Functional belief and judgmental belief


A division between functional (animal) belief, on the one hand, and judgmental (reflective) belief, on the other, is central to Sosa’s two-tier virtue epistemology. For Sosa, mere functional belief is constituted by a first-order affirmation (or, perhaps, a simple disposition to affirm). In contrast, a judgmental belief is an intentional affirmation; a performance which is partially constituted by the believer’s endeavor to affirm truthfully, and reliably enough. If, qua performance, judgmental belief is like the hunter’s shot or the baseball player’s swing, mere functional belief is much more like a heartbeat. This paper explores whether we should accept Sosa’s distinction between mere functional belief and judgmental belief, and, if we should, how recognizing this distinction ought to shape our epistemological theorizing. Accordingly, the first aim of this paper is expository. It is to further clarify Sosa’s contrasting categories of functional belief and judgmental belief and to attempt to characterize explicitly the role that the division between functional belief and judgmental belief plays in Sosa’s two-tier virtue epistemology. The second aim of this paper is more critical. It is to articulate and begin to evaluate a series of concerns regarding whether Sosa’s division between functional belief and judgmental belief is well-founded, and so to explore whether a virtue-theoretic performance epistemology ought to embrace the sort of two-tiered account of cognitive performance that Sosa favors.

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  1. 1.

    The kind of virtue-theoretic, performance-based approach to epistemological theorizing that Sosa’s work has pioneered and brought to prominence is, at least in its most general form, now fairly popular, and has been developed in a variety of different ways by a long list of different theorists (e.g. Greco 2010). For a useful introduction to the blossoming contemporary literature on this approach, see Fernández Vargas (2016).

  2. 2.

    Metaphysically speaking, it may be most appropriate to characterize judgmental belief and functional belief as lying on a spectrum and, accordingly, the extent to which any given cognitive performance manifests the performer’s agency might be a matter of degree. Indeed, Sosa sometimes introduces the categories of judgmental belief and mere functional belief in a manner that exhibits sympathy for this way of thinking—see especially the opening paragraphs of Chapter 9 in Sosa’s (2015). If this way of thinking is right, then the boundaries of Sosa’s categories will be vague. Crucially, the concerns about whether Sosa’s distinction is well-founded that I raise in what follows are not concerns about whether Sosa’s distinction can be clarified so as to ensure well-defined boundaries between the categories of judgmental and merely functional belief. Rather, these concerns are more precisely framed as concerns about whether it makes sense to carve up the spectrum of cognitive performances (and so to locate borderline cases) in the way that Sosa’s categories of judgmental and functional belief do for the purposes of epistemological theorizing.

  3. 3.

    Sosa (2014) p. 173. A slew of similar passages appear in Sosa’s other work. See, especially, Sosa (2015).

  4. 4.

    See, e.g., Sosa (2015), Chapter 3.

  5. 5.

    Sosa (2015) p. 67.

  6. 6.

    Sosa (2015) p. 51.

  7. 7.

    Sosa (2014) p. 179. See also Sosa (2010).

  8. 8.

    See, for example, the discussion on p. 51 of Sosa (2015).

  9. 9.

    Although this interpretation of Sosa’s (perhaps evolved) view is complicated by some of the discussion in Chapter 3 of Sosa (2015), which suggests some willingness to concede that mere functional belief might achieve some kind of importantly analogous epistemic status to that of knowledge-full-well.

  10. 10.

    Indeed, it seems to me that Sosa himself finds motivation for drawing the distinction between functional and judgmental belief from both these sources. See, especially, Sosa (2015).

  11. 11.

    The worry here is not simply that the line between judgmental belief and functional belief is vague or blurry. See note 2 for further clarification.

  12. 12.

    I leave other ways of drawing the contours of these two categories to one side here.

  13. 13.

    Sosa characterizes the primary occupants of this region as functionings in both his (2013) “Epistemic Agency” and again in chapter 9 of his (2015) Judgment and Agency. But the kinds of examples of agential action to which I appeal in what follows do not fit neatly into the three-part (mere doing; functioning; endeavor) framework to which Sosa appeals in these pieces. Instead, they appear to lie somewhere between what Sosa terms functionings, on the one hand, and endeavors, on the other. If this is right, then we have some reason to worry that Sosa’s framework is similarly ill-equipped to account for many of our cognitive performances.

  14. 14.

    Sosa is sympathetic—see specially Sosa (2013) and chapter 9 of Sosa (2015). Sosa does not, however, put forward an account that explains how/why certain doings that fall short of (paradigmatically conscious, deliberate, and voluntary) fully intentional endeavors manifest agency. One lesson I draw from the discussion that follows is that we have reason to think such an account (i.e. an account that explains manifestations of agency without appeal to the kind of intentional aiming that constitutes endeavoring) will be better-suited to illuminate the way in which our cognitive performances manifest agency.

  15. 15.

    One way of construing the positive proposal in Dickie (2016) is as an attempt to provide a suitably de-intellectualized counterpart to Sosa’s notion of endeavoring. The generally concessive tone of Sosa’s (2016) response to Dickie’s proposal suggests that Sosa may be open to this sort of alternative.

  16. 16.

    Hieronymi (2006), among others, defends this sort of alternative view, according to which there is a distinctive and more fundamental sort of agency manifest in our mental attitudes. This sort of view can seem especially attractive if one focuses on the way in which the toxin puzzle and its analogues seem to expose belief, intention, and other mental attitudes as non-voluntary and impervious to direct control by the will.

  17. 17.

    Of course, the mere fact that my belief is epistemically criticizable is not enough to ensure that I am epistemically blameworthy. Quite plausibly, I am only epistemically blameworthy if my belief is epistemically criticizable by virtue of manifesting some sort of incompetence.

  18. 18.

    I offer one account of that in virtue of which our beliefs manifest our agency (and so count as our doings) which is non-intentional, non-voluntary, non-deliberative, and non-reflective in Nolfi (2014).

  19. 19.

    We might appeal to the salient-to-our-subject possibility that there might be an appropriately located car draped in Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Or we might appeal to loss of visual acuity at the periphery of the visual field, of which the subject is well aware, perhaps brought on some time ago by a very small stroke.

  20. 20.

    My capacity to distinguish a bag of whole wheat from a bag of all-purpose does not generally require intentional effort, deliberation, reflection, or even conscious attention. And it is not as if I am better at telling bags of whole wheat from bags of all-purpose when adopt the goal of identifying the kind of flour bag before me as my intentional aim. Normally, I just see the bag as a bag of whole wheat or as a bag of all-purpose.

  21. 21.

    Sosa suggests that “...what we learn about intentional belief—even conscious, intentional belief—should carry over to belief generally, whether intentional or merely functional” (Sosa 2015, p. 51). One way of putting my worry here is that, to the extent that the carry-over is seamless, isomorphic, and complete, the category of functional belief, as a distinctive kind of human cognitive performance, seems to dissolve.

  22. 22.

    I trace the development of many of the ideas and arguments I offer here through conversations with Ernest Sosa, to whom I owe an immeasurable intellectual debt. I am also particularly grateful to Matt Weiner and two anonymous referees for Synthese for their comments on an earlier version of this piece.


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Correspondence to Kate Nolfi.

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Nolfi, K. Functional belief and judgmental belief. Synthese 197, 5301–5317 (2020).

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  • Belief
  • Cognitive performance
  • Judgment
  • Reflection
  • Virtue epistemology
  • Epistemic evaluation
  • Cognitive agency