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Knowledge and the Norm of Assertion

John Turri


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1Benjamin Franklin made it a habit to ask himself every night, “What good have I done today?” I am not in the habit of asking myself this every night, but it seems a good practice upon finishing a book. What good lessons has this book imparted?

2The main substantive lesson is, of course, that knowledge is the norm of assertion. With multiple lines of convergent evidence, both theoretical and empirical, proponents of the knowledge account can now assert that their view is true. We now know that it is true — the question is settled. We also have on the table a reasonable, empirically informed, and empirically falsifiable hypothesis about why knowledge is the norm of assertion. In other words, we not only know that the knowledge account is true, but we might also now understand why it is true. The hypothesis is that knowledge is the norm of assertion because following the knowledge rule stabilizes and sustains the practice of assertion over time within the community. The knowledge rule for assertion is but a new twist on an ancient theme in animal communication systems.

3There are some important methodological lessons to be learned. In particular, the research program discussed above can teach us something about progress in philosophy. Progress toward the knowledge account has been cumulative, distributed, responsive, and interdisciplinary. It was cumulative because its brief was built, piece by piece, over time. Interesting isolated observations suggested certain intriguing possibilities, which led to greater alertness to other relevant observations, which eventually reached a critical mass and inspired a concrete hypothesis with empirically testable consequences. The tests were conducted and the hypothesis vindicated, demonstrating that we had alighted upon not only an elegant theory, but also an important fact. It was distributed because it was based on observations and findings from numerous researchers worldwide. It was responsive because it was sharpened in light of criticism and, indeed, some of the most impressive evidence was discovered in response to criticisms. Finally, it was interdisciplinary because it was tested experimentally and placed in a broader context of principles and findings from other disciplines, especially psychology, ethology, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary biology. The broader context was not only consistent with the hypothesis, but it helped to illuminate why the hypothesis is true. All this resembles the process by which modern science advances, producing new knowledge and understanding of the world and our place in it. In the present case, philosophical and scientific enterprises were not only continuous, they were virtually indistinguishable.

4Every sensible person believes that the correct answer to philosophical questions must be consistent with scientific knowledge. Many philosophers believe that philosophical inquiry should be closely informed by scientific knowledge. Nevertheless, at least in modern Anglo-American philosophical circles, few believe that philosophical questions are well answered by conducting scientific experiments. Indeed, some believe that it is fundamentally misguided to apply experimental science to answering philosophical questions. But the present work reveals that pessimistic view itself to be deeply misguided. Experimental science turned out to be an excellent way for us to come to know what the norm of assertion is. With respect to this particular philosophical question, in getting beyond speculation, however reasonable and fruitful such speculation may be, philosophical science worked wonders.


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