[Excerpted from my “Replies,” Grazer Philosophische Studien 63 (2002), Essays on the Philosophy of Terence Horgan, 303-41. In that issue see Josep E. Corbi, “The Relevance of Moral Disagreement. Some Worrries about Nondescriptivist Cognitivism,” pp.217-33, and Stephen J. Barker, “Troubles with Horgan and Timmons’ Nondescriptivist Cognitivism,” pp. 235-55.]


Josep Corbi raises several worries about the metaethical position that Mark Timmons and I have articulated and defended, which we call “nondescriptivist cognitivism.”… His remarks prompt some points of clarification….

Timmons and I characterize descriptive content as “way-the-world-might-be” content. We maintain that “base case” beliefs—roughly, those non-evaluative and evaluative beliefs whose contents have the simplest kinds of logical form—are of two types: a non-evaluative belief is an is-commitment with respect to a core descriptive content, and an evaluative belief is an ought-commitment with respect to a core descriptive content. Core descriptive contents are those descriptive contents expressible by (nonevaluative) atomic sentences. Concerning the notion of a core descriptive content, Corbi says:

Core descriptive contents are not, despite appearances to the contrary, descriptive. For descriptive contents have essentially to do with a representation of “the world as being a certain way” and thereby they already have a certain direction of fit; while core descriptive contents are merely concerned with “a way-the-world-might-be content” because they are meant to be neutral with regard to the direction of fit. (p. 220)

But when we said that a descriptive content is a “way-the-world-might-be” content, the point of the modal word ‘might’ was merely to acknowledge that the world might not in fact be the way the given descriptive content says. This is a “non-success” use of the word ‘descriptive’. Under this usage, for example, the statement “Al Gore is U.S President in 2002” has descriptive content, even though it is not true—and hence does not describe how things actually are. Descriptive content certainly has objective truth conditions.

            Corbi questions our remark that in the case of base-case is-commitment states but not in the case of base-case ought-commitment states, the belief’s declarative content “coincides with its core descriptive content.” But we think our remark should be noncontroversial when understood as we intended it. Consider these two belief-attributions:

(a)        Carme believes that she is studying hard.

(b)        Carme believes that she ought to be studying hardl.

The logical form of (b), as we construe it, is made more perspicuous this way:

(b*)      Carme believes that it ought to be that she is studying hard.

Both of the beliefs attributed by these statements have the same core content, viz., the content expressed by the ‘that’-clause ‘that Carme is studying hard’. Statement (a) reveals what we meant by saying that in the case of a base-case descriptive belief, the belief’s declarative content coincides with its core descriptive content; the point is that both contents are expressed by the statement’s ‘that’-clause. Likewise, statement (b*) reveals what we mean by saying that in the case of a base-case evaluative belief, the belief’s declarative content does not coincide with its core descriptive content; here the point is that the belief’s declarative content is expressed by the ‘that’-clause appended to the word ‘believes’, whereas the belief’s core descriptive content is expressed by the distinct ‘that’-clause appended to the words ‘it ought to be’

            Although Timmons and I are nondescriptivists about moral beliefs, we contend that descriptivists have reason to embrace our overall framework for belief. A descriptivist seeking to accommodate metaethical internalism could maintain, for example, that the belief expressed by statement (b*) is both an ought-commitment with respect to the core content that Carme is studying hard, and an is-commitment with respect to the putatively descriptive declarative content that it ought to be that Carme is studying hard. But Corbi objects that our framework rules out this kind of descriptivism, by virtue of a statement of ours that he quotes, viz., “Evaluative beliefs differ essentially from descriptive beliefs in the following respect: the core descriptive content of an evaluative belief does not coincide with its core declarative content.” Corbi takes us to be presupposing here that metaethical descriptivism is false. But the quoted statement was meant to be neutral about metaethical descriptivism; it can be rephrased by replacing the word ‘descriptive’ by the word ‘non-evaluative’, prior to the second occurrence of ‘beliefs’. (In the quoted sentence, we briefly adopted a common alternative use of ‘descriptive’ that unfortunately can cause confusion in the context of discussions of descriptivism vs. nondescriptivism—a use in which ‘descriptive’ essentially just means ‘non-evaluative’.)

            Corbi takes us to hold that a benchmark difference between descriptive and non-descriptive content is that in the case of the former, rational agents can achieve convergence—an idea that Crispin Wright (1992) calls the “cognitive command” constraint. But this is not our view. Rather, for us the key distinguishing feature of descriptive content (as opposed to nondescriptive content) is this: for the former (but not the latter), the operative semantic standards are what we call tight. By this we mean that the semantic standards, together with how things are with respect to the PROPERTIES  and RELATIONS instantiated by OBJECTS, jointly conspire to determinately fix correct-affirmability and correct-deniability status (i.e., truth or falsity) for a given declarative content.[1] We actually agree with Corbi that in general, a requirement of rational convergence cannot even be satisfied by those discourses that are paradigmatically presented as descriptive….

            Stephen Barker maintains that nondescriptivist cognitivism, as Timmons and I articulate it, is incoherent because it conflates two senses of ‘content’ which, when clearly articulated, reveal inconsistencies in our position. He misconstues our position, but in an instructive way.

            We reject the Semantic Assumption, which asserts that all genuinely cognitive content is descriptive content (i.e., way-the-world-might-be content). Consider the sentences that Barker labels (1)-(4):

(1)        Bertie will mail the parcel.

(2)        Bertie ought to mail the parcel.

(3)        Jane believes that Bertie will mail the parcel.

(4)        Jane believes that Bertie ought to mail the parcel.

We claim that the overall declarative content of (2), and of the belief attributed by (4), is not descriptive. So we also reject the assumption that Barker calls Orthodoxy, which asserts that a belief state is always a relation between a believer (speaker) and a proposition (or sentence, or whatever) such that what is believed is something having overall descriptive content.

            Barker, focusing on our rejection of Orthodoxy, takes us to be embracing a thesis he calls Content Identity, which asserts two things: first, that the overall declarative content of sentence (1) and of the belief attributed by sentence (3) is an is-commitment with respect to the core content {Bertie mails the parcel}; and second, that the overall declarative content of sentence (2) and of the belief attributed by sentence (4) is an ought-commitment with respect to this same core content. Here is a key passage from Barker, revealing his rationale for this reading us this way:

H/T claim that they are overthrowing the orthodox conception of belief: Orthodoxy. To explain the belief attributions (3) and (4)...H/T cannot merely affirm that there are different kinds of belief states, which can take the same kinds of objects, they need rather to show that there are belief states that take different kinds of objects. So H/T must explain what these two sorts of belief-objects are meant to be and to provide evidence that there are two such types of object. H/T purport to be explaining what they mean by different kinds of belief-objects through their content identity claims, Content Identity.... This seems to be the assurance H/T supply themselves with that objects of belief can come in two forms, one form somehow representational and the other somehow nonrepresentational. And this they take to furnish themselves with the means of denying Orthodoxy. But Content Identity is an instance of flagrant content/state conflation. Declarative contents are meant to be contents. But now they are being equated with states. (pp. 243f.)

            I have several things to say about this construal of our position, and about the rationale motivating the interpretation. First, it is certainly a mistaken interpretation. Timmons and I never explicitly equated declarative contents with is-commitment states or ought-commitement states, and we never intended to do so. We entirely agree with Barker that this would be a flagrant conflation between what he calls “content qua semantic object of a contentful psychological state,” and “content qua the state itself that possesses such content” (p. 241). We also agree that adopting Content Identity would make the resulting position untenable, and perhaps outright incoherent. One reason (among others) why we should reject Content Identity, as Barker rightly points out, is that we ourselves say that ought-commitments are suspended in the case of logically complex beliefs with embedded normative contents, which strongly suggests that ought-commitments “are features of force and should not then be equated with declarative content” (p. 246).

            But second, the underlying philosophical demand that motivates Barker’s interpretation is an important and legitimate one (even though it causes him to misconstrue our position). In order for the H/T framework to be viable, it needs to be incorporatable within a more complete theoretical treatment of belief-states that credibly explains their ontological structure. This will have to be a theoretical treatment that repudiates Orthodoxy and offers some alternative positive account of the ontological structure of at least some belief-states—viz., beliefs whose overall declarative content is not descriptive.

            Third, I acknowledge that no such positive account of the ontological structure of belief-states was provided, in Horgan and Timmons (2000). To that extent, the framework for belief we described was incomplete in an important respect. And I acknowledge that unless a credible positive account of the requisite kind can be given, our framework will not be tenable.

            Fourth, I do think that the requisite treatment of the ontology of belief-states can be provided. One approach, for instance, would be to adapt the proposal in Fodor (1968) that the objects of the propositional attitudes are sentences in the “language of thought”; the class of eligible mentalese sentences could then include ones with non-descriptive content. (I do not much like Fodor’s proposal, however; cf. Horgan 1992). I myself am inclined instead to favor an approach to the ontological structure of belief-states, and to the logical form of belief-attributions, proposed by Quine in Word and Object. After canvassing various alternative construals of belief-objects, Quine wrote:

A final alternative that I find as appealing as any is simply to dispense with the objects of the propositional attitudes. We can...formulate the propositional attitudes with the help of the notations of intensional abstraction...but just cease to view these notations as singular terms referring to objects. This means viewing ‘Tom believes [Cicero denounced Catiline]’ no longer of the form ‘Fab’ with a = Tom and b = [Cicero denounced Catiline], but rather of the form ‘Fa’ with a = Tom and complex ‘F’. The verb ‘believes’ here ceases to be a term and becomes part of an operator ‘believes that’, or ‘believes [  ]’, which applied to a sentence, produces a composite absolute general term whereof the sentence is counted an immediate constituent. (Quine 1960, p. 216)

He also proposed generalizing this treatment to cover “de re” belief-constructions. He later called the envisioned propositional attitude operators “attitudinatives” (Quine 1970, pp. 32-33). In Horgan (1989) I elaborated and defended Quine’s proposal, with particular attention to explaining how the meaning of a Quineian attitudinative construction is dependent upon the meanings of its components.

            Barker observes that Timmons and I adopt a “dispositionalist” treatment of beliefs whose overall declarative content is logically complex. As we said in our paper:

The essential feature of any given logically complex commitment-type is its distinctive constitutive inferential role in an agent’s cognitive economy (insofar as the agent is rational), a role involving the relevant core descriptive contents.... So, for example, consider the belief that either Jeeves mailed the parcel or Bertie ought to mail the parcel.... The embedded moral constituent, Bertie ought to mail the parcel, is in the offing in the sense that the complex commitment-state in question, together with the belief that Jeeves did not mail the parcel, inferentially yields (at least for the minimally rational agent) an ought-commitment with respect to Bertie’s mailing the parcel. (Horgan and Timmons 2000, pp. 136-7).

Barker raises a legitimate concern about how such an inferentialist approach is supposed to handle beliefs like the belief that George ought not to be President. This prompts a revision in our position. Timmons and I now would propose a non-inferentialist construal of minimimally complex negative beliefs—that is, beliefs of the logical type ~F and the logical type Ought(~F), where F is a core descriptive content (and hence is expressible as an atomic sentence). Briefly, the idea is that such negative beliefs, like their affirmative counterparts, should be construed as commitment states with a direct constitutive psychological role in cognitive economy (rather than a constitutive inferential role). There are two direct, noninferential, kinds of is-commitment with respect to a core descriptive content and likewise two direct kinds of ought-commitment—affirmative and negative.[2] With this improvement incorporated into our position, I think the treatment of embedding in section VII.2 of our paper otherwise goes through as before, mutatis mutandis.




Fodor, J. 1968. Propositional Attitudes, The Monist 61, 501-23. Reprinted in his Representations (MIT Press), 1981).


Horgan, T. 1989. Attitudinatives, Linguistics and Philosophy 12, 133-65.


Horgan, T. 1992. From Cognitive Science to Folk Psychology: Computation, Mental Representation, and Belief, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 55, 449-84.


Horgan, T.  2001. Contextual Semantics and Metaphysical Realism: Truth as Indirect Correspondence. In M. Lynch, ed., The Nature of Truth: Classic and Contermporary Perspectives (MIT Press), 67-95.


Horgan, T. and Timmons, M. 2000. Nondescriptivist Cognitivism: Framework for a New Metaethic, Philosophical Papers 29, 121-53.


Quine, W. V. O. 1960. Word and Object. MIT Press.


Quine, W. V. O. 1970. Philosophy of Logic. Prentice-Hall


Wright, C. 1992. Truth and Objectivity. Harvard University Press

[1] Here I adapt Putnam’s capitalization convention, to indicate that I mean to be talking about denizens of the mind-independent, discourse-independent, world. I often use this convention in articulating my favored approach to truth. See, for instance, Horgan (2001). [Note added 1/16/03.]

[2] Of course, all four kinds of belief can combine with other beliefs to generate new beliefs (for a rational agent). In this sense, even these four minimally complex kinds of belief have a constitutive inferential aspect. But the point is that this aspect does not exhaust their constitutive role in psychological economy.