Face to face

Part of a series which began with Fake news and the ethics of belief.

’I don’t need to believe. I know.’

So said Carl Gustav Jung in 1959 when John Freeman asked him on BBC TV’s Face to Face whether he believed in God.

He later regretted that his reply was too short and too open to misunderstanding. But we’ll leave that can of worms safely shut for now.

I’ve realised though that despite waffling on about descriptive beliefs and prescriptive beliefs (see for example What is and what ought to be) I don’t think I’ve said anything yet about what beliefs are.

Bernard Williams says that beliefs ‘aim at truth’:

…when somebody believes something, then he believes something which can be assessed as true or false.1

Jonathan Adler says a belief is simply what we regard as true: ‘what I believe is just how things are’2 for me.

These definitions seem fairly aligned. They both take ‘I believe that p’ as a straightforward way of asserting p. Both also say something in relation to the truth of p.

Williams would say that in ‘I believe that p’ the believer is aiming at the truth about p. Adler would say the believer is saying p is true for her.

But neither ‘I believe that p’ nor ‘X believes that p’ implies that p is true. That is even if p is true.

Compare this with ‘I know that p’ or ‘X knows that p’. Both of these do imply that p is true. For this reason ’know’ is described as ‘factive’.

Factive verbs like ‘know’, ‘realise’, ‘regret’ and ’resent’ presuppose the truth of the clause which serves as their object. You cannot realise you made a mistake if you haven’t made a mistake. You cannot know that Paris is the capital of France if Paris is not the capital of France.

But you can believe that Berlin is the capital of France even though Berlin is not the capital of France. ‘Believe’ is not factive. Nor are ‘wish’ or ‘hope’.

We might say, for example, ‘I believe so’ to express a degree of uncertainty. But the crucial difference between ‘know’ and ‘believe’ is not a matter of degree. The crucial difference is that ‘know’ is factive but ‘believe’ is not.

Which Jung presumably realised at the time, despite his later regret.

Read on.


1 Bernard Williams (1973), ‘Deciding to believe’. In Problems of the Self, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp136-7.

2 Jonathan Adler (2002), Belief’s Own Ethics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p11.

© Chris Lawrence 2021

3 thoughts on “Face to face

  1. Pingback: A moral universe | some strong language

  2. Pingback: Tangerine trees and marmalade skies | some strong language

  3. Pingback: *Press This* Face to face #172 | Its good to be crazy Sometimes

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