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Centered assertion


I suggest a way of extending Stalnaker’s account of assertion to allow for centered content. In formulating his account, Stalnaker takes the content of assertion to be uncentered propositions: entities that are evaluated for truth at a possible world. I argue that the content of assertion is sometimes centered: the content is evaluated for truth at something within a possible world. I consider Andy Egan’s proposal for extending Stalnaker’s account to allow for assertions with centered content. I argue that Egan’s account does not succeed. Instead, I propose an account on which the contents of assertion are identified with sets of multi-centered worlds. I argue that such a view not only provides a plausible account of how assertions can have centered content, but also preserves Stalnaker’s original insight that successful assertion involves the reduction of shared possibilities.

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  1. What does it mean to accept a proposition or to take someone else to accept a proposition? Accepting a proposition, as I am using it here, is not meant to be equivalent to believing a proposition. Stalnaker says, “The presuppositions presupposed in the intended sense need not really be common or mutual knowledge; the speaker need not even believe them” (p. 321). So a speaker might accept a proposition for the sake of a conversation even if she does not believe it. In conversing with a hypochondriac, I might accept for the sake of the conversation, that he is sick (and I may even presuppose that he is sick) even though I don’t believe that he is.

  2. I assume in what follows that possible worlds contain past, present and future times.

  3. Defenders of this view go by the name ‘eternalists’.

  4. Defenders of the view that the content of a sentence like ‘the frying pan is hot’ can be true at some times and false at other times, are called ‘temporalists’. Some temporalists might disagree with my claim that the content of a sentence like ‘the frying pan is hot’ is centered. Some temporalists might think that possible worlds do not include past and future times and so the content of ‘the frying pan is hot’ is true (or false) at a world and is therefore not centered.

  5. See David Lewis (1979) for more reasons why centered content is necessary in order to adequately characterize beliefs.

  6. This claim presupposes a tenseless account of time according to which beliefs about time are a kind of indexical belief (analogous to beliefs about one’s location in space).

  7. Given what he says in (2008, Chap. 3), I think Stalnaker would respond to the prisoner example in this manner.

  8. Stalnaker acknowledges this commitment in (2008, Chap. 3).

  9. See Lewis (1983, pp. 390–394) for some of these reasons.

  10. See Lewis’ ‘Two Gods’ case in (1979, pp. 140–141). See Stalnaker’s response to the ‘Two Gods’ argument in (2008, pp. 55–59).

  11. Egan takes a centered world to be a world, w, with a designated individual, i, in w at a designated time, t in w. Centered worlds can be represented by a world, individual, time triple: <w,i,t>.

  12. Egan admits to simplifying by ignoring the context-sensitivity of ‘near’ and by suppressing time-indices. I follow suit.

  13. Egan points out that in this example, “it also looks like the self-locating bit of the assertion isn’t doing any work—we could have just asserted the possible worlds proposition that Sydney is near Bond and Felix. This is an unfortunate side effect of making the example simple” (p. 18). Egan goes on to provide a case in which he claims self-locating propositions are necessary in order to explain the content of assertion (See “Better SYDNEY”, pp. 19–20). For the purposes of presenting Egan’s account, I think the less complicated example will do.

  14. It has been pointed out to me by Phillip Bricker that in Stalnaker’s recent book Our Knowledge of the Internal World (2008), Stalnaker also makes use of (what I call) multi-centered worlds in giving an account of common belief. In the appendix to Chap. 3, Stalnaker writes:

    So, for example, we might model the common ground (presumed common beliefs) of a conversation between two amnesiacs trying to figure out who and where they are, and what time it is, by pooling the meager information that they each have. In general, the common ground that is determined by the iterative process will generate a representation that parallels the representation of an individual belief state; it will have the same structure, but with centered worlds with multiple individuals at their centers…The common ground can also be represented by a base world and a common belief set, but with a sequence of individuals (all of those in the relevant group) at the centers instead of a single individual. The sequence of individuals at the centers of the common belief worlds will represent where the members of the group mutually locate themselves and each other in the possible worlds compatible with their common beliefs (Stalnaker 2008, pp. 73–74).

    As noted in footnote 7, I think Stalnaker would reject my claim that some assertions involve the elimination of centered worlds (rather than uncentered worlds) from the context set. He holds that “ignorance or uncertainty about where one is in the world is always also ignorance or uncertainty about what world one is in” (2008, p. 70). But, to the extent that Stalnaker uses centered worlds in order to characterize belief states (See the Appendix to Chap. 3), he recognizes the need for multi-centered worlds.

  15. Lewis represents joint possibilities as n tuples of individuals all of whom are from the same world. I propose to represent joint possibilities as ordered pairs consisting of a world, w, and an n-tuple of individuals within w. Lewis has no need for designating a world in his representation of joint possibilities since he holds that all individuals are world-bound. In order to remain neutral on whether possible individuals are world-bound, I choose to represent joint possibilities as world-n-tuple pairs.

  16. If we take possible individuals to be worldbound, the ordered pair will not consist of Sarah and Tom but rather Sarah’s counterpart in w1 and Tom’s counterpart in w1.

  17. This claim is a bit quick. Most likely there is some qualitative difference between the hikers in the west and the hikers in the east. But there need not be any qualitative differences between the hikers in the east and the hikers in the west. Suppose they are hiking near the axis of a mirror symmetric universe.

  18. Lewis (1979, p. 147)

  19. We could further suppose that you and your fellow prisoner agree to this naming convention.

  20. Compare Lewis’s treatment of the example involving him and his twin in (Lewis 1983, p. 398).

  21. Thanks to Antony Eagle, Oliver Pooley and an anonymous reviewer for pressing me on this issue.

  22. Here and in what follows, when I discuss characterizing an individual’s beliefs, I have in mind a narrow characterization of belief.

  23. I would like to thank Phillip Bricker, Antony Eagle, Oliver Pooley, Brandt Van der Gaast and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on an earlier draft.


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Torre, S. Centered assertion. Philos Stud 150, 97–114 (2010).

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  • Assertion
  • Content
  • Centered worlds
  • Self-locating