Some Norms of Assertion

Here are some competitors in trying to formulate a norm of assertion:

The Knowledge Account: assert only what you know to be true.
The Defensibility Account: assert only what you can defend if challenged.
The Justified Belief Account: assert only what you justifiably believe.

In setting up a case to motivate his relativistic semantics for epistemic modals, Andy Egan here says the following:

To a first approximation, it’s appropriate to say that some utterance is true iff it’s true, and appropriate to say that an utterance is false iff it’s false. At the very least, the falsity of an utterance is an extremely salient candidate to explain the appropriateness of saying that it’s false, and the truth of an utterance is an extremely salient candidate to explain the appropriateness of saying that it’s true.

At first glance, this claim may not appear to be a competitor of the above accounts. But such appearances are deceiving, I think. To see why, let me give a little background. Egan is considering two assessments of the utterance ‘Bond might be in Zurich,’ one by those taken in by misleading evidence planted by Bond that he is in Zurich and the other by a present companion of Bond at headquarters in London. So the first remarks that the utterance is true and the second that it is false, and the assertions, one of which ascribes truth and the other falsity to the utterance, are appropriate assertions. We want a theory that accounts for this appropriateness.

In response to this desire, Egan proposes what I have quoted: that the first assertion is appropriate iff it is true and the second assertion is appropriate iff it is true. And now I’m tempted to make a philosopher’s fallacy, and attribute to Egan the following generalization of this proposal:

The Truth Account: assert what, and only what, is true.

But, after complaining about the fallacy, far be it from me to commit it! (Would that all fallacies were avoided so easily…) So I won’t commit it. Still, though, I wonder what, other than this generalization would make Egan’s setup warranted, and I can’t think of one. Maybe someone else can, though…

Suppose, however, that it is The Truth Account that lies behind Egan’s remarks. If so, there are serious problems for the view. First, norms of assertion ought to be more circumspect, not giving sufficient conditions for acceptable assertion but only necessary ones. As all of us know, there are lots of truths that are better left unsaid. The more important issue, however, is the other direction, and here the account faces serious obstacles, many of which are chronicled in Williamson’s work. Take a fair coin, and find two people taking different bets on whether it will land heads when flipped. If both are willing to assert what they are betting on, only one of them can be criticized appropriately on the basis of the norm of assertion.

One might think this example relies too much on future contingents having truth value, but I hold that it relies on this point to exactly the right extent! But we can change examples for the discomfited: let the bet be on the number of jellybeans in a particular jar. The general point is that vocalized guesses are criticizable on grounds intrinsic to the kind of action displayed: namely, that of assertion. It is useful to note that all three of the other accounts of assertion agree on this point: verbalized guesses violate the constitutive rules governing the practice of assertion.

Since I favor the Justified Belief Account, I won’t stop here before noting its fecundity with respect to Egan’s example. Note that only the Defensibility and Justified Belief Accounts can explain the appropriateness of both assertions that prompt Egan’s relativistic semantics. Since I’ve already given reasons to prefer the Justified Belief Account to the Defensibility Account here, primarily on grounds of operationalizing the justification component of the Justified Belief Account, I’ll not say anything more here about it. But if faced with choosing between the Justified Belief Account and a relativistic semantics for epistemic modals, I’d prefer the more conservative route…


Some Norms of Assertion — 23 Comments

  1. Brian pretty much beat me to the punch on this on *TAR*, I think. So let me first endorse what Brian said, and then add a little bit:

    First, a disclaimer about the dialectical situation in that paper: I’m not really out to provide a knock-down positive argument for relativism there. (John and Brian and I gave the full versions of the positive arguments in “Epistemic Modals in Context”.) At that point in the paper, I’m just trying to provide some (non-conclusive) motivation for relativism, in order to motivate the rest of the paper, where I’m trying to fix a problem for the view. (Since it’s not very exciting to fix problems for completely unmotivated views.)

    That said, I don’t think I need anything as strong as The Truth Account to motivate relativism. All I was after there was this point: Very often, when it’s appropriate to say “that’s true” of some utterance, that’s because the utterance really is true. If we find that it’s appropriate for me to say “that’s true” in response to some utterance, one of the really attractive things to say about why that’s so is that the utterance really is true. That claim doesn’t depend on what it’s appropriate to say just *being* what’s true. Maybe it’s because what it’s appropriate for me to say is what I’m justified in believing, and very often, when somebody is justified in believing something, that’s because it’s true. If we find that somebody is justified in believing that P, one of the really attractive things to say about why that’s so is that it’s really the case that P, and they’re picking up on that fact in the appropriate kind of way. If we want to give some other explanation, that doesn’t involve it’s being the case that P, we’ll need to tell some story about what’s gone wrong, such that justification is coming apart from truth here. Maybe there such a story to be told in the eavesdropper cases, about what’s gone wrong such that the appropriateness of one of the relevant truth attributions comes apart from its accuracy. I don’t like the stories I’ve thought about very much, but maybe that’s just because I haven’t thought about the right ones.

  2. Andy, welcome to the blog! As I said on Brian’s site, I agree that the dialectic of your paper does not hinge on the passage I quoted, though since I’m obsessing about norms of assertion lately, it gave me another account to talk about!

    In the case you cite, I think it’s a datum that both of the speakers are justified in believing what they assert. That’s the significance, I think, of the way you set up the case: you’ve got acquaintance with Bond’s presence in London for one of the assertions, and you’ve got planted, but misleading, evidence for the other one. You make an intriguing suggestion here that the explanations of justification should be different when the belief in question is true rather than false, but I guess I’m disposed against that idea. A good theory of justification will cite the same kinds of factors to explain justification, whether or not what’s justified is true (though it may be the case that in giving a causal account of why a belief is held, one adverts to the facts themselves or the truth of the content of the belief, and of course one couldn’t do that unless the belief were true).

    Brian’s suggestion at TAR was to use cases where we really will say “that’s true” about the cases, such as the color case you guys use in the other paper. I agree with that; in the color case, there’s little temptation to think of the example as being explained by the justified belief account of the norms of assertion. Not that no other explanations of the case come to mind, but at least that case avoids the temptation for me to view the case in terms of mundane facts about justification.

  3. Thanks for the welcome! (And for the provocation to think harder about this stuff.)

    About theories of justification – it does seem right that a good theory of justification is going to cite the same kind of factors in both cases. What might be different, though, is the story about why those factors are in place. In the case where the justified thing is true, it should (usually, anyway) be unsurprising that whatever we need for justification is present. In the case where the justificatory stuff is in place, but the justified thing is false, something peculiar is going on. So if we’re going to say, in some particular case, that the justificatory stuff is in place, though what’s justified is false, we’re under some obligation to provide an explanation of how that happened.

    I think that’s hard to do in these cases, and so I think that, once you accept the datum that both the attribution of truth and the attribution of falsity are justified, it’s hard to avoid saying that they’re both true (or at least, both true-relative-to-the-speaker). And once you say that, it’s hard to avoid being a relativist.

  4. I’m going to try to defend the Truth Account taken as a necessary but not sufficient condition by relying on the notion of secondary propriety/impropriety that Keith DeRose discusses in “Assertion, Knowledge, and Context.” To spell it out: When an actor A performs an act that is subject to a norm N, A’s action has primary propriety with respect to N iff it conforms to N. A’s action has secondary propriety with respect to N iff A reasonably believes that her action conforms to N.

    [That’s my elaboration of Keith’s notion; in particular, the locution “primary propriety” and any mistakes are mine.]

    Now, in the coin-flip case, the speakers don’t have any particular reason to think that their assertion conforms to the truth norm. So they’re being secondarily improper with respect to the truth norm, even if they’re being primarily proper. Note that here conforming to the Justified Belief norm just is being secondarily proper with respect to the truth norm!

    (So why do I think the truth norm has advantages? Because I think we do count an assertion as improper if it’s false, even if we acknowledge that the asserter herself was reasonably asserting it. And for other reasons, some of which are blogged in a rambling fashion here.)

  5. Andy, I guess I don’t see the difficulty here. Whenever we have a justified false belief, there will of course be an explanation why the belief was false and yet justified. In the case you present, the explanation is easy: Bond planted misleading evidence. As far as I can tell, that’s the only explanation that’s needed, if what we’re trying to explain is how the belief could be justified and yet false.

  6. Matt, I understand the attraction of the distinction you make, but I think it’s still a mistake. In my book on the value of knowledge, I point out that there’s an important difference in response when you are confronted with having made a false assertion (or a gettiered one) versus an assertion that is unjustified or not believed. In the latter cases, you ought to apologize for the speech act itself: you had no business engaging in the speech act in question. And that’s just what we see people do, for the most part. You are reprimanded for saying something you don’t believe, and you find yourself apologizing for having said it. But when you say something false, you may experience chagrin at having been duped, but there’s little or no temptation to apologize for the speech act itself (unless you didn’t believe what you said or had no good reason for thinking it). What you do, instead, is take back the content of the assertion, not apologize for the speech act itself. So there is a distinction between cases where apology is appropriate for the speech act itself, and cases where one takes back the content of what one asserted but where no apology for the speech act itself is needed. Given that the norms of assertion concern the speech act itself, this gives us good reason to view saying something false as not violating these norms, even though when corrected, we take back the content of what we said.

  7. Jon, I think the misleading evidence could be a good explanation for a justified false belief that Bond *is* in Zurich. But it doesn’t seem like a good explanation for a justified false belief that Bond *might be* in Zurich. The anti-relativist story that says that the villains are wrong about whether Bond might be in Zurich seems like it requires us to say that the villains are wrong about what’s ruled out by the relevant evidence, or they’re wrong about which evidence is relevant, and that’s why they think that something’s compatible with the relevant evidence that really isn’t. Neither of the moves here seem very attractive. We can just stipulate that the villains aren’t making any mistakes in their thinking about the evidence that they actually have, and it doesn’t seem right to say that a bunch of evidence that they don’t have, and couldn’t get by any reasonable method (let Bond have done a really good job of covering his tracks) turns out to be relevant after all.

  8. Andy, that’s a good point, that there’s a difference between the categorical claim and the modal claim. Even so, I think your characterization of what the JB account would look like is mistaken, but I’m beginning to question whether I understand your argument as well. So let me try the following to see where you think this goes wrong.

    So, begin by distinguishing two kinds of evidence. Either the evidence is sufficient to warrant the conclusion that one knows that Bond is in Zurich (that is, the evidence not only confirms that Bond is in Zurich, but also confirms that one is in a position to know, needing only that one’s belief is in fact true and ungettiered in order to count as knowledge), or not. Call the former “strong” evidence and the latter “weak”. If the evidence is strong, then the villains should have said “Bond is in Zurich,” or “I know that Bond is in Zurich,” and to say “Bond might be in Zurich” is to make a remark that violates a Gricean maxim requiring that one assert what is most informative. But that doesn’t require that they’ve made any mistake about what the evidence shows, nor that they’ve violated the JB norm of assertion.

    The other alternative is that they have weak evidence that Bond is in Zurich (perhaps “weak” only in virtue of the fact that this is espionage, and they know better than to trust that would have been good evidence in a normal case). But if the evidence is weak evidence that Bond is in Zurich, then their remark is just the right one to make. The evidence doesn’t warrant saying that Bond is in Zurich, but only the weaker claim that he might be.

    Note that this explanation distinguishes two kinds of justified belief. There is the ordinary kind, as when one is justified in believing that one’s lottery ticket is a loser, and there is the epistemic kind, which puts one in a position to know (one way to characterize the latter is that when you are epistemically justified in believing p, you are also epistemically justified in believing you’ve met all the epistemic conditions for knowledge). As I characterize the JB norm of assertion, the justification in question has to be epistemic justification. So, the weak evidence case might even be strong enough to say that, in the ordinary sense, the villians are justified in believing that Bond is in Zurich; but that belief still wouldn’t be justified in the epistemic sense.

  9. I don’t understand all the fuss these days about norms of assertion. Here’s why. It seems to me that as far as assertion is concerned, all that’s needed is a simple belief account, which amounts to merely a sincerity condition:

    The Belief Account: assert only what you believe.

    Anything stronger, I think, properly concerns norms of belief rather than of assertion, e.g., believe only what you know, believe only what you’re in a position to know, believe only what you are justified in believing, or whatever. So I have a simple question, to which I hope Jon or somebody can give a simple answer:

    Why doesn’t the question of norms of assertion, given a minimal sincerity norm on assertion, reduce to the question of norms of belief?

  10. Kent, glad you joined in here! What a great question, too, and I’m not sure I have a good answer. But that never stops a philosopher, 🙂 so let me try…

    Suppose you’ve got a case in which you believe p, but the different kinds of norms for belief (practical, epistemic, etc.) conflict. In some cases, the all-things-considered norms of belief will allow you to believe what’s pragmatically warranted for you, and in other cases, not. So suppose you believe p when your evidence doesn’t support this, but your believing is allowed by the all-things-considered norms of belief. If you assert what you believe in such a case, you’ll be legitimately criticized on grounds that your speech act was inappropriate.

    There’s still the possibility that the norms of assertion simply track the epistemic norms of belief, and that’s just what the JB account predicts. The two accounts could still disagree about which norms are constitutive of the practice of assertion, but they’d say the same thing about what the norms of assertion are.

    So, if you’re committed to there being constitutive norms of assertion, the difference between your account and mine matters (if we assume that your account of the relevant norms of belief are just the epistemic ones). I’m not sure there are such constitutive rules, but if I became convinced that there are, I wouldn’t know whether to prefer your theory to the JB theory. There’s a pleasing symmetry to having both belief and assertion answer to the same epistemic norms, but your theory would be simpler.

    But maybe you have some ideas beyond this about why to favor one view over the other?

  11. Our scripture reading for today is taken from Chapter 11, section 5, verse 1 (of Knowledge and its Limits), page two-hundred sixty in your pew bibles:

    I may believe on good evidence that your lottery ticket did not win; I am not warranted in asserting that it did not win. I may believe on good evidence that I shall not be knocked down by a bus tomorrow; I am not warranted in asserting that I shall not be knocked down by a bus tomorrow. Neither belief nor belief on good evidence warrants assertion.

  12. Keith, as pointed out in my response to Kent, and in other places here, it’s a mistake to identify the JB account with anything in this passage. Of course Williamson is right for the ordinary notion of justification, but epistemic justification–the kind necessary for knowledge–is different. It has to be part of a total body of evidence that not only warrants your belief but also warrants you in thinking that you’ve met all the epistemic (non-psychological) conditions for knowledge. In any context where you’re not allowed to assert that you won’t be knocked down by a bus tomorrow (presumably, not in the middle of your climb to the top of Mt. Everest), the evidence you’ve got that such a disaster won’t strike won’t be part of a total body of evidence that warrants you in thinking that you’ve met all the non-psychological conditions for knowledge. So I argue, anyway…

  13. Kent, a couple of points here. First, I think you can be practically justified in holding a belief–that’s what Pascalian and Jamesian arguments are about. There are, or can be, cases where the practical benefits involved in the justification can’t be gotten except by having a belief. The second point is that if you do assert what you believe, but only on practical grounds that do justify the believing, all things considered, I think you’re criticizable. So if you don’t partition your practically justified beliefs into a compartment of things you won’t assert, shame, shame! And note that, once criticized, you won’t be able to defend yourself by explaining your reasons for belief–they won’t be relevant to the criticism.

  14. Of course Williamson is right for the ordinary notion of justification, but epistemic justificationâ??the kind necessary for knowledgeâ??is different.

    Jon, I’d have thought that the ordinary kind of justification has a better claim to being necessary for knowledge than the non-ordinary kind you go on to describe in the remainder of comment 13 — which seems too strong to be nec for knowledge. But, at any rate, what I took Kent to be suggesting was that belief was sufficient to warrant assertion, so that the relevant criticisms of one’s asserting that P could be traced back to a problem with one’s believing that P. The fact that in some cases one can only wrongly assert what one is right to believe (that one is reasonable and justified in believing, in the ordinary senses of the terms) should give us pause about that.

  15. Keith, I expect that ordinary justification is necessary for epistemic justification, in my sense, so both would be necessary for knowledge. The argument that epistemic justification requires what I say it does turns on the fact that knowledge involves a legitimate closure with respect to further inquiry (to explain why it makes no sense to say, “I know p, but I should check further”). The closure with respect to further inquiry must itself be justified–it’s an attitude that if adopted arbitrarily, doesn’t turn ordinary justification into epistemic justification. And, if it is justified, it will be justified by one’s total body of evidence. That’s the highlights of the argument, at any rate.

    That aside, however, you bring up an interesting difficulty for Kent’s view. Williamson is right that ordinary justification doesn’t make assertion appropriate, so if we add the norms of belief to a sincerity requirement, the norms in question can’t be those for ordinary justification: they’d have to be those for epistemic justification, in my sense. That sounds a bit strong; it seems as if the norms of belief allow me to believe that my lottery ticket will lose (though one might object here that all I’m allowed to believe is that this is very likely to be true, but I usually resist that qualification). The proper view would seem to be that norms of belief track ordinary justification, and that the norms that specify the conditions for knowledge aren’t properly thought of as norms of belief at all–they only tell you something about further properties your justification has to possess to be the right kind for knowledge.

  16. Dear Rev. Keith,

    According to your scripture reading (comment 12) from Chapter 11, section 5, verse 1 (of Knowledge and its Limits), page two-hundred sixty:

    A. I may believe on good evidence that your lottery ticket did not win; I am not warranted in asserting that it did not win. I may believe on good evidence that I shall not be knocked down by a bus tomorrow; I am not warranted in asserting that I shall not be knocked down by a bus tomorrow. Neither belief nor belief on good evidence warrants assertion.

    But, arguably, these beliefs do not meet the norms for belief, in which case these examples are consistent with the suggestion in comment 9 above, according to which no special norm (or constitutive rule) for assertion is needed.

    Besides, to quote several prior verses from the same text:

    B. ‘Warrant’ is used here as a term of art, for that evidential property (if any) which plays the role of property C in the correct simple account of assertion. This need not correspond exactly to that of ‘warrant’ in everyday English. [p. 243]

    C. The [knowledge] rule makes knowledge the condition for permissible assertion, not for reasonable assertion. [p. 256]

    D. That assertion has such [constitutive] rules is by no means obvious; perhaps assertion is more like a natural phenomenon than it seems. One way to find out is by supposing that it has such rules, in order to see where the hypothesis leads and what it explains. That will be done here. [pp. 238-9]

    So it could turn out that a strong norm on belief (‘Stick to what to know’, to borrow the title of a recent paper by Jonathan Sutton) could, together with the bare sincerity condition on assertion (the Belief Account: assert only what you believe) could explain whatever the knowledge account purportedly explains.

  17. Kent: In the examples, I take the agent to be warranted in believing the items in question, but not to have sufficient warrant to assert them. It’s on the basis of examples like those — and others — that I reject the belief account. So, it could turn out that…(as you say), but only if I’m wrong about such cases. I presume you think otherwise about them.

  18. I like the appellation “Rev. Keith”; now there’s one preacher I’d enjoy listening to! Actually, I’ve always thought of Keith as a major league pitcher’s doppelganger; he’s a great Curt Schilling look-alike, don’t you think? And he’s got a great philosophical split-finger fastball to boot… OK, OK, I thought I’d leave the metaphor unexplained, but now think I ought to explain the compliment. What makes for really interesting philosophy, for me, is finding a position that can be developed in ways that you never expected. So just when you thought you had the pitch timed and were seeing the ball perfectly, the thing’s in the dirt and you’ve missed again.

  19. Jon, I think I’m happy with everything you said, but I’m not sure why it’s trouble for me.

    What I was trying to do in that bit of the paper was apply some pressure to move from the appropriateness of Blofeld’s and Felix’s conflicting attributions of truth and falsity (to a particular utterance – call it “ZURICH” – of “Bond might be in Zurich”) to the accuracy of those attributions. That’d then supply some pressure toward relativism.

    The way the pressure was supposed to get applied was like this: Blofeld’s and Felix’s attributions are both appropriate. Typically, unless something goes wrong somewhere, appropriate attributions of truth values to utterances are accurate. There’s no obvious, attractive story to be told about what’s gone wrong with either Blofeld’s or Felix’s attribution. So, pending the arrival of some non-obvious story, we should take both attributions to be accurate.

    If we want to say that: (a) Blofeld’s assertion that ZURICH is true is appropriate, (b) Felix’s assertion that ZURICH is false is appropriate, (c) nothing has gone wrong with Blofeld’s assertion that would pull appropriateness apart from accuracy, and (d) nothing has gone wrong with Felix’s assertion that would pull appropriateness apart from accuracy, then we’re either stuck saying P and not-P, or we’re stuck with some kind of relativism.

    That kind of argument is compatible with a whole range of stories about just why this defeasible connection between appropriateness and accuracy holds. (Because truth is the norm of assertion, because JB is the norm of assertion, and there’s a defeasible connection between JB and truth, …)

    All I need is that there *is* some defeasible connection, and that if we’re going to say you’ve got appropriateness without accuracy in some case, we need to tell some story about how come the connection doesn’t hold in this case. Since the assertions in question are these evaluations of the “might” claim, the fact that the villains’ evidence is misleading doesn’t seem like a good explanation of how Blofeld’s assertion that ZURICH is true came to be appropriate without being accurate. (Though if Blofeld had said “Bond is in Zurich”, the misleading evidence might well be a good explanation of why that assertion was appropriate but not accurate.)

    How does that sound?

  20. Yes, Keith, I understand that in the examples from Williamson, you take the agent to be warranted in believing the items in question, but not to have sufficient warrant to assert them. Given that, of course you would reject the belief account. But Williamson uses ‘warrant’, when applied to assertion, as a term of art, and it’s already a term of art, used in various ways by epistemologists, when applied to belief. And it comes in degrees. So, I daresay, there’s at least one use of ‘warrant’ as applied to assertion and one use as applied to belief such that an assertion that p is warranted if and only if the belief that p is warranted. (Big deal!)

    My real problem here is that I honestly don’t know why people think that assertions or other ordinary speech acts are governed by constitutive rules at all. I argued against this 25 years ago, and developed a theory of speech acts that did without such rules. But that was then and this is now.

  21. Yes, Andy, your last note helped me see that I’ve been saying two different things all along, but really only intending one of them. So here’s what I see now. I agree that relativism about truth is compatible with the story I told, since the story I told doesn’t imply that either of the utterances is false. In fact, the story I told has both utterances coming out true. The point of the story, though, was that the perspectival character of justification is the only relativistic notion needed to understand the discrepancy between the two utterances. Truth can remain as non-relativistic as always, so the cases don’t really motivate relativism about truth.

    I expect, though, that the your reasons for finding motivation in the example lies in the power of your view to give a systematic explanation of an entire range of examples, with this example being one of them. Perhaps that’s right, though I confess I’m not convinced of that point; but that point would explain why you see motivation for some relativism here and I don’t. In all such cases, I think some fairly mundane facts about the perspectival character of justification (and hence knowledge) can explain the truths in question; you (and others) think they can’t. That’s probably a good reason to post some more about other examples, especially the ones in the paper you, Hawthorne, and Weatherson wrote (though Jason Stanley already posted once about it here as to why a little regimenting of terminology shows that you’all are contextualists, not relativists).

  22. Kent, so I take it you think of the sincerity requirement as a norm of assertion but not a constitutive one? I posted on the Williamson quote you cited, the one where he posits constitutive rules of assertion, asking about this distinction. I’m not sure there is such a distinction, given Williamson’s notion of a constitutive rule, but I’m not sure there isn’t, either. Maybe you could say more about the distinction?

  23. Happy to say more, Jon, but I’ll do it as a comment on your 10/8/04 post, NORMS OF ASSERTION, where you express your puzzlement about the contrast between what has constitutive rules and natural phenomena.

Leave a Reply

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