Assertions and their norm

Assertions: On the Philosophical Significance of Assertoric Speech

Assertions: On the Philosophical Significance of Assertoric Speech


Resumen (aragonés)
: En ista entrada analizo as asercions y os suyos enrastres con as creyencias partindo d’o primer capítol de Assertions: On the Philosophical Significance of Assertotic Speech (Goldberg, 2015).

Abstract: In this entry, I analyze assertions and its links with beliefs, using the first chapter of Assertions: On the Philosophical Significance of Assertotic Speech (Goldberg, 2015).

Resumen (español): En esta entrada analizo las aserciones y sus relaciones con las creencias, partiendo del primer capítulo de Assertions: On the Philosophical Significance of Assertotic Speech (Goldberg, 2015).


(The lawyer case) A lawyer believes that her client is guilty. And she believes so being with her friends, with her husband and even during the trial. Nevertheless, in order to do his job better, during the trial she asserts that her client is innocent.

This example shows some of the main differences between beliefs and assertions. While beliefs are transparent, automatic and involuntary, assertions are not. In assertions other non-epistemic reasons may appear, like pragmatic ones: the lawyer asserts that her client is innocent to do his job better.

However, some authors defend an epistemic norm on assertions. When an agent assert something, she as a speaker transmits some information to the listener. In doing so, the listener is likely to presuppose the truth of that information and that the speaker is verbalizing her truly beliefs. Assertions can be false for many reasons, as showed in the lawyer case, but we people have a predisposition to consider assertions to be true. Assertions present assertoric force, and in that way, we may establish that there is an epistemic norm while asserting. If that norm would not exist, assertions would not be valuable.

Goldberg (2015, 7-8) establishes different features for assertions related to its epistemic significance:

– Assertions are used to communicate one’s knowledge to others.
– [As in the lawyer case] some are insincere or incompetent. But the very fact that the issue of assertion’s belief-worthiness arises in the first place is an interesting feature of assertions.
– assertions can be challenged by querying (…) if a speaker asserts something, a hearer can ask how the speaker knows that.
– the speaker’s represents herself as knowing, or at least having evidence for, what she has asserted (…) maybe not explicitly.

Another interesting features are the following (Goldberg, 2015, 9-10):

– assertions generate responsibilities for speakers and hearers.
sincerity aspect of assertion: assertions manifested sincerely express one’s belief [relation belief-assertion]
retractability of assertion: a speaker may retract an assertion when she regards herself as no longer entitled to believe what she previously asserted.
– assertions play a particularly prominent role in the method through which a hearer would go about interpreting a language.

After considering different definitions and interpretations of assertion -what he calls the attitudinal account, the common ground account and the commitment account- he defends the normative account(s). At the same time, he shows different available “norms of assertions” (Goldberg, 2015, 14):

– One must assert that p, only if one knows p.
– One must assert that p, only if one is (epistemically) certain that p.
– One must assert that p, only if one is justified in believing that p (Lackey)
– One must assert that p, only if one is rational in believing that p.
– One must assert that p, only if it is reasonable for one to regard oneself as knowing that p.
– One must assert that p, only if one believes that p.
– One must assert that p, only if it is true that p.
– One must assert that p, only if one has the relevant epistemic authority with respect to p (Goldberg)

Coming back to the lawyer case, Goldberg (2015) puts it clear:

“[o]f course there are lots of assertions that violate the norm’s standard. These are unwarranted assertions. But the fact that there are lots of these does not undermine the thesis that the standard itself governs assertions; to suppose otherwise is to confuse the normative with the descriptive. Nor does the prevalence of such assertions undermine the thesis that the norm’s standard is part of a constitutive rule for assertion; to suppose otherwise is to confuse the failure to satisfy a rule’s standard, with the failure to properly apply a rule” (30).

As I see it, a constitutive norm of assertions forces the speakers to transmit some message as if it were true and force the listeners to consider it true at first -the lawyer makes use of assertions as they are supposed to transmit the truth and even the judge considers it true what the lawyer says in the very first moment, and then she can change her mind due to, for instance, other evidences. The evaluative norm -or evaluative part of the norm- will tell us that the lawyer assertion is incorrect.

However, this analysis can be interpreted as if I were confusing the constitutive normativity with the descriptive. Actually, I do not agree with the pitcher following the constitutive norm of provoking strikes that Goldberg (2015, 32) defends: I consider that norm to be an evaluative one, while the constitutive norms of the pitcher are those that regulate the baseball game. In other words, you can violate an evaluative norm and you will just be playing bad but following the rules (the pitcher makes a ball because he has thrown the ball very badly), but if you violate a constitutive norm (the pitcher decides to pass the ball to the catcher giving some steps before throwing), you are cheating or you are not playing baseball. The reply given by Goldberg (2015), who shows examples in which the pitcher can thrown the ball very badly to get a benefit -the intentional walk-, is not convincing: that is a legal tactic, so the pitcher is not violating any constitutive norm of baseball. Even more, if the pitcher success, he has not violated any evaluative norm.

Goldberg (2015) has some interesing words in page 33:

in the baseball case there are some rules which are such that a violation of those rules (flagrant or not) would indicate that the person is no longer playing baseball. (If you allow five strikes for an out then it is not baseball you are playing.). But in parallel fashion we come up with cases of flagrant violations of the standard of assertion’s norm where this fact alone suggests that the speaker is not, in fact, making an assertion.

That’s exactly my idea of constitutive norm. And I can admit that there is an epistemic constitutive norm of assertion, in the sense that agents aprioristically at the very fist moment considers assertions as truth vehicles reflecting exactly what agents believe, even when they can be vehicles of falsities. But as assertions are active, voluntary and not automatic nor transparent, I do not admit that there is a norm of truth in assertions as strong as the one that we can have in beliefs. About false assertions, I consider that they violate an evaluative norm of assertions, but not a constitutive one. I would not say that false assertions are not assertions at all -the lawyer is asserting when she asserts that her client is innocent. Goldberg (2015), in front of this kind of cases, makes a different between “assertions from a legal perspective” and “being warranted as an assertion simpliciter” (41-3), and establish that assertions find their norm in the “epistemic authority” of the speaker, giving this definition of assertion:

Assertions are those speech acts in which a proposition is presented-as-true in such a way as to be presented as backed by that [epistemic] authority.

I conclude assertions, as they are not transparent, involuntary and automatic, may incorporate pragmatical features in a way that beliefs hardly can. Even admitting an epistemic norm in assertions, as they precisely are voluntary and active, other reasons like pragmatic ones may come into play easier than in beliefs. Considering belief as a state and assertion as an action, assertions may accommodate the pragmatic dimension better -or in a simpler way- than belief. There might be constitutive epistemic norms in assertions, but they no doubt are weaker than the ones we may have for beliefs.


Goldberg, S. C. (2015). Assertion: On the philosophical significance of assertoric speech. Oxford University Press, USA.

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