When we discuss normative reasons, oughts, requirements of rationality, hypothetical imperatives (or “anankastic conditionals”), motivating reasons and so on, we often use verbs like “believe” and “want” to capture a relevant subject’s perspective. According to the received view about sentences involving these verbs, what they do is describe the subject’s mental states. Many puzzles concerning normative discourse have to do with the role that mental states consequently appear to play in this discourse. This book uses tools from formal semantics and the philosophy of language to develop an alternative account of sentences involving these verbs. According to this view, which is called parentheticalism (in honour of J. O. Urmson), we very commonly use these verbs in a parenthetical sense. Used with this sense, these verbs themselves express backgrounded side-remarks on the contents they embed, and these latter, embedded contents constitute the at-issue contents of our utterances. This means that instead of speaking about the subject’s mental states, we often use sentences involving “believe” and “want” to speak about the world in a way that, in the conversational background, relates our utterances to her point of view. This idea is made precise, and it is used to solve various puzzles concerning normative discourse.
The final result is a new, unified understanding of normative discourse, which gets by without postulating conceptual breaks between objective and subjective normative reasons, or normative reasons and rationality, or indeed between the reasons we ascribe to an agent and the reasons she herself can be expected to cite.
Instead of being connected to either subjective mental states or objective facts, all of these normative statuses can be adequately articulated by citing worldly considerations from the subject’s point of view.