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Two Views on Judgement

NCH London | February 21, 2019

We can be held responsible for our views, and yet we can’t form judgements simply at will. What does this tell us about what judgement is?

The Ottoline Club met on 30 th October 2018 in the Archive to hear Dr. Brian Ball, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, speak about “Two Views on Judgement”. Those present were: Brian Ball, Naomi Goulder, Ioannis Votsis and David Mitchell, of the Faculty of Philosophy, and Simon Blackburn, Visiting Professor of Philosophy.

In July 2016, Brian organised with Christoph Schuringa a workshop at NCH entitled ‘The Act and Object of Judgement’. He subsequently wrote the introduction to the volume of papers given on that occasion, which is shortly to be published. This evening’s talk represented an early version of further work Brian has done on the topic. His focus was judgement in the sense of a kind of event, something that takes place at a certain time, as in his example ‘Mueller judges that Trump colluded’. What more can be said about the kind of event that this is? That it is a mental act, no doubt; but then Brian contrasted two further moves: some philosophers, among them Descartes, think of judgement as an intentional action, while others, with Spinoza arguably an antecedent, see it roughly as an actualisation of a potentiality. Brian’s own view is on the latter side of this contrast: he thinks of judgement as the activation, in a certain sense, of belief.

There’s a parallel contrast which Christopher Peacocke has noted in respect of imagining a melody: one may deliberately call it to mind, or it may come to mind unbidden. Brian aligns judgement with the latter. The other, Cartesian or voluntarist, view of judgement is untenable, he argued, because it implies that one can judge at will, which is not the case: it isn’t generally possible just to decide to believe something. The voluntarist view might seem to have in its favour that it explains why it makes sense sometimes to hold a person responsible for their beliefs, but Brian reckoned his own view could do the same: we can be responsible because actions such as evidence-gathering are subject to the will. He went on to address briefly some further issues about judgement. He was inclined to classify it as a sub-personal act, which, like blinking, a person does only in virtue of some part of the person’s doing it. He suggested that, in line with Timothy Williamson’s view that knowledge is a norm for belief, so ‘acknowledgment’ or ‘recognition’ may be a norm for judgement: roughly, one ought to judge that p, for any p, only if one thereby activates knowledge that p. Next, he doubted that every judgement is preceded by the raising of a question. And, finally, he noted the claim made by for example Jerry Fodor that sense-perception doesn’t necessarily involve belief – that one can, for instance, see the lines in the Müller-Lyer illusion as unequal without believing, and perhaps even without being disposed to believe, that they are unequal – but observed that this would be an objection only to an elaboration of his view which saw judgement as involved in perception.

One of the points upon which the discussion, unfortunately, curtailed by the meeting’s early finish time, homed in was what exactly, in Brian’s formula, ‘activation’ might amount to, given that judgement can activate either a pre-existing or a new belief. For a belief to be activated is for it to be rendered active, he maintained – not necessarily conscious, but playing a role in some causal process. Ioannis turned out to favour, and Simon to be dubious about, thinking of judging as itself a process. The term is applied both to processes and to their products, Ioannis urged. Brian, by contrast, was inclined to distinguish judgement from whatever process may on occasion lead up to it, as well as from the state, namely belief, that may result from it, or, more generally, be activated by it. He conceded to Naomi that, natural as he found it to say that if judgement is not intentional then it is sub-personal, this position needed further defence; and in response to David’s hesitating to agree that, in effect, one can only make up one’s mind ‘unbidden’, he recognised it as a possibility that the view he rejects as an account of the genus ‘judgement’ does correctly describe one species of it. It might be that one sort of judgement is in some way a ‘volitional’ act; but on the whole Brian was inclined to deny even this.