On public assertion

Since 2006 or so, I have thought that the idea of a knowledge as constitutive norm of assertion is a mistake, and have at various points offered various reasons for saying so. Some depend on my views about the nature of ‘truth’, on ‘belief’ and ‘intuition’, philosophical pedagogy, and other things. The upshot, I guess, is that Moore’s paradox — “P, but I don’t know that P” — is indeed permissible to assert when the contents of P are apt without being truth-apt (e.g., indefinite predicates and other forms of factually defective discourse). Since critiques of the knowledge norm have been explored capably by others, there is no point in my continuing to grind that axe here.

Recently, though, part of me has worried that our current epistemic crisis in politics is a real-world consequence of denying that knowledge is constitutive of assertion. It would be an awful shame if any of these points somehow blessed the hearts of populist liars and career-long bullshitters. A similar worry need not extend to the sphere of politics, though, as some have wondered whether published works in philosophy should obey something like a knowledge or sincere belief norm.

So, it might help to make a crucial distinction. Indeed, I do think knowledge constitutes something: namely, it constitutes the context of *public assertion* — i.e., following Arendt, the context where people are treated as provisional equals, where interlocutors have presumptive reasons to take each other seriously as givers and takers of reasons (e.g., during peer disagreement). That gives rise to our deep conviction that Moore’s paradox is intolerable in Orwellian spaces.

The diagnosis, then, isn’t that our epistemic crisis can’t be properly seen as coming out of a disagreement about a rarefied paradox. It comes out of the fact that public discourse has collapsed, and there are no institutions that incentivize us to look at each other as if we share a common cause. And that seems not only far more plausible than a worry about philosophy of language, it connects much directly and obviously with the facts about material class inequalities which are so obviously central to our current slide into fascism.

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