Dr Brian Ball, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy

Who will win the US presidential election of 2016? You might hope that it will be Hillary Clinton, but fear that it will be Donald Trump; and perhaps, after a careful consideration of the evidence you will judge – and thereby form the opinion, or belief – that it will, to your relief, be Clinton who wins.

Hope, fear, belief, and the like are often called propositional attitudes by philosophers; and they are taken to be psychological relations (or attitudes) one may stand in (or take to) a certain special sort of object, namely, a proposition. Those who advance this view hold that, just as when you kick something there is something you kick, so too when you believe something, there is something you believe – in the example above, that Clinton will win the US presidential election of 2016 – and that thing is a proposition.

Propositions, on this (standard, orthodox) view, are the objects of belief, just as balls and the like are the objects of kicking: a ball, for example, may be what we kick when we kick something; and similarly, a proposition is what we believe (hope, fear, etc.) when we believe (hope, fear, …) something. And they can be true or false: for instance, the proposition that Clinton will win the upcoming election may, for all we know, be true (if she does go on to win) or false (if she doesn’t): and it seems that what you hope is that this proposition is true; while what you fear is that it is false (and Trump will win).

Like these attitudes, judgment also appears to be a psychological relation to a proposition; but it has something of a different character. In particular, while the other propositional attitudes under discussion are stable states of an individual (for instance, it can be correct to describe someone who is asleep as believing that Clinton will win the election), judgment is a mental act: judging is something a person (animal, subject) does, not a condition they are in. What is that act? In my view, it is the activation of belief: that is, when one judges something (a proposition) the result is that one actively believes it.

Many questions remain, however – both about the act of judgment and its object, the proposition. Do propositions exist independently of our thinking them? (Or does our thought somehow unify the constituents of the proposition – such as Clinton, and electoral victory – into a truth-apt whole, thereby bringing it into existence?)

Is it really the case that the very same thing that is judged can be, for example, desired or intended? (Suppose I am happy and want to dance. Isn’t what I want in such a case simply to dance? This does not seem like the sort of thing I can judge to be so – or indeed, something that can be true… or false.) And what exactly does judging consist in? (Is it – psychologically or metaphysically – simple or complex?) How do we do it? (Voluntarily? Subconsciously?) How, if at all, do aesthetic or practical judgments differ from theoretical ones? (If I judge that something –  such as a rose – is beautiful, is this based on a feeling, rather than evidence? If I decide to do something – like dance – do I activate a belief, or merely an action?)

Last month (on July 4th and 5th, to be precise), NCH hosted a workshop, Judgment: Act and Object, on these and related issues. Generously funded by both the College and the Mind Association, it brought together experts from across the UK, Europe, and North America working on the philosophy of judgment, as well as its history. Further details of the event are available here – though you’ll have to look elsewhere for predictions regarding the upcoming election!