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Greek Origins of Belief

David Martel Johnson
American Philosophical Inquiry, October 1987, 24 (4).


Many philosophers and psychologists assume that belief is a property or (both occurrent and dispositional) state which - like having ten toes or walking upright - has characterized human beings for as long as there have been such creatures. On the other hand, some challenge this assumption on the grounds that (i) the idea of having beliefs is a theoretical notion dreamed up at some point in time in the past as an attempted explanation of certain aspects of human behavior, and (ii) scientific work now increasingly shows that the theory in which the notion is embedded (folk psychology) - like the phlogiston theory of combustion and the demonic possession theory of madness before it - is mistaken. Therefore according to the latter thinkers, strictly speaking there are not, and never were, such things as beliefs, nor any property, state or activity that deserves to be called "believing." In this essay I shall argue for a third alternative - viz., that it is unnecessary to insist that the notion of belief (a) either applies to every human at every time, or (b) has never applied to any of them, because (c) belief is not a category universal to humans, like having a chin or being capable of speech, but a cultural achievement like the discovery of agriculture or the use of fire. Thus, I maintain that human beings only began to believe things - at least in the strict or full sense of the word - after certain historical events had made it possible for them to do so. Nevertheless, even though belief is not an inborn capacity but something we have invented, it still is appropriate to think of it as partially revealing what human beings are like, since the human nature we now possess is not something settled once and for all by innate factors, but also has been molded by certain historical experiences.