Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Asserting what you don't grasp

Some people think that to assert a proposition you need to grasp it.

I think they are mistaken. Suppose my wife asks me: "Can you take the car to the garage to have xyz done to it?" I have no idea what "xyz" means. It's some complicated thing having to do with internal combustion engines. I ask her: "How long do you think it'll take them to do xyz?" She says: "It shouldn't take more than two or three hours." So I say: "OK, I'll have them do xyz." I take the car to the garage and ask them: "Could you do xyz to the car?" Two hours later they tell me: "We did xyz" and hand me a bill for $250. I call up my wife and say: "They did xyz and it cost $250."

I engaged in four speech acts where I used "xyz": a question to my wife about how long xyz takes, a promise to my wife to have xyz done, a request of the mechanic that xyz be done, and finally something that looks like an assertion that it cost $250 to have xyz done. Clearly, I asked my wife about how long xyz takes, I promised my wife to have xyz done and I requested of the mechanic that xyz be done. For it is under the supposition that I asked my wife how long xyz takes that her response that it takes an hour or two is salient, and plainly it is salient. That I promised to have them do xyz is also clear--if instead I ask them to change the oil (assuming xyz isn't in fact an oil change--the two to three hour time estimate suggests it's not), I haven't done what I promised, and I owe my wife an apology. And if I didn't ask the garage to do xyz, then they performed an unauthorized repair.

But if my apparent question, promise and request are what they seem, despite my lack of grasp of "xyz", surely the same should be said about my apparent assertion that they did xyz and it cost $250. Indeed, if instead I had the shop do an oil change, then I lied when I told my wife that they did xyz. But how could I have lied unless I asserted? Moreover, if I spoke sincerely but later a friend looked in the engine and told me: "They didn't do xyz!", then I should withdraw what I said to my wife. Again, the best explanation of why I should withdraw it is that it was an assertion that has since turned out to be incorrect.


Matthew said...

"Some people think that to assert a proposition you need to grasp it." Has anyone done so in print? Addressing why this is wrong would be nice low hanging fruit.


Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't know. I did have a referee complain about an example where I assumed that you could assert without grasping, but the referee gave no references.

Jonathan Livengood said...

I'm not sure why you think you don't grasp the sentence, "They did [xyz], and it cost $250." Granted, you don't have a complete grasp on it, since you don't have a complete grasp on the term [xyz]. But you do have a partial grasp on the term [xyz]. (Does anyone ever completely grasp anything?) Following your example, you know fixing [xyz] is not equivalent to changing the oil.

For concreteness, let's pick a real part, say, the torque converter. (My car just went to the shop, so I have a handy list of parts under warranty that I'm looking at.) You are going to know a bunch of things about the torque converter, even if you can't point to it with the hood up. And also, you know some really important things, like, "The torque converter is the thing that an honest mechanic will fix if I say to him or her, 'Fix the torque converter.'"

Alexander R Pruss said...


Good point.

I was thinking that "xyz" may contain terms that you fail to grasp by anybody's standards. Maybe you can't even tell what's a noun and what's a verb there. If to grasp a proposition requires grasping each propositional component, then you don't grasp this sentence, since you don't grasp the components that correspond to the words of "xyz".

It seems plausible that you do not grasp a conjunction unless you grasp each conjunct. And that generalizes to the idea that you need to grasp all the components.

The fact that I know that "xyz" does not denote an oil change doesn't give me a grasp of "xyz". I certainly do not grasp the word "تكبر". But I know it does not denote an oil change. How do I know that? Because I chose this word at random from an Arabic version of the Wikipedia page on mammals, and it is unlikely that any word on Wikipedia's page on mammals would denote an oil change.

In any case, the following seems right: what you assert goes beyond what you grasp. You assert the whole proposition, not just the portions that you grasp.

Jonathan Livengood said...

How much depends on the fact that there is a community that does grasp the parts of your utterance that you do not grasp?

Take your Arabic example a step further. Suppose I write down a sentence that includes some random squiggly marks that I made in place of a noun phrase, like, "I really think it's funny that people like [squiggles]." I then say, "I assert what I've just written." Now, suppose there is an alien race that quite by chance from my perspective actually uses squiggles like the one I wrote down to denote sky-diving. Did I thereby assert that I really think it's funny that people like sky-diving? Would I have asserted this had there been no alien race that used my squiggles in this way?

Jonathan Livengood said...

Oh, I forgot to say -- just following up on your comment -- I agree that knowing, for example, that those Arabic characters do not denote an oil change does not mean that you or I fully grasp those characters. However, two things. First, in my first comment, I meant that as an example of one of many negative things you know. Second, it seems to me that if approaches like the negative way to knowing God are going to succeed or even be plausible, then it should be the case that knowing even a few negative things -- like that those Arabic characters do not denote an oil change -- ought to count as giving me a partial grasp of the target, even if that partial grasp is very, very tenuous.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The alien squiggles case is interesting. I think you don't count as asserting what the aliens mean there, because you did not intend to use the language as the aliens do. If I used an Arabic word into an assertoric sentence uttered to a speaker of Arabic, without knowing what the word means, but I intended the word to signify what Arabic speakers signify by it, then I would be asserting according to that meaning. If it turned out that the word was meaningless in Arabic, then I made no assertion, and it would be irrelevant what the word meant in some language I don't expect my interlocutor to know.

This is connected with this lovely passage Cardinal Newman quotes from Cardinal Gerdil: "In an oath one ought to have respect to the intention of the party swearing, and the intention of the party to whom the oath is taken. Whoso swears binds himself in virtue of the words, not according to the sense he retains in his own mind, but in the sense according to which he perceives that they are understood by him to whom the oath is made. When the mind of the one is discordant with the mind of the other, if this happens by deceit or cheat of the party swearing, he is bound to observe the oath according to the right sense (sana mente) of the party receiving it; but, when the discrepancy in the sense comes of misunderstanding, without deceit of the party swearing, in that case he is not bound, except to that to which he had in mind to wish to be bound."

All that said, you may be right: there may be some minimal kind of grasp in my example.

What interests me is whether for assertion you need to have the kind of grasp that belief involves. I don't know. If we say that in these kinds of cases we're talking about there is the kind of grasp that belief involves, then we have a pretty strong externalism about belief. I count as having a belief that xyz was done, where my belief is partly constituted by the experts' possession of the concepts involved in "xyz". There will be a possible world very much like this one, where my internal state will be exactly alike, but I will count as having a different belief than in the actual world, because the experts mean something different by "xyz".

So, it seems, we have a choice. Either we say that one can assert without having the kind of grasp that belief involves or we say that the content of our beliefs depends on experts' use of language.

Leo Carton Mollica said...

Dr. Pruss:

Thanks for the post.

Do you think that this point is useful in explaining how we can assent to the mysteries of the faith without understanding them?

Incidentally, I think that the Bl. J. H. Newman deals with something like this problem at the Grammar, Part I, Ch. 2.

Heath White said...

It seems to me that all the same things can be said about the relevant mental states. You intend to get xyz done on your car; you believe that they will do xyz once you hand it over; you are angry that the xyz repair cost $250, etc. What's the alternative thing to say about these mental states?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I know, Heath, and this worries me. I am pulled towards a wide-ranging externalism, but I am also pulled towards somehow paying respect to the distinction between believing p and believing that p is true.

Take the first statement labeled as a "Theorem" in the second article of the last 2010 issue of the Annals of Probability. That statement, very likely, (a) expresses a true proposition p, and (b) I do not believe p. Why is (a) likely true? Because mathematical literature is highly reliable. Why is (b) likely true? Because I have no idea what p is (except that it is a theorem connected with probability theory), and while I know a number of theorems of probability theory, I have not kept up with recent publications.

So, I want to be able to say that p is true but I don't believe it. But now let me stipulate a new piece of language "It quibbs." I stipulate that "It quibbs" expresses the proposition expressed by the first statement labeled as a "Theorem" in the second article of the last 2010 issue of Ann. Prob..

It quibbs. It seems that I've just asserted p. But I don't think I come to have a belief in p just by stipulating a new piece of language and knowing that that piece of language is sentence that expresses p.

But I am worried that there is a continuum of cases between my mental attitude towards the proposition expressed by "It quibbs" and my mental attitude towards the proposition expressed by "The sky is pretty clear." It seems I believe that the sky is pretty clear but not that it quibbs.

I have no idea how to get out of this without abandoning the distinction between believing that s and believing that "s" is true.

Heath White said...

First, distinguish six cases, where ‘P’ stands for a sentence and ‘N’ for a singular term.

1. I believe that P.
2. I believe N.
3. I believe that “P” is true.
4. I believe that N is true.
5. I believe that P is true.
6. I believe it is true that P.

I lean toward the following views:

(1) Is true if you can sincerely assert P. You may not (fully) understand P, though it seems to me you do have to be able to parse it. That is, you have to understand its grammar though not its lexicon. (I don’t have a super justification for this, but it just seems right to me.)

In the cases I have in mind for (2), the referent of N is a sentence-type, and (2) is true if you know what N refers to and can sincerely assert it. You may not fully understand this referent but you can’t be ignorant of what it is. E.g. I cannot believe Newton’s Three Laws of Motion unless I know what those laws are, but I don’t have to know the definitions of force, acceleration, mass, and so on. (There are other cases of this form, like “I believe Alex” and “I believe Christianity” but leave those aside.)

(3) is a form of (1). It says that an object, the quoted sentence “P”, has a property, truth. (3) is true if you believe that sentence has that property. You need not understand the sentence. For example it could be in another language. This is more generous than the truth conditions on (1).

(4) is also a form of (1), and much like (3), except the singular term is generated by something other than quote marks. (4) is true so long as you can sincerely assert that N is true; you need not know the referent of N. In this it differs from (2). So, e.g. I can believe that Alex’s favorite theorem is true even if I do not believe Alex’s favorite theorem.

(5) is ungrammatical.

(6) is true, so far as I can tell, just in case (1) is true.

Your case about the definite description, “the first statement labeled as a theorem…” seems to me to be handled by the truth conditions on (4) vs. (2). You believe that theorem, whatever it is, is true, though you probably don’t believe that theorem.

Your case about “it quibbs” seems to me to be handled by the truth conditions on (1) vs. (2). You have stipulated a piece of language to have a meaning, though you don’t know what that meaning is. You now believe that it quibbs, but you don’t believe whatever “it quibbs” means.

When you assert “it quibbs” you’ve asserted that it quibbs. And in a slightly broader sense of ‘assert’, you’ve asserted whatever “it quibbs” means. I would explain this by saying that, in the same sense, whenever you assert P you assert whatever P entails, though obviously often it’s not clear what that is. What you assert is determined by the public role of the language you use to assert; what you believe is much more closely tied to what you understand that role to be. So for example, suppose I mistakenly believe Newton’s Three Laws of Motion are traffic rules. I believe, and assert, “Newton’s Three Laws of Motion are true” and I also believe that one of them is “Everyone should come to a full stop at red lights.” I would say that I’ve asserted that N3LM are true, and I’ve also (in the broad sense) asserted each of the three (real) laws. However I don’t believe any of them, and I have not asserted what I do believe about coming to a full stop at red lights.

So: when you assert “it quibbs,” you’ve asserted that it quibbs, and (more broadly) asserted the theorem “it quibbs” expresses. You believe that it quibbs but you don’t believe the associated theorem. You need not understand either what you assert or what you believe, but it doesn’t follow that if you assert something you must also believe it.

How’s that?

Alexander R Pruss said...


Very interesting!

"In the cases I have in mind for (2), the referent of N is a sentence-type, and (2) is true if you know what N refers to and can sincerely assert it."

That seems to make (2) ungrammatical. Suppose "N" refers to the sentence-type "Snow is white". Then: "I believe N" is akin to (though perhaps has different truth value, since "believe" is hyperintensional) "I believe 'Snow is white'", and the latter is ungrammatical unless it's elliptical or the quotes are scare quotes.

I think we want locutions of the form "I believe N" where "N" refers to a proposition. After all, we want to say things like "I believe many of the propositions about the Trinity that Augustine did." But this isn't a matter of sentence-types, since Augustine would have formulated his beliefs in Latin and wouldn't understand my English and Polish formulations, while I would formulate them in English or Polish and wouldn't understand any but the simplest of his Latin formulations.

I am not sure what you mean by "(3) is a form of (1)", given that you admit that the truth conditions of (3) are "more generous".

"You now believe that it quibbs, but you don’t believe whatever 'it quibbs' means."

How about this reponse: That it quibbs is a proposition. If you believe that it quibbs, you believe that proposition. And "It quibbs" means (i.e., has as its content) that proposition. So you do believe whatever "it quibbs" means.

That said, I am coming to be more and more sceptical of the analytic philosophy orthodoxy that in "x believes that s", "that s" functions as a direct object of "believes", and refers to a proposition. (I'm starting to think that the correct parsing is "believes-that s" rather than "believes that-s". But I recognize that this creates difficulties, such as in the dialogue: "You won't believe this." "What won't I believe?" "That Jones just got denied tenure.")

Heath White said...

For (2), I had in mind sentences like “I believe Goldbach’s conjecture.” I am frankly not sure whether “I believe ‘Snow is white’” are ungrammatical or not. I am tempted to say that since, in speech, we can’t distinguish this from “I believe snow is white” which is fine, it’s either not ungrammatical or we have no good intuitions.

For (3) being a form of (1), I just meant that “I believe that ‘P’ is true” is a belief-sentence with a sentence after the ‘believe’, namely the sentence “ ‘P’ is true”. For (3) to be true you have to be able to sincerely assert “ ‘P’ is true.” You have to be able to parse “ ‘P’ is true” (it’s pretty easy) but you don’t have to be able to parse P.

I am in general opposed to propositions, because it seems to me they cause all the problems. They tend to be defined epistemically—two putative propositions are the same just in case if you entertain (know, believe) one, you entertain the other. But given that people may not understand the meanings of all the words in their language, or all the synonyms or co-referential names, the only thing that will meet this epistemic criterion is a sentence-type, with possibly some grammatical transformations (e.g. “I met her by the pool” is the same proposition as “By the pool I met her.”) Plus I think philosophy of language should be down-to-earth and not committed to mysterious entities unless absolutely necessary.

Being more irenic, one might say that a proposition is an equivalence class of sentence types with the same inferential role. In that case, however, it’s quite clear that I won’t know that all these sentence-types are equivalent (e.g. the Latin ones) and if we wish to say that I assert and believe propositions we will have to be extremely externalist about it. But at any rate, along these lines I would, strictly speaking, say that I believe many sentences about the Trinity which are inferentially equivalent to the sentences that Augustine believed. If we want to call this “believing the same propositions” I can live with that.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That helps.

This is a bit off-topic, but it's occurred to me that "I believe Goldbach's Conjecture" is underspecified, whether we think in terms of sentences or propositions. For instance, Goldbach's Conjecture could be that (x)(if x>2 and x is even, then EyEz(y is prime and z is prime and x=y+z)). But it could also be that (x)(if x>2 and x is even, then EyEz(y is prime and z is prime and x=z+y)) or that (x)(either x<4 or x is odd or EyEz(y is prime and z is prime and x=z+y)), vel caetera. There does not seem to be a single proposition or sentence type referred to by "Goldbach's Conjecture". I suppose "I believe Goldbach's Conjecture" means something like: Ep(p is a form of Goldbach's Conjecture and I believe p).

Keith said...

Herman Cappelen argues that the content of assertions can be cognitively inaccessible at the time of utterance in "The Creative Interpreter: Content Relativism and Assertion" Nous-Supplement: Philosophical Perspectives 22 (2008):23-46. He does so in responding to the most common objection he has encountered in defending content relativism. So that would seem to indicate that "asserting what you don't grasp" is a claim that philosophers of language consider in need of defense.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's helpful. I am now thinking, though, that once one takes all the "partial grasp" options into account, it isn't going to be hard for someone to entrench and defend the "can't assert what you don't grasp" principle by insisting that each putative counterexample involves some grasp. I would guess that the content-relativist cases involve some grasp, too, no?

Keith said...

One could "entrench" and just say that one just needs some sort of general awareness of the content of what one asserts but not necessarily of the specifics. But in light of Cappelen's experience with other philosophers of language, this doesn't to be the natural reaction. It seems like their natural reaction is to see his proposal as problematic for assertion.

I also think that on some of the other views Cappelen considers, it seems even harder to entrench. Content relativism says in some cases there is a single speech act with contents varying across contexts of interpretation. But speech act pluralism has multiple speech acts via a single utterance.

So take the example he mentions from Egan where the televangelist says, "Jesus loves you." Assume a very individualistic context where the meaning isn't that Jesus loves everybody, but rather when I hear it the content of the assertion is "Jesus loves Keith" and when you hear it the content is that "Jesus loves Alexander." (If your intuitions on the content are unclear then consider the Smokey the Bear "Only you can prevent forest fires.")

On a speech act pluralism interpretation, there is one utterance by the televangelist but multiple speech acts, one to each hearer. And each speech act has different content with different truth conditions. To me it seems correct that the content would be "Jesus loves Keith" for me and it is hard to say that the televangelist is aware of this content.

To me it seems that while the televangelist is generally aware of what she said, there is an important sense in which he isn't aware of the propositional content of what he has asserted (Jesus loves Keith, Jesus loves Jenny, etc.). I think it is fairly agreed that there is no propositional content until after indexicals are fixed (and even later for some) so it seems to me that there is an important sense in which the televangelist is unaware of the propositional content.

Keith said...

Another issue is that on lots of views speech act content can diverge from semantic content. So one might be aware of the semantic content but it doesn't follow on these views that one is aware of the speech act content.

So on this views it could be consistent to say that the televangelist grasps the semantic content of the sentence but not the speech act content.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The Smokey example is weird: the speech acts have inconsistent contents! So, charitable interpretation suggests we not take them indexically. But obviously they should so be taken. :-)

I do like the examples, but I have a story on which there is grasp here, not propositional grasp, but something that generalizes propositional grasp.

Also, I have reason to think that the referee who is insisting that you need to grasp to assert will deny that there is assertion in the tele-evangelist case. My reason for thinking that stems from the referee's rejection of another case, that of a letter that starts, "I am now in a coma", where the writer arranged that you get the letter if he should ever be in a coma.

A fun twist on the tele-evengelist case is this: The tele-evangelist doesn't know if anybody is tuned in and there is no local audience. In fact, three people are tuned in. He sincerely asserts to them, but he doesn't believe that the content of the assertion is true, since he doesn't have a belief as to whether he's making an assertion at all. This directly gives me the sort of case I want, because what I'm trying to do in the paper is provide cases where you can sincerely assert without believing.

This makes me think of another fun case. At night, there is a shadow moving in my yard. Maybe it's the wind moving the trees or maybe it's a student taking a shortcut. I open my window and yell: "Hey! You're trespassing!" I have no idea if I'm asserting, but if there is a person there, I'm asserting, and sincerely so.

Keith said...

"I do like the examples, but I have a story on which there is grasp here, not propositional grasp, but something that generalizes propositional grasp."

Well, yeah, if one takes a character approach to indexicals, then the televangelist has a grasp that isn't propositional. (But maybe you mean something else.) But I was focusing on the claim that to assert a proposition one needs to grasp it.

However, since you already tried an indexical case (i.e. coma) with the referee I am sure they would have the same reaction to the other cases.

One issue with the modified televangelist case might be whether listners are required for assertion. I think on Mitchell Green's account of illocutionary speaker meaning, one can assert without addressing the assertion to anybody. I can't remember his specific counterexamples to Grice, but he argues that there is no requirement of intending to produce any effect in a hearer, but rather all that is required is to make it manifest that one is committed to P under a particular illocutionary force. From this vantage point, the televangelist is asserting even if he doesn't believe anybody is listening because he is intending to make it manifest that he is committed to P under the force of assertion. So I guess whether he believes he has asserted or not depends upon his view on assertion?

Plus, couldn't he believe the content of the assertion is true, but he just isn't sure whether he made an assertion?

Have you looked at the recent volume on assertion by Cappelen and Brown? I think it is just entitled Assertion.

Keith said...

"Also, I have reason to think that the referee who is insisting that you need to grasp to assert will deny that there is assertion in the tele-evangelist case. My reason for thinking that stems from the referee's rejection of another case, that of a letter that starts, "I am now in a coma", where the writer arranged that you get the letter if he should ever be in a coma."

How will the referee deny there is an assertion in the televangelist case? I can see one trying to argue that there is some sort of general or partial awareness of the speech act content or that the content of the assertion isn't what I claim it is, but I am having trouble seeing how it isn't an assertion.

Other factors do come into play with the coma case and the related answering machine cases that have been prominent lately. Is there a speech act? Or multiple speech acts? What is the context of utterance? Should it be viewed as a scattered event? But I am not aware of anybody denying a speech act completely.

It seems hard to deny that it is an assertion. Just imagine that the evangelist says the same thing to a large audience who are present, but the evangelist doesn't know specifically who is there. Two of the main ways of testing intuitions on speech acts that I know of involve indirect reports and intuitions about responsibility. If I take it individualistically, then it seems it is a completely valid report for me to tell my friend that the evangelist told me that he loves me. (This also supports the indidualistic reading of the content since I am not reporting that the evangelist says that God loves everybody there.) Moreover, if my friend is a hyper-Calvinist and doesn't think the evangelist should have told me that and he confronts the evangelist about it, it would seem strange for the evangelist to deny any responsibility for the assertion.

Alexander R Pruss said...

"Plus, couldn't he believe the content of the assertion is true, but he just isn't sure whether he made an assertion?"

Not if there isn't anybody in the audience! For what is the content, then? The "you" has no referent.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The way I want to generalize propositional grasp is that I am thinking of something more doxin-like than a proposition. The whole doxin theory is weird and not worked out, but I think there is something to it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I just put in an interlibrary loan request for Cappelen and Brown. Thx.

Keith said...

I am not sure there is anything in the book relevant to your issue since I have only used sections of the book. But I would think there would be relevant discussions.