Saturday, February 5, 2011


What is it to be confident?

It's easy to fall into a bad way of thinking about our psychological concepts. We tend to think that we can know, through introspection, whether a psychological concept can be properly applied to us. We think that we just know what it feels like to, say, believe something or trust someone and that we simply can't be wrong in claiming to so believe or trust on the basis of these feelings.

"I know when I'm sad!"

"Don't tell me what I believe. I know what I believe!"

"What do you mean I want you to fail? I assure you that's not what I want."

One of the most profound lessons Black Socrates has learned in his days of philosophizing is that this way of thinking is deeply flawed. One can be wrong about whether one is sad or angry or believes that something is the case. One can feel that one believes something-or believes in something-, yet not believe (or, better, that someone believes something is not a matter of how one feels). (And if you want an argument for this claim, check out Wittgenstein on private language).

If believing, trusting and being confident in is not a matter of how one feels, what, then, is it a matter of?

It is a matter of how we've come to use our psychological concepts and which behaviors are taken to be criterion for applying those concepts.

If you say that you believe that Black Socrates didn't cheat on you, but act as if you don't believe (say, by checking my email, constantly calling to find out where Black Socrates is...when he'll be home...who he's with) then, if fact, you do not believe that I didn't cheat, no matter how you feel.

So, back to the opening question: What is it to be confident?

We see now that being confident isn't a matter of feeling confident. Being confident is a matter of acting in a way that would make it appropriate to apply the label "confident" to one.

So, ask yourself, if I saw someone who acted like me would I say that that person was confident? (and include speech, dress, posture, etc, under the label of "acting").

You may discover that you're more (or less) confident than you take yourself to be.


  1. Compellingly argued.

    But as a point of clarification, does this mean that my ontological status--what I "am" at a given time--boils down to behavior alone? If so, it would seem that you are suggesting that words, feelings, beliefs, and self-knowledge are (at best) second order rationalizations or (at worst) mere epiphenomena.

    (Granted, this is not such a bizarre claim: We know that Nietzsche held a similar view of reason as a mere justification for the passions.)

    But contending that we are our behaviors seems to leave no room for any account of our intentionality. This in turn complicates our assessments of ethics; good intentions aren't everything, especially when contradicted by outward behavior, but it seems odd to say that they don't matter at all.

    Moreover, in the cases you consider, behavior differs unintentionally from conviction. But your contention that we are how we act quickly becomes problematic if we consider behaviors that are *intended* to differ from actions. The behavior of an actor signals to us that she is deeply enraged. On your view, she is "being enraged." But (unless she is a method actor) we should not thus conclude that the actor is, in fact, enraged. We see a similar disconnect between introspection and behavior in the case of very good liars.

    Finally: why are we so confident that our "psychological concepts" are so easily distinguishable from "behaviors"? Could it not be that believing, feeling, and self-knowing are themselves behaviors?


  2. Interesting post. I wonder what prompts the specific interest in confidence - are you thinking of how it applies more widely in our thoughts about ourselves? I.e., how "confident" we feel about our knowledge of our own psychological states?

    I was reminded in reading your discussion of belief of a beautiful example that I cannot for the life of me remember who invented. (I could have sworn it was Wittgenstein in On Certainty but that seems not to be true. Maybe it was Avner?) A woman receives a letter saying that her son has died in a war abroad: he's not coming home. So she knows, explicitly, that he's not coming back. But she continues to act in ways that suggest she still doesn't believe he's not coming back - she keeps his room just as he left it, say, and seems always to be waiting for him to walk through the door. The idea behind this example, if I remember correctly, was to suggest you can have knowledge without belief. (Recently, some experimental philosophers have been exploring whether people think there can be knowledge without belief in similar cases. Short answer seems to be yes.) In any event, I think examples like this show the muddiness of such ascriptions. But I agree that first person reports do not enjoy the privilege they are sometimes assumed to have.

  3. You could instead argue that a person's state (confidence or whatever) is actually an internal, intrinsic fact, but may not be congruent with what a person believes that state to be. It seems your analysis depends more on some removed, objective definition of these qualities than acknowledging the existence of subconsciously influenced behaviors.

    Your example of judging another's behavior is flawed because it's very easy to misjudge another's feelings, as they're not always transparent especially if a person is trying to conceal them.

    But what does this mean for, say, someone who consciously disagrees with racism but has some reoccurring racist thoughts (which are then consciously disagreed with and dismissed)? It seems like there's some conflict of identity between conscious belief and instinct/internalized cultural ideas, etc.. To a certain extent I think such feelings as confident are only given meaning by a person's feeling about them. It seems a little arbitrary to choose the baser functions of the brain over the conscious belief and feeling

  4. Ernie,
    I think that we're going to have to tell a more complicated story about intentionality on my picture. Briefly, intentionality is only going to be possible, on my view, within a community. What I mean by my words is not going to be a matter of what is going on in my head, but a matter of what I must mean (in Cavell's sense) by what I say in a given circumstance.
    Try Wittgenstein's thought experiment. Try to mean "I love you." by "ABC." Can you do it? No, I and Wittgenstein contend. And this fact does not amount to a failure on your part to be able to whisper the words "I love you" to yourself or feel a certain way when you utter "ABC."
    "ABC" doesn't mean "I love you," (at least not in our community), and thus you can't mean "I love you," by it.
    Now, you can mean I love you (or intend to say "I love you.") and this fact can be determined by the circumstances that surround your utterance. Can you explain how you slipped up? Is this a context in which "I love you" would be the appropriate thing to say?
    Also, if our actor begins to break stuff and bite people (J.L. Austin's example) then we should say that she is actually enraged and is no longer pretending to. But, to be sure, these types of judgments are highly context sensitive. It may be appropriate to say the actor is actually enraged in one circumstance, but not in another (given the same behavior).

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. This worry, and post, just came to me one day. I was thinking about the greatness of my Hegel paper (or something like that, I don't remember exactly), but also began to wonder if I presented myself as a confident person. I asked "I think my stuff is good, but do I act this out?" The answer is "yes," for many circumstances. But I then began to think about the possible disconnects between self talk ("I'm the greatest") and behavior (walking with one's head down or speaking softly).

    Also, I really like that example. It shows that it is sometimes appropriate to say things like "She knows, but she doesn't yet believe it." And what a beautiful thing to say.

  7. Anonymous,

    I certainly agree that one can believe such and such, yet be unaware that she so believes. And the idea that one can have subconscious beliefs that she is unaware of goes well with what I've said.

    Also, it is true that we can be wrong in judging, for instance, that one is upset. But, I contend, we (in the broad sense of "we") can't be wrong about the criterion by which we make these judgments. For example, I may see you quivering with your face in your hands and assume that you are upset (because I believe you to be crying). While it be the case that you are actually laughing. But I can't be wrong in judging that if your spouse has just died and you are actually crying, that you are upset. These factors make up (partially, to be sure) or criterion for being upset, for saying that so and so is upset.

    About the person who has reoccurring racist thoughts, it seems that this is a case in which we should say that one could believe something about other races (or her own) yet be unaware. Say the person feels threatened every time they see a black man approaching (and note that the concept of "feeling threatened" has its criterion for application). If this person feels threatened (say, her heart starts to pound and she beings to look for opportunities to cross the street) when she sees a black man approach, we should say (in many contexts) that she believes that black men are (or takes black men to be) threatening. Of course, she may protest, but in our community, that behavior is reason to ascribe the belief.

    Now, your example does present an interesting question: do we have criterion for belief ascription (or the ascription of other psychological states) that have nothing to do with behavior (whether real or imagined)?

  8. But, Anonymous,

    My ending question did suggest that one's own criterion for belief ascription is the only one that matters in determining whether the belief should be ascribed. Perhaps I should have phrased the question in this way: Would it make sense for one to ascribe the label "confident" to me given how I behave, how I carry myself?

    I focused on the criterion one would apply to others to get the reader to think about whether she is confident by her own lights. But, also, if I'm right about the impossibility of a private language, one's own lights will be, in part, the lights of others.

    We learn our psychological concepts in a community.

  9. It just seems to me a little discouraging to ascribe these personality qualities to a person based on qualities they consciously dislike but have some unknowing tendency for. It seems like most modern senses of identity don't depend on that more basic layer of functioning. If someone believes it's morally wrong to eat more than you need to but often has the deeper desire to do so, that doesn't make them a hypocrite I don't think. It's a little weird that aspects of our minds that we never (directly?) interact with can betray us to the extent of making your feelings about yourself false.