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Knowledge and the Norm of Assertion

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John Turri

1. Evidence and Argument

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1In this chapter, I present the observational and experimental evidence demonstrating that knowledge is the norm of assertion. I also explain why knowledge is the norm of assertion.

Observational Data

2All of us are intimately familiar with the practice of assertion. We have participated in it for as long as we can remember, as have all the people in our lives. Social observation provides a wealth of data about the ordinary give-and-take and evaluation of assertion. Introspective observation also provides further data about how certain assertions would strike us as inconsistent or odd. Taken as a whole, this set of data strongly suggests that knowledge is the norm of assertion. Everywhere we look, assertion and knowledge are linked.

3Prompts. One way of prompting someone to make an assertion is to ask, “What time is it?” But an equally effective, and practically interchangeable, prompt is to ask, “Do you know what time it is?” (Turri 2010b: 458ff.). Competent speakers respond to the two questions similarly. But why would that be? Proponents of the knowledge account explain it as follows. Because knowledge is the norm of assertion, my question “Do you know what time it is?” enables you to infer that I want you to make the relevant assertion and, thus, functions as an indirect request for you to make the assertion. This is similar to how my question “Can you pass the salt?” can function as an indirect request for you to pass the salt.

4Abstentions When you are asked a question, even if the question has nothing to do with you or what you know, it is normally completely acceptable to respond by saying, “Sorry, I don’t know” (Reynolds 2002: 140). (The exception is when it is clear that you do know the answer.) Suppose you are asked, “What is the conversion rate from liters to quarts?” and you respond, “Sorry, I don’t know.” Normally, your response will be judged perfectly acceptable. But you and your epistemic state are irrelevant to the content of the question, so why is that response any more acceptable than, say, “Sorry, Paris is the capital of France” would be? Proponents of the knowledge account explain it as follows. By saying “Sorry, I don’t know,” you are informing the questioner that you lack the appropriate normative standing to answer her question, which is surely relevant in the context.

5Convertible. In response to a question, the statements “I don’t know,” “I can’t tell,” and “I can’t say” are practically interchangeable (Turri 2011: 38). The parable of Cain and Abel contains perhaps the most famous abstention in literary history. In one translation of the story, when asked, “Where is your brother Abel,” Cain answers, “I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?” (King James Version, 1611). But in another translation, Cain answers, “I cannot tell. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (1599 Geneva version). Why are these locutions interchangeable? Because in ordinary speech “tell” and “say” both mean “assert,” and “can” expresses the concept of permission or authority. Since knowledge is the norm of assertion, to lack authority just is to lack knowledge. Whence the interchangeability of all three locutions.

6Challenges. When you make an assertion, even if the content of your assertion has nothing to do with you or what you know, it is normally appropriate to ask you, “How do you know that?” (Unger 1975: 263–64; Slote 1979). What explains the default propriety of this response? If knowledge is the norm of assertion, then we can explain it as follows. By making an assertion, you represent yourself as satisfying the norm of assertion; and knowledge is the norm; so the question is appropriate because it asks whether you are accurately representing yourself.

7Escalation. Asking “How do you know?” is understood as implicitly challenging my authority to make an assertion. More aggressive than asking “How do you know?” is “Do you really know that?” (Williamson 2000: 252–53). More aggressive yet is “You don’t know that!” or “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” What explains this range of aggressiveness? If knowledge is the norm of assertion, then we can explain it as follows. “How do you know?” implicitly challenges my authority to assert the proposition, by asking me to demonstrate that I actually have it; “Do you really know that?” explicitly challenges my authority, by questioning whether I have it; and “You don’t know that!” explicitly rejects my authority. Explicitly questioning someone’s authority is more aggressive than implicitly questioning it, and explicitly rejecting someone’s authority is more aggressive than explicitly questioning it.

8Vindication. Suppose that you make an assertion and someone accuses you, “You’re not in a position to make that claim.” Responding with, “Yes I am –– I know that it’s true,” would, if true, fully vindicate the initial assertion. Indeed, your response seems to flatly contradict the accusation. If knowledge is the norm of assertion, this is easily explained. How obtuse your accuser would seem if he answered that your response had missed the point. (Accusations made on ethical or legal grounds are different and would have to be handled differently. Such accusations are also irrelevant to my discussion here.)

9Inconsistency. Assertions of the form “The match is today, but I don’t know that/whether the match is today” strike us as inconsistent (MacIver 1938; Moore 1959). But their content is perfectly consistent, so why do they seem inconsistent? Proponents of the knowledge account explain it as follows. Knowledge is the norm of assertion, so in order to properly assert a conjunction of the form “The match is today, but I don’t know that/whether the match is today,” you must know each conjunct. But your knowing the first conjunct (“The match is today”) would falsify the second conjunct (“I don’t know that/whether the match is today”), in which case you could not possibly know the conjunction. And by asserting the conjunction, you represent yourself as knowing it, because you represent yourself as satisfying the norm of assertion (Moore 1912; Moore 1959: 173, 223; Black 1954: 54–55; Unger 1975: 253). So by asserting the conjunction, you represent yourself as knowing something that you could not possibly know, which explains the inconsistency. In a word, what you assert is inconsistent with how you represent yourself.

10Oddity. It is all too common to hear things like “I can tell you that your case is still being reviewed.” Consider how odd it would sound to say “Your case isn’t still being reviewed, but I can tell you that it is” or “I don’t know whether your case is still being reviewed, but I can tell you that it is” (Turri 2011: 39). (We get the same effect if we replace “I can tell you” in these utterances with “(what) I can say (is).”) If knowledge is the norm of assertion, it is easy to explain the oddity of those assertions. The second conjunct states that I have authority to assert that your case is still under review. But the first conjunct either directly denies that I have the authority, in the case of “I don’t know,” or obviously entails that I lack it, in the case of “your case isn’t still being reviewed.”

11It is worth noting that many of these observations are made in children as young as two to three years old. Developmental psychologists have documented that “know” is the most frequently used mental state verb in young children, accounting for nearly 75% of usage in some corpuses (Shatz et al. 1983: 315). The expression “I don’t know” is used in young children’s discourse to mean “I can’t answer” (Bartsch & Wellman 1995: 42; see also Koenig, Clement, & Harris 2004), and the ability to answer a question under discussion “justifies” responding affirmatively to “Do you know the answer?” (Sodian & Wimmer 1989: 425). Young children challenge assertions made by other children and adults alike with “How you know dat?” (Bartsch & Wellman 1995: 61). Young children are also skilled at “modulating assertion,” using “I think” to hedge assertions and “I know” to render them more emphatic (Shatz et al. 1983: 318–19). Children are also sensitive to the difference signaled by “I know,” “I think,” and “I guess” in other people’s speech, which they use this to guide their actions (Moore, Bryant & Furrow 1989).

Experimental Data

12Social and introspective observation are natural places to start when investigating the norm of an important social practice that we are all familiar with. And, indeed, such observations can go a long way toward clarifying the norm of assertion. The observational data reported above are quite impressive and, in my estimation, make it likely that knowledge is the norm of assertion. But some caution is warranted because social and introspective observation have some well-known limitations. As social and cognitive psychologists have shown, not infrequently we misunderstand the dynamics of social interaction and the source of our own actions and reactions (Milgram 1974: 103–04; Ross & Nisbett 2011; Lieberman 2013: 4–5).

13Fortunately, the connection between knowledge and assertability can also be systemically investigated by established methods of experimental cognitive and social science. Controlled experimentation supplements introspection and social observation; it simultaneously builds on the insights they afford and overcomes their limitations, thereby increasing confidence that we have accurately identified the norm. Until very recently, inquiry into the norm of assertion has been broadly observational but not experimental. But an experimental approach is warranted because competing theories about the norm of assertion generate testable predictions, given two plausible and widely shared assumptions. The first assumption is that assertion is a social practice that competent speakers are skilled at, which is utterly uncontroversial. The second assumption is that the normative intuitions of skilled practitioners are a source of evidence about what the practice’s rules are. This assumption is shared by those who appeal to competent speakers’ intuitions to support theories of syntax, experimental investigations of the relationship between semantics and pragmatics, and other forms of psycholinguistic experimentation (Chomsky 1957; Noveck & Sperber 2004). It is also shared by linguistic anthropologists, who assume that a community’s linguistic rules “are real for every individual member of the community, who reflects them in production, interpretation, and attitudes” (Bauman & Sherzer 1975: 113). Other things being equal, we should expect skilled practitioners to reliably identify what should and should not be done according to the rules of the practice.

14Importantly, none of this implies that skilled practitioners have an explicit, articulable theory about what the rules are, or that they will answer “knowledge” if asked “what is the norm of assertion?” The assumption is not that skilled practitioners tend to be good theorists; rather, it is that patterns in their concrete, first-order intuitions and judgments manifest their skill in applying the relevant rules. Put otherwise, their intuitive reaction to cases tends to manifest their competence, resulting in detectable patterns. We can then use these patterns when theorizing about the practice’s rules. The patterns will make some proposals much less likely than others, given what we expect from skilled performance.

15Given these two assumptions, the normative intuitions of competent speakers are a valuable source of evidence about the norms of assertion. If that group strongly tends to judge that assertions of a certain sort should not be made, then we should conclude that those assertions probably violate the norm of assertion. Similar remarks apply when investigating the norms of other speech acts, such as questioning, commanding, guaranteeing, promising, and explanation.

16The upshot of all this is that if knowledge is the norm of assertion, then full competence in the practice of assertion requires mastering the knowledge rule, and competent speakers’ judgments about assertability will be guided by their commitment to the knowledge rule. Simply put, the knowledge account has testable implications. For instance, it implies that assertability judgments will be sensitive to knowledge judgments and, furthermore, to judgments about the intuitive requirements of knowledge, such as truth. Do these predictions hold up to scrutiny?

17Four recent studies help shed light on the issue. One series of studies directly investigated whether the norm of assertion is, at the very least, “factive” or truth-entailing (Turri 2013b). A factive norm implies that only true assertions should be made. The studies were motivated by critics’ repeated insistence that assertion’s norm cannot be factive, because factive norms are highly counterintuitive and mischaracterize the practice of assertion. Instead, critics propose, the norm must be belief, or evidence, or belief supported by evidence. But the results showed that it was the critics who were guilty of mischaracterizing ordinary practice: the norm of assertion was viewed as factive. The vast majority of people judged that a well justified but false assertion should not be made, but nearly no one thought that a well justified true assertion should not be made. The results also showed that critics’ favorite sort of thought experiment, intended to pump intuitions against factive accounts, can cause serious performance errors when assessing norm-violation (for more details, see the discussion of excuse validation in Chapter 3).

18In another set of studies that included over nine hundred adult participants, people were asked to evaluate agents in many different situations, with different levels of evidence and with different amounts at stake (Turri & Buckwalter in press). For example, in one situation, people were asked to evaluate Jennifer, an intelligence analyst developing a file on Ivan, an elusive foreign operative. Jennifer has a source who tells her something which strongly suggests that Ivan is left-handed. Should Jennifer write in Ivan’s file that he is left handed? In another situation, people were asked to evaluate Christina, a barista in charge of updating the coffee shop menu each day. To some customers with severe nut allergies, it matters whether the coffee contains pine nuts. While working on today’s menu, Christina notices a persistent pattern in the supplier’s shipments, which strongly suggests that the latest shipment of coffee does not contain trace amounts of pine nuts. Should Christina write on today’s menu that the coffee does not contain traces of pine nuts?

19In addition to answering whether the agent should inscribe some proposition, which implicates a written assertion, participants recorded judgments about many other things, including whether the proposition is true, whether the agent believes the proposition, whether the agent has good evidence for the proposition, and how important it is whether the proposition is true. Regression analysis showed that, of all these judgments, knowledge judgments had the greatest influence on judgments about whether the agent should inscribe the proposition. For example, in Christina’s case, participants rated whether the coffee contains traces of pine nuts, whether Christina thinks that the coffee contains traces of pine nuts, whether Christina has good evidence for thinking that the coffee contains traces of pine nuts, how important it is whether the coffee contains traces of pine nuts, and whether Christina knows that the coffee contains traces of pine nuts. Of all these judgments, knowledge judgments had the greatest influence on judgments about whether Christina should inscribe the proposition.

20A third set of studies tested the knowledge account directly, in the simplest way possible: by intervening on knowledge (Turri 2015e). That is, this study manipulated the presence or absence of knowledge by including it as an independent variable in the experimental design. This is important because if knowledge is the norm of assertion, then manipulating the presence or absence of knowledge should significantly affect people’s assertability judgments. The results were overwhelmingly favorable to the knowledge account. Across a variety of scenarios, varying whether the agent knows the relevant proposition, while holding all else equal, had an astonishingly large effect on judgments of assertability. For example, consider Mallory, who manages the local farmer’s market. One of her employees is interested in improving the health of his diet. The employee asks Mallory whether avocados have vitamin K. Should Mallory say that avocados have vitamin K? In one version of the story, Mallory knows that avocados have vitamin K. In the other version, she does not know. Nearly everyone who read the first story judged that Mallory should make the assertion, but nearly no one who read the second story did.

21One statistic from this line of research is most impressive of all: by changing the agent’s status from not knowing to knowing, the odds of judging that the agent should assert increased by a factor of nearly 350. In other words, holding all else equal, people are 35,000% more likely to judge that you should make an assertion when you know than when you do not. Knowledge judgments enormously influence assertability judgments, which is easily explained if knowledge is the norm of assertion, but hard to explain otherwise.

22It might be suspected that when participants are told that an agent does not know a proposition, they infer that the agent does not believe the proposition, or does not have evidence for the proposition. For instance, when told that Mallory does not know that avocados contain vitamin K, perhaps people infer that this is because she does not believe or have evidence for the claim that avocados contain vitamin K. Accordingly, when Mallory “doesn’t know,” perhaps people judge that she should not assert because they think she lacks belief or evidence. If so, then the results just mentioned do not unambiguously support the knowledge account.

23However, follow-up studies ruled out this alternative interpretation. The follow-up studies used slightly modified stimuli. In one follow-up study, participants in one condition were told that Mallory believes and knows the proposition, while participants on the other condition were told that Mallory believes but does not know the proposition. The difference between the two conditions was extremely large, with participants strongly disagreeing that Mallory should assert the proposition when she does not know, and strongly agreeing when she does know. In another follow-up study, participants in one condition were told that Mallory has evidence for the proposition but does not know it, while participants in the other condition were told that Mallory has evidence for the proposition and does know it. Again, the difference between the two conditions was extremely large, in exactly the same way as the follow-up study on belief. In sum, manipulating knowledge continued to have an extremely large effect on assertability judgments regardless of the presence of belief or evidence.

24A fourth study addressed a similar question from a different angle (Turri, Friedman & Keefner in press). Researchers divided people into three groups. Each group read the same basic story, with one small difference. The first group was told that the agent believes a true proposition; the second group was told that the agent is certain of that same true proposition; the third group was told that the agent knows the true proposition. People then rated whether the agent should perform a variety of actions, including asserting a proposition. To illustrate, consider the following example. The water at Metro Beach was recently tested and declared unsafe for swimming. However, the health department botched the test and, as a matter of fact, the water is perfectly safe for swimming. It is a hot summer day and Alicia decides to go to Metro Beach. She examines the water and now she thinks (is certain/knows) that the water is safe for swimming. Should Alicia tell other people at the beach that the water is safe for swimming?

25People who were told that Alicia knows agreed that she should make the assertion. By contrast, people who were told that Alicia thinks or is certain disagreed. It is worth emphasizing that this experiment held truth constant across the three conditions. That is, the comparison was not simply between knowledge, belief, and certainty. Rather, it was between knowledge, true belief, and true certainty (i.e. being certain of a proposition that is true). Whatever difference remains is attributable to knowledge specifically. And it was knowledge specifically that led people to judge that the assertion should be made.

26Other experimental evidence supporting the knowledge account will be discussed in the chapters that follow. I defer discussion of these other results to a point in the presentation where they fit most naturally.

The Argument

27The basic argument for the knowledge account of assertion is as simple as it is powerful: the hypothesis that knowledge is the norm of assertion is, without question and by far, the best explanation of all the available evidence. The knowledge account explains all the social, introspective, and experimental data in a simple, elegant, and unified way. It is utterly implausible that this is all just a massive string of coincidences. The sheer volume and variety of evidence that the knowledge account explains is compelling.

The Explanation

28We now know that knowledge is the norm of assertion. But, it is natural to wonder, why is knowledge the norm of assertion? It is not, as some defenders of the knowledge account have suggested, “pointless to ask” this question (Williamson 2000: 267). The explanation is simple. Knowledge is the norm of assertion because the point of the practice of assertion is to transmit knowledge. In order to transmit knowledge, you must have it. This is why you should assert only if you know.

29But we should not stop there. It has been argued that the norm of assertion is actually more specific and demanding than just having the knowledge (Turri 2011). The more demanding norm is that an assertion should express knowledge. The basic motivation for the more demanding view comes from reflecting on cases where someone knows that what he says is true, but his assertion does not express his knowledge. Instead, it expresses momentary confusion or his desire to cause distress or embarrassment. It seems to me that this assertion is definitely defective — it is not as it should be. But there is more than just intuition about cases here: if the point of assertion is to transmit knowledge, then assertion calls for not only the possession of knowledge, but also its expression. An assertion that does not express knowledge does not transmit knowledge. This is why you should assert only if your assertion expresses knowledge.

30I accept the more specific and demanding version of the knowledge account, the express knowledge account, but other than the brief defense articulated in the previous paragraph, I will not dwell on it further. Instead, I will mainly discuss matters in terms of the simple knowledge account that we began with. This is purely for expository convenience: it is easier and more natural to say “knowledge is the norm of assertion” than “expressing knowledge is the norm of assertion,” and it is simpler to write and read “you should assert something only if you know” than “you should assert something only if your assertion expresses knowledge.”

31An assertion that does not express knowledge does not transmit knowledge, so an assertion should express knowledge. Arguably this is related to what one philosopher had in mind when he wrote that the “essential character” of assertion is “knowledge-transmission” (McDowell 1998: 39–40). In the remainder of this chapter, I review some recent evidence that knowledge transmission is the point of assertion. Later, in the final section of the book’s final chapter, I delve deeper into the relationship between knowledge and the practice of assertion.

Prefatory Remarks

32We can and often do preface assertions with “just so you know” or other expressions implicating knowledge, such as “just so you’re aware” or “just so you remember.” It is perfectly natural to say, “Just so you know, our guests arrive at noon.” But it is unnatural to preface assertions in ways reflective of alternative theories about the norm of assertion. According to alternative theories, the norm is belief (Bach & Harnish 1979; Bach 2008), certainty (Stanley 2008), evidence (Hill & Schechter 2007; Lackey 2007), or truth (Weiner 2005). For example, it would be odd to say, “Just so you believe this, our guests arrive at noon,” “Just so you’re certain, our guests arrive at noon,” or “Just so you have (some) evidence, our guests arrive at noon.” And it is absurd to say, “Just so it’s true, our guests arrive at noon.”

33A related pattern emerges when we turn to prefacing questions used to prompt assertion. We can preface prompts with “just so I know” or other expressions that implicate knowledge, such as “just so I’m aware” or “just so I remember.” It is natural to say, “Just so I know, do our guests arrive at noon?” But it is unnatural to preface a question with “just so I have a belief” (“just so I believe,” “just so I have an opinion”), “just so it’s true,” or “just so I have (some) evidence.” These prefaces are very unnatural, which explains why people do not use them. However, it does seem acceptable to preface prompts with “just so I’m certain.” We do sometimes say things like, “Just so I’m certain, do our guests arrive at noon?”

34The claims just made about the naturalness of various prefaces were recently tested (Turri in press g). Researchers divided people into two groups. Each group read a simple scenario about a married couple, Sally and Jeff. The scenario was very similar in both conditions. The main difference was that one focused on Sally giving Jeff some information (the “assert” condition), while the other focused on Jeff requesting some information from Sally (the “prompt” condition).

35In the assert condition, Sally realizes that she forgot to tell Jeff that she invited guests over to watch the game. After reading the scenario, participants completed two tasks. First, they identified the most natural way for Sally to inform Jeff that their company arrives at noon. There were six options for prefacing the assertion: “just so you know,” “just so you’re aware,” “just so you believe this,” “just so you have evidence,” “just so you’re certain,” and “just so it’s true.” People overwhelmingly selected the knowledge preface as most natural, and a non-trivial minority selected the awareness preface, which implies knowledge. Second, participants then rated the naturalness or unnaturalness of all six prefaces, using a 7‑point scale (“very unnatural” to “very natural”). The knowledge and awareness prefaces were rated highly natural, whereas all the others were rated unnatural.

36In the prompt condition, Jeff realizes that Sally did not tell him what time people were due to arrive. After reading the scenario, participants completed two tasks. First, they identified the most natural way for Jeff to prompt Sally about whether their company arrives at noon. There were six options for prefacing the prompt: “just so I know,” “just so I’m aware,” “just so I have a belief,” “just so I have evidence,” “just I’m certain,” and “just so it’s true.” Again, people overwhelmingly selected the knowledge preface as most natural, and a non-trivial minority selected the awareness preface, which implies knowledge. Second, participants then rated the naturalness or unnaturalness of all six prefaces, using a 7‑point scale (“very unnatural” to “very natural”). The knowledge and awareness prefaces were rated highly natural. The belief, evidence and truth prefaces were rated unnatural. The certainty preface was rated natural, though significantly less natural than the knowledge preface.

37If the point of assertion is knowledge transmission, then we can explain these interesting patterns in prefaces. The consistently natural prefaces indicate that the point of the assertion or prompt is no more, and no less, than achieving the point of the practice. They specify the speech act’s relevance by reference to knowledge-transmission specifically. In this respect, the natural prefaces seem interestingly similar to relevance conditionals, such as, “If [In case] someone gets hurt, there’s a first-aid kit in the closet.” In a relevance conditional, the antecedent does not specify a circumstance in which the consequent is true; instead, it specifies the circumstance in which the consequent is relevant (Austin 1946; Bhatt & Pancheva 2006). For example, someone’s injury does not make it true that a first-aid kit is in the closet; instead, it specifies a circumstance where it is relevant that a first-aid kit is in the closet.

More Challenging

38Earlier we noted the propriety of “How do you know?” and other challenges to an assertor’s authority, which we might call speaker-centered or phonocentric. Other responses to an assertion, which we might call listener-centered or audiocentric, support the view that knowledge transmission is the point of assertion. Audiocentric responses pose a different challenge; they suggest failures of a different sort. For example, it is not uncommon to respond to an assertion with “I already know that.” Rather than challenging the speaker’s authority to make the assertion, this response challenges the assertion’s usefulness. Another audiocentric challenge is “I don’t believe you,” which seems to challenge the assertion’s effectiveness.

39If knowledge transmission is the point of assertion, then we can explain the propriety of these audiocentric challenges. On the one hand, ordinarily, if someone already knows what you are telling them, then you cannot transmit your knowledge to them, because the knowledge is already in place. This explains why “I already know that” challenges an assertion’s usefulness. Of course, there might be other purposes for making an assertion, as when an arresting officer tells the accused that he has the right to remain silent, or when a pupil reports progress to a teacher, but none of this spoils the present point. On the other hand, assuming that transmitting knowledge requires inducing belief, if your audience does not believe you, then you failed to transmit knowledge. This explains why “I don’t believe you” challenges an assertion’s effectiveness. Of course, this might indicate a failure of the listener more than of the speaker. (“You don’t believe me? That’s your problem.”) But the challenge does have some bite.

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