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The justification of comprehension-based beliefs


What justifies our beliefs about what other people say (henceforth, comprehension-based beliefs)? According to epistemic inferentialism​, the justification of comprehension-based beliefs depends on the justification of other beliefs, e.g., beliefs about what words the speaker uttered or even what sounds they produced. According to epistemic non-inferentialism, the justification of comprehension-based beliefs ​does not depend on the justification of other beliefs. This paper offers a new defense of epistemic non-inferentialism. First, I discuss three counterexamples to epistemic non-inferentialism provided recently by Brendan Balcerak Jackson (2019) (“Against the perceptual model of utterance comprehension”, Philosophical Studies 176:387–405). I argue that only one of Balcerak Jackson’s counterexamples is effective, and that it is effective against only one version of epistemic non-inferentialism, viz. language comprehension dogmatism. Second, I propose an alternative version of epistemic non-inferentialism, viz. comprehension-process reliabilism, which is immune to these counterexamples. I conclude that we should follow Balcerak Jackson in his rejection of language comprehension dogmatism but not all the way to the endorsement of epistemic inferentialism. Comprehension-process reliabilism is superior to both these alternatives.

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  1. 1.

    By restricting my topic in this way, I leave a lot of interesting questions aside. One important question concerns the manner in which comprehension-based beliefs and testimony-based beliefs are related to each other. I address it in (Grodniewicz ms).

  2. 2.

    Cf. Pryor (2005), Goldman (2008).

  3. 3.

    Fricker’s quasi-perceptions are similar to phenomenal seemings produced by visual perception. I will use quasi-perceptions and seemings interchangeably to refer to all kinds of conscious experiential states taken to be immediately justificatory for comprehension-based beliefs.

  4. 4.

    Notably, according to Fricker, quasi-perceptions represent both the content and the illocutionary force of the comprehended utterance. This creates further complications that are way too heavyweight to be addressed in this essay. I will point out just one of them in Section 3.1, because it contaminates an element of Balcerak Jackson’s argumentation.

  5. 5.

    Although in the next section I will discuss some of their idiosyncrasies.

  6. 6.

    Including the belief that one’s language comprehension faculty is reliable (cf. Pryor 2005; Steup 2018).

  7. 7.

    A broader story about language comprehension will include also comprehension of written text and, plausibly, other types of linguistic inputs (e.g., sign language). For simplicity, in this essay, I will follow Balcerak Jackson in focusing on comprehension of spoken utterances and thus use hearer instead of the more medium-neutral receiver.

  8. 8.

    In Section 4, I outline a competitive non-evidentialist version of non-inferentialism about the justification of comprehension-based beliefs.

  9. 9.

    Even though this is arguably the mainstream view about the nature of experiential states, it is not the only one. On Kathrin Glüer's (2009) account, experiential states are beliefs, but ones with phenomenal contents, e.g., x looks F, x sounds G, etc. On this account, the subject experiencing the Müller-Lyer illusion simultaneously believes: (i) that the lines are of the same length and (ii) that the lines look to be of different length. The contents of these two beliefs are not contradictory, and the beliefs can be held simultaneously by a rational subject. Nevertheless, since my main targets in the current discussion are the views of dogmatists and Balcerak Jackson, below, I will follow them in assuming that experiential states are not beliefs.

  10. 10.

    Even though they can be trained to produce these sounds it still would not count as saying.

  11. 11.

    Readers who share my conviction that this simple and natural explanation is available to dogmatists can move straight to Section 3.2. In the remainder of this section, I discuss and reject Balcerak Jackson’s reasons to think that this explanation is not satisfactory.

  12. 12.

    An additional weakness of Balcerak Jackson’s case is that there is another occurrence of a “suspect” phoneme ([h]) in “I have too many bad habits.” How can Hans be sure that Sven did not want to say “I rav too many bad rabbits” thinking (mistakenly!) that the word “rav” (rhymes with “have”) means to kill in rage?

  13. 13.

    I am grateful to the editors for encouraging me to clarify this.

  14. 14.

    Nevertheless, if a hearer follows such a non-standard (inferential) route, I think, they may obtain the ultima facie justification, in cases in which they concluded that the utterance they comprehended did not contain the elements they are likely to misperceive, or that it did not affect grasping the force and content of the comprehended utterance. Non-inferentialism does not rule out the existence of such an inferential route. It is just not how we typically process language.

  15. 15.

    For example, imagine that my friend is on the phone with his girlfriend and I hear him say “How can you say I’m needy?” I form a justified belief that my friend’s girlfriend said that he is needy. Justification of this belief is obviously inferential.

  16. 16.

    What is interesting about this case is the “initial puzzlement” that Helena experiences upon hearing Sven’s utterance. Of course, this is just an element of Balcerak Jackson’s description of the New Goat scenario; nevertheless, I think that this description is quite realistic and highlights a noteworthy phenomenon. To explain it—I suggest—we should appeal to the fact that language comprehension is a predictive process (see, e.g., Kuperberg and Jaeger 2016). Given the context of the conversation and other things she knew about Sven, Helena’s confrontation with the stimulus that her comprehension system identified as “goat” at the end of Sven’s utterance, triggered strong surprisal, which she might have experienced as puzzlement. Plausibly, this puzzlement prompted attention relocation in effect of which Helena started consciously analyzing what Sven has actually said. Eventually, she inferred that he must have uttered some other word than “goat”, probably: “coat”. Notice that in this last inference Helena must have appealed to her expertise with English minimal pairs (see section 3.1). Otherwise, why wasn’t her first guess that Sven must have said “fridge”?

  17. 17.

    For a similar argument against sensible dogmatism see (Lyons 2015a).

  18. 18.

    Here is one more potential line of defense for language comprehension dogmatism. A dogmatist could say that perceptual beliefs are prima facie justified by seemings that are not only grounded in experience (as it is characterized by Brogaard) but grounded in an appropriate experience. In the case of language comprehension, the appropriate experience might be, for example, the experience of words in a given language. Not just any experience of words in a given language would do, however. A dogmatist would have to stipulate that seemings of utterance meaning are grounded in the experience of the appropriate words. But how can we establish which words are appropriate to trigger a given seeming? Obviously, we cannot simply say that these are the words which have the same meaning which the hearer quasi-perceives, because the utterance meaning and word meaning are two very different things (cf. Drożdżowicz 2019). The case remains open.

  19. 19.

    An anonymous referee for this journal suggested that a defender of dogmatism could explore three additional solutions to Interpretive Clairvoyance. Firstly, they might simply bite the bullet saying that notwithstanding how Sophia’s speech sounds to Hans, his seeming that Sophia said that she is an economist is sufficient to justify his belief. Secondly, a dogmatist might argue that the reason why Hans is not justified in believing that Sophia said that she is an economist is that his experience of her speech serves as an undercutting defeater for his prima facie justified belief. Finally, a dogmatist might argue that Hans’s seeming would justify his belief only if there were appropriate structural parallels between the stream of sounds and quasi-perceptions of meaning. For example, a sound stream transcribed into IPA as /ɪˈkɑnəmɪst/ would correspond to the seeming of meaning ECONOMIST, etc. Since this is not the case in Interpretive Clairvoyance, Hans’s belief is not justified. None of these solutions strikes me as obvious and acceptable without an extensive defense. Therefore, as indicated in the main text, I leave their elaboration to supporters of dogmatism.

  20. 20.

    Discussing Interpretive Clairvoyance, Balcerak Jackson considers the possibility of rescuing the perceptual view by mixing it with reliabilism but does not find it promising. He claims that it is “the essence of the perceptual model that taking one’s quasi-perception at face value is a process that can confer justification” (Balcerak Jackson 2019, 398), and therefore a supporter of perceptual model cannot say that Hans’s comprehension process in Interpretive Clairvoyance does not confer justification on his comprehension-based beliefs. Here again, Balcerak Jackson falls prey to the ambiguity of the term perceptual model: does it refer to dogmatism or epistemic non-inferentialism? Taking quasi-perceptions at face value is “the essence” of dogmatism, i.e., the evidentialist version of epistemic non-inferentialism. Below I will provide a non-evidentialist process reliabilism for comprehension-based beliefs. If we take perceptual to mean epistemically non-inferential, my account counts as a version of the perceptual model.

  21. 21.

    Given my goal in the present paper, I stipulate in the definition that language comprehension is non-inferential (“belief-independent” in Goldman’s (1979) terminology) and commit myself to epistemic non-inferentialism. One could drop this condition and formulate an inferentialist version of comprehension-process reliabilism. Such a view could be, for example, based on Kathrin Glüer’s (2009) theory of perception, according to which experiential states are beliefs with special, phenomenal content (cf. footnote 9 above). I am grateful to the editors of this issue for drawing my attention to this fact.

  22. 22.

    Balcerak Jackson mentions Pettit among representatives of the perceptual model (2019, 389, footnote 4), which is yet another indication that he does not restrict the perceptual model to language comprehension dogmatism.

  23. 23.

    For the purposes of the current discussion, I will use warrant interchangeably with justification.

  24. 24.

    It is worth highlighting that Pettit (2010) focuses on linguistic competence (competence with syntax and semantics of a given language) and not the process of language comprehension (exercise of this competence). However, linguistic competence is warrant conferring only insofar as language comprehension produces (at least prima facie) justified beliefs.

  25. 25.

    There are, obviously, other paths one could follow to develop their favorite version of comprehension-process reliabilism. One of them is suggested by Jack Lyons (2009). According to Lyons, beliefs are prima facie justified if they are produced by processes rooted in so called primal systems. Primal systems are, in turn, characterized as systems: (i) whose inner workings are not accessible to introspection; (ii) which result from an innate state of an organism developed by learning. They are, thus, quite similar to Fodor’s modules (Fodor 1983; for a detailed comparison with Fodor’s view, see Lyons 2015b). The most widely discussed primal system is perception, but Lyons suggests: “Some beliefs about the speech of others are clearly perceptual. My auditory belief that so-and-so just said ‘The cat is on the mat’ is a straightforwardly perceptual belief. My belief that so-and-so just said that the cat is on the mat will be a perceptual belief only if the language comprehension system counts as a perceptual system; it very well might on the present understanding of perceptual systems, and I have no problem with this result.” (2009, 135).

  26. 26.

    This notion of filtering is very close to Sperber et al.’s (2010) epistemic vigilance.

  27. 27.

    Graham appeals to Burge’s (1993, 1996) distinction into two types of warrant: justification, which involves reasons and evidence a subject can often cite; and entitlement, which does not involve them. Given that, according to Graham, the positive epistemic standing of testimony-based beliefs does not depend on reasons or evidence, he says that testimony-based beliefs enjoy prima facie entitlement. In the present discussion, I will use justification and entitlement interchangeably. However, the reader should bear in mind that justification in the sense in which I am using it does not require reasons or evidence.

  28. 28.

    Graham makes a further, Millikan-style argument that it is an etiological function of assertion to induce true beliefs in hearers. Otherwise, assertion would not persist. “So unless hearers get something out of accepting reports, they will not accept them. And if they will not accept them, speakers will not benefit from making them. Then they will not get made.” (Graham 2010, 160). In result, the function of assertion and the function of comprehension-with-filtering taken together support the prima facie justification of testimony-based beliefs.

  29. 29.

    The two-level structure is a theoretical assumption. I am not claiming that it has psychological reality, e.g., that when we comprehend an assertion, we have to go through both these levels.

  30. 30.

    There is a long-standing debate in epistemology, one in which I will not engage here, whether process reliabilism can offer a satisfactory account of epistemic defeat. The most popular strategy of explaining defeat in process reliabilism, Alvin Goldman’s Alternate Reliable Process (ARP) theory (Goldman 1979; cf. Lyons 2009, 2016), has been passionately discussed over the years (see Beddor 2015, 2021 for good overviews). For recent defenses of improved versions of ARP see Grundmann (2009) and Graham and Lyons (2021). In this paper, I will simply assume that there is a theory of defeat available to process reliabilism.

  31. 31.

    The only assumption I make here about the normally functioning comprehension-process is that it is not one in which the linguistic input sounds to the hearer as “some foreign language that is entirely unknown to him” (Balcerak Jackson 2019, 396). I discuss the process of linguistic understanding in detail in (Grodniewicz 2020).


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I am very grateful to J. Adam Carter, Sanford Goldberg, Peter J. Graham, Christoph Kelp, Josep Macià, Mona Simion, Josefa Toribio, and the Editors of this special issue for helpful comments, questions, and objections. Special thanks to Bartłomiej Czajka, Manuel García-Carpintero, and Grzegorz Gaszczyk for numerous detailed conversations on the topics of this paper.


Financial support was provided by the DGI, Spanish Government, research project FFI2016–80588-R.

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Correspondence to J. P. Grodniewicz.

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Grodniewicz, J.P. The justification of comprehension-based beliefs. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2021).

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  • Language comprehension
  • Immediate justification
  • Phenomenal conservatism
  • Process reliabilism
  • Etiological function
  • Defeaters