Prompting assertion

The knowledge account of assertion (KA) says you may assert Q only if you know Q. KA’s defenders (e.g. Unger and Williamson) have frequently pointed to data on challenging assertions to support their view. For instance, when I assert Q, it’s appropriate ask ‘How do you know that?’ or ‘Do you really know that?’. KA nicely explains the relevance of these questions.

One objection to this is that it’s also appropriate to challenge an assertion by asking ‘Are you certain of that?’, even though knowledge doesn’t require certainty. KA cannot explain this. (It can if knowledge requires certainty, but this is a non-standard view.)

I have a KA-friendly story to tell about why the “certainty” challenge appears appropriate (which I won’t explain here). In addition to that, I also think KA’s proponents can and should expand the terrain of linguistic data, to take into account not just appropriate challenges to assertion, but appropriate prompts as well.

For instance, these two prompts are practically interchangeable: ‘What time does the meeting start?’, and ‘Do you know what time the meeting starts?’. We respond exactly the same way to either of these prompts, namely, either by saying what time the meeting starts, or by saying ‘I don’t know’. But these prompts aren’t interchangeable: ‘What time does the meeting start?’, and ‘Are you certain about what time the meeting starts?’. The latter is too demanding, and even somewhat alienating. Save for special circumstances, we don’t prompt assertion this way.

So whereas knowledge is closely connected to assertion both upstream and downstream, certainty is, at best, connected downstream only.

More on this and related matters here.


Prompting assertion — 8 Comments

  1. Why isn’t sufficient, to assert P, to have justification for the belief in P? It seems that the KA account is too much strong: I’m not sure if it’s as appropriate to ask ‘Do you really know that?’ when someone assert P, as is ‘How do you know that?’. This last question just asking for the justification one have to believe P.

  2. We shouldn’t assert false things

    Clearly, one is not *blameworthy* for asserting P, even when P is false, provided that one has a (highly) justified belief that P. This is something that everyone should be able to agree on.

    The standard move for defenders of your claim will be to draw a distinction between ‘blameworthy’ and ‘did something one should not have done’. The standard account is that one is not blameworthy for doing something that one should not have done if and only if one did what one should not have done but was *trying* to not do what one should not have done.

    But there’s an alternative explanation: one is not blameworthy in this case simply because one did not do anything that one should not have done. Although I favor this view, I confess that I do not know of a convincing argument for either.

    (Interestingly, Michael Zimmerman’s recent book contains an argument with respect to an analogous dispute that I do find convincing. Rather than repeat it here, let me just direct whoever is interest to pp. 17 – 18 of ‘Living with Uncertainty’. Unfortunately I do not know how to carry Zimmerman’s argument over to the present dispute.)

  3. dtlocke,

    Thanks for the Zimmerman reference. I plan to take a look.

    I actually think that you can be properly blamed for falsely asserting P, even when you’re highly justified in believing P. As it turns out, though, it’s usually not worth the effort to actually blame you. So we don’t do it, and (for practical reasons) we feel it would be a bit silly to do so.

  4. Luis,

    Well, it’s explicitly about when you may assert, or have warrant to assert, or have authority to assert. And it’s often cast in terms of a “rule” or “norm” of assertion.

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