A puzzle for epistemic WAMs


In recent literature, a very popular position about the normativity of assertion claims that standards for epistemically proper assertion vary with practical context, while standards for knowledge do not. This paper shows this claim is strongly incompatible with the received value-theoretic view regarding the relationship between the axiological and the deontic: one of the two has to go.

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  1. 1.

    Crucially, the results of this paper only concern SA in its epistemic incarnation.

  2. 2.

    The term was coined by Fantl and McGrath (2012).

  3. 3.

    The locus classicus for the defence of the necessity claim involved in KNA is Williamson (2000). For support for the sufficiency claim, see Simion (2016).

  4. 4.

    SA also comes in more than one variety; first there are people thinking that assertion is governed by one norm which stipulates that the appropriate amount of warrant for proper assertion varies with contextual features (e.g. Brown 2010; Gerken 2012; Goldberg 2015; McKinnon 2013; Rescorla 2009). Another way to be a sensitivist about assertion is to stipulate several norms governing assertion, depending on the context (e.g. Greenough 2011; Levin 2008; Stone 2007). The subtle differences between the above views are, however, to a large extent, irrelevant for now (but see the next section for refinements). That is because this paper dwells at a higher level of generality: what I am concerned with is the claim that epistemically proper assertability varies with practical stakes, no matter what triggers the variation in propriety in question. Insofar as these authors stand by this claim, they are the proper target of this paper.

  5. 5.

    Strictly speaking, there are two ways one can pull a WAM: one can place the source of context sensitivity at the level of the epistemic norm itself (SA), or, to the contrary, defend a fixed norm and argue that pragmatic, Gricean considerations influence propriety in context (e.g. Rysiew 2001). This paper is only concerned with the first incarnation thereof.

  6. 6.

    It is fair to say that defenders of SA go on separate ways when it comes to listing the relevant contextual determiners; that is, for some of them, practical concerns figure higher on the list (e.g. Gerken 2012), while others (e.g. Goldberg 2015) focus more on non-practical context sensitivity.

  7. 7.

    For support of AC: for a good general overview of the relevant literature in value theory, see, for instance, Schroeder (2012); for champions of the teleological direction of explanation, see e.g. Moore (1993), Portmore (2005). Sidgwick (1907) and Slote (1989). For the deontological direction, see e.g. Scanlon (1998) Ewing (1947), Rabinowicz and Rönnow-Rasmussen (2004).

  8. 8.

    Note, also, that the argument can be run in a parallel fashion for a justification goal (and the results are likely to coincide with the results for the knowledge goal, insofar as what is meant is knowledge-level justification). Also, see below for a discussion of what is the case on the assumption of an epistemic goal that itself varies with practical stakes, such as ‘providing actionable information’.

  9. 9.

    Note that prominent defenders of CA (e.g. Goldberg 2015) explicitly support generating testimonial knowledge as the main epistemic role of assertion.

  10. 10.

    Jessica Brown and Sandy Goldberg (in personal communication) suggested the WAM-er might want to take this route.

  11. 11.

    See, e.g. Williamson (2000) and Simion et al. (2016).

  12. 12.

    Many thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing me on this point.

  13. 13.

    On Greenough’s (2011) view, for instance, knowledge is the minimal threshold for permissible assertion.

  14. 14.

    Mikkel Gerken (p.c.) suggested this might be the way he might want to go about this issue.

  15. 15.

    See Williamson (2005) for an account along these lines. Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing me on this.

  16. 16.

    See e.g. Williamson (2000) and Simion et al. (2016).


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Many thanks to Jessica Brown, Mikkel Gerken, Sandy Goldberg, Patrick Greenough, Chris Kelp and two anonymous referees for Synthese for very helpful comments on this paper.

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Correspondence to Mona Simion.

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Simion, M. A puzzle for epistemic WAMs. Synthese 196, 4679–4689 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1681-3

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  • Assertion
  • Epistemic norm
  • Contextualism
  • Invariantism
  • Pragmatic encroachment