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Knowledge and the Norm of Assertion

John Turri


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1One road closure followed by unusually heavy traffic on the alternate route meant that we were cutting it close. Squeezing the armrest so hard that her fingernails turned white, she grimaced, “How long before we’re there?” “Ten minutes,” I answered, vexed that the upcoming light turned yellow. A few silent moments ensued. The uneasy thought hung over our heads like a menacing storm cloud — we might not make it to the hospital in time. Then our two year old daughter, Sarah, peeped from the back, “Daddy, how you know that?” “Know what?” “That we be there in ten minutes.” “I . . . well . . . ,” I faltered, blinking at the seemingly interminable red light, before continuing confidently in an attempt to reassure her, “. . . we’ll get there in time for Mommy and the baby, honey, don’t worry.” Judging by the look on her face, my reassurance helped. But it would have helped more if I had directly answered her question in the course of reassuring her.

2We did get there in time and everything went very well for both mom and baby. A few days later, as our household settled in to its new routine, I thought about the exchange with my daughter on the car ride. As our family experienced a serious and emotional situation, in the midst of all the action, excitement and concern, this wonderful little two year old, in the most natural and unselfconscious way, challenged my statement. And it worked! She asked me how I knew and, with that one innocent little question, stopped me in my conversational tracks.

3Before that pregnant experience, I had been interested in assertion. In particular, I had been interested in the philosophical debate over “the norm of assertion,” or under what conditions an assertion should be made. I was aware that some philosophers had suggested or argued that the default propriety of the challenge, “How do you know?” suggested that you should assert something only if you know that it is true (Unger, 1975). But in retrospect it is clear that, until that point, my interest in the debate had been “academic” in the unflattering sense of the term. After that ride to the hospital, however, my interest grew quantitatively and qualitatively. My interest was no longer academic. It was personal. I was deeply impressed by the fact that my two year old grasped the practice of assertion well enough to effectively challenge my statement in a serious situation. She implicitly understood the rules of the practice, or what anthropologists might call the “organizing principle” of this aspect of “speaking in social life” (Bauman & Sherzer 1975: 97, 110). This motivated me, in earnest, to achieve an explicit understanding of the matter — that is, of the norm of assertion and related issues. Several years later, the result is many articles and this book.

4Assertion is common, unavoidable and extremely important in everyday life. Everyone reading this book already knows what assertion is, so I risk appearing patronizing by saying that assertion is an act whereby a speaker puts forward a proposition as true, and that the main vehicle for making assertions is the declarative sentence, spoken or written. There are clear antecedents of assertion in non-human animals, in the form of signaling behavior (Wheeler & Hammerschmidt 2013; Crockford, Wittig, Mundry & Zuberbuhler 2012; Bradbury & Vehrencamp 2011; Cheney & Seyfarth 1988). By asserting, we share knowledge, coordinate behavior, and advance collective inquiry. Our individual and collective well-being often depend on it. In short, assertion is fundamental to our lives as social and cognitive beings. Accordingly, assertion is of considerable interest to cognitive scientists, social scientists, and philosophers.

5My focus in this book is the norm of the social practice of assertion. When should you make an assertion? I argue that knowledge is the norm. The basic view is not original with me. Indeed, it is an ancient idea that knowledge is the norm of assertion. For example, ancient skeptics resisted the view that we have knowledge on the grounds that we cannot properly make assertions; they also claimed that they refrained from making assertions, or even forming beliefs, because they lacked knowledge (see Turri 2012c; Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism). Passages from ancient religious texts convey similar sentiments. For instance, one biblical passage admonishes, “Some of you say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to some city. We will stay there a year, do business, and make money’. But you do not know what will happen tomorrow!” (James 4:13‑15, New Century Translation; cited in Benton 2012: 6). The offending parties are then told that they “should” say something different, something conditional, which presumably they do know, such as, “If things work out as planned, then we will go to a city tomorrow.” We also find relevant passages from Shakespeare, who wrote, “The augurers say they know not, they cannot tell” (Antony and Cleopatra 4.12.2905).

6In the first half of the twentieth century, philosophers began theorizing explicitly about the normative relationship between knowledge and assertion (e.g. MacIver 1938; Moore 1959), followed by explicit defenses in the later twentieth century (Unger 1975; Williamson 1996). The first decade of the twenty-first century, however, is when the view — commonly known as “the knowledge account of assertion” — began receiving serious widespread attention. In writing this book, I have built on the insights of many previous philosophers who have written on the norms of assertion, including both proponents and critics of the knowledge account.

7Researchers investigating the norm of assertion agree that their project is, at least in large part, empirical. More often than not, I suspect, agreement on this point is only implicit, in no small part because contemporary philosophy bears an uneasy, disputed, and often confused relationship to empirical projects. Nevertheless, agreement on this methodological point is often explicit. As one opponent of the knowledge account put it, an adequate theory “must face the linguistic data” (Douven 2006: 45). Assertion may be a rule-governed activity but, unlike chess or cricket or legislation in modern nation states, there is no rule book. Like characters in a good Shakespearean play, we begin our project in media res. But our project involves a metacognitive twist that no Shakespearean character embodies: we are committed participants in a practice that inevitably acts as a medium for our attempt to achieve understanding of the practice itself. To understand the unwritten rules, we must, as it were, reverse-engineer the rulebook from the facts on the ground, from the way the practice daily unfolds. We have no choice but to begin with the available data: tendencies and habits surrounding the give and take and evaluation of assertion. We then try to discern patterns in the data. Which rules, if competently followed for the most part, would produce these patterns? Thus, while the project has a large irreducible empirical component, it also has an irreducible theoretical component too.

8I approach the project in the manner of the ethologist (Tinbergen 1963; Lorenz 1974). Ethology is the scientific study of animal behavior. It begins with observation and description of the animal’s behavior in natural contexts, sometimes called an “ethogram.” Naturalistic observation and classification inspires hypotheses about the behavior’s underlying causes. This is followed by experimentation to test the hypotheses and, ultimately, arrive at a correct explanation of the animal’s behavior. Contemporary ethologists trace the ancient roots of their discipline back to Aristotle, whose work on animals anticipates many aspects of their inquiry (Menzel 2012: 609).

9Good ethologists never forget, as Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen wrote, “that naïve, unsophisticated, or intuitively guided observation may open our eyes” to new possibilities and problems (Tinbergen 1963: 417). For each of us, our everyday social interactions provide us with a continuous stream of opportunities to make relevant naturalistic observations. (It is not always easy, however, to adopt an observer’s perspective on exchanges we are involved in, and some care must be taken to avoid social awkwardness due to impromptu data collection.) Previous philosophical work has contributed such observations about the human practice of assertion. In the chapters that follow, I catalogue, regiment, and expand the relevant observations into an ethogram of critical mass, in the service of formulating and, ultimately, testing the hypothesis that knowledge is the norm of assertion. I also discuss a growing body of experimental research designed to put this hypothesis to the test. To date, the knowledge account has passed every experimental test with flying colors. In the process, every serious objection to the knowledge account is addressed and previously unknown and surprising features of human moral psychology are uncovered. All the evidence points irresistibly to a single conclusion: the knowledge account is true. Finally, I also propose a hypothesis about why knowledge is the norm of assertion, informed by decades of findings from the interdisciplinary study of animal communication. Knowledge plays an important role in the evolution of stable animal communication systems generally and, I propose, its role in human communication is but a novel twist on an otherwise ancient theme.

10In writing this book, I have tried to avoid what the philosopher Edward Craig once aptly called the “intellectual prejudice . . . that everything must really be frightfully complex” (Craig 1990: 4). Frightful complexity manifests itself in many ways and I have tried to avoid two of its more pernicious manifestations, length and obscurity, without sacrificing anything essential to a full appreciation of the conclusive case for the knowledge account. I should also ask the reader to keep another point firmly in mind (also partly inspired by Craig 1990: §1). My goal is not to illuminate some imaginary social practice or to prescribe some practice I think we should aspire to, but rather to illuminate the normative structure of our actual practice of assertion.


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