Friday, October 24, 2014

Usable Premise Norm of Assertion

There are a number of accounts of the speech act of assertion that take it to be necessarily tied to knowledge. It's widely held that in asserting something you represent yourself as knowing it. There are a number of reasons why you might think this. For instance, if I assert something, it will often be perfectly reasonable to ask, "How do you know that?" There are also Moorean paradoxes, like saying, "The sky is blue but I don't know that the sky is blue," which are perplexing on their face.

Williamson more recently takes a strong version of this, the Knowledge Norm of Assertion, which holds that one ought to assert something only if one knows it. (This is stronger because you could hold that there are cases in which one can represent yourself as knowing when nobody would think you actually know it.) Williamson links this to authority: to assert is to give on your authority and this, he thinks, requires knowledge. Another reason one might hold the position is related to lottery paradoxes: if I have a lottery ticket with an immensely low probability of winning, we would still perhaps think it odd if we went around asserting that it was a loser before it was actually determined to be.

I doubt both the weaker and stronger forms. If I assert something, and someone asks, "How do you know that?", it is often entirely reasonable to respond, "I don't, but it does make sense, don't you think?" Moore's Paradox and lottery paradoxes seem to me to be more about implicature than assertion. And while authority is one element in our evaluation of whether to accept other people's assertions, I am unconvinced that it is usually involved in the actual asserting; nor does it seem to be such an integrally important element that we must consider it, since we seem to have situations in which authority really doesn't matter much.

Other norms have been suggested. For instance, most Knowledge Norm people have argued against the Truth Norm, that we ought to assert something only if it is true. I confess that I find the Truth Norm of Assertion to be even less plausible than the Knowledge Norm. There are also different versions of what might be called a Reasonable Belief Norm, that we ought to assert something only if it is reasonable to accept or believe, for some particular account of what it is to be reasonable. I think all three, Knowledge, Truth, and Reasonable Belief, fail to take into account the sheer variety of assertions, ranging from assertions-from-a-point-of-view (as in Hume's four essays on happiness) to jokes to lies to complicated explanations to best estimates. (It is perhaps also worth noting that since we can apparently make highly figurative assertions, Knowledge and Truth Norms both require that figurative and heavily metaphorical assertions can be true. This isn't an issue for me, since I think it is obvious that metaphorical and figurative claims can be true, but there are quite a few people who don't think that they can. This is one of the reasons why one can't handle this kind of question only by looking at a narrow range of examples, but must follow through the implications of one's suggestion all the way across the board to discover its more marginal implications.)

I think a possible problem is that all these norms make assertion itself intrinsically an assignment of modalities -- Knowledge, Truth, or Belief, usually. But if I assert P, I don't think I'm saying that I hold P with such-and-such modality, where that modality is the same everywhere.

I don't really have a rigorous alternative, but I think one candidate more promising than these is what might be called a Usable Premise Norm of Assertion. This idea is that one ought to assert things that can function as premises in reasoning. After all, logically speaking, assertion does not have the function of showing knowledge, reasonableness, or even truth. What it does have the function of doing is indicating that something can function as a premise for reasoning. Thus I think one could at least plausibly say that the appropriate norm for assertion, the appropriate rule, is that one should assert things that are appropriate for being premises in reasoning. This is different from the Knowledge Norm, since premises don't necessarily need to be known, and from the Truth Norm, since premises only need to be such that they can be posited as true in order to see what follows from them, and it is different from any of the Reasonable Belief Norms, since you don't have to believe or accept the premise for it to be useful as a premise.

In particular cases, of course, it may be the reason that something is acceptable as a premise is that one knows it, or believes it, or that it is true. And I think there are fairly obviously particular cases in which the requirements on premises are heightened for various reasons, so that in those circumstances the only acceptable premises will be those that meet a norm of knowledge or reasonable belief, or what have you. But these all seem to be a matter of additional norms arising in particular cases that affects what premises are usable, not of assertion as such.

Of course, the obvious objection that comes to mind is that this might be too weak in several ways. And that's possible, although we do have to take additional circumstance-relative norms into account before we can really say whether the objection has any bite. I also haven't considered all the other variations of all the other norms of assertion that have been proposed. But I think it has the advantages of both staying true to the reason why we have a concept of assertion at all (since it only has general importance because of its logical role) and to the sheer variety of ways in which we assert things.


  1. What do you think of the old account of lying as "speech at variance with mind"? That would seem to imply something like the truth norm of assertion.

  2. branemrys10:02 AM

    The truth norm of assertion seems to me to be considerably stronger than saying that we should only assert what is not at variance with our minds; it says that we should only assert what is, in fact, true. The account of lying, I think, would suggest something more like a sincere belief norm of assertion. And, indeed, it is common in speech act theory to suggest that there are sincerity norms for most speech acts, so there's a plausibility to it.

    But, while something like such a norm might be very common, I don't think it can be perfectly general. I think, for instance, that we can assert-from-a-perspective; i.e., that we can assert even if not in propria persona, i.e., from another person's perspective. This seems to be genuine assertion, and a reasonable thing to do (e.g., if you are trying to work out someone else's positions are), and yet to have nothing directly to do with sincere belief. Probably the most common kind of example this is found with sarcasm -- we can sarcastically assert in another's person what nobody believes, in order to make the point that the other person's overall position has absurd implications, whether they are willing to follow through on them or not. The only way, I think, to get out of this is to argue either that it is not a real assertion; but I don't think that works. So there seem to be rational assertions that don't fall under the norm.

    I also think that there are good independent reasons for divorcing the basic norms of assertion -- as opposed to norms for particular kinds of assertion -- from states of minds; we are often just guessing about people's states of minds, but we need to know what they are asserting regardless, and assertion has its logical function regardless of how it relates to belief.

  3. Couldn't the objection about speaking "in persona" be answered just by developing a more nuanced view of what makes assertions true? Something like an assertion is true if it is verified in the way the speaker intends it to be verified.

  4. As far as the last part goes, I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "norm": I was taking it in an ethical sense while you seem to be using it in a logical one.

    In the ethical understanding, the primary use of a norm seems to be providing a standard by which one can judge one's own action. So, I don't see the relevance of the third-person considerations.

  5. branemrys1:33 PM

    Sure, but this detaches the norm from any state of belief, as well, so would just make the point again.

  6. branemrys1:35 PM

    As far as the last part goes, I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "norm": I was taking it in an ethical sense while you seem to be using it in a logical one.

    No, it's reasonably an ethical sense. But assertion is an act whose primary importance lies in its logical function (or, at least, whose logical function is one of its most important functions); thus any norm has to take this into account.


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.