Thursday, August 06, 2015

Assertability without Assertion

I think there are cases where one doesn't assert something, but one wouldn't be in violation of any norms of assertion if one did. Probably you can think of lots of cases like that. For instance, suppose that Helen is having a conversation about sloths and their habits. Suppose that she has whatever arbitarily high epistemic access you like with respect to the fact that urinate only once a week, but chooses not to mention this fact, preferring in this instance to listen to the other people speaking instead. If she had asserted it, this would have amounted to an expression of her knowledge or better (certainty, maybe), and it would have given knowledge to her interlocutors, who would have celebrated this fact as relevant and interesting. But she keeps it to herself instead.

I think this is a pretty mundane kind of case—it happens all the time. (There are other kinds of cases with the relevant feature too—imagine a case where one does the wrong thing by refraining from asserting. One may—indeed, ought—to assert, but doesn't.) But I also think it's a counterexample to Rachel McKinnon's 'Supportive Reasons Norm', which she suggests is the central norm governing assertion.

Here is the Supportive Reasons Norm (given on p. 52 of Rachel's recent assertion book):
One may assert that p only if
(i) One has supportive reasons for p,
(ii) The relevant conventional and pragmatic elements of the context are present, and
(iii) One asserts that p at least in part because the assertion that p satisfies (i) and (ii).
My case of Helen is a counterexample because Helen may assert that sloths urinate only once a week, but fails to satisfy condition (iii), since she doesn't make the relevant assertion at all, let alone for a particular reason. In general, that condition will ensure that the permissibility of the assertion entails that the assertion is made. Since it's not true we're only permitted to assert the things we do assert, I don't think condition (iii) is part of a proper characterization of what one may assert. (It is much easier to think something like it may have a role to play in a characterization of when a given assertion is a proper one. Perhaps that's what Rachel had in mind.)


  1. Hi Jonathan! Thanks for the suggested counter-example. We hashed this out a bit on Facebook, but I thought I'd post here as well.

    I don't think that it works as a counter-example, for a variety of reasons. First, there's no assertion, so it can't be a counter-example. But that has to do with the second reason: the 'only if' takes wide scope.

    The norm is expressed as an 'only if' and not as an 'if' or an 'if and only if' statement. So when you say, "In general, [the third] condition will ensure that the permissibility of the assertion entails that the assertion is made." This is wrong. This would be true if the norm were expressed as an 'if' or 'if and only if' but *not* if it's expressed as an 'only if.' So there's no entailment.

    The third condition is--what I take to be--a pretty standard proper-basing condition (one shared by, for example, Jennifer Lackey's Reasonable-to-Believe Norm; I think Clayton Littlejohn has one too, if I'm remembering correctly). Think of it like the following:

    "You may have a cookie only if you have a cookie *because* I gave you permission."

    (Perhaps a more natural assertion would be, "You can have a cookie only if you have one because I said so.")

    This warranting condition for having a cookie does *not* entail that you thereby have a cookie. You might decide not to have the cookie after all. You might also have a cookie for a reason other than the warranting reason (i.e., that I gave permission). For example, even though I gave you permission (if you have it because I said so), you might have forgotten that I told you this and you have a cookie because you want to (and think you're stealing it). So you have a cookie but for the 'wrong' reason. That's what the third condition is meant to capture: one might have warranting reasons to phi, but if one phi's for the wrong reasons, then one isn't warranted in phi-ing.

    1. Thanks Rachel. I think this is helpful, although I think the issue is a bit subtler than you suggest. I don't agree, for instance, that since there's no assertion, there can't be a counterexample. The case I offered *is* a case where one *may* assert, which is the left-hand-side of your norm. I think that this is true:

      Helen may assert that sloths urinate only once a week.

      And I think that this is false:

      Helen asserts that sloths urinate only once a week at least in part because the assertion that sloths urinate only once a week satisfies (i) and (ii).

      And I don't think what you say about 'only if' versus 'if' in this comment is right. Your norm is superficially of the form, 'A only if X, Y, and Z'. Any case of A without Z *is* a counterexample to that form. (If you'd said 'if' instead of 'only if', it wouldn't be.) I was indeed assuming that the 'only if' is taking a wide scope.

      But I *can* (now) see the reading you had in mind. The cookie example helps. It requires a more nuanced relationship between the conditional and the 'one asserts' condition in (iii). In fact, I suspect the issue may require that the 'only if' take a *narrower* scope than it appears to. At any rate, the logical form of the proposal you intend does not after all seem to be 'A only if X, Y, and Z'. The modal has a more intimate role to play. It's something like: 'One may F only if one's F is x, y, and z', where something complicated has to be binding both F's (and thus scoping *over* the 'only if).