Friday, August 01, 2008

This Sunday's ACA lecture - Belief

The ACA hosts a monthly lecture series at the Austin History Center. I'll be delivering the August lecture, this Sunday and I thought it might be worthwhile to post a brief synopsis.

It's a topic that I've been fleshing-out for quite a while and despite the fact that we're less than 48 hours from lecture time, it's not completely finished (I've still got to finish some slides and run through it once more to make sure it's complete and of the appropriate length). The major themes, though, are complete...and despite the fact that 'epistemology' might be a more accurate title, I'm sticking with 'belief'.

Why? I once had someone write in to the TV show to try to convince me that it was pointless to discuss beliefs and that only knowledge mattered. I couldn't disagree more. Belief is something that I think is much easier to come to terms with than the various (and potentially useless) definitions of 'knowledge'. Belief is simply the acceptance of a proposition as true. Beliefs inform our actions - they matter. What we believe, and why, may be the single most important issues we face.

On a previous show, I pointed out that the old adage "knowledge is power" is actually wrong - in my opinion the real power is in understanding, not knowledge. I'm pretty sure that's what the saying implies, but I've been continually striving to be more precise in language. We tend to communicate in shorthand, trusting that our meaning is understood, because shorthand is usually good enough. However, when it matters, our reliance on these linguistic shortcuts isn't just a hindrance, it's potentially crippling.

So, we'll be starting with a few definitions; 'belief', 'knowledge' and 'real'...and then moving on to some Venn diagrams demonstrating truth values vs. belief values, what it all means, which positions or 'sets' are actually useful and which don't provide nearly the clarity that they imply in the vernacular.

And, unlike my last two lectures that sort of just faded out, this one may actually have a real ending - though I won't promise that.

If you're in the Austin area, you're welcome to attend (see the ACA website for more information). The lecture may eventually be posted, in some format, on our lecture page.


  1. In your post you talk about linguistic shortcuts and other muddy ways of communicating. This is actually a linguistic phenomenon called a Gricean Implicature, named after Paul Grice who developed the idea.

    It's basically what you said. If someone asks you, "Do you know what time it is?" they are are really asking you to tell them what time it is. That's a Gricean Implicature because the real question is implied and understood by both parties. Usually

    It doesn't talk a lot of imagination to realize that all sorts or problems can crop up when the implicature is not understood by both parties. There are actually linguists out there who study this kind of thing.

    Anyway, I'd recommend doing a Google search for Paul Grice or Implicature.

  2. Sounds like it'll be an interesting talk, wish I lived in Austin so I could hear it. One issue though... "single most important issues"? I do believe you meant to say "issue" though I could be wrong...Sorry for being a tad anal, I just can't help it sometimes.

  3. I had gathered from the pub crawl and bat cruise that you guys were party people but an epistemology lecture?! with Venn diagrams?!. Man! y'all are gonna get the cops called on you. That shizzle gun' b off da hook, yo.

    I hope someone records the lecture and puts it on Google video 'cause so far, I only found the "Visions of Hell" one there and I really wanted to see the one about the history of Biblical canon. Thanks for the link to the other lectures, though. I see that it is available in audio.

    I wanted to go in person and join you all for dinner but I don't think I'm going to be able to make it. What with the salaries of today's high school students being what they are and me being in Mexico... without a passport. So... yeah. :P

  4. Great to hear you have such lectures. I'd love to attend, but being in a far away land and not filthy rich (I could sell my apartment...) makes that a bit difficult.
    Have you read Daniel Dennett's Sweet Dreams? His works are great to learn about this subject.

  5. The slides and audio for the lecture can be found here:

    The video isn't currently posted (though it may be posted later).


  6. Interesting mention of Grice. For the record, I'd say he was a philosopher, more than a linguist. Taught almost 40 years as don at St. John's, Oxford -- to become full prof. philo at UC/Berkeley. It's Way of Words (his first book) which develops the idea. JL Speranza griceclub.blogspot.


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