Defeasible Norms of Assertion

Here’s a question about norms of assertion. As I see it, it makes little sense to require that the norms be indefeasible, so I’ll assume here that they’re not.

This assumption is useful for a variety of cases where we don’t seem to demand much of assertion. For example, we don’t complain when Gil Harman disavows believing the things he defends in print. Maybe the audience was in shock at the admission, but I doubt it. Now, if he had said he thought what he defends is false and thought so at the time of the defense, he’d probably hear about it. But in theoretical contexts, it looks like lack of belief does not always raise ire, and need not.

The same point about philosophical assertion holds for the positive epistemic status needed for knowledge. Most of us know that we don’t know the truth of the positive theses we assert. And our audiences know that as well, but they don’t complain that we have no business opening our mouths.

Positing defeasible norms of assertion allows quite a range of views on the matter to be compatible with these data. The question is whether the data about cases where belief and justification (of the sort needed for knowledge) are absent can all be handled by the defeasibility admission. Thoughts appreciated.


Defeasible Norms of Assertion — 15 Comments

  1. Jon,

    Could you elaborate on this:
    Most of us know that we donĂ¢??t know the truth of the positive theses we assert. And our audiences know that as well, but they donĂ¢??t complain that we have no business opening our mouths.

    In ordinary contexts, I thought it was improper to assert what what you knew you didn’t know (an explicit assertion that p and that one doesn’t know it is in some way defective, right?). If the observation that we do not regard these claims as in some way unwarranted, might that just be evidence that what we are doing is different from out and out assertion or should be taken as an assertion that is implicitly qualified in some way? This seems different from defeasibility and I have a hard time imagining how the usual constraints on assertion would be defeated when one is engaged in theoretical discussion about philosophical matters.

  2. A reporter covering the Spurs asked several Seattle residents who Manu Ginobili was. In one case at a Seattle fish market the reporter said “Manu Ginobili is a newly discovered fish”. And one worker responded “yes, I’ve heard of it”. Now the person clearly did not know that and we (who know that Manu Ginobili plays for the Spurs) knew that he did not know that. It was such a clear violation of norms it was amusing. If it weren’t so trivial, I’m sure someone would have called him on it. I mean called him on it in some way other than laughing.

  3. Clayton, I think it’s obviously false that philosophers are doing something other than making assertions. And if the relevant norms defeasibly prohibit this, then the defeater would, in all likelihood, be the fact that getting evidence good enough for knowledge simply can’t be done in philosophy (at least for positive theses).

  4. Ola Jon.

    Might a press the basis for your analogy? Suppose I assert that p only if q does not hold in some theoretical context, and argue this point by entertaining the supposition p, then spell out a case where q needn’t hold. There is no reason to saddle me with an epistemic commitment to p, nor, say, any of my other suppositions in building a counter-model; but, it is fair to saddle me with a commitment to the denial that `p only if q‘ is true, given the background assumptions that are presumably spelled out or implicitly shared to make this set of assertions of mine perform this communicative act. Even if I come to reject one of these constituents, I’m still committed to the view that if all of them were to hold, then ‘p only if q‘ would be false. Defeasibility doesn’t seem to enter the picture here. That is, I would maintain that the apparent switch in norms is due to failing to pin down what is being expressed by my assertions, not to defeasible norms associating themselves with a fixed assertion.

  5. Jon,

    I wasn’t suggesting that the standard for philosophical claims that in making one, one refrains from asserting. I was suggesting that assertion is not generally a necessary condition on putting something into one’s writing that superficially has the appearance of assertion. Offering conjectures and hypotheses may look for all the world like the making of an assertion, but I don’t see why there should be something in someone’s writings that needs to distinguish these different sorts of commitments. Are you suggesting that out and out belief isn’t a requirement for making a philosophical claim? I guess I can see that, but then, I had thought that assertion serves to express belief. I thought this was a constitutive rule on assertion and as such, whatever it is that one is up to when one isn’t committed to out and out belief, it wasn’t assertion. I don’t see why saying that in asserting one is only defeasibly committed to believing what is asserted is a better way of describing the phenomenon (if that is what you are saying).

  6. Clayton, a couple of things here. First, your account implies that lying is not a form of assertion. Second, you’re right that there may be borderline cases: there may be few if any clues that help us distinguish assertion from conjecture, etc. So in particular cases, one might have trouble. But it is obviously false that philosophers are not asserting their views. If you think otherwise, just ask; you’ll find that philosophers are pretty uniform in engaging in the speech act of assertion, and will own up to it on questioning.

  7. Greg, I’m getting lost in the abstraction here, I think. I’ll say a couple of things to give you an idea of what I think you’re up to, and then you can correct any misunderstanding you see.

    So, first, I’m not denying that we do other things in philosophy besides assert things. We can suppose, hypothesize, consider for the sake of argument, etc. But lots of the time we flat-out assert things, and among these things are positive theses. I don’t think we know that such theses are true, and I think this view is widely shared in philosophy. So suppose this view is correct. We still don’t think there is something wrong with asserting things we don’t know to be true in this context.

    Now, depending on what you think the norms of assertion are, you may be able to explain this case without appealing to defeasibility. But any of the following will have to appeal to defeasibility if they grant the acceptability of such philosophical assertions: the knowledge view, the justified belief view, and the belief view.

    That leaves untouched the truth view, but if you take two philosophers in disagreement, each asserting a positive thesis incompatible with what the other asserts, I still think we’re fine with their speech acts. They don’t deserve criticism for what they are doing (though they may deserve criticism for holding a ridiculous view!).

  8. To defend the claim that the norm of assertion is knowledge I suggest that when we make assertions in philosophy the content of the assertion includes “I think that…” or “It seems to me that…”. It’s still an assertion, but about what I think or how it seems to me. One response to this move is to say that in order to contradict what one says one’s opponent would then need to say “No it doesn’t seem to you that…” which obviously we don’t do. But maybe we are more interested in contradicting the thought claimed, rather than the claim to think it (which we normally concede the other person knows). The contradiction itself at least in philosophical contexts is then to be understood as including an ‘I think’ or ‘it seems to me’ operator. Notice that we can sensibly ask “Is that really what you think?” just as if the first speaker had said “I think that…”

    Philosophy isn’t the only context in which we make apparent assertions that no one would accept that we know. Consider discussions of the likely outcomes of sporting events. If I say “The Suns will win in six games” you might respond “That may be what you think, but you’re wrong” or “Why do you think so?” If they admitted they didn’t think so, even at the time they spoke, we could reasonably accuse them of dishonesty in their assertion, of not telling us what they really think. If you were to ask “How do you know?” I’d probably respond that of course I don’t know, but here is why I think so…

    I admit that it isn’t obvious that that’s what is going on in these cases (that we are making assertions about our thoughts or how things seem, under a tacit but generally understood operator). But the claim that knowledge is the norm of assertion explains a lot of other data, and with this epicycle it can be consistently maintained.

  9. Jon, I’m not with you yet. The clip from Harmon that is the basis for the analogy mentions belief, not knowledge. We do make assertions we do not know are true, I agree. (I’m not sure if all philosophical assertions are assertions we don’t know to be true, but set that aside.)

    So, maybe I’m not sure what the case is we’re trying to explain. Why it is ok to assert things you don’t know to be true? I suppose that has something to do with defeasiblity in so far as you’ll judge justified-but-uncertain beliefs as permissible things to assert. Why it is ok to assert things you don’t believe? This is the one that puzzles me, and I was thinking about assertions invoving suppositions as candidates for this.

    So, if you swap ‘knowledge’ for ‘belief’ in your Harman reference, I think we might be together. Otherwise, I’m lost.

  10. Oh, I see now, Greg, what was bothering you. The Harman case is a little more troubling than asserting what you don’t know to be true. But I think there are other examples as well. Think about asserting things you are supposed to because of a social role. For example, a judge may give instructions to the jury that he doesn’t believe are correct instructions. But his role requires that he say these things. Or think of someone required to teach certain material, say, sex education material to high school students. In such a case, you may be required to teach things that you don’t believe to be true. (If the material is false, of course, it’s not the case I’m thinking of. I’m thinking of people that have, let’s say, “outlier” beliefs–fatalists who think precautions are a waste of time, so don’t bother with them, etc.)

    Do any of these cases move you?

  11. Steve, I agree that the knowledge crowd will find this move attractive. It has trouble with disagreement, as you note, and it doesn’t help with the ordinary cases such as appear in your second paragraph.

    I think there’s more wrong with the knowledge account than just this, but if this were the only problem, why not just admit that the norms are defeasible? It’s not as if norms in general aren’t–so why would they be different here? The answer, if there is one, would have to do with the rules being constitutive ones, in Williamson’s sense. Games have constitutive rules, in the relevant sense, I think; but notice that no one, including Williamson, actually gives an argument that assertion has constitutive rules in the sense that games have constitutive rules. So the natural position to hold, I would think, is that whatever the norms of assertion are, they are defeasible in the way rules in general are.

  12. Would Williamson disagree with the claim that the norm is defeasible? Williamson does claim that we are often lax in our enforcement of the knowledge assertion. (He floats the idea that in lax contexts the norm is that we do not know that we do not know, if I remember correctly; I’m not sure whether this is an assertion about what’s going on in lax contexts, or just a suggestion. It doesn’t work for prediction cases.) He also says that we often laxly enforce the constitutive rules of games. I have trouble with the idea of a game that has one rule, which is laxly enforced, but I don’t have a knockdown argument against it.

    My main problem with the idea of trying to save the knowledge account by an epicycle like the lax enforcement rule, or Steven’s comment 8, is that once you add the epicycle it’s not clear that the knowledge account does explain the data. You have to explain why the norm is laxly enforced in cases of predicting sports outcomes but not in lottery cases.

  13. Matt, yes, Williamson denies the defeasibility claim, but I don’t have the book here at home. And it may not be in it, but we emailed quite a bit about it, and he was adamant.

  14. Hi Jon, ah, right. Good! What about this reply. Rich Feldman discusses an analogous cases, distinguishing between pragmatic and epistemic justification. His example is that it is in the baseball player’s best interest to believe he’ll hit the ball (at t) and so is pragmatically justified to believe he will hit the ball. His believing so may even improve his chances in hitting the ball, so is directly material to the outcome. Yet, pros, whatever they believe, only stand rough odds of 1 to 3 getting a hit each time at the plate so the batter isn’t epistemically justified to believe he’ll hit the ball (at t). Another example: a claim might be morally justified to believe but not epistemically justified to belief (e.g., a Mother failing to believe her son the axe murderer is, well, an axe murderer, despite a confession and air tight case, say). And perhaps there are other categories. Upshot: There are distinct senses of ‘being justified to believe’. Perhaps, then, there are distinct norms of assertion.

    The original post seems to be restricted to epistemic assertions. Or, epistemic norms that apply to assertions. So, I’m not sure I’m persuaded by the sex-ed example. I’m pressing here mainly because I haven’t a grip on the topic yet. So, I’ll press: why think the norms are defeasible in such cases? To sort out the Mother and Baseball player’s permissible (?) assertions (In the dugout: “I’m going to hit that damn ball!” In the courtroom: “My Junior is not an axe murderer!”) it seems we need to settle on what sense of justification is being used before we’re to evaluate the assertion (pragmatic; moral; epistemic, being the toy categories here) and, once that is settled, then we’re locked into the norms that attend that category. If we change our assessment, we’ve changed category rather than apply some defeasible standard within category.

    Another dimension to consider is time. I assert at t that my son is not an axe murderer. Then, at t+1, Junior chases me and the postman around the house with an axe and manages to split the postman in two. The norm of assertion stays in place (whichever one) and still applies to the assertion at t; the information changes at t+1, which may make the assertion at t unpermissible to repeat at t+1. Notice that there are two different assertions, however. Also, what has changed from t to t+1 isn’t due to defeasible norms but to new information relevant to their application.

    So, I’m pressing to get to the defeasibility part. Or maybe the behavior I’m describing is what you have in mind.

  15. Greg, yes, these are the sorts of defeating circumstances I’m thinking about. The idea is that there are broadly epistemic constraints on assertion, but they can be overridden by non-epistemic factors; just as their are broadly epistemic constraints on belief that can be overridden as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *