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Delusions, Modernist Epistemology and Irrational Belief


  • This paper was delivered in this form at a Macquarie University symposium on Jennifer Radden's On Delusion. I am grateful to Jennifer for writing the book, to Max Coltheart for organising the symposium, for my co-symposiasts and a referee for Mind & Language for their comments.

Address for correspondence: Unit for History and Philosophy of Science, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.



Jennifer Radden argues that delusions play an important role in modernist epistemology, which is preoccupied with the justification and evaluation of beliefs. Another theme running through the book is the importance of culture for attribution of delusion. Beliefs that look delusional will not be treated as pathological if they are expressions of religious views or other culturally acceptable forms of life. It is hard to see why cultural acceptability should play a role in the modernist project of justification. I suggest that we think less about a philosophical project of justification and turn our attention instead to commonsense judgements of the circumstances in which we see a belief as evidence of underlying pathology. I discuss cases in which unjustified beliefs are nonetheless treated as phenomena that are consistent with our views of how healthy human beings act, and suggest that alongside folk psychology we should acknowledge a folk epistemology that embraces such instances. I suggest that delusions are beliefs that folk epistemology treats as inexplicable, and that this approach solves some of the puzzles that Radden identifies as growing out of the modernist epistemic project.