Assistant Professor, Georgia State University, Perimeter College
What does it mean to believe in yourself? Is it to believe that you are likely to succeed? Such belief might in many cases seen unjustified or irrational. For example, when someone believes in her ability to run a marathon despite having never run a similar distance before, she lacks evidence that this is something she can successfully do. How do we distinguish believing in oneself from an attitude of over-confidence? Call this the puzzle of believing in oneself. If we interpret believing in oneself as a kind of belief, then in many cases the person who believes in themselves believes something they do not think is justified.
There are several possible approaches to this puzzle. One might be to relax the standards for justification for believing in one’s ability to accomplish a goal. Another might be to hold that the attitude of believing in oneself is not best characterized as belief, but as something else—perhaps an attitude of self-trust, or a kind of grit. While no philosophical account of believing in oneself has yet been given, there have been several recent papers about what makes agents ‘gritty,’ or resilient in the face of failure (Rioux 2022; Malcolm and Scott 2021; Paul and Morton 2018). These works focus primarily on when it is rationally permissible to believe that success is likely, either in one’s own or others’ endeavors, on the basis of limited evidence.
I propose a view that largely sidesteps the question whether and in which circumstances belief in oneself is evidentially justified. This view regards believing in oneself as a kind of pretense. One pretends that one will succeed, and uses this pretense to motivate and inspire oneself to actually succeed. Since the belief that one will succeed is a pretense and not a full-fledged belief, it need not be held to the same standard of evidential sensitivity as other beliefs.
To understand pretense, I draw from two sources: Evans (1982) and Nichols and Stich (2003). A belief held as pretense, on this view, is taken to apply within a limited context that may not be co-extensive with reality. Evans’s primary model is a game of pretend in which children pretend that mud pies are actual pies. Evans introduces a notation for entering claims that are make-believedly the case: *P* means ‘it is make-believedly the case that P’ (Evans 1982, 354). He introduces a further rule on a game of make-believe: the incorporation principle. The incorporation principle permits the incorporation into the game of any truth not ruled out by the initial pretense (354). This means that if something is true in the pretense, it might also be true outside of the pretense. Evans describes a “game-to- reality shift,” in which someone who is pretending that P in fact thinks about something real when the pretended truths turn out to be true outside the pretense (362). While Evans’s primary interest in pretense is in dealing with statements that refer to things that do not exist, the account applies to many more pretended propositions, like the pretense that one is likely to succeed.
In pretending that one will succeed, one does not believe in any non-existent entities, but rather believes a proposition for which one, outside the pretense, might not have adequate evidence. When one believes that one can succeed, one acts within the scope of a pretense. Seeing belief in oneself as a kind of pretense helps to explain both why it bypasses ordinary standards for justification. Further, a game-to-reality shift can occur if one does in fact succeed, making the object of the pretense (the likelihood of success) actual.
Understanding belief in oneself as a kind of pretense fits well with William James’s description of the “will to believe” as a kind of hypothetical thinking. Though he does not call it believing in oneself, per se, James discusses someone who accomplishes more in life due to the faith he has in being able to accomplish those things: “who gains promotions, boons, appointments, but the man in whose life they play the part of live hypotheses, who discounts them, sacrifices other things for their sake before they have come, and takes risks for them in advance? His faith acts on the powers above him as a claim, and creates its own verification” (473).
Finally, I distinguish pretending I can succeed from merely believing it’s possible I can succeed. To pretend that one can succeed is different from merely believing it is possible that one can succeed. I can believe it’s possible that I can succeed without feeling less intimidated, more confident, or more likely to keep trying. Pretending that I can succeed if I keep trying suggests that belief is one I take on in a more thoroughgoing way. While not all beliefs I have are beliefs that affect my current action or enter into consciousness, what I am currently pretending is true does both.
The view that believing in oneself is a kind of pretense is connected to Callard’s (2018) notion of aspiration. To aspire is to try something out using external motivations so that, or until, it becomes something one is intrinsically motivated to pursue. One might think of aspiration itself as a form of pretense: pretending to value classical music until its charms become apparent and it becomes something one values intrinsically. When I aspire to be a good philosopher, I have to believe this is possible; but I also have to pretend that I can do it if I keep trying.
Works CitedCallard, A. (2018). Aspiration. Chicago: Chicago UP.Evans, G. (1982). The Varieties of Reference. Oxford: OUP.James, W. (1896). “The Will to Believe.”In William James: Writings 1878-1899. New York:Library of America.Macolm, F. and Michael Scott. (2021). “True Grit and the Positivity of Faith.” EuropeanJournal of Philosophy, 17(1).Paul and Morton (2018). “Believing in Others.” Philosophical Topics 46(1): 75-95. Rioux, C. (2022). “Hope as a Source of Grit.” Ergo (forthcoming).