Monday, April 15, 2013

Reducing asserting to promising

Suppose I had a language that had only one kind of speech act: promising. Could I communicate information in the way we do in assertion? Yes! For, suppose I want to communicate that it's raining. Then I could say "I promise to immediately exclaim 'just kidding!' unless it's raining" without exclaiming "just kidding!"

We could even imagine that over time this would get abbreviated to: "It's raining."

Thus, one can reduce assertion, or something very much assertion-like, to promising. Moreover, if we say that this really is normatively equivalent to assertion, then we get an account of the wrongness of lying and a reduction of the normativity of assertion to moral normativity.

One cannot, however, reduce all speech acts to promises. For while promises generate reasons for self, requests (including questions) and commands generate reasons for others.


Michael Gonzalez said...

Of course, the overall norm is still truth, right? I mean "I promise to yell, 'just kidding!' unless it rains", and then not yelling, still has the truth normative at "it rains". You could rephrase it as "unless it is true that it is raining, I promise to immediately exclaim 'just kidding'". I'm promising to indicate the truth or falsity of whether it's raining, aren't I?

Maybe I don't fully understand this discussion of "norms" (I have done very little reading on it), but it seems to me that the very meaning of the statements is going to include the truth norm, and so it is still fundamental. "John is ugly" is a truth claim. You compound belief claims, assertions, promises, etc on top of that fundamental truth-claim, right?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Of course, "John is ugly" has a truth value (at least in a context that further specifies the vague term "ugly"). But that's not a norm, I think. After all, one can embed "John is ugly" in a denial almost as well as in an assertion.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Heath White emailed me a decisive argument against this theory. May destroy it completely.

Here's my version of Heath's argument. Suppose a friend asks me what I am planning on doing tonight. I say: "I will be watching a Deep Space Nine episode." But then I change my mind. That I asserted I will do it is not much of a reason to do it. But on the promise theory (both the one here and the one in an earlier post), I gain a reason a to watch Deep Space Nine, since otherwise I'm a promise-breaker. So assertions don't reduce to promises in this way.

This argument works on the truth-norm of assertion. On the knowledge-norm a variant argument may work.

But on the belief-norm and justification-norm, I can modify the promise theory to work.

For suppose I promise: "I will immediately exclaim 'Just kidding' unless I believe [or, am justified] that I will watch a Foyle's War episode." That doesn't give me any reason to watch Foyle's War, as whether my promise was kept is already determined by whether I believed it.