Assertion is widely regarded as an act associated with an epistemic position. To assert is to represent oneself as occupying this position and/or to be required to occupy this position. Within this approach, the most common view is that assertion is strong: the associated position is knowledge or certainty. But recent challenges to this common view present new data that are argued to be better explained by assertion being weak. Old data widely taken to support assertion being strong has also been challenged. This paper examines such challenges and finds them wanting. Far from diminishing the case for strong assertion, carefully considering new and old data reveals that assertion is as strong as ever.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Williamson was not the first to associate assertion with knowledge. Hooper (1975), Unger (1975), and Slote (1979) do. Before them, Moore (1962) and Black (1952) each tentatively described assertion as being associated belief or knowledge. There are probably others. But Williamson was the most influential.
Strictly speaking, Mandelkern and Dorst provide three arguments. But the first just consists of cases where speakers appear to assert blamelessly without knowing what they assert. The existence of such cases is a familiar point raised by critics of strong theories of assertion. For example, see Lackey (2007), Maitra and Weatherson (2010), Pelling (2013), and McKinnon (2013, 2015). Since their cases do not have notable features that distinguish them from previous cases, we do not discuss them individually.
The signal/norm distinction or something similar has been floating around in the literature on assertion for awhile. For example, Williamson (2000) makes the distinction in a footnote when he is comparing his approach to assertion with earlier approaches such as Unger (1975). See also McCammon (2014) for relevant discussion.
Throughout, we will use signal as a neutral way to describe how the speaker conveys that they know what they asserted. The traditional explanation is illocutionary. Knowledge is expressed or represented by the use of a declarative because that use tokens the speech act of assertion. Exactly how the signal is sent then depends on the illocutionary mechanism (e.g. convention, intention-recognition, constitutive rules, social norms) (Murray & Starr, 2018). Semantic views include Black (1952) who takes it to be an “implication” owed to the conventional meaning of the declarative clause, Meyer (2013) who posits a silent operator in the left periphery of the clause, and van Elswyk (2021) who posits a covert know-parenthetical.
Matters are more complicated if k-norm is a social norm (Kelp, 2018, Simion, 2021; van Elswyk, forthcoming). Whether the violation of a social norm is excusable can depend on a variety of features of the context. Consider the norm Wait your turn that applies to forming queues or lines. Sometimes we allow people to skip ahead (e.g. the elderly and those with children when boarding a plane), to have their friends or family join them, or to have their place in line held by an object. But sometimes we do not (e.g. when waiting to purchase a limited volume item). There are even cases where people have been killed for not waiting their turn (Fagundes, 2017). If excusability for k-norm is similar, it will depend on the practical stakes of allowing exceptions, facts about the individuals, and more. Admittedly, regarding k-norm as a social norm makes it harder to falsify with the method of cases. Cases of permissible assertions made when the speaker does not know can be classified as excused violations. But this just means better evidence is called for than what philosophers often appeal to in this literature. This is why we take experimental investigation of k-norm to be so important.
Such defectiveness plausibly surfaces within a discourse too as opposed to just a contradiction were Martin to disavow belief or knowledge soon after his claim. See Benton (2016, 695) and Benton (2011, 685-686) for relevant discussion. In §3.1 we consider contexts where such defectiveness is perhaps screened off.
We do not share this judgment. Another way to explore whether (5) is felicitous is to consider whether it is dispreferred to alternative utterances that could be made by the speaker instead. Notably, everyone we have discussed such an utterance with prefers a sentence like My guess is that the war started in 1760 that makes explicit that the speaker is guessing. If assertion is strong, the dispreference is easily explained: (5) is dispreferred because it signals knowledge in a context where knowledge has already been disavowed by the speaker. See van Elswyk (2021, 163-164) for related discussion.
A similar observation was initially made by Cappelen (2011) in objecting to there being any speech act of assertion at all.
https://www.boxingscene.com/roach-thurman-beat-danny-garcia-i-bet-on-it–110207, accessed on 10/29/2021.
https://www.cougarboard.com/board/message.html?id=26607586, accessed on 10/29/2021.
Social norms help human communication be evolutionarily stable by making communication reliable (Scott-Phillips, 2010; Graham, 2020b). An assertion norm is one such norm. See Turri (2017), Graham (2010, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2020a, 2020b), Kelp (2018), Simion and Kelp (2020), Simion (2021), and van Elswyk (forthcoming). Relatedly, social norms help make testimony reliable. See the aforementioned as well as Greco (2016, 2020) for anti-reductionist epistemologies of testimony that base reliability in social norms.
One way to handle this problem is to posit another norm on assertion that can play the quality control role. Then epistemic posturing would explain defective conjunctions and this other norm would ensure quality control. However, there is good reason to think that, to perform the quality control role, the epistemic norm will require knowledge. See the citations in fn. 15. Then we return to assertion being strong.
Compare Turri (2013) on the assurance of guaranteeing what one asserts by claiming to know what one asserts. One account of what one is putting on the line can be given in terms of a credibility index (c.f. Turri (2010b, 84-86), and Benton and Turri (2014, 1863-65)). We do not take a stand on these details here.
We offer this explanation in terms of mutual knowledge but it could be made in terms of common ground. Saith Stalnaker (1970, 280), “One cannot normally assert, command, promise, or even conjecture what is inconsistent with what is presupposed.” We can add question to his list. See Kirk-Giannini (2018) for this same point.
Incidentally, abstaining with I don’t know is argued to provide evidence for assertion being strong (Reynolds, 2002; Turri, 2011). If assertion does not require knowledge, it is difficult to make sense of why we would abstain by saying we lack knowledge. A further difficulty is explaining why an abstention is often followed by a hedged statement such as I don’t know, but my guess is that he’ll bring Indian.
Compare a teacher who might similarly prod their students to offer a guess or a half-baked idea. It is noteworthy that the teacher, who typically knows more about the topic than their students, cannot appropriately challenge them after installing such lower standards in order to encourage participation.
Mandelkern and Dorst (fn. 15) consider a similar objection attributed to Diego Feinmann. They note that attitude reports of the form \(\ulcorner\)I think that p\(\urcorner\) carry the scalar implicature that the speaker does not know p since think and know are alternatives. A bare declarative does not similarly carry this implicature. On the assumption that parenthetical verbs carry the same implicatures, they could say that the reason (24b) is infelicitous is because it asks a question for which the answer was just implicated by (24a). But this reply does not work for two reasons. First, asking what was just answered via a scalar implicature is not aggressive like Do you think that?. Consider the following exchange.
(a) I ate some of the pizza.
(b) Did you eat all of it?
The felt aggressiveness of Do you think that? cannot therefore be explained by general considerations about querying what was just implicated. Second, we are now owed an explanation for why bare declaratives do not carry this same implicature. Bare declaratives are also alternatives. They are structural alternatives that can be produced from a declarative with a parenthetical verb via deletion of that parenthetical verb (Katzir, 2007), and they are scalemates that are stronger than declaratives with parenthetical verbs. But the best explanation for why bare declaratives do not carry this implicature is that they signal knowledge in the style of the k-signal. So their reply just leads us back to assertion being strong. For related discussion, see Benton and van Elswyk (2020) and van Elswyk (forthcoming).
Compare (25) through (27) with the aggressive challenges considered by Williamson (2000, 253), and Turri (2011, 38):
Do you (really) know that? T, K?
You don’t know that! \(\lnot\)K
Since neither challenges whether the speaker thinks p, the aggressiveness of these challenges is difficult to explain if assertion is weak. In contrast, the aggressiveness is easily explained if assertion is strong. (II) explicitly challenges a speaker’s authority to assert, and (III) explicitly rejects that authority.
This is an instance of a more general phenomenon. In some languages with evidentials, evidentials can be used in a question. When they are, the evidential can be interpreted as specifying the evidence source the addressee is expected to back their answer with. This is known as interrogative flip (Speas, 2008; Bhadra, 2020). Languages differ in whether a speaker has to answer with the expected evidential. In some languages, one must (Roque et al., 2017). But in languages like German, one can answer with a stronger evidential (Eckardt & Beltrama, 2019). Answering What do you think? with an assertion is parallel. It provides an answer that is epistemically stronger than expected.
Mileage may vary. In our experience, when we have consulted native speakers who aren’t professional philosophers or linguists, they overwhelmingly voice this dispreference. See van Elswyk (2021, 163-164) for related discussion. Notice too that That Joe won is a different sentence from (32b). Namely, it is one in which the subject and matrix verb have been elided to give a fragment answer (Merchant, 2004; Merchant et al., 2013). As such, to find That Joe won preferable to Joe won just is to prefer (31c).
https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2021/11/whaling-whales-food-krill-iron/620604/, accessed on 11/14/2021.
It might be argued that \(\ulcorner\)S thinks p\(\urcorner\) carries the scalar implicature that S does not know p. As a result, think-reporting is incompatible with assertion being strong. We do not dispute that think sometimes implicates a lack of knowledge. But it does not always. First, if it did always implicate ignorance, journalists would always implicate that people are ignorant with think-reporting. They clearly do not. Second, the insertion of exhaustification terms like merely or just makes a significant difference to how we interpret a report. Compare (IV) with (V):
Liam thinks that John is bringing Indian.
Liam merely/just thinks that John is bringing Indian.
The insertion of such a term should not make such a difference to interpretation if (IV) already implicated that the Liam doesn’t know that John is bringing Indian food. And yet it does make a difference.
We are grateful to Ben Holguín, Matt Mandelkern, Juan Ignacio Murillo Vargas, and two anonymous referees for helpful comments. This paper was written while both of us were independently supported by grants from The Honesty Project at Wake Forest University and the John Templeton Foundation. We are grateful for this support and note that the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of The Honesty Project, Wake Forest University, or the John Templeton Foundation.
Alston, W. P. (2000). Illocutionary acts and sentence meaning. Cornell University Press.
Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Harvard University Press.
K, B., & Harnish, R. (1979). Linguistic communication and speech acts. MIT Press.
Benton, M., & van Elswyk, P. (2020). Hedged assertion. In S. Goldberg (Ed.), Oxford handbook of assertion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Benton, M. (2011). Two more for knowledge account of assertion. Analysis, 71, 684–687.
Benton, M. (2016). Gricean quality. Noûs, 50(4), 689–703.
Benton, M. (2018). Lying, belief, and knowledge. In J. Meibauer (Ed.), Oxford handbook of lying. Oxford University Press.
Benton, M., Knowledge is the norm of assertion. In Roeber, B., Turri, J., Steup, M., & Sosa, E. (Eds) Contemporary Debates in Epistemology. Blackwell, 3rd edition, forthcoming.
Benton, M., & Turri, J. (2014). Iffy predictions and proper expectations. Synthese, 191(8), 1857–1866.
Bhadra, D. (2020). The semantics of evidentials in questions. Journal of Semantics, 37, 367–423.
Black, D. (2019). A non-normative account of assertion. Ratio, 32, 53–62.
Black, M. (1952). Saying and disbelieving. Analysis, 13, 25–33.
Brandom, R. (1983). Asserting. Noûs, 17(4), 637–650.
Bromberger, S. (1966). Why-questions. In R. Colodny (Ed.), Mind and cosmos: Essays in contemporary science and philosophy (pp. 68–111). University of Pittsburgh Press.
Brown, P., & Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge University Press.
Buccola, B., & Haida, A. (2019). Obligatory irrelevance and the computation of ignorance inferences. Journal of Semantics, 36, 583–616.
Cappelen, H. (2011). Against assertion. In J. Brown & H. Cappelen (Eds.), Assertion. Oxford University Press.
Chierchia, G. (2006). Broaden your views. Implicatures of domain widening and the ‘logicality’ of language. Linguistic Inquiry, 37(4), 535–590.
Davidson, D. (1984). Communication and convention. Synthese, 1, 3–17.
Davies, M. The corpus of contemporary American English: 520 million words, 1990-present. http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/, 2008-present.
DeRose, K. (2002). Assertion, knowledge, and context. Philosophical Review, 111, 167–203.
Dorst, K. (2019). Lockeans maximize expected accuracy. Mind, 128(509), 175–211. https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/fzx028.
Kevin Dorst and Matthew Mandelkern. Good guesses. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, forthcoming. https://doi.org/10.1111/phpr.12831.
Eckardt, R., & Beltrama, A. (2019). Evidentials in questions. Empirical Issues in Syntax and Semantics, 12, 121–155.
Fagundes, D. (2017). The social norms of waiting in line. Law and Social Inquiry, 42(4), 1179–1207.
Faller, M. (2019). The discourse commitments of illocutionary reportatives. Semantics and Pragmatics, 12(8), 1–46.
Fallis, D. (2013). Davidson was almost right about lying. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 91(2), 337–353. https://doi.org/10.1080/00048402.2012.688980.
Frege, G. (1892). Über Sinn und Bedeutung. Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik, 100, 25–50.
Froke, P. (2020). The Associated Press Stylebook. Basic Books, 55 edition.
Graham, P. (2010). Testimonial entitlement and the function of comprehension. In A. Millar & A. Haddock (Eds.), Social epistemology. Oxford University Press.
Graham, P. (2012). Testimony, trust, and social norms. Abstracta, 6(3), 92–116.
Graham, P. (2014). Functions, warrant, history. In A. Fairweather & O. Flanagan (Eds.), Naturalizing epistemic virtue (pp. 15–35). Cambridge University Press.
Graham, P. (2015). Epistemic normativity and social norms. In D. Henderson & J. Greco (Eds.), Epistemic evaluations: Purposeful epistemology. Oxford University Press.
Graham, P. (2020). The function of assertion and social norms. In S. Goldberg (Ed.), Oxford handbook of assertion. Oxford University Press.
Graham, P. (2020). Assertions, handicaps, and social norms. Episteme, 17(3), 349–363. https://doi.org/10.1017/epi.2019.53.
Greco, J. (2016). What is transmission? Episteme, 13(4), 481–498. https://doi.org/10.1017/epi.2016.25.
Greco, J. (2020). The transmission of knowledge. Cambridge University Press.
Grice, P. (1989). Studies in the way of words. Harvard University Press.
Hawthorne, J. (2003). Knowledge and lotteries. Oxford University Press.
Hawthorne, J., Rothschild, D., & Spectre, L. (2016). Belief is weak. Philosophical Studies, 173, 1393–1404. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-015-0553-7.
Holguín, B. (2021). Lying and knowing. Synthese, 198(6), 5351–5371. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02407-2.
Holguín, B. (2022). Thinking, guessing, believing. Philosopher’s Imprint. https://doi.org/10.3998/phimp.2123.
Holmberg, A. (2013). The syntax of answers to polar questions in English and Swedish. Lingua, 128, 31–50.
Hooper, J. B. (1975). On assertive predicates. In J. P. Kimball (Ed.), Syntax and semantics 4. Academic Press.
Kasper, G. (2000). Linguistic politeness: Current research issues. Journal of Pragmatics, 14(2), 192–218. https://doi.org/10.1016/0378-2166(90)90080-W.
Katzir, R. (2007). Structurally-defined alternatives. Linguistics and Philosophy, 30(6), 669–690.
Kelp, C. (2018). Assertion: A function first account. Noûs, 52(2), 411–442. https://doi.org/10.1111/nous.12153.
Kirk-Giannini, C. D. (2018). Uniformity motivated. Linguistics and Philosophy, 41, 665–684.
Krifka, M. (2013). Response particles as propositional anaphors. In Todd, S. (Ed) Proceedings of SALT. Vol. 23. pp 1–18.
Lackey, J. (2007). Norms of assertion. Noûs, 41, 594–626.
Maitra, I., & Weatherson, B. (2010). Assertion, knowledge, and action. Philosophical Studies, 149, 99–118.
Mandelkern, M., & Dorst, K. Assertion is weak. Philosophers’ Imprint, forthcoming. URL https://philpapers.org/archive/MANAIW.pdf.
Marty, P., & Romoli, J. Presupposed free choice and the theory of scalar implicatures. Linguistics and Philosophy, forthcoming.
McCammon, C. (2014). Representing yourself as knowing. American Philosophical Quarterly, 51(2), 133–144.
McCready, E. (2015). Reliability in pragmatics. Oxford University Press.
McGlynn, A. (2014). Knowledge first? Palgrave Macmillan.
McKinnon, R. (2013). The supportive reasons norm of assertion. American Philosophical Quarterly, 50(2), 121–135.
McKinnon, R. (2015). The norms of assertion: Truth, lies, and warrant. Palgrave Macmillan.
Merchant, J. (2004). Fragments and ellipsis. Linguistics and Philosophy, 27(6), 661–738.
Merchant, J., Frazier, L., Clifton, C., & Weskott, T. (2013). Fragment answers to questions: A case of inaudible syntax. In L. Goldstein (Ed.), Brevity. Oxford University Press.
Marie-Christine, M,. Ignorance and grammar. PhD thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2013. URL https://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/84420.
Moore, G.E. (1942). A reply to my critics. In Schilpp, P. (Ed) The Philosophy of G.E. Moore. La Salle: Open Court Press, 3rd edition.
Moore, G. E. (1962). Commonplace book: 1919–1953. George Allen and Unwin.
Murray, S., & Starr, W. (2018). Force and conversational states. In D. Fogal, D. Harris, & M. Moss (Eds.), New work on speech acts. Oxford University Press.
Pagin, P. (2004). Is assertion social? Journal of Pragmatics, 36, 833–859.
Pelling, C. (2013). Assertion and the provision of knowledge. Philosophical Quarterly, 63(251), 293–312.
Prince, E. F., Frader, J., & Bosk, C. (1982). On hedging in physician-physician discourse. In R. D. Pietro (Ed.), Linguistics and the professions (pp. 83–97). Ablex.
Reynolds, S. (2002). Testimony, knowledge, and epistemic goals. Philosophical Studies, 110, 139–161. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1020254327114.
Roque, L. S., Floyd, S., & Norcliffe, E. (2017). Evidentiality and interrogativity. Lingua, 186–187, 120–143.
Rothschild, D. (2020). What it takes to believe. Philosophical Studies, 177, 1345–1362. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-019-01256-6.
Saul, J. (2012). Lying, misleading, and what is said: An exploration in philosophy of language and in ethics. Oxford University Press.
Scott-Phillips, T. C. (2010). Evolutionary stable communication and pragmatics. In A. Benz, C. Ebert, G. Jager, & R. van Rooij (Eds.), Language, games, and evolution. Springer.
Searle, J. (1969). Speech acts. Cambridge University Press.
Searle, J., & Vanderveken, D. (1985). Foundations of illocutionary logic. Cambridge University Press.
Simion, M. (2021). Testimonial contractarianism. Noûs, 44(4), 891–916. https://doi.org/10.1111/nous.12337.
Simion, M., & Kelp, C. (2020). How to be an anti-reductionist. Synthese, 197(7), 2849–2866. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1722-y.
Slote, M. A. (1979). Assertion and belief. In J. Dancy (Ed.), Papers on language and logic. Keele University Library.
Speas, M. (2008). On the syntax and semantics of evidentials. Language and Linguistics Compass, 2, 940–965.
Stalnaker, R. (1970). Pragmatics. Synthese, 22, 272–289.
Robert Stalnaker, R. (1978). Assertion. In Syntax and Semantics 9: Pragmatics, pages 315–332. Academic Press.
Stokke, A. (2013). Lying and asserting. Journal of Philosophy, 110(1), 33–60. https://doi.org/10.5840/jphil2013110144.
Stokke, A. (2018). Lying and insincerity. Oxford University Press.
Tebbens, N. (2020). Selfless assertions and the knowledge norm. Synthese, 12, 1–20.
Turri, J. (2010). Prompting challenges. Analysis, 70, 456–462. https://doi.org/10.1093/analys/anq027.
Turri, J. (2010). Epistemic invariantism and speech act contextualism. Philosophical Review, 119(1), 77–95.
Turri, J. (2011). The express knowledge account of assertion. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 89, 37–45.
Turri, J. (2013). Knowledge guaranteed. Noûs, 47, 602–612.
Turri, J. (2015). Selfless assertions: Some empirical evidence. Synthese, 192(4), 1221–1233.
Turri, J. (2017). Experimental work on the norms of assertion. Philosophy Compass, 12(7), e12425. https://doi.org/10.1111/phc3.12425.
Turri, J. (2019). Excuse validation: A cross-cultural study. Cognitive Science, 43, e27148.
Turri, J., & Blouw, P. (2015). Excuse validation: A study in rule-breaking. Philosophical Studies, 172, 615–634.
Unger, P. (1975). Ignorance: The case for skepticism. Clarendon Press.
van Elswyk, P. (2019). Propositional anaphors. Philosophical Studies, 176(4), 1055–1075.
van Elswyk, P. (2021). Representing knowledge. The Philosophical Review, 130(1), 97–143. https://doi.org/10.1215/00318108-8699695.
van Elswyk, P. Hedged testimony. Noûs, forthcoming.
van Elswyk, P., & Sapir, Y. (2021). Hedging and the ignorance norm on inquiry. Synthese, 199(3–4), 5837–5859. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-021-03048-0.
Walker, M. (1996). Inferring acceptance and rejection in dialog by default rules of inference. Language and Speech, 39(2–3), 265–304.
Williamson, T. (1996). Knowing and asserting. The Philosophical Review, 105(4), 489–523.
Williamson, T. (2000). Knowledge and its limits. Oxford University Press.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Rights and permissions
Springer Nature or its licensor holds exclusive rights to this article under a publishing agreement with the author(s) or other rightsholder(s); author self-archiving of the accepted manuscript version of this article is solely governed by the terms of such publishing agreement and applicable law.
About this article
Cite this article
van Elswyk, P., Benton, M.A. Assertion remains strong. Philos Stud 180, 27–50 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-022-01871-w
- Knowledge norm
- Speech acts