“I think I have shown that all the propositional attitudes require a background of beliefs, so I shall concentrate on conditions for belief. Without belief there are no other propositional attitudes, and so no rationality as I’ve characterized it.”
- from Donald Davidson, “Rational Animals”
In October 2007 I wrote a post about another Davidson essay, “Three Varieties of Knowledge,” in which he makes the same point. At the time I was interested in the implications primarily for hermeneutics, secondarily for psychoanalysis, and tertiarily(?) for language acquisition. I could revisit Davidson’s arguments this time with respect to epistemology — is there an important difference between knowing something and knowing that you know it? We could talk about whether belief is (Davidson) or is not (Dennett) an important distinction between human language-users and other kinds of creatures. Though Davidson doesn’t really get into ontology in these papers, we could surely engage in yet another discussion about the difference between what is and knowing that it is. However, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to set my amateur ontologizing aside as best I can.
But now I’m thinking about fiction, and especially about the idea of an icon-maker. An old-school icon isn’t just a symbolic representation of a holy object or person; rather, the icon actually participates in the reality of that which it depicts. Icons played an important part in my first novel, The Stations, including the idea of humans participating iconically, as avatars, in the reality of non-material beings. So maybe I am hung up on ontology after all, especially in its medieval variants, and especially in speculative fiction.
Davidson contends that “propositional attitudes require a background of beliefs.” The relationship between proposition and belief is particularly salient in the case of icons. If I express the propositional attitude that “this icon gives me access to an alternate reality,” implicitly I’m saying that “I believe this icon gives me access…” But if I don’t first believe, does the icon “work”? And, ontogenically speaking, might not the icon be effective in opening up access to an alternate reality even if no one recognizes it or believes it? But this is ancient thinking, and only tangentially related to my interests in the book I’m thinking of writing.
In his “Rational Animals” essay Davidson interacts with two thought experiments invoked by other philosophers to illustrate their ideas. The first, from Norman Malcolm, involves a dog chasing a cat; in the second, Donald Weiss proposes a scenario involving what Davidson calls “a superdog from another planet” who hatches on earth. Inventing fictions to explore serious philosophical theories is a time-tested strategy. I could invent a fiction that would explore a serious ontology and epistemology and hermeneutics of icons. But my seriousness is entirely fictional here, entirely speculative, occupying an imagined alternate reality without any attempt to apply the results of the thought experiment to the reality most of us ordinarily occupy.
Finally, I like the idea of fictional characters actually speculating about their own ideas, attitudes, beliefs, theories, ontologies, and so on. I understand the appeal of not doing this, of showing without telling. But the people who interest me are often self-reflexive. Why shouldn’t fictional characters be this way too?
Enough of this. I’ve been looking at seven randomly-selected sentences as icons: that’s what I see in this sentence.