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Questioning and addressee knowledge


There are norms for asking questions. Inquirers should not ask questions to which they know the answer. The literature on the norms of asking has focused on such speaker-centered norms. But, as I argue, there are addressee-centered norms as well: inquirers should not ask addressees who fall short of a certain epistemic status. That epistemic status, I argue here, is knowledge.

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  1. See Whitcomb (2017) for defense of a speaker-ignorance norm for questioning. Hawthorne (2004, p. 24) also endorses such a norm. As a norm of inquiry more generally, the ignorance norm is defended by Friedman (2017) and van Elswyk and Sapir (2021). See Archer (2018) for critical discussion.

  2. Recent work on the norms of inquiry includes: Falbo (2021), Friedman (2019a), Friedman (2019b), Friedman (2020), McGrath (2021), Millson (2020), Thorstad (2021), van Elswyk and Sapir (2021), Whitcomb (2017), and Woodard (2022).

  3. Though sometimes ‘question’ in ‘ask a question’ refers to a speech act and not to a semantic content, as in ‘ask a rhetorical question’. Rhetorical questions are a kind of speech act, not a kind of semantic content.

  4. Braun (2011) and Groenendijk and Stokhof (2011) make similar distinctions. I won’t be very meticulous in making these terminological distinctions in what follows, with the hope that it will be clear from context what sense of ‘question’ I’m using.

  5. Some theorists, e.g. Sadock (1971), take rhetorical questions to be instances of assertion. (See e.g. Caponigro and Sprouse (2007) for criticism.) But my argument in this section doesn’t depend on whether they are questions or assertions. Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this issue.

  6. See e.g. Biezma and Rawlins (2017) and Caponigro and Sprouse (2007).

  7. Though see Levinson (1979) and Wilson and Sperber (2012, ch .10) for arguments against such general accounts of questioning.

  8. See Fogal et al. (2018, ch. 1) for a helpful overview of the debate.

  9. Although it is widely accepted that inquiring attitudes like wondering and curiosity are relations to questions, it is controversial whether these relations are irreducible or ultimately reducible to propositional attitudes in some way. See Haziza (forthcoming) and Friedman (2013) for discussion. I need not take a stance on this issue here.

  10. See e.g. Schlöder (2018) for some of the logical issues.

  11. One might still wonder how AKN would compare to other norms in the literature. I am open to interpreting AKN in a number of different ways, but one I view as plausible is formulated in terms of permission: One may ask addressee A the question Q only if A knows Q, where ‘may’ denotes an epistemic permission, and takes scope only over the antecedent. SIN would then be interpreted in a similar way: One may ask Q only if one does not know Q. This is similar to how the knowledge norm of assertion is often formulated: One may assert p only if one knows p. Thanks to an anonymous referee for asking me to clarify this.

  12. George (2013) and Phillips and George (2018).

  13. See Kelp and Simion (2020), Maitra (2011), and Marsili (2019) for a discussion of the issue of constitutivity and some reasons for skepticism.

  14. This suggestion can be traced back to Jeffreys (1939), who claims that in asking, e.g., “Where is Ann?”, the speaker expresses, among other propositions, that she believes that the addressee knows where Ann is. As a claim about the semantics of questions, this was wrong [see e.g. Hamblin (1958)], but as a claim about the pragmatics of questioning, it is captured by AKN-B.

  15. See DeRose (2002), Weiner (2005), and Williamson (2000) on this distinction.

  16. Second-order variants of ABK and AEK, like AKN-B, are also possible. But they will be ruled out for similar reasons.

  17. It may be observed that “Why would I know where they are?” could be an appropriate reply to the indirect “Do you know where my keys are?”. But such a reply is only be appropriate as criticism of the speaker as asking something whose answer should already be known. In general, if a speaker asks “Is p?”, one may reply “Why would it be the case that p?” to criticize the speaker in this way. All this is compatible with the present argument.

  18. See e.g. Whitcomb (2017) for a similar explanation.

  19. I take “as far as I know, p:” not to entail “I know p”, which I don’t think is controversial.

  20. See Benton (2011), van Elswyk (2021), and van Elswyk and Sapir (2021).

  21. See Benton (2011) and Benton and van Elswyk (2020).

  22. I’m grateful to an anonymous referee for raising this worry and providing the example.

  23. I’m grateful to an anonymous referee for raising this worry.

  24. I’m grateful to an anonymous referee for raising this worry.

  25. It should be added that, although I agree that settling an inquiry requires knowing its answer (see Sect. 5), this is not an assumption I have made in arguing for AKN, and it needs to be assumed if instrumental rationality is to explain the relevant data.

  26. See e.g.  Stanley (2011, p. 42), and see Archer (2018) for relevant discussion. A related, though not identical, view is defended in Lee (forthcoming).

  27. See e.g. Kelp (2014), Kelp (2021), Whitcomb (2010), and van Elswyk and Sapir (2021) for defense. The claim that knowledge is the aim of inquiry is sometimes given in different formulations.

  28. This claim is challenged by Lackey (2007, 2008), appealing to cases of what she calls selfless assertion. I have no space to discuss the issue here, but see Milić (2017), Montminy (2013), and Turri (2014, 2015) for criticism of Lackey’s argument.

  29. See Friedman (2019b) for a defense of DBI. It is endorsed by others, e.g. Millson (2020).

  30. See van Elswyk and Sapir (2021) for a defense of the latter interpretation.

  31. See e.g. Kvanvig (2003) and Lynch (2005).

  32. See Archer (2021), Falbo (forthcoming) and Woodard (2022).

  33. Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing this point.

  34. Relatedly, one may wonder what the present account of questioning has to say about the cases that motivate an improvement account of the aim of inquiry. One case is offered by Archer (2021), where an economist (call her Ann) conducts an inquiry into whether a policy would yield certain results, even though she knows the available information is insufficient for knowing the answer. Ann nevertheless examines the evidence and arrives at an informed opinion, and thus a better epistemic position, on the matter. (See Falbo (forthcoming) for a related case.) I believe that thinking about what questioning would look like in such a case can shed some light on it. Suppose Ann has a twin, Beth, also an economist. Beth has the exact same information as Ann, and has already conducted the same inquiry. If Ann could ask Beth a question, instead of conducting her own inquiry, what should she ask? In my view, she shouldn’t ask “Will the policy yield these results?”, to which she knows Beth doesn’t know the answer, but rather something like “How likely is the policy to yield these results?”, to which Beth does know the answer. If so, then it is more plausible that the latter is really the question Ann is inquiring into, and to which she is aiming to know the answer. Thanks to an anonymous referee for calling my attention to such cases.


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Thanks to Nate Charlow, David Barnett, Benj Hellie, Jennifer Nagel, and two anonymous referees for helpful comments and discussion.

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Correspondence to Eliran Haziza.

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Haziza, E. Questioning and addressee knowledge. Synthese 201, 114 (2023).

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