Friday, October 16, 2020

Promising to try

Here’s a natural thing to say. The sentence

  1. “I promise to try to ϕ

should be analyzed as straightforwardly an instance of the schema:

  1. “I promise to ψ

for an action ψ, in the special case where ψing is the action of trying to ϕ.

I am now fairly convinced that this is wrong: that (1) is not a mere special case of (2).

Here are two cases to make one more friendly to this.

  • I promised you to try to call you tomorrow. Come tomorrow, I called you accidentally, i.e., without trying to. If the content of my promise was literally to try to call you, then I haven’t fulfilled that, and I have reason to call you, this time intentionally. But that’s silly.

  • I promised to try to email you a paper tonight. Come tonight, I try, but my email software puts up the dialog: “Your email did not go through due to a temporary problem. The problemm is now resolved. Should I send it? Yes/No.” I press “No” on the grounds that my promise has been fulfilled: I already tried. That’s vicious, surely.

There are easy ways out of the two cases that are compatible with the straightforward analysis of promising-to-try. But the cases are nonetheless suggestive of the fact that “I promise to try to ϕ” should not be read too literally.

My promise to you to ψ typically accomplishes three things:

  • It creates a reason for me to ψ

  • It tells you that I will ψ

  • It creates an obligation of apology or compensation if I do not ψ (regardless of whether I am culpable).

In particular, because it tells you that I will ψ, it normally creates an expectation in you that I will ψ, which is apt to lead to your organizing your life around my ψing.

I suggest that a promise to try to ϕ instead accomplishes these three things:

  • It creates a reason for me to ϕ

  • It tells you that I will make a reasonable effort to ϕ

  • It creates an obligation of apology or compensation if I do not make a reasonable effort to ϕ.

In other words, I think that my promising to try to ϕ gives rise to exactly the same reason in me as promising to ϕ would. However, it holds back the assurance that I will ϕ, replacing it with an assurance that I will try. Now whether you expect me to ϕ will depend on your judgment of how likely my attempts are to succeed. And by using the weaker wording, I am typically implicating to you an uncertainty about success which should give you some evidence of my unreliability. Finally, my promising to try to ϕ weakens the duties of apology or compensation to only apply when I didn’t make a reasonable effort.

In other words, to promise and to promise-to-try are two different kinds of speech acts, and it is obviously useful to have both.

1 comment:

Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss: This is very interesting and fits very well with something I've been thinking about lately. It seems to me that people are too quick to think that, if Y is what we do when we fail to X, then Y must be X minus something. For example, if I want to lift an object and move it out of your way, but then the object turns out to be too heavy for me, I don't move it, but I tried. This could lead to the impression that doing things is a combination of trying plus something else (maybe "succeeding"?). A similar mistake happens with knowledge, since the statement "I was wrong, I didn't know that, I just believed it" makes sense, and so people are apt to think that knowing is believing + something, which is mistaken.

I think this example of promising to try vs. promising to do, and how they are irreducibly different speech acts, is helpful in untying those knots.