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.

Sophiboles: or, cases of cooperative misleading

I am still thinking about misleading and truth from an interesting and thought-provoking talk by Jennifer Saul last week. Many of my intuitions have gained form and structure from her presentation. In it, she argued that misleading and lying are not (all other things equal) morally different. Importantly, Saul suggested that misleading can be different than lying in one special subset of cases — effectively, in those contexts where the listener can be reasonably expected to have special duties to scrutinize the testimony before them, owing to the adversariality of the context and the capacity of the listener to engage in critical inquiry.

I have long had reservations about academics and the subject of truth-telling. So, here’s an essay from 2006: (http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/…/who-needs-sophistry-…/) In it, I argued that the public assertion of certain kinds of exaggeration are sometimes both faultless and laudable. Over the past decade I have had plenty of occasion to have that thesis challenged, but am generally unpersuaded by those challenges.

In that essay I argue that philosophers and scientists frequently engage in a kind of wise exaggeration, which I have mentally given the label of “sophiboles”. That is, we faultlessly assert things in a black-and-white bivalent fashion, when the closest justified belief is much more complex. Example. According to his critics, Galileo was guilty of asserting a sophibole when he decided to cast aside fictionalist and probabilist readings of the evidence; and for what it’s worth, I’m inclined to say that he is guilty of doing right. (Anyway, this is my simplistic conception of the history, and reminds me I really ought to read Alice’s Dreger’s 2015 book, “Galileo’s Middle Finger”. But for now it’ll suffice as a toy case.)

Are sophiboles cases of misleading? Much depends on how you define “misleading”. To me, “misleading” involves distracting someone away from apprehending a true proposition that is worth caring about in a conversational context, and hence to cue belief in a falsehood, or distract away from a truth, without explicitly thereby asserting a falsehood. (It is hard not to include reference to what conversation partners care about if we are to assess them in terms of the cooperative maxims.)

Unlike most cases of misleading, sophiboles are constructively focusing our attention upon *true* beliefs worth caring about, and are not directed towards the malicious creation of false beliefs. e.g., for Galileo, the truth of the theory of heliocentrism as a model of the solar system; it is not to inculcate a false belief in the solar system. Suffice it to say, Galileo did not lie in any of this; he did not assert a falsehood. Moreover, his intention was to lead us to a truth about the world, not to lead us to a falsehood.

But that will not save his sophibole from being a case of misleading, since people in a cooperative conversation can be concerned with different things, and they can disagree about the truths worth caring about in such contexts, so long as those cross-purposes are jointly acknowledged. So, the Church — wanting Galileo to tone down his rhetoric — encouraged him to adopt a probabilist or fictionalist vernacular. Those little qualifiers (i.e., “In all probability, p…”) mattered to them. For them, Galileo was attempting to mislead away from the epistemic, or second-order, status of his claims. Galileo’s actual heliocentric claims were true, but (according to his critics) the realist statement of his claims misled people from the form of justification, and in that sense were distracting people away from an important truth about the limits of our knowledge. Galileo was misleading about something worth caring about.

To be sure, Galileo’s highly politicized insistence on realist rhetoric soon evoked an adversarial context. And, FWIW, I would even argue that he was right to be adversarial, because while neither departed from intellectual good faith, it is the case that the Church’s epistemic concerns are not so much worth caring about as the realist ones are. (There’s that famous middle finger of his.)

But that’s a historical contingency. My point is that we should be able to see the two parties continuing to accuse each other of misleading even if they had been able to maintain a cooperative dialogue. And so misleading, at least in the form of sophiboles, is generally not so bad as lying.

Richard Rorty on truth, deference, and assertion

Rorty, Richard. “Putnam and the Relativist Menace,” Journal of Philosophy 1993 vol. XC (9) pp. 443

One of the more frenetic topics in contemporary epistemology is warranted assertability — i.e., what it is rational to put forward as an assertion. Much of the issue depends on what the whole point of an assertoric speech act is supposed to be, and whether or not the point of assertion can be articulated in terms of constitutive norms. Some folks like Timothy Williamson argue that you are only warranted in asserting things you know, since the whole point of assertion is to transfer knowledge. If you assert something you don’t know, then the listener is entitled to resent the assertion, and (presumably) it is also rational for you to be ashamed of having made the assertion. Others argue that this is a very high bar, and that it makes more sense to say that you might be warranted to just assert a reasonable belief. If you assert something as true, without actually knowing it is true, then it might not be rational for you to be ashamed of yourself, nor does it follow that others are entitled to resent you for what you’ve said.

What does Richard Rorty think? Rorty argues that you are only warranted in asserting something so long as what you say is acceptable in a linguistic community. “So all ‘a fact of the matter about whether p is a warranted assertion’ can mean is “a fact of the matter about our ability to feel solidarity with a community that views p as warranted.”” (p.452-453) Rorty argues that the conditions where it is warranted to assert are relative to how we feel about the views that would be held by an idealized version of our own community. That is the sense in which he’s a relativist. What you say in one speech community might be assertable, and what you say in another would be totally verboten. As far as Rorty is concerned, assertability is concept that belongs to sociology and not epistemology.

For Rorty, the meaning of “our community” or “our society” is determined by common ground. For example, he uses the term “wet liberalism” to describe the community that Rorty and Putnam share, as if the fact that they both belonged to the liberal tradition was what set them into the same community. (p.452) (I don’t think that it’s necessary for us to make reference to political ideology when we talk about “our linguistic community”, but it’s at least one candidate.) Whatever criterion you use to pick out the relevant linguistic community, there is a sense that you have got to be in solidarity with that community. (453-54) The upshot: for the purposes of making a rational assertion, you’ve first got to assume you’re part of a common trust.

Now for the weird, relativist twist: Rorty thinks truth is all about deference to the idealized community of future knowers. If you say, “Rutabegas are red”, then that claim is true just in case a future idealized version of yourself would say it too. So long as Rorty is concerned with the notion of truth, he thinks we are interested in whether or not an idealized future society of knowers would affirm or deny what we’ve said. (p.450) Truth is just a vague term of approbation, synonymous with truth; and, evidently, trust is the ultimate truth-maker.