Most of the literature on the “norm of assertion” assumes the following two controversial theses:
- Speech acts fall into various different natural kinds, one of which is assertion.
- Each of these natural kinds of speech act is subject to a unique “central” or “fundamental” norm, which is especially intimately bound up with the nature of that kind of speech act.
Typically, these controversial theses are assumed, rather than defended, in this literature. However, it is far from obvious that these theses are true. Indeed, I am strongly tempted to think that they are false.
1. According to one picture of discourse, understanding an utterance fundamentally involves recognizing the communicative intentions that lie behind the utterance. So every intelligible contribution to a conversation presents itself as being done with a certain intention (in the sense that the utterance allows the audience to see which intention the speaker means them to recognize as lying behind the utterance).
On this picture, the features of an utterance that are most relevant to the question of which type of speech act it belongs to are the intentions that the utterance presents itself as done with.
But there are many different possible intentions that an utterance might present itself as being done with. It is not clear which kind of intention is essential to the speech acts that we call “assertions”.
Certainly, the word ‘assertion’ in English can refer to acts of many different kinds. (E.g. one old meaning of the word was to defend or vindicate a cause against any hostile attack; it is in this sense that Milton announces at the beginning of Paradise Lost that he will “assert eternal Providence/ and justify the ways of God to men”.)
In some contexts, the word ‘assertion’ seems to be used for speech acts that present themselves as done with the intention of expressing a true proposition (by means of the very utterance in question). For example, the answers given by candidates in oral examinations, or by contestants on quiz shows, normally present themselves as done with this sort of intention. An early Christian martyr being interrogated by a Roman magistrate might in this sense “assert” the proposition that Jesus Christ came to save all human souls.
One very special subset of these speech acts are those that present themselves as done with the intention of informing the audience of the proposition that is expressed. To “inform” one’s audience of a proposition p is to bring it about that one’s audience comes to know this proposition p. But clearly not all acts that present themselves as done with the intention of expressing a truth also present themselves as done with the intention of informing one’s audience. The answers given by candidates in oral examinations do not present themselves as done with the intention of informing the examiner; and the Christian martyrs’ declaration of their faith need not present itself as done with the intention (as opposed to a mere hope) of informing the Roman magistrate of the proposition that is thereby expressed.
In other cases, a speaker – such as a trial lawyer or a politician – might make an utterance that presents itself as being done with the intention of winning an argument, but does not clearly present itself as done with the intention of expressing a truth, let alone with the intention of informing the audience.
So there are many different categories of speech acts here; and presumably, different theoretical projects will find it useful to focus on different categories. It seems clear that no word in ordinary English stably picks out just one of these categories; and so the theorist will just have to stipulate a semi-technical sense of the term ‘assertion’ to pick out one of these categories in the way that seems most useful to the theorist’s purposes. But there is surely no good question about what the true nature of “the speech act of assertion” is.
2. Speech acts are acts, and acts are subject to lots of different norms. (E.g. there are moral norms, legal norms, prudential norms, technical norms, etc.) It is radically unclear what is meant by saying that a certain norm is the “central” or “fundamental” norm that applies to acts of a certain type. What is the central or fundamental norm that applies to acts of killing a human being, or to acts of scratching one’s head?
The best that I can do to make sense of the idea of the “central” norm of assertion is the following. In some cases, we identify an act-type by a certain purpose, and we talk about the “correct” or “proper” way to do an act that has that purpose. Thus, there is a correct way to tie a reef knot, or to play Bach’s first French Suite, etc.
If we can identify a kind of speech act by a certain purpose, then we might say that that kind of speech act is done correctly or properly on a given occasion if and only if it successfully accomplishes the relevant purpose on that occasion.
So, e.g. on this approach, one might say:
- An utterance is the correct performance of the speech act-type whose purpose is to express a truth if and only if the utterance does indeed express a truth.
- An utterance is the correct performance of the speech act-type whose purpose is to inform the audience if and only if the utterance succeeds in informing the audience.
- An utterance is the correct performance of the speech act-type whose purpose is to win an argument if and only if the utterance does indeed lead to the speaker’s winning the argument.
Here, however, ‘correct’ effectively just means ‘achieves the relevant purpose’. So it is not clear what the introduction of normative terminology (like ‘correct’) adds to the basic element of this theory, which is just the identification of the relevant purpose.
So, it seems to me, the literature on the norm of assertion is in bad shape until it can make it clearer what exactly (if anything) it is supposed to be about….