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«teorema Vol. XXX/3, 2011, pp. 167-191 ISSN: 0210-1602 [BIBLID 0210-1602 (2011) 30:3; pp. 167-191] REVISTA DE LIBROS Assertion. New Philosophical ...»

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teorema

Vol. XXX/3, 2011, pp. 167-191

ISSN: 0210-1602

[BIBLID 0210-1602 (2011) 30:3; pp. 167-191]

REVISTA DE LIBROS

Assertion. New Philosophical Essays, by JESSICA BROWN and HERMAN

CAPPELEN (EDS.), OXFORD, OXFORD UP 2011, 320 pp.

There has been a continuous discussion of the nature of assertion in contemporary philosophy. Grice and Strawson proposed in the 1960s an account in

terms of communicative intentions, classically presented in polished form in Bach & Harnish’s (1979) Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts. Austin and Dummett propounded a contrasting normative account, while Davidson made influential sceptical remarks. Also at the end of the 1970s, Stalnaker influentially suggested to understand assertions as proposals to update a context set of information commonly taken for granted by conversationists. Recently, Tim Williamson’s (1996/2000) already classic paper on the topic has initiated a whole new industry: many papers have been published in recent years on the topic, mostly discussing the pros and cons of the account that Williamson proposed, according to which assertions can be individuated as propositional acts subject to the normative requirement that the asserter knows the proposition put forward. This new collection of essays follows in general that trend, even though a few papers develop alternative accounts. After a helpful introduction by the editors, classifying the different views on assertion and placing the debates about it in the contemporary philosophy of language and epistemology, the collection is divided into to parts with six papers each. The first includes papers on the nature of assertion, the second papers on epistemic norms of assertion exploring issues related to Williamson’s proposal.

All in all, this is a useful and interesting compilation, including some firstclass papers, which will be of interest to a sufficiently wide group of researchers. A few comments on the specific papers follow, including some objections that I think are worth exploring further.

HERMAN CAPPELEN (St Andrews and Oslo): “Against Assertion.” This paper has a critical part and a more positive part. The critical part is summarized at the beginning [p. 21]: “We don’t play the assertion game. The game might exist as an

Abstract

object, but it is not a game you need to learn and play to become a speaker of a natural language.” The positive part has it that “there are sayings; sayings are governed by variable norms, none of which 168 Revista de libros are essential to, or constitutive of, the act.” The critical part includes interesting critical arguments, some of them already known, some original, which defenders of opposing views should take into consideration. I have a fundamental concern about the positive view, which has consequences for one of the original criticisms. Kent Bach (1994) has distinguished two notions of ‘saying’ and ‘what is said’, a “locutionary” one, which corresponds to Austin’s notion of “locutionary act”, and a “stative” one, on which ‘to say’ is “a generic illocutionary verb that describes any constative act whose content is made explicit” [op. cit., p. 143]. Cappelen defines sayings in terms of the first notion, as simply “the act of expressing the proposition that p” [p. 23] but then goes on to “restrict sayings to complete propositions” – so that the expression of a proposition embedded in a propositional attitude or in the antecedent of a conditional does not count as a saying – and also to sayings expressed by declarative sentences, not interrogative or imperative sentences [p. 24]. What is the rationale for this restriction? The only one that occurs to me is that he in fact has in mind the stative, ilocutionary sense of the two that Bach distinguishes.

In fact, Cappelen goes on to suggest that the Gricean conversational maxims – such as the quality maxim “do not say what you believe to be false”– should be understood as applying to sayings in his sense: “the maxim tells us that, in order to be cooperative, you should aim to express (that is, say) propositions that are true” [p. 25]. However, if we understand ‘saying’ in the locutionary sense in the unrestricted sense, this is simply false; we are under no obligation, if order to be cooperative, to express in the antecedent of conditionals we assert or in the content of our questions propositions that are true. It is only under the restrictions that the proposal make sense; but one has every reason to think that this is because we are in fact considering, not the expressing of a proposition by itself (a saying in the locutionary sense), but the a generic illocutionary act in the category of those with mind-to-world direction of fir (i.e., a saying in the illocutionary sense). Now, in reply to a natural objection he puts to himself, “hey, wait a minute, there are all these very tricky questions about sayings – you owe us a story about all of this” [p. 23], Cappelen retorts that “According to all the views I target below, the act of saying that P is part of the act of asserting that P”. However, while this is clearly true taking ‘saying’ in the locutionary sense, it is not taking ‘saying’ in the illocutionary sense – assertions are sayings in the stative sense. Similarly, his claim that “sayings are evaluated by non-constitutive, variable norms” is [pp. 24-5] is perfectly ok with respect to locutionary sayings, but it is unclear that it is with respect to illocutionary sayings. And, finally, his point that ascriptions of acts of assertion are infrequent, and what we ascribe are sayings, once again, is manifestly correct of illocutionary sayings, but it is very unclear that it also applies to locutionary sayings. To put it in a nutshell, if to say is just to express a proposition (Austin’s locutionary sense), Cappelen is Revista de libros 169 right that it is a problem for everybody to give a philosophical elucidation of what this is, but it is unclear what makes sayings of “complete” propositions especial. If to say is rather to perform any one of a generically indicated class of speech act, Cappelen does owe us a story about them, and it might well be that the correct story is normative.





MAX KÖLBEL (Barcelona): “Conversational Score, Assertion, and Testimony”. This paper examines the topic of assertion from the perspective of Stalnaker’s account. The paper first explores different conceptions of the “conversational/context set” or “conversational scoreboard”, confronting particularly the pros and cons of invoking either a psychological or a social/conventional account; and then, on the basis of that discussion, provides a characterization of assertion in terms both of norms and Stalnakerian effects on the scoreboard, distinguishing assertion from other conversational contributions such as presuppositions and implicatures. I found the whole discussion illuminating, and many helpful points throughout. (Given that this is a mistake that copy editors probably are not going to notice, I should say that ‘Ambròs’ is spelled in Catalan with grave accent, not acute as it appears in the paper, ‘Ambrós’.) JOHN MACFARLANE (Berkeley): “What is Assertion?” This excellent paper identifies four different kinds of accounts of assertion in the contemporary literature: assertion as the expression of belief; as an act defined by its constitutive norms; as a proposal to add its content to what is already taken for granted; and as an act defined by the commitments its agent undertakes.

The paper presents the main motivation favouring each of them, explains for each of them how they could or could not capture the motivation adduced in favour of the three rival accounts, and makes some compelling objections to each of them. Given that MacFarlane’s interest in assertion comes from his recent work defending truth-relativism, arguments for which rely to a good extent on intuitions about retraction, MacFarlane appeals to the issue of whether the accounts provide corresponding explanations of the retraction of assertions as one of the main criteria to evaluate them. Although it appears that his preferences are for the “commitment-based” account that he himself has subscribed to in his work on truth-relativism, he ends up presenting an important criticism to such account, based on a more general argument in Pagin (2004).

PETER PAGIN (Stockholm): “Information and Assertoric Force”. This excellent paper goes against the recent trend of explaining assertion in normative terms. Pagin offers a descriptive account, different also from Gricean intentionalist accounts, aiming for a characterization compatible with the assumption that “assertions, not just something with a certain similarity to assertions, are both made and acknowledged by unsophisticated speakers who don’t have any conception of communicative intentions, commitments or communal norms” [p. 116]. The account Pagin provides appeals to the notion of a propositional act being made “because it is true”, which he unpacks in 170 Revista de libros terms of the act being prima facie informative for the speaker or the hearer, and this in its turn on the basis of dispositions to increase the subjective probabilities of the asserted propositions given the manifest properties indicating the assertion. A problem with this is that it provides a relative notion (being assertoric for someone) where we take for granted an absolute one [pp. 115-6]. Also, on Pagin’s account, an assertion of a proposition is made with an expression that has the proposition as its semantic content, because this is the manifest property that is supposed to provide a prima facie indication of reliability p.

123]. As MacFarlane points out [pp. 80-1], however, accounts like this have to face the obvious objection that, in the way that we could make indirect requests, indirect promises and in general indirect speech acts, we could make indirect assertions; for instance, one could assert that Canada is not a banana republic by asking rhetorically whether Canada is by any chance a banana republic. Pagin agrees that this is an indirect assertion [p. 128]. However, unlike ‘fake’ in ‘fake request’, ‘indirect’ in ‘indirect request’ is a conjunctive predicate: if something is a fake request, it is not a request, but an indirect request is a request. It is unclear to me, however, how is it that Pagin’s account allows for such indirect assertions being assertions.

ROBERT STALNAKER (MIT): “The Essential Contextual”. On Stalnaker’s well-known view of assertion, assertions are proposals to further restrict a context set of possibilities left open by the shared information: what participants know, know that others know, know that others know that others know …, or rather by what is thus commonly accepted. In this paper, Stalnaker provides a new framework, already introduced in his (2008), to represent commonly accepted self-locating information – a distinctive category unveiled in classic papers by Castañeda, Perry and Lewis – and assertions with that content. As in his earlier work on this topic (1981), Stalnaker strives to have an account capable of explaining the communication of self-locating information in a more direct form than Lewis (1979) well-known alternative proposal, on which the contents of self-locating thoughts are not propositions but properties that the subject self-ascribes. Stalnaker’s new proposal provides a way of formally implementing a distinction between belief-states and belief-contents which John Perry (2006) has been insisting all along is required to properly account for these thoughts. The paper feels a bit tangential to the issues unifying the compilation, but the proposal is interesting enough, and does relate somehow to the problem of offering an adequate philosophical account of the nature of assertion.

JESSICA BROWN (St Andrews): “Fallibilism and the Knowledge Norm for Assertion and Practical Reasoning”. This paper discusses two issues arising from recent debates on the knowledge norm for assertion, which the author calls the ‘sufficiency’ and ‘commonality’ questions. The main arguments in the literature support the idea that knowledge is necessary for being in a good epistemic position for assertion. However, some defenders of the Revista de libros 171 knowledge norm also endorse the sufficiency direction; while some also claim that the epistemic standards for practical reasoning and assertion are the same. The sufficiency question critically examines motivation for the first proposal. The commonality question examines motivation for thinking that there are common epistemic standards for practical reasoning and assertion.

The author further connects these issues with other recent epistemological debates; on the basis of the contention that a number of recent defenders of the knowledge norm embrace some version of infallibilism, the paper discusses whether any version of infallibilism can answer the two questions, especially given that the author and others have proposed counterexamples to the sufficiency claim prima facie based on fallibilist intuitions. After examining several ways of articulating infallibilism, the paper concludes that none of them provides adequate answers to the two questions. Both the critical discussion and the negative conclusion are interesting, but the paper feels somehow disappointing. Firstly, the connection between infallibilism and the two questions the author sets up for herself is rather impressionistic, given that some writers have defended a sufficiency norm while adopting a fallibilist epistemology, combined with an “impurist” way of accounting for contextualist intuitions about knowledge. Secondly, the author cannot do proper justice to the different infallibilist ideas she discusses, nor to the fallibilist-impurist way of defending sufficiency. Nonetheless, the true specialist will find food for thought here.



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