January 31, 2004

Is There Such a Thing as a De Re Attitude?

The title's supposed to be something of a play on words, but it didn't really come off. Sorry.

Anyway, this will be one (possibly not the first) of an ongoing series of crotchets, in which I take aim at things most other philosophers seem to believe, but I don't. Today's is the idea of a de re attitude, as opposed to a de re ascription of an attitude. I'm not saying I can prove there's no such thing as an attitude that itself is de re; but it seems to me that you don't need the idea of a de re attitude to do the work that people usually want done.

The target is (naturally) a remark of Brian Weatherson's--in very short, he considers a case in which he's running for office, he doesn't want to win, but he sees himself on TV dressed up in a funny costume and forms "the desire that that guy wins the election. In this context, which of (1) and (2) are true?

(1) Brian wants Brian to win the election. (2) Brian wants to win the election.

Brian says: (2) false, (1) true, and I agree at least about (2). But then he proposes:

De Se Hypothesis
(2) is only true if Brian has a de se desire, a desire that is essentially self-directed. It's false in the case described because he has a de re desire that that guy wins, a desire that is directed at the guy on TV, which just happens to be him.

But it seems to me that both the desires can be described perfectly well de dicto. Brian has desires that he could express as follows:

(A) I desire that I not win the election

(B) I desire that that guy [on TV] win the election.

In fact, let's add another case: Brian looks at a wall that happens to be a mirror, sees a perfectly staid respectable guy [aside--I'm going to catch it now], and forms the desire:

(C) I desire that that guy [in the mirror] not win the election.

(We can have it that Brian is watching TV in a bar with a mirrored wall, so he forms the desires simultaneously.)

(B) can be described de re as the desire that Brian win the election; just as (A) and (C) can be described de re as the desire that Brian not win. But I just don't see what the gain is of saying that the desire in (A) or (C) is de re--that Brian is involved in it, without the mediation of a description. For one thing, it sticks us with saying that Brian both wants and doesn't want Brian to win, while obscuring how this conflict comes about.

But thinking of an attitude as de re is always going to lose us information. Objects just don't fit into desires (or other attitudes) unless they're thought about. And then why not include the way way in which they're thought about as part of the desire?

So I think (2) is false, and the de se hypothesis is good: "W desires to phi" means that W has a desire that could be expressed "I want to phi." (Or "I wanna," I guess.) As for (1)... it seems as though it's true if Brian has a desire "I want X to win," where X refers to Brian--for some range of possible descriptions of Brian, set by the context. I think the restricted range is necessary to avoid ascriptions such as "Alfred wants the most evil candidate to win," in cases where Alfred wants Senator Palpatine to win but doesn't know that Palpatine is the most evil.

(I might entertain views on which semantically, the range is unrestricted, but "Alfred wants the most evil candidate to win" is pragmatically disallowed. But I should warn you that they can lead to a paradox. More on this later, maybe.)

I should say that I think a lot of this stuff is cribbed from Bob Brandom's Making It Explicit; possibly more than I know, since I absorbed a lot of the book by osmosis while I was at Pitt.

Posted by Matt Weiner at January 31, 2004 04:59 PM