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Is it psychologically possible to believe a proposition in the absence of understanding the proposition? If not, do many of us continue to harbor beliefs "as tho" they are understood. While admitting that total understanding is, probably, not attainable, it appears to me that our mutually formed groups that purport to make and implement serious decisions stands as a possible threat to concerted action. I have classified these thoughts as somewhat metaphysical since, if totally psychological, the answer might be in the domain of science. Thank you for this site. Jerry D. H.

A valuable paper on this topic, written by a psychologist, but with many discussions of Descartes's and Spinoza's views on these issues, is: Gilbert, Daniel T. (1991), "How Mental Systems Believe", American Psychologist 46(2) (February): 107-119 (online at http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~dtg/Gillbert%20(How%20Mental%20Systems%20Believe).PDF) Briefly, Gilbert argues that (his interpretation of) Spinoza's view that believing is part of understanding and that one must believe a proposition before one can reject it is psychologically more valid than (his interpretation of) Descartes's view that believing or disbelieving a proposition must psychologically and logically come after understanding it.

Is it true that all language is meaningless without context?

It depends on what you mean (!) by "meaning" and on what you mean by "context" (but surely you didn't expect a philosopher to say anything different, did you?). If by "meaning" you mean "reference" (or "denotation", or "extension"), e.g., a thing in the world, and if by "context" you mean the world, then I would say that all language is meaningless without context. But that's not a very interesting claim in that case, because it's almost a tautology. Similarly, if "meaning" means "sense" (or "intension", or maybe "connotation")--e.g., the word "unicorn" has no extensional meaning (because there are no unicorns), but it has a "sense" in the sense that it means a white, one-horned, horselike animal--and if "context" means something like a semantic network of interrelated senses, then, again, all language is meaningless without context (although in a different way from the previous paragraph). But again that's not very interesting. I think a more interesting question is how linguistic meanings ...

Can a "fact" be defined simply be defined as a "proposition that is true"?

It can, and no doubt many people do define it that way. But others (including me) prefer to use the word 'fact' to refer to the states of affairs or situations in the world that correspond to true propositions or that can be said to make true propositions true. Whenever you read someone discussing things like "facts", "propositions", etc., you must always try to find out how that person is using the word, because there often is no standard, universally agreed upon definition.

I have been reading the recent discussion about whether "facts" can be "rational" or "irrational" http://www.askphilosophers.org/question/2829). Professor Rapaport suggests that philosophers use facts differently than most non-philosophers. Facts, he says, "simply 'are'". They are not like beliefs, which are more like sentences. His statements have left me very confused. The Earth is round. Is that a fact? We all die. Is that a fact? Seems to me that it is. And it's simultaneously a sentence. I don't see how a fact can be anything but a sentence. But suppose facts are not sentences. They are situations. One big fact would be the way the world is, I suppose. A smaller fact might be the way my room is right now. Fine, why can't situations be "rational" or "irrational"? I think very often we come upon a situation and say things like "This situation is totally crazy", by which we mean, it is irrational. As the questioner said, dictionary.com defines "rational" as "agreeable to reason". ...

I'm happy to try to clarify: I don't think that philosophers use facts differently from most non-philosophers. Rather, I think that philosophers use the word 'fact' differently from the way most non-philosophers use it. I think that most non -philosophers use it to mean more or less the same as the expressions 'true sentence', or 'true proposition', or 'true belief'. I think that most philosophers use it to mean more or less the same as the word 'situation' or the phrase 'state of affairs', i.e., a bunch of objects having properties or standing in relations. Used in this way, I don't think it makes sense to call a fact "rational" or "irrational", any more than it makes sense to call, say, the number 3 "beautiful" or to call, say, the color red "odd" (in the sense of not evenly divisible by 2). In this sense, the sentence 'The Earth is round' is true. And the reason that it is true is that there is a fact that corresponds to it, namely, the fact consisting of the object that is the...

Peter Smith wrote recently (Question 2823) that "facts aren't the sort of thing that are rational or irrational". But that isn't true, is it? The first definition of the word "rational" on dictionary.com is "agreeable to reason". Certain facts offend reason - and the questioner's example (while not the best, in my view) of death seems to be a fact that is not agreeable to reason. That is to say, if reason ruled the world or, put another way, if God created everything in accordance with reason, we would not die. There is no rational explanation or reason for our death. Certainly there is a sense in which I understand Peter Smith's statement that facts aren't rational or irrational, but there seem to be plenty of definitions of "rational" for which it makes perfect sense to say that facts are rational or irrational. What's more - and I don't mean to be contentious - Peter seems to focus on this aspect of the question to the detriment of the spirit of the question. The questioner seems perturbed by...

I thought that Peter Smith's reply was fine, too, until I read this new question and Prof. Stairs's reply. So I went back and re-read the original question (2823) and Smith's answer, and I wonder if this isn't all a tempest in a teapot. My reading of Smith's original answer was that he was distinguishing between "facts" and "beliefs", where facts are what philosophers call "states of affairs" or "situations": ways the world is (or could be). Facts simply "are", or "hold", or "obtain". Beliefs, on the other hand--as I think Smith used that term--are "propositions" or maybe even "sentences": Descriptions of ways the world is (or could be). Beliefs, understood in this way, can be true or false, rational or irrational. In ordinary, everyday usage, people (other than philosophers) tend to use the word "fact" to mean "belief" or "proposition", but I think Smith was trying to make a distinction that the current questioner is missing. As for the spirit of the question, sure, some facts are--what...

Take the English word "triangle" and the German word "Dreieck". They mean the same. I have two questions: 1. Do these words express the same concept? 2. Is this concept the meaning of these words? I'm not sure, but I think that my questions concern terminology. I guess that what I want to know is if I am using the words "express", "concept" and "meaning" in the way philosophers use them.

Both 'tri' and 'drei' mean "3", and both 'angle' and 'eck' mean, well, "angle", so on that basis, one can argue that your English and German words "mean the same". They also surely refer to the same geometrical objects, so on that basis they also "mean the same". On the other hand, it's not at all clear that any two expressions, even in the same language, "mean the same". There are usually subtle differences between them. Take for instance 'lawyer' and 'attorney'. Probably most native English speakers use these words as more or less synonymous, though they have clearly different etymologies and once had somewhat different shades of meaning that have largely, if not entirely, been lost. Their "distribution" in the language also differs: There are times one says 'lawyer' and times one says 'attorney', even though one would be hard put to explain why. But those differences might be enough to indicate a difference in meaning. Getting back to 'triangle' and 'Dreieck', however, there's another...