Intuition and faultless assertion

Abstract. Here are three compelling proposals. a) Social ontology of speech acts: since the constitutive norms that give structure to our basic linguistic institutions are self-imposed restrictions upon the practice of participants, those linguistic institutions must be highly sensitive to the attribution of fault. b) Intuition-skepticism: intuitions do not count as evidence of the truth of an associated proposition. c) The knowledge norm: knowledge is constitutive of assertion. In what follows I demonstrate that the three theses are incompatible. For my part, I think we should abandon (c).

Biographical note: This short (2013) paper met a sudden death after I was advised by an editor at a flagship journal in professional philosophy that I could not take conclusions published by well-known and respected philosophers, Timothy Williamson and Margaret Gilbert, as premises in my own argument. The editor’s judgment strikes me as perverse unhelpful, and it was despiriting (which was presumably the intended effect). As a result I shelved the draft, and it quickly became obsolete as other authors published on similar themes in other venues.

Opinions are divided about the nature of the norms of warranted assertion. Factive accounts of assertion argue that the performance of an assertion is judged in terms of whether or not it connects to the facts. Some factive accounts argue that a speaker is only warranted in asserting a claim so long as the proposition associated with the claim is known (Williamson, 2000, pp. 238-269), while others propose that a claim is assertable just in case it is true. (Weiner, 2005) Ostensibly the proposal that norms of assertion are factive can be supported by empirical studies which demonstrate that ordinary people disfavor the assertion of falsehoods, even when such falsehoods are asserted accidentally and with adequate justification. (Turri, 2013) Although factive accounts have been challenged by philosophers that argue that assertions are governed by a norm of reasonable belief (Wilson & Sperber, 2012; Lackey, 2007), the knowledge norm in particular can be singled out as especially demanding.

The debate continues in large part because for any potential counter-example to the sufficiency of the knowledge norm, the advocate of such norms can always say that the proposed example is just an excusable violation of the norm and not proof that the norm is absent. After all, for the vast majority of cases of rule-following it seems as though the person’s flouting of a norm is not reason to believe that the norm itself is not in force. So even if I am justified in believing that I am not breaking the norms of assertion, this does not mean that I am not in fact breaking the norms of assertion. There is, in short, a distinction between primary and secondary norms of propriety: those who assert properly in a primary sense are those who obey the norm, and those who appropriately assert in a secondary sense fail to obey a norm but are blameless in doing so. (DeRose 2002) In the face of such subtleties it is reasonable to ask what it would take to falsify the knowledge norm of assertion. Here is what it will take. First, you must show that there is a class of claims which it is rational to assert but which are unjustified at the moment they are asserted. Such examples abound in the literature already. Second, you must show that these assertions can be excused from fault on the basis of a norm that is not equivalent to the knowledge norm — the reasonable belief norm, for example. Third, the claim must be of such a kind that the blameless flouting of the norm is in principle indistinguishable from the failure of the norm in that context.

S’s finding fault with the assertion P in context C commits S to the view that

(1) the relevant norm K would render P impermissible to assert, if K were a norm of assertion; (2) that P is permissible to assert according to some alternative norm M; (3) that P is blamelessly asserted in C, (4) that the blamelessness of asserting P in C is indistinguishable from finding P faultless in C.

The difference between a blameless error and the failure of the norm is usually easy to see. For example, suppose I miss one day of a diet. In that case I am merely flouting the rule of “I may not deviate from my diet”, though I may be blameless in doing so. In contrast, if I miss a year then we may say that the norm itself has failed — there is no practice of dieting to govern my conduct, and the imperative “I may not deviate from my diet” has no reason-giving force. In the case of dieting, there is a clear and obvious difference between the blamelessness of the assertion and the failure of the rule. In contrast, the kinds of claims we are considering would be unlike the dieting case in that the flouting of a norm would turn out to be indistinguishable from the failure of the norm. Then and only then shall the faultlessness of exceptions to the knowledge norm count as sufficient reason to believe that the knowledge norm has failed to govern a certain subset of assertions. To anticipate: (4) only occurs just in case it is possible for participants to detach themselves from the practice.

As a preliminary I note a few theoretical assumptions. First, I assume that the rules governing assertion are supposed to tell us something about the assertions that we are rationally entitled to accept or obliged to reject (ostensibly owing to considerations related to the primary aims of assertion in general). This owes to the fact that assertion is a speech act, and speech acts are kinds of institutions which reflect prior practices. (Searle 2011) To say that a claim is rational to assert is to invoke a social rule of a practice which specifies certain coordinated entitlements and obligations characteristic of a joint venture, and not just to articulate some advice about what kinds of assertions are good or bad. (Gilbert, 2000, pp. 71-88) That is the relevant sense in which the discussion of norms of assertion concerns norms that are constitutive of the practice: they have those strong deontic traits. And insofar as that is the case, the question “Is x rationally assertable?” is best translated as a ‘may-statement’, such as “May so-and-so assert x?”, pace (Turri, 2013). Soft normative should-statements are too weak to imply that social rights correspond to social duties, and hence are not social norms in the relevant sense. This owes to the fact that constitutive norms are restrictive rules which govern the permissibility of making a particular move in a practice. (Searle, 2011; Williamson, 2000, p. 238) The specification of restrictions upon conduct within a practice is the whole point of speaking of constitutive norms, pace (Rescorla, 2009). Any norms which do not outline the rules for permissible and impermissible behavior in the relevant sense are a particularly weak form of regulative norm, equivalent to laying out the ‘best practices’ for conduct, not the essential rules of the game.

Second, I assume that norms of assertion are part of an institutional structure which is capable of being recognized by competent participants in the institution who has been exposed to the relevant linguistic evidence (a “bottom-up” analysis), and is not an effort to impose restrictions upon a social practice in an effort to impose order on an otherwise inchoate practice (a “top-down” analysis). The former would turn out to be a fascinating and worthwhile discovery about how language is used in social contexts; the latter would be to endorse a philosophical kind of social etiquette. Keeping those things in mind, I will present a case where the speaker is entitled to assert an evidentially unjustified claim in such a way that is not consistent with the knowledge norm.


Suppose that Smith is engaged in a lively cooperative conversation with Jones about life as a bachelor. Presently, Jones says:

(a) Necessarily, all bachelors are unmarried adult men.

Suppose that Jones asserted (a) because he has a pre-theoretic intuition that (a) is the correct manner in which one deploys the word “bachelor”, and he did so only in order to prove a separate point. It is asserted because it is presupposed, and the presupposition operates in such a way as to license the assertion of further truths. Also suppose that neither participants are well-versed in the literature on the philosophy of concepts, and none of that literature is available to either of them. To Smith, it may appear intuitively that Jones has violated a rule, but can only offer perfunctory explanations of his intuitions to explain why.

Suppose that, were we there, the rest of us would think that Jones has unknowingly said something false. Jones is not justified in believing (a), since intuition alone is not good enough reason to believe in the truth of a proposition; intuition is not a basic source of evidence. (Williamson, 2007, pp. 214-220) Similarly, Smith is not justified in rebuking (a) for similar reasons: he presupposes it is inapt, but the demands of conversational expediency are sufficiently salient that he is unable to process reasons to challenge what Jones said.

As it happens, it is reasonable to think that belief in (a) is unjustified even if you are not a skeptic about intuitions. “BACHELOR” is not equivalent in meaning to [-married, +adult, +male] since a number of powerful counterexamples can be found. e.g., a promiscuous and financially independent 17 year old does not fit the conditions even though he is a bachelor. (Lakoff, 1990) We may think that these counterexamples serve as epistemic defeaters to (a) because they are consistent with a robust theory of bachelorhood which is developed as the result of some respectable process of epistemic inquiry that itself goes beyond mere intuition-pumping. Our knowledge about the modest flexibility of the contents of the concept of BACHELOR are grounded in something like a wide reflective equilibrium of a reliable institution of knowledge production. It is on the basis of some-such valid epistemic process that we, third-person observers, are entitled to say that Jones’s assertion (a) is evidentially unjustified.


Let us suppose that Smith thinks he is entitled to fault Jones for his utterance. Is he really?

Well, an advocate of the knowledge-norm who does not believe that intuitions count as epistemic reasons to believe must not believe that it is permissible to assert anything on the basis of intuition. Smith can fault Jones because Jones has insufficient reason to assert p, not because Smith has sufficient reason to deny p. Taken on face value, this move may cause us to believe that the advocate of the knowledge-norm is in error, since intuitive claims really are assertable. And to be sure I certainly think they can be. But in all coherence, the advocate of the knowledge norm could respond with a radical error theory – i.e., by saying that both Smith and Jones are violating the norms of assertion, and hence both must be at fault in the relevant sense. This is a coherent view, though it seems to be so unnecessarily stifling to productive inquiry that it will attract few converts to the knowledge norm. Even the steadfast advocates of the knowledge norm admit that philosophy and the sciences would not have existed unless they developed out of Pre-Socratic assertions of dubious standing: that all is fire, all is water, and so on. (Williamson 2007) I do not think we should say that all analogues of Smith and Jones are at fault.

Let us assume, then, that the radical form of error theory is incorrect. Is it possible to defend a more modest variety – where Jones is faultless for asserting (a), and where Smith is faultless for denying it, but where both are breaking the norm of assertion? Well, sure enough, if we were dealing with semantic rules which participants could cash out in terms of a robust body of inference, then Jones’s beliefs would not be sufficient reason to believe that these opinions are in violation of constitutive rules of assertion. As mentioned above, there is well-known distinction between primary and secondary rules of propriety, or between rules which are actually broken versus those which the actors reasonably think have been broken (albeit blamelessly). (DeRose, 2002) So an advocate of error theory in this situation might want to say that Jones and Smith have both violated the primary norm of propriety (since they are not entitled to exchange intuitive assertions) and not the secondary one (since it is much of a surprise to both Smith and Jones that they are both at fault simply for asserting what they find intuitive). The error theoretic approach to this case might then point out that constitutive norms which govern the conduct reflect primary norms of propriety, not secondary ones.

The trouble with the distinction between primary and secondary norms of propriety is that it trades crucially upon our ability to step outside of the norms that we are participating in. Secondary rules are the ones we faultlessly believe that we are following; primary rules are the ones which, taking a step back, we can say we truly are or are not following. Unfortunately, this detachment is not always available to conversational participants. It is only possible to be detached from norms in cases where we are able to specify the inferential jurisdiction of the relevant norms, or the broad outline of how the rules can be followed. Detachment from one’s own practices requires the ability to make inferences over one’s practices. However, whatever intuitions are, they are not forms of inference. (Chalmers, 2014)

The only feature which is available to Smith and Jones, and which ostensibly tells them that the rules governing (a) have been violated, is the intuitiveness of (a) or lack thereof. And if the sole capacity which is used to determine whether or not a rule is followed in a context is whether or not it is intuitive for participants to follow the rule, then there is no capacity to detach themselves from the context, and hence no distinction between primary and secondary rules of propriety in that context. At least, not so long as we are examining the bottom-up features required for participation in an assertion, as opposed to the imposition of rules from a distance.

One potential worry with this argument is the suspicion that it rests upon a natural and illicit inclination that the folk have to conflate blamelessness with excuse validation. If we do not want to blame someone for a fault, we may be pressured to say that there was no fault at all; but this pressure is non-rational. (Blouw & Turri 2015) The difficulty, though, is that this distinction only works for institutional rules that derive from constitutive ones. If people are playing a game called ‘Monopoly’, and they stop following the set of practices that the rest of us recognize as rules of Monopoly (e.g., by treating Free Parking as a lottery square), the standard rules shall stop being constitutive of Monopoly. If all you have to demonstrate the error of some constitutive institutional practice is your intuitive grasp of error in the practice, then the attribution of fault is all there is to say about the actual incorrectness of the practice, and its faultlessness is all there is to say about its correctness. There are no further facts of the matter to discuss, at least not so long as we are interested in crafting a bottom-up explanation of the practices that Smith and Jones are participating in.

The implications of this argument should not be overstated, however. It could be the case that Jones and Smith shall reason together further about the case in question, developing a further body of inferences, and thereby come to see their previous assertions as blameless errors. The point is that by hypothesis those further reasons are, by hypothesis not available to Smith and Jones at the time. Moreover, it could be that, contrary to appearances, they are not making assertions at all at the time — that they are engaged in speech acts that fall outside the institution of assertion. While that would be consistent with my argument here, it would turn out that the practice of assertion is surprisingly dependent upon certain contextual features.

If Smith intuits that Jones’s false assertion is tolerable, then as a rule it is tolerable. If not, and Jones subsequently recognizes the unintuitiveness of his own utterance, then it is not. But whatever Smith intuits, it shall have nothing at all to do with what either of them are evidentially justified in believing. The test of the assertion is not whether it corresponds to evidence, but rather, to whether it makes it possible to make evidentiary assertions.

Blouw, P. & John Turri. (2015). Excuse validation: a study in rule-breaking. Philosophical studies.
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Chalmers, D. (2014). Intuitions in philosophy: a minimal defense. Philosophical Studies.
DeRose, K. (2002). Assertion, Knowledge, and Context. The Philosophical Review, 111: 167-203.
Gilbert, M. (2000). Sociality and responsibility: new essays in plural subject theory. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.
Grice, P. (1968). Logic and conversation. In Studies in the way of words (pp. 305-315). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Lackey, J. (2007). Norms of assertion. Noûs, 41(4), 594-626.
Lakoff, G. (1990). Women, fire, and dangerous things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Quine, W. (1976). The Ways of Paradox. In W. Quine, The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays (pp. 1-18). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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Searle, J. (2011). Making the social world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Turri, J. (2013). The test of truth: an experimental investigation of the norm of assertion. Cognition.
Weiner, M. (2005). Must We Know What We Say? The Philosophical Review, 114: 227-51.
Williamson, T. (2000). Knowledge and Its Limits. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Wilson, D., & Sperber, D. (2012). Meaning and Relevance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
PS: The root motivation into the epistemology of intuition comes out of concerns over claims over divine knowledge. So, some people will want to say that intuitions are assertable insofar as they are expressions of knowledge. I hold a different view: intuitions are assertable insofar as they are presuppositions required for us to know, like the Kantian synthetic a priori. And I have a conviction that we are worse off the less we are candid about our priors.

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