Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Broadcasting sentences

You're now reading a blog post. Consider the sentence you just read. I wrote it once. But you read it, and other readers read it. To each reader, it expressed a different proposition. To Heath it expressed the proposition that Heath was reading a blog post, while to Dagmara it expressed the proposition that Dagmara was reading it. I was somehow responsible for asserting all these propositions.

Suppose that instead I wrote: "This is the best philosophy post you've read so far today." Then to some people, I would have expressed a truth (say, the ones who haven't read any other philosophy posts today yet), but to many others, I would have expressed a falsehood. And I know that this would be so. I'd be telling the truth to some readers and lying to others. Moreover, if you read this post more than once, then whether I told you the truth or lied might have changed between your readings.

Notice another curiosity. In the first sentence of this post, I probably expressed over hundred propositions, one per reader (my posts generally get over 150 hits, though some are no doubt bots). But apart from a handful of regulars (hi, Heath; hi, Dagmara), I didn't know who they would be. But I did know that they would all be reading a blog post while reading the sentence, so I was safe writing "You're now reading a blog post." I knew I wasn't lying to any of you. I wasn't BS-ing either. Yet many of the propositions that I expressed were ones I didn't believe. To each of my lurkers, I said something true when I said: "You're now reading a blog post." But the proposition I expressed is a proposition I don't believe, since I don't know who my lurkers are.

It seems that the first sentence of this post is an assertion. After all, if it's not assertion then neither would it have been a lie had I written "You're now reading the best blog post ever written", but of course that would have been a lie. For only assertions are lies. So it's an assertion, and a responsible one, even though I didn't know which propositions I was asserting when I asserted it. (Had I known which propositions I was asserting, I could have counted them, and thus known ahead of time how many people would read this post!)

The norm of assertion, thus, can neither require me to believe what I am asserting nor even to have a belief as to what it is that I am asserting. The truth norm is what best coheres with these strictures.

Maybe, though, I am not asserting in my first sentence?


Heath White said...

It seems to me your first sentence does assert. In fact would say that the sentence makes an indefinitely large number of assertions. The sentence is a linguistic token (or a type) and an assertion is a speech act. What the example tells us is that although there is ordinarily a 1-1 correspondence between linguistic tokens (e.g. printed sentences, utterances) and speech acts, this is not necessarily so. For example, you might say, “The eagle has landed” meaning it literally to one hearer and as code to another hearer. With two different contents, this must be two different speech acts. Or you might say “I [hereby] welcome each of you to my house” to a group of visitors, thereby performing a large number of speech acts of welcoming with one utterance.

The question whether you must know what you are asserting is interesting, and I’m inclined to agree that you don’t necessarily know what you are asserting. However I think this might be more common than we realize. Suppose you are standing in front of a class on the first day and you say, “You will write a term paper this semester.” Since you do not intend one collective term paper, the ‘you’ is distributed and there are multiple speech acts in this one utterance. But if you are like me, you haven’t counted the exact number of students in your class (even if it is fairly small) and you don’t know these people. In what sense do you know what propositions you are asserting (or, alternatively, commanding)? You don’t have any definite descriptions in mind for each individual, nor are there any names in your head. We might try to invoke a series of mental demonstratives picking out each student, but this does not correspond to anything phenomenologically, and you don’t even know how many such demonstratives there would be.

I would add this to the list of reasons to be a content externalist.

IanS said...

“You” usually means the person or people “I” am addressing. In the context of the OP, this amounts to “whoever is reading this post”. So the first sentence of the OP amounts to “Whoever is reading this post is reading a blog post”. You could express it with quantifiers as “For all X, if X is reading this post, X is reading a blog post.” This is a tautology. You rightly believed it, so you were justified in asserting it.

Your other examples are not tautologies. You didn’t believe them, so you rightly didn’t assert them.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Yes, this does push towards externalism.

I do, however, think "You will write a term paper this semester" may not be so clear. The "You" sounds plural to me. If I were translating into a language that distinguishes second person singular from second person plural, I'd be inclined to use the plural.


I don't think it makes a quantified claim. Imagine I run a lottery, but I want to defraud the winners, and so I send a mass email to all participants: "You didn't win." Then I lied to the winners, but only to the winners. So my content wasn't universally quantified--if it were, I would be lying to everybody. And a post seems similar to a mass email.

IanS said...

In a mass email, each individual email has an addressee. “You” in each email means “the addressee”. So each email makes a different claim, even if the words are same.

A blog post is different – it has no addressee. So who is “you”? It cannot mean me (or anyone else) specifically, because the poster cannot know who will read the post. So I have to assume that by “you”, the poster means “any reader of this post”, or some such.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think direct address even in something broadcast is not the same as quantification. Consider an exercise video that ends: "You're done. Lie down on your back and relax." Clearly, the "your" in the second sentence is an ordinary second person singular pronoun referring to the particular person watching the video. But the "you" in the first sentence seems an exact match for the "your" in the second sentence. So it's also just an ordinary second person singular pronoun.

Note, too, a curious thing in my example. If I make a popular exercise video, I will know that some people will watch it without doing all the exercises. In their case, "You're done" is false. But I'm not lying to them! Why not? Maybe because the context implies that the assertion is addressed only to the relevant subset of the watchers. (It's not addressed to the video-editor, say.)

Trevor Adams said...

Long time lurker here. I think in certain sense you do believe the first sentence since you believe that anyone reading that first sentence is reading a blog post.

IanS said...


How about this? “You” always implies address, but a broadcast “you” also implies quantification. On this view, “you” in an exercise video both refers to and addresses anyone who is following the workout in the video. Also on this view, the you in “lie down on your back” is just as quantified as the you in “You’re done”. It’s just more cumbersome to spell out: for all X, if X is following this video, I’m asking X to lie down on X’s back.

Alexander R Pruss said...


But the analogy to: "for all X, if X is following this video, I’m asking X to lie down on X’s back" is "for all X, if X is reading this, I'm asserting to X that X is reading a blog post" as a rendering of "You are now reading a blog post." And on this analogy, I am not asserting to you that everyone reading this is reading a blog post, but only that you are, just as in your suggestion I'm not asking you that *everyone* who is following lie down, but only that you lie down.

IanS said...

Yes, that seems right. The statements are made to each reader individually. This vindicates your position. You could no know what you would end up stating. But you did know that all the statements would be true, so you were justified in asserting them – or strictly, in posting a sentence that would cause your blog persona to make them on your behalf.

One might wonder whether stating something that is so trivially true counts as asserting - tell me something I didn’t know. And if it does, is it typical enough to draw conclusions from?

After a detour, I now understand the OP better.

Matt said...

As another long time lurker I'll delurk to note there's literature on such things, an example of which is

Alexander R Pruss said...

Good to know if this ever comes up in research. Thanks for the reference!
I wonder if there are limits to the phenomenon. Can I take an arbitrary function from contexts of reception to contents and stipulate that "Whizzbang" has it as its meaning?

Matt said...

I guess if you could convince people (with Egan) that there are such functions then you could certainly try. I'm guessing the linguistic community might be somewhat slow to cotton on to it though!
(also, I meant to say this in the previous post but forgot: thanks for this blog. I very much enjoy reading your creative arguments, and I'd like to think doing so has been somewhat helpful in my philosophical development.)