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Rationality and ReflectionHow to Think About What to Think$

Jonathan L. Kvanvig

Print publication date: 2014

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Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198716419.001.0001

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(p.169) Appendix A Reducing Personal to Doxastic Justification

(p.169) Appendix A Reducing Personal to Doxastic Justification

Rationality and Reflection
Oxford University Press

Chapter 1 included a discussion of the variety of locutions involving any given epistemically normative term, and defended an account of epistemic justification which explained doxastic uses in terms of propositional uses. In the process, the question of the relationship between locutions attributing a complex justificatory property to persons, as in ‘S is justified in believing p’, was postponed to this appendix. Our concern is thus to consider whether personal justification involves a distinct form of epistemic appraisal from that involved in doxastic justification (in the next appendix, we’ll consider the issue of whether doxastic justification can be used to explain propositional justification).

The motivation for the idea that personal justification is distinct from the other two typically runs something like this: it is one thing for a belief to be justified, but another for a person to be judged adequate from an epistemic perspective in holding a belief. The latter, it might be thought, carries with it the scent of epistemic virtue or excellence, so that the person’s character is being assessed rather than merely the particular expression of that character in a given instance of believing. Thus, it might seem, there is a difference between a person being justified in holding a given belief and that belief itself being justified.

Kent Bach has used this idea to provide an original defense of reliabilism against certain counterexamples to it. He says,

I propose that we distinguish between a person being justified in holding a belief and the belief itself being justified. What makes a person justified in holding a belief resides in the quality of his epistemic action. There is much that this can involve, including asking fruitful questions, considering plausible alternatives, and properly evaluating evidence. Without trying to spell out precisely what good epistemic action involves, let’s just say that a person is justified in believing something to the extent that he holds the belief rationally and responsibly. However, a belief can be justified even in the absence of any action on the part of the believer, as in the case of beliefs formed automatically or routinely, without any deliberate consideration. (Bach, 1985, p. 251)

(p.170) Bach claims that there is a distinction between personal justification and the sort of justification which attaches to a belief. Personal justification is a kind of justification which attaches to, or is predicated of, persons and not of propositions or beliefs; doxastic justification is predicated of beliefs and not persons. Of course, it does not follow from the fact that Bach draws this distinction that he also holds, or should hold, that the kinds in question are irreducibly distinct. However, if Bach thought the two kinds of justification were not distinct, it would be crucial for the force of his argument that he noted the way the two kinds were related in order to defend his claim that the distinction between the two is as he sees it. In particular, he would need to argue that the way the two kinds were related definitionally implies that only doxastic justification can obtain in the purported counterexamples to reliabilism. Since Bach engages in no such discussion, it is reasonable to conclude that he intends to be drawing a distinction between two distinct kinds of justification. And, if Bach is right, we have good reason for thinking that personal justification is not equivalent to doxastic justification and perhaps not to propositional justification either.

Bach claims that S is justified in holding a belief (i.e., S is the locus of personal justification in the situation of holding the belief in question) roughly if and only if that person’s epistemic action, which resulted in the belief, is of sufficiently high quality. Since basic beliefs are not products of action at all, it follows (and Bach agrees that it follows) that no person can be justified in holding a basic belief. This claim is belied by ordinary parlance. For instance, Descartes can be justified in believing that he thinks even though he performs no epistemic action in arriving at that belief. Further, it is worth noting that the appeal to ordinary parlance is appropriate for the task before us, for the question of the reducibility of personal justification concerns the relationship between the syntactic formulations of ordinary English which employ the word ‘justified’ and variants on it. Thus, even if there is a sense of ‘justification’ on which basic beliefs all fail to be justified, this fact would not show the irreducibility of personal justification to other kinds of justification. One way to put this point is this: the reducibility claim is a different claim than an ambiguity claim about justification, and at best, Bach’s arguments give us a reason for claiming ambiguity. The reason this ambiguity claim seems important in our context is that Bach couples the ambiguity claim with a claim at least apparently relating that ambiguity to the locutions we have identified as distinctive of personal and doxastic justification. This latter claim is false: if there is an ambiguity in the notion of justification, it is not reflected in ordinary locutions distinctive of personal and doxastic justification. Hence, even if Bach should have found a defense of reliabilism against certain counterexamples (p.171) to it, his defense fails to provide any definitive argument for the irreducibility of personal justification to propositional and doxastic justification.

Clayton Littlejohn urges a similar conclusion, that personal justification is an Internalist notion and doxastic an Externalist one.1 Littlejohn cites Catherine Lowy (1978) as being the first to recognize the distinction between personal and doxastic justification, and the same idea has been pursued in Engel (1992) to attempt to explain away at least some of the controversy between Internalists and Externalists.

As a claim about how ordinary language or philosophical discourse about epistemic normativity actually functions, however, these claims are suspect. Consider John Locke’s remark, for example:

He that believes, without having any reason for believing, maybe in in love with his own fancies; but neither seeks truth as he ought, nor pays the obedience due his maker, who would have him use these discerning faculties he has given him, to keep him out of mistake and error. He that does not this to the best of his power, however he sometimes lights on truth, is in the right but by chance; and I know not whether the luckiness of the accident will excuse the irregularity of his proceeding. This at least is certain, that he must be accountable for whatever mistakes he runs into: whereas he that makes use of the light and faculties God has given him, and seeks sincerely to discover truth, by those helps and abilities he has, may have this satisfaction in doing his duty as a rational creature …. For he governs his assent right, and places it as he should, who in any case or matter whatsoever, believes or disbelieves, according as reason directs him. (Locke, 1698, IV.xvii.24)

Locke does not use the language of justification in this passage, but does engage in epistemic appraisal using the language of reasonability. Note that he begins with a situation involving no reasons for belief, and characterizes such a situation in deeply personal terms: such a person is accountable, is without excuse (at least when in error), has not done his duty. In contrast, those who have reasonable beliefs are those who make use of the faculties God has given them, believing or disbelieving as reason directs. It is clear that Locke’s position on epistemic appraisal here makes no distinction between the reasonability of a belief and the reasonability of the person holding the belief.

The same is true in W. K. Clifford’s famous article “The Ethics of Belief.” Clifford switches easily and without syntactic or semantic awkwardness between constructions involving doxastic and personal justification:

Shall we steal and tell lies because we have had no personal experience wide enough to justify the belief that it is wrong to do so? (Clifford, 1877[1999] p. 347, emphasis mine)

(p.172) But are we not trusting our spectroscope too much? Surely, having found it to be trustworthy for terrestrial substances, where its statements can be verified by man, we are justified in accepting its testimony in other like cases; but not when it gives us information about things in the sun, where its testimony cannot be directly verified by man?

Certainly, we want to know a little more before this inference can be justified … (Clifford, 1877[1999] p. 363, emphasis mine)

No evidence, therefore, can justify us in believing the truth of a statement which is contrary to, or outside of, the uniformity of nature. Clifford, 1877[1999], p. 361, emphasis mine

Note that Clifford, in these passages, switches with ease between locutions attributing justification to persons, beliefs, and inferences. It would be surprising indeed if these remarks by Locke and Clifford revealed some failure to grasp appropriate syntax or semantics of ordinary language, even though such an hypothesis is of course compatible with the data. Moreover, any modestly careful perusal of the history of epistemology and its language of justification shows that this language simply doesn’t fall into the categories posited by those who wish to distinguish personal from doxastic justification, nor is there any evidence from ordinary language outside of philosophy to sustain their conclusions.

But we need not go so far as to accuse these authors and other speakers of natural language of such mistakes in order to make sense of the positions of Lowy, Bach, Littlejohn, and Engel. To put the point bluntly, anyone can be mistaken, even about matters epistemic, without that mistake being traceable to syntactic, semantic, or logico-metaphysical confusion. It is worth seeing how that point plays out in the context of theorists who wish to distinguish between personal and doxastic justification.

To make sense of their position, we need only note that their discussions include something like what we see in the Bach quote: we begin with the drawing of a distinction, to the effect that we can evaluate persons or we can evaluate their beliefs, and the two might in some way be independent of each other. Perhaps, for example, the person might have done all that can reasonably be expected in search of the truth, while the belief is simply not shown to be true by the evidence available. Then, after drawing a distinction, the syntactic constructions in question are put to use to encode the distinction in question.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with distinction-drawing, and there is also nothing wrong with using a distinction together with existing syntactic constructions to make a philosophical point. This is, after all, how terms of art develop, and a clear sign of when a syntactic construction is being turned into a term of art is when its interpretation involves a gloss on the intended sense to be attached to the construction. And to be clear here, I have no objection whatsoever to the (p.173) project of finding multiple normative notions appropriate in epistemology, nor to the using of various syntactic constructions to signal important distinctions that might be overlooked in various debates in epistemology.

These points raise the issue of exactly what is at stake in our discussion and what isn’t. We are interested in the question of what kinds of things are fundamentally the objects of epistemic appraisal and we want to know whether we can find a unifying philosophical account of this diversity. If we can find such a unified explanation, it will help undergird the fundamental motivation for the theory proposed here, one which is capable of speaking with a single voice to the predicament of what to do and what to think. Success in this project leaves open the possibility that ambiguity must be posited on other grounds, so the goal is not that of arriving at results that prohibit epistemologists from engaging in distinction-drawing and then introducing various parts of language as terms of art to characterize the distinctions drawn. The goal is, rather, to see if the territory in which the substance of epistemology is addressed and developed is characterized, or can profitably be characterized, by an underlying unity at the more formal level at which logic, philosophy of logic, and metaphysics intersect.

We begin, then, with a direct examination and evaluation of the relation between personal and doxastic justification. Some formal machinery will aid us in this task. We will assume a first-order language with variables ‘s’ ranging over persons, ‘p’ and ‘q’ ranging over propositions, and ‘x’ ranging over all objects. This language also contains complex expressions of the form [λx1xnψ],2 where ‘λ‎’ here is an abstraction operator and ψ‎ any formula.3 λ‎-expressions will be considered to be both terms and predicates so they can occur both in subject and predicate position in atomic formulas. Intuitively [λx1xnψ] denotes the n-place relation that holds between objects a1,,an just in case ψ(xi/ai).4 Where n = 0, [λψ] denotes the proposition that ψ‎. Thus, where L is the loving relation, ‘[λLjm]’ can be read as “(the proposition) that John loves Mary,” and ‘[λxLxm]’ as “(the property of) being an x such that x loves Mary.”5

(p.174) Doxastic justification has an agent’s belief as the subject of predication, to which a property is attributed. What is not clear, however, is whether the belief in question is a belief-type or a belief-token. To get at the distinction, suppose Sid stops every day at the same stop sign, and does so justifiably. When we assert on one such occasion that he stops justifiably, are we attributing justification to that particular token of his stopping, or to that type which is common to all such stoppings?

Decisions regarding cases of this sort may not seem that pressing, for it may seem that not much hinges on one answer as opposed to another in this case. However, there are other cases in which the type/token distinction is critical because there is no token of the type in question of which to predicate anything. For example, suppose Joe is driving from Dallas to Houston at a rate of 45 miles per hour. Given that the speed limit is 55, we might say that Joe’s driving 55, or his driving 10 miles per hour faster than he is driving, is justified, even though he is not in fact driving that fast. Analogously, when we say that a person’s believing a proposition is justified, we may mean to imply that the person has the belief in question, but we may not mean to imply this either. Hence, doxastic justification locutions are ambiguous.

To capture the ambiguity, we need a notation which will allow us to distinguish between types and tokens. To this end, terms for token states of affairs will be indicated by braces rather than square brackets. We then get two readings of the nature of doxastic justification:

(1) J[λBsp]


(1a) J{λBsp}.

(1a) implies that an actual belief of S’s is justified; (1) does not imply that there is any actual belief, but rather claims that an abstract state of affairs of S’s believing p is justified. Note that in representing this difference, I am assuming that it is the same normative property involved in both type and token cases. We might assume that the properties are different, but there is no special reason to do so at this point. Recall that the goal is not to try to find ambiguity but to avoid it, so there would need to be a special reason to think the properties are different in the two cases to justify representing the properties differently. It is surely false that different objects, or even different types of objects cannot instance the same property, so there is no good reason at this point to represent the properties differently. What is different is the object that has the property in question, not the property itself.

(p.175) Note also that in representing the type-level reading of the claim, I am assuming an identification of states of affairs and propositions. Should the reader find this identification objectionable, we could introduce a further propositional operator which takes one from a proposition to the correlative abstract state of affairs. I see no reason for such an operator for a couple of reasons. First, the identification of propositions and states of affairs is common in the metaphysical literature on abstract entities,6 and even if we really need two distinct types of abstracta here, there will be a necessary equivalence available, to the effect that a proposition’s truth is necessarily equivalent to the obtaining of a state of affairs. Given the latter point, we won’t have a good reason to think ambiguity of any sort that yields different truth-values could arise for epistemic appraisal merely on the basis of a difference between states of affairs and propositions. If ambiguity of the significant sort (e.g., the kind that yields differences in truth-values for doxastic vs. personal appraisals) is going to arise, it will have to be on some other basis than some reticence on the metaphysical issue of identifying propositions and states of affairs.

Personal justification occurs in claims of the form S is justified in believing p. This claim is ambiguous as well, and its ambiguity is the same sort of ambiguity that infects attributions of doxastic justification. Consider again the case of Joe’s driving 45 when the speed limit is 55. We might say, in such a case, that Joe is justified in driving 10 miles per hour faster than he is; or we might just say that Joe is justified in driving 55. In either case, we have an attribution of a property to Joe which involves only an act-type and not an act-token. In the belief case, the matter is similar. When we say that S is justified in believing p, one reading of this ambiguous claim involves S’s believing p and one does not.

It may be objected here that the two different readings are better understood by taking one of the readings to involve conversational rather than semantic implicature. If that idea is true, however, the task of avoiding ambiguity is easier: we just need to focus on one of the two readings. If the goal is to show that there is no logico-metaphysical barrier to eliminating ambiguity, it would be best not to appeal to the difference between semantic and conversational implicature without a decisive argument for such in the present context.7 Since I have no such argument, I’ll assume for present purposes that the ambiguity is semantic.

The issue, then, is how to represent the two readings of “S is justified in believing p.” If we are to give the fairest hearing to those who believe that personal (p.176) justification is irreducible to doxastic justification, we should perhaps heed their intuitions regarding personal justification. It will be recalled that, for Bach, personal justification involves attributing a property to a person. If that is so, then personal justification involves the attribution of a property, being justified in believing p, to a person S. This property, however, is complex and should be represented as such. One way to understand its complexity is as follows: it involves the attribution of some form of justification to S’s (token or type) believing of p. Since we are here assuming the identity of abstract states of affairs and propositions, the abstract state of affairs S’s believing p is just the proposition that S believes p. Further, the representation of the same claim read as an attribution of justification to a token state of affairs should have the same logical form as that of an attribution to the correlative abstract state of affairs, with the exception that the abstract state is replaced by a corresponding token state. So, in the abstract case, the complex property in question can be understood as involving the attribution of some form of justification to the proposition that S believes p. We then get the following for the abstract case:

(2) [λxJ[λBxp]]s.

And for the token case we have by the earlier



(2) reads as follows: S has the property of being an x such that x’s believing p (a type, rather than token, state of affairs) is justified. (2a) reads as follows: S has the property of being an x such that a token believing of x’s that p is true is justified. In both cases, these representations capture the intuitive points noted earlier, for they attribute a complex property—the property of being an x such that x believes that p is true is justified—of S.

Given the representations in (2) and (2a), we are in a position to see that personal justification is easily explainable in terms of the two readings of doxastic justification. For by λ‎-conversion,8 (2) and (2a) are equivalent to:


(2’) J[λBsp]


(2a’) J{λBsp}.

Consider, then, the following claims of logical equivalence between personal and doxastic justification:

Personal–Doxastic Type-Equivalence(PD[E]): [λxJ4[λBxp]]s J2[λBsp]


Personal–Doxastic Token-Equivalence(PD{E}): [λx J5{λBxp}]s J3{λBsp}

Given the adequacy of PD[E] and PD{E}, personal

justification obtains if and only if doxastic justification obtains as well. Given these results, a simple theory can be developed that adopts Chisholm’s view about the priority of epistemic appraisal applying to doxastic states without fear of counterexample from locutions attributing personal justification.

One might choose to resist Chisholm’s view in a couple of ways. First, one might resist outright, claiming that the earlier formalisms misrepresent what they intend to capture. For, it might be claimed, if we pay closer attention to the syntactic structure involved, there are two importantly different ways to parse those sentences other than the one underlying the representations on which we have focused. First we have

S is (justified in believing) p,

and on the other hand we have

S is (justified in) believing p.

In either case, it might seem that personal justification should be understood as a relation. If read in the first way, the objection would be that we should analyze personal justification as involving the relation being justified in believing which holds between a person and a proposition. If read in the second way, the objection would be that it should be analyzed as involving the relation being justified in which holds between a person and a believing of p. As before, both readings would still be subject to the type/token ambiguity; the heart of the objection, however, is that by ignoring the relational character of personal justification, our conclusion about the logical equivalence of personal and doxastic justification is too easily achieved.

(p.178) A quick response focuses on a point we have already made: those who believe that personal justification is not explicable in terms of doxastic justification are more likely to think of personal justification in terms of a property residing in a person. If personal justification is treated as a relation between a person and some other thing, perhaps a belief state, this point is lost.

But there is a more substantive response. Nothing said previously implies that there are no relations which obtain in virtue of the obtaining of personal justification as represented earlier. The relation being justified in believing obtains between S and p; the relation being justified in obtains between S and the belief-state of believing p. In each case, these relations will be at the very least logically equivalent to, and perhaps definable in terms of, those representations we have used in (2) and (2a) to represent the nature of personal justification. For, if they are not, there must be some more direct objection to these representations, an objection showing that our representations of personal justification somehow get it wrong. So the objection we are considering has no force against our conclusion unless it is bolstered by an as yet unformulated objection. Hence this objection does not undermine the basic thrust of our discussion: namely, that personal justification locutions are logically equivalent to attributions of doxastic justification.


(1) See Littlejohn (2012), pp. 5–8 and the earlier Littlejohn (2009).

(2) In the formal details of this language, not every formula can be legitimately substituted for ψ‎ in ‘[λx1xnψ]’. Nonetheless, all formulas relevant to our project can function in such expressions, so the additional complexities required by the language and logic we are assuming will not be introduced here. For more on the assumed logic and language, see Menzel (1986).

(3) There are certain restrictions which must be placed on ψ‎ in a rigorous presentation of the logic underlying our discussion. We will not state these restrictions overtly, but we note that our use of the logic here follows them.

(4) Where ψ(xi/ai) is the result of evaluating ψ‎ with ai as the value of xi.

(5) Here as elsewhere I am assuming that formulas are implicitly time-indexed, so to say that John loves Mary is to say that John loves Mary at a particular time.

(6) See, for example, Chisholm (1976).

(7) The distinction between semantic and conversational implicature traces to Paul Grice’s seminal (1968).

(8) The general form of λ‎-conversion is


where ψ(x1xn/y1yn) is the result of

simultaneously replacing each xi with yi in ψ‎.

This general form does not hold in the assumed logic,

but the inference from (2) to (2’) and from (2a) to (2a’) licensed by λ‎-conversion does hold in that logic nonetheless. The same is true of all other such inferences in this chapter. For more on the assumed logic, see Menzel (1986).