Monday, March 27, 2023

Asserting without intending to

Intention seems essential to assertion. Thus, it seems that a necessary condition for assertion is an intention condition like:

  1. I intended my utterance u to be an assertion to you.

But this is false. Suppose that I have promised to mail you my report on some matter. But now it has turned out that the matter is such that I want to keep it secret from you. I don’t want to lie or break my promise. So I identify the world’s least reliable postal service, determine that there is only a 15% chance that mail from there will get through, fly to that country, and mail my report. My promise is (legalistically) kept, and yet there is a 85% chance that the secret is safe. But, alas, the mail gets through. The contents of the report have, thus, been asserted to you. But if the report had not got through, then I wouldn’t have asserted the contents, and since that was my plan, I didn’t intend to assert.

The only solution I have is clunky. We might say that there are multiple necessary conditions for assertion. One is the intention condition, which we are right now trying to get clear on. Another is a transmission condition, namely that the assertion “get to you”. I am not quite sure what is required for that. The paradigmatic case is when you “hear the assertion as an assertion”. But what about edge cases, like when you speak to me, and I am distracted and don’t process it, or it’s in a letter which I tear up without reading? I am inclined to think that that could be an assertion. But not if I am in the next room and the noise level is such that any reasonable person would know I wouldn’t hear it, or if the letter was lost in the mail before “getting to me”.

It now seems like the intention condition for assertion would be something conditional like:

  1. I intended that if u satisfied the transmission condition on assertion to you, then u was an assertion to you.

All that said, while (2) may be true, it can’t be a part of the definition of assertion, since it uses “assertion” in the definiens.


SMatthewStolte said...

We can imagine less contrived cases that are basically analogous. Years ago, I promised you that if your friends were ever going to have a surprise birthday party for you, I would tell you. But now, years later, I know it would spoil the fun if you knew, so I tell you while you are watching your favorite TV show, convinced that you will not listen to anything I say while the show is on. In a case like that, it feels like I have two intentions at odds with each other: I am trying to tell you, but I am also trying to put up a barrier to my telling you. I also have a wish-preference about which effort will be successful.

Something similar seems to be going on with the case of the unreliable postal service.

People often act with two intentions at odds with each other.

Alexander R Pruss said...

In the postal service case, I don't think I am trying to get the report through. My promise was merely to mail it, not to try to get it through. In your case, it's also not clear that there is an intention to communicate.