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  • Are the Deluded Believers? Are Philosophers Among the Deluded?
  • George Graham (bio)

delusion, belief, philosophers, reasoning

Are delusions best understood as a species of belief? Can I be deluded that p without believing that p?

Because delusion is a clinical symptom, there are conflicting data at every turn. Perhaps it is best to think of delusions as beliefs not because they necessarily are beliefs, but because doing so helps patients. If one thinks that “denying that delusions are beliefs” means denying deluded patients “a voice in their own treatment” and that this would cut them off from alternative and healthier ways of thinking of themselves or the world, then one may wish to classify delusions as beliefs (see Kinderman and Bentall 2007, 288).

I do not wish to classify delusions as beliefs (and I doubt whether thinking of delusions as beliefs helps all patients). This is because I think of delusions as messy, compound, and complex psychological states or attitudes (thoughts, feelings, and so on), defined more by how persons mismanage their content and fail to prudently act in terms of them, than by qualifying as beliefs (see Stephens and Graham 2004, 2007; Graham 2010). This taxonomic attitude of mine, which I share with G. Lynn Stephens, means that questions about when or whether people are deluded have less to do with attitudinal botany than with what persons do because of various thoughts, feelings, or beliefs that they have. If a person is in the grip of a delusional stance (as Stephens and I put it) toward the content of an attitude or set of attitudes, they are deluded. If not, not. Other ills may be present in their psychological makeup perhaps, but not delusion.

A realistic picture of delusion should leave room for the clinical vagaries of delusional presentation and not try to funnel each case of delusion through the taxonomic filter of the propositional attitude of belief.

Now philosophers. Might we be deluded? This is a marvelous question for Marga Reimer to ask. Just look at what some of us say:

The external world does not exist. The self is fiction. No individual entity other than an amorphous blob or lump exists. There exists a plurality of worlds, one actual, and infinitely many others possible.

That’s just a representative sample of our bizarre philosophical claims.

Here is what I really admire in Reimer’s paper. Not her effort to carve a defensible niche for the thesis that delusions are beliefs. Certainly some beliefs are anomalous in type. Likewise: Mad desire and Martian desire may not be the same as [End Page 337] human desire. Her effort at preserving the thesis that delusions are beliefs by describing some delusions as anomalous beliefs falls, to me, on not persuaded ears. I certainly respect the effort, but I am unmoved by it.

What I like is Reimer’s worry about whether philosophers, when making bizarre or odd metaphysical claims, are deluded. She is worried about whether, if delusions are beliefs, bizarre or outlandish in content or character, then the odd claims of philosophers are delusional as well. She does not think we are deluded, of course. But could such bizarre claims be anything but delusional? It is massively unwarranted for me to believe that I am unreal or that the external world fails to exist. If I read a newspaper, or go to the supermarket or the museum, enjoy cooking marshmallows, spend time with my colleagues, or play a game of checkers, do I, should I, think of myself as unreal or the world beyond my senses as nonexistent? Of course not.

I have to admit that it may be hard for the non-philosopher to distinguish between the deluded and the philosophical. (A student of a colleague, when asked on a test about Descartes’ conception of philosophy, had this to say: “According to Descartes the aim of philosophy is to doubt everything, even if this means believing only those propositions that are most absurd.”)

Much of what Reimer says in comparison and contrast between delusional beliefs and odd philosophical beliefs fits with the premise that neither delusions nor some bizarre attitudes of philosophers are beliefs. Here is how...


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pp. 337-339
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