How do our attitudes get their objects? Added Explanatory Remarks

I think there is a question we can ask about attitudes.  It may be that we can’t answer it without looking at the semantics of general terms, but I’m going to hope we can get some where without doing that.  Right now I’m typing on my iphone; I’ll say more about this hope when I can get to a computer.

To raise the question, let’s consider allergies.  Suppose I say, “I am allergic to anything with gluten in it”.  What makes it true that my allergy has this vast number of objects?  How does my allergy match the reference of the terms?  Well, presumably there is something about me that causes a reaction to gluten.

Can a similar question be raised about statements of bias and bigotry?  Suppose I am very biased against people living in Texas (where I in fact live).  So imagine I say “I hate Texans, all 20 million of them”.  Is there a question/problem about my attitude reaching the 700 or so miles over to El Paso?

It’s false to say the allergic person is not allergic to gluten in El Paso.  Does something make it similarly true that I’m bigoted about the people in El Paso?  If so, what is it?

let me add that there is a problem taking referential semantics into psychology, so my question may not be as light as it might seem.  And what I am wondering is whether our attitudes get their objects through the social groups of which we are members.  Can there be a solitary bigot?  Suppose someone says “I hate hamsters”.  Every single one?

This post is really a call for comments, biblio suggestions, etc. The considerations advanced should find their way into a paper I am revising on individual versus institutional racism. It’s due Nov 1! Though I don’t think that all racism is institutional, I am wondering whether racism should ever be thought of as a private affliction, as it were. One way it might be more toward the social side is that it takes a social setting to make one’s hatred of hamsters extend to all hamsters. For example, if one is a member of a very anti-hamster club that takes action against hamsters, writes hamster hating editorials, etc.

Part of the background comes from a problem in accounts of the semantics of statements. Murphy, in his Big Book on Concepts, claims that while referential semantics has a large role in linguistics, it has no role in psychology. His reason is that speakers do not have access to the (whole) set of, for example, hamsters that form the referent of “hamster.” Though he doesn’t say it, I think he means that the set of all hamsters has no causal role in our use of the concept of hamster, in evidence gathering, etc.

The problem Murphy seems to see is arguably a very important problem for philosophy of mind. Our accounts of the content of the propositions supposedly the objects of our propositional attitudes gives the truth conditions, when successful, of “I hate hamsters,” but they don’t have much to do with one’s use of the concept.* This is very important since most philosophers think propositional attitudes have causal roles as, e.g., reasons for belief, action and emotion. Still less, I think, do the accounts explain how I can hate all hamsters. Perhaps what I really hate are small rodents with long fur when I encounter them, or anything that looks to me like the hamsters neighbors used to have. If so, perhaps I don’t hate hamsters exactly, but rather hate hamster like objects when they feature in my experience. The extension to racial hatreds is pretty clear.

So what is the point of our saying someone is racist when we mean they have an attitude toward all members of a particular race? It could be economy of speech. Or it might be that the attitude the racist has is one of belief; there doesn’t seem to be the same problem of connection with believing the proposition “All hamsters ought to be eradicated,” for example. Or statements of racial hatred might be in the class of statements whose claims can be successfully attributed to the speaker because of their social position/circumstanes, etc. something like a social division of labor writ large.

Or maybe there’s a deep confusion here.

** Machery describes the problem in his book on concepts, as does Ramsey (??) in his book on representation reconsidered.