An Argument for False Consciousness14 min read

Philosophers generally discuss belief-formation in one of two ways: internalist and externalist. Both arguments are concerned with the justification of the beliefs that a given agent purports to have. Internalists and externalists dispute the kinds of justification that can be given to a belief, in order to lend or detract an epistemic justification for the belief in question. For the internalist, a belief is justified if the grounds for it comes from something internal to the believer herself which she can control. For the externalist, belief can be justified without such an internal support. We can still be justified in believing something even if there are no grounds for belief that we can individually control. Between the internalist and externalist, “justifiability” concerns whether a belief can be present or whether what looks like belief is really something else (e.g. “unfounded hunch,” “dogmatism,” “false consciousness”).

Is such a dispute relevant for sociology? The answer, I argue, must be an unqualified yes: such a dispute is very relevant for sociology, but to see why requires a significant change in what it means to justify a belief. As a simple causal statement, sociology seems to support a belief externalism. After all, sociologists are in the business of describing beliefs that find presumably external sources in things like culture, meaning structures, and ideology. Yet, as a matter of action, sociologists seem more inclined toward belief internalism. The beliefs that drive agency are ones that agents themselves seem to control, as internal mental states, at least to the degree that they have a motivation to act and are not “cultural dopes” simply going through the motions. 

This is not a contradiction, it seems, because sociologists do not claim to be in the business of evaluating whether belief is justifiably present or not. In most cases, belief is unproblematically present as a matter of course. Sociologists are far more concerned with belief as an empirical process and beliefs as empirical things that can be used to explain other things. When confronted with questions about the “evaluation” or “justification” of beliefs, sociologists tend to think in terms of “value-neutrality.” The discipline can explain beliefs with even the most objectionable content without evaluating whether they are good or bad in a moral sense, or true or false in an epistemic sense. As some have suggested, not being committed to value-neutrality about beliefs would change our questions entirely and make for a very different discipline (see Abend 2008). 

I want to claim that there is a different way in which sociologists do evaluate beliefs (quite radically in fact) for the simple fact that they commit to belief externalism. This carries significant stakes for sociology as it touches upon a way in which the discipline recognizes and legitimates the presence of belief and by doing so countervails efforts not to recognize it or recognize it in a different way.

Consider a few vignettes (adapted from Srinivasan 2019a):

RACIST DINNER TABLE: A young black woman is invited to dinner at her white friend’s house. Her host’s father seems polite and welcoming, but over the course of the dinner the guest develops the belief that her friend’s father is racist. Should the guest be pressed on the sources of this belief, she says she simply “knows” that her friend’s father is racist. In fact, her friend’s father is racist though his own family does not know it.

CLASSIST COLLEGE: A working class student attends a highly selective college that prides itself on its commitment to social justice. She is assured by her advisor that while much of the student body comes from the richest 10%, she will feel right at home. Over the course of the first month of her attendance, however, the student experiences several instances where her class background becomes an explicit point of attention, ridicule and exclusion. She comes to believe that the university is not meant for those who come from her background. She tells this to her advisor who tells her in turn that, perhaps, she is being too sensitive. No one is trying to shun her.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: A woman in a poor rural village is regularly beaten and abused by her husband. Her husband expresses regret for the abuse, but explains to his wife that she “deserves” it based on her not being dutifully attentive to him. The woman believes that she only has herself to blame, an opinion echoed by her family and friends. She has never heard a contrary opinion.

Any sociologist who, having read these vignettes, and who are then asked “Are beliefs present?”, would very likely say “of course beliefs are present.” In fact, that would probably be the furthest thing from their minds. A sociologist would probably find such a question annoying and of dubious validity. There are far more pressing matters in these vignettes. Here is my wager: in saying that belief is present, sociologists actually make a radical evaluation of these beliefs, because they commit to belief externalism. In other words, they commit to the view that belief can be present even if the believer does not have grounds for belief that they can individually control. 

To consider the significance of this, consider some arguments in the philosophy of mind that are specifically meant to discredit belief externalism. As Srinivasan explains, the three cases above seem directly analogous to three famous thought experiments that each have the purpose of showing how belief cannot be present under the circumstances found in each of the vignettes (though the third is slightly tricky). A relevant disanalogy will help show why sociology’s commitment to belief externalism is significant and radical. 

RACIST DINNER TABLE corresponds to the CLAIRVOYANT experiment (Bonjour 1980) in which an individual believes he completely understands a certain subject matter under normal circumstances simply because he does not possess evidence, reasons or counterarguments of any kind against the possibility of his having a clairvoyant cognitive power. “One day [the clairvoyant] comes to believe that the President is in New York City, though he has no evidence either for or against this belief. In fact the belief is true and results from his clairvoyant power, under circumstances in which it is completely reliable.” To say the belief is justified in this instance is absurd, and this seems to prove the necessity to “reflect critically upon one’s beliefs … [in order to] preclude believing things to which one has, to one’s knowledge, no reliable means of epistemic access” (Bonjour 1980: 63). To have a reliable means of epistemic access (e.g. this is why I believe this) is to have an internalist grounds for belief that one can control. Without it, we don’t have beliefs but “unfounded hunches.”

CLASSIST COLLEGE corresponds to the DOGMATIST experiment (Lasonen-Aarnio 2010) in which someone in an art museum forms a belief about a given sculpture as being red, though she is later told by a museum staff member that when the museum visitor saw the sculpture it had been illuminated by a hidden light that momentarily made it seem like it was red when in fact it is white. Even when the museum patron is told this, however, she persists in her belief that the sculpture is red. In this case, such a belief would not be justified because the internalist grounds that would have made it justifiable no longer apply. To justifiably believe that the sculpture is red, the museum patron could not have witnessed the sculpture in its white state and/or could not have been told by the museum staff member why her belief is inaccurate. She is a dogmatist because, while the second condition does apply, her belief persists nevertheless.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE corresponds to the famous BRAIN-IN-A-VAT experiment. Someone will form beliefs when they are trapped (Matrix-style) in a liquid goo vat that feeds electrochemical signals directly to their nervous system. For some internalists, belief is justifiably present in such circumstances based on the internalist criteria that the person in the vat will have “every reason to believe [that] perception is a reliable process. [The] mere fact unbeknown to [them that] it is not reliable should not affect the justification” (Cohen 1984: 81-82). 

In all three cases, there are analogous circumstances between the vignettes and the thought experiments. The question is why it seems unproblematic to ascribe beliefs in the vignettes while it seems far more problematic to ascribe them in the thought experiments. The answer comes in a relevant disanalogy: the vignettes account for belief-formation by referencing a relational process, of some kind, that an internalist simply cannot recognize and the externalist in these cases only latently recognizes. 

As suggested above, for a sociologist to say that “yes beliefs are present” in such circumstances as RACIST DINNER TABLE, CLASSIST COLLEGE, and DOMESTIC VIOLENCE is unproblematic to the point of absurdity. Yet, if the thought experiments reveal anything, they reveal why attributing belief in these circumstances is really saying something. And it says something without having to rely on CLAIRVOYANT, DOGMATIST or BRAIN-IN-A-VAT kinds of fallacies. This is because sociologists have a very important thing in their back-pocket, something deeply familiar to them: the ability to account for belief-formation, again, in “terms of structural notions rather than individualist ones.” 

This may all seem obvious enough, but it actually opens a large and important horizon that Omar and I (Strand and Lizardo 2015; Strand 2015) have just barely scratched the surface. Belief-formation (and desire-formation) is a primary sociological problem because accounting for the presence of belief is a very good way of sorting out distinctively social effects of various theoretically important kinds that also happen to be inextricably cognitive. But let’s take this one step further. The internalist critique of externalism revolves around the fact that externalists can only describe the presence of belief under such and such circumstances. It is not a normative theory that can be “action-guiding [and] operational under conditions of uncertainty and ignorance” (Srinivasan 2019a). Those who have internalist grounds for belief can presumably apply them in conditions of uncertainty and ignorance. Hence, belief should be formed on grounds of internal criteria and the subject’s individual perspective. 

But consider what externalism might look like as a normative theory. What would it mean for beliefs formed without an internal criteria and only through relationships with others to carry a greater or equivalent epistemic good as beliefs formed through internal criteria that otherwise seem far more respectable ethically speaking (insofar as they allow us to attribute blame and responsibility)? As the scenario between BRAIN-IN-A-VAT and DOMESTIC VIOLENCE suggests, internalist criteria can obviously mislead the attribution of belief in circumstances where it does not apply and where the recognition of externalist grounds for belief can reveal false consciousness. More specifically, the RACIST DINNER TABLE/CLAIRVOYANCE and CLASSIST COLLEGE/DOGMATIST examples suggest that the externalist belief-formation evidenced in these circumstances carries a distinct epistemic good. None of this should be unfamiliar to sociologists. Sociologists are often the ones who recognize, defend and legitimate the presence of belief in these circumstances, despite all countervailing forces.

All of this rests on a certain genealogical anxiety, however, as Srinivasan (2019b) appreciates. As a field, cognitive science massively contributes to this anxiety. For externalism of this sort, of the sociological sort, makes a radical claim to the degree that it radically departs from folk-psychological familiarity, and its overlap with ethical respectability, at least should we try to take this to a logical conclusion. We must conclude that our beliefs—even our good ones, even our “action-guiding” ones—result from some kind of “lucky” or “unlucky” inheritance. They must be genealogical in other words and cannot result from some internalist criteria that remains indelibly ours, under our control and which reflects kindly upon us (or poorly depending on how lucky we are). I will save discussion of these implications for another post.



Abend, Gabriel. (2008). “Two Main Problems in the Sociology of Morality.” Theory and Society 37: 87-125.

BonJour, Laurence (1980). “Externalist Theories of Empirical Knowledge” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 5: 53–73.

Cohen, Stewart. (1984). “Justification and Truth.” Philosophical Studies 46: 279-296.

Lasonen-Aarnio, Maria. (2010). “Unreasonable Knowledge”. Philosophical Perspectives 24: 1-21.

Strand, Michael. (2015). “The Genesis and Structure of Moral Universalism: Social Justice in Victorian Britain, 1834-1901.” Theory and Society 44: 537-573.

Strand, Michael and Omar Lizardo. (2015). “Beyond World Images: Belief as Embodied Action in the World.” Sociological Theory 33: 44-70.

Srinivasan, Amia. (2019a). “Radical Externalism.” Philosophical Review

_____. (2019b). “Genealogy, Epistemology, and Worldmaking.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 119: 127-156.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Thick and Thin Belief – Culture, Cognition, and Action (culturecog)

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