definition is in essence effective) without it. So I would conclude thus far that we are not seeing a shift in the meaning of the word ‘belief’, but the existence of two words that sound the same precisely in order to conflate their meaning.

With this in mind, how do we properly define pragmatic belief?


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