Uku Tooming holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Tartu. His doctoral thesis examines the communicative significance of beliefs and desires.
It often matters to us what other people believe and want. This is apparent in everyday interactions, in gossip and in debates, in domestic life, and in a meeting of strangers.
Knowledge about the beliefs and desires of others is a form of basic social knowledge because these attitudes express a person’s take on the world: from the perspective of their possessor, beliefs are about what is the case and desires are about what should be the case.
It is noticeable that such knowledge matters to us as social animals: already the fact that another person believes or wants something, especially if one disagrees with it, might bring about strong affective reactions in us. Why is that? I am not asking here about the psychological mechanisms which ground our reactions to others’ attitudes. This is a philosophical question of why we should care about these attitudes and how this relates to our practical interests more generally. Questions about why something is important are admittedly quite imprecise but still worth inquiring into, for the sake of reflective self-understanding.
There are at least three answers to our question which do not necessarily exclude one another. According to the first, knowing others’ attitudes matters to us because these attitudes have behavioural consequences, at least potentially, which might be contrary to our interests. This can’t be the whole story, however, because others’ attitudes seem to matter even in cases when we haven’t got a clear idea what actions would follow from these attitudes (That being said, predictions of action that the awareness of attitudes enables can’t be dismissed as a negligible benefit of attitude attributions).