Tag Archives: Assertion


I’m pretty well convinced that knowledge is the norm of assertion — that one should not assert that p unless one knows that p.  (Here is a Philosophy15 about it.) There are a few puzzle cases with the norm (blameless assertions like in cases of weird Gettier scenarios and so on) but it otherwise looks about right.  So it seems right that if someone says something true, but without warranting evidence, though that person was correct, the assertion isn’t praiseworthy, and the person isn’t fully creditable for the assertion.  In fact, asserting without warrant is blameworthy, even if what was said came out true.

So, for example, had I said way back in 2000, without any reason favoring its truth, that Donald J. Trump would one day be President, I would have said something true, but still something unwarranted.  And though it came to pass that DJT is President, it’s not like that statement is vindicated or I should get any more credit for it than your friend who hits the hole-in-one on the mini-golf hole when he’s taking a drink of his soda and looking elsewhere.  And moreover, I’m inclined to say that would still be intellectually blameworthy for saying things without backing.

And so, now, over at The American Spectator, Daniel Flynn makes the case that DJT was right all along about the government spying on his campaign.  And he analogizes the situation to that of Watergate – that the party in power spies on the opposition party in the midst of an election.  Flynn opens with a pretty catchy line:

Vladimir Putin did not hack the election. Barack Obama did.

DJT, then a candidate, said that the Obama Administration had wiretapped the Trump Tower. He didn’t have evidence for this, beyond a radio show by Mark Levin’s claims. When asked about it, nothing.

Now, it turns out that, as reported by CNN, the feds were listening in on Paul Manafort.   It’s important to note that, according to the report (again from CNN): “While Manafort has a residence in Trump Tower, it’s unclear whether FBI surveillance of him took place there.”  So we don’t know if it was Trump Tower being tapped.

But does this stop Daniel Flynn from wagging his finger?  Oh, no.

The media went all-in this spring on the notion that the loose-tongued Trump once again spoke without reference to the facts. Newsweek’s Nina Burleigh labeled his charge “incendiary.” The Los Angeles Times called it “a phony conspiracy theory.” PolitiFact bluntly judged his accusation “false.”

Who will fact check the fact checkers?

Now, the issue is how to read all the vagaries of what it is to ‘tapp’ a phone or whether the issue is whether ‘my’ phones are really Paul Manafort’s phones.  Regardless, the issue is whether we can give any credit to someone who makes a charge like this (even when true) with no evidence?


Norms of Assertion

Frans van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst have a section titled 10 Commandments of Reasonable Discussion to close their masterwork, A Systematic Theory of Argumentation.   The second and ninth are of import.

2. Discussants who advance a standpoint may not  refuse to defend his standpoint when requested to do so. (p. 191)

9. Inconclusive defenses of standpoints may not lead to maintaining those standpoints…. (p.195)

It’s a truism that if you assert that p and you’re asked to give reasons, you should.  Moreover, it seems clear that if you don’t have any reasons to hold p true, then you should (if you asserted it) retract your assertion. That’s responsible cognitive management, responsible assertion.  No evading the burden of proof if you assert, and if you can’t fulfill the requirements of the burden, stop asserting.

How epistemically demanding this norm must be is a matter of some debate.  Here are a few of the contenders:

C-Norm: S may assert that p only if S is certain that p.

K-Norm: S may assert that p only if S knows that p.

RBK-Norm: S may assert that p only if S reasonably (but possibly fallibly) believes that S knows that p.

J-Norm: S may assert that p only if S has epistemically justifying reasons for believing that p.

W-Norm: S may assert that p only if S has warrant for holding that p (but S does not have to believe it)

T-Norm: S may assert that p only if p is true.

The literature on norms of assertion are all over the place on which of these norms obtains, but with the exception of the T-norm, it’s not hard to see how these norms explain why Rules 2 and 9 above obtain.  (Those who hold the T-norm maintain that the obligation to defend is pragmatically derivable from the T-norm.)  In short, the point is to see that those who assert, by way of asserting, shoulder a burden to argue as a consequence.

Donald Trump’s tweet, assuming it’s an assertion, requires some backing.  And given the seriousness of the accusation, the urgency of his shouldering the burden of proof is pretty significant.

John McCain’s appearance on CNN’s State of the Union was an instance of someone invoking the rule.  His challenge is:

The President has one of two choices: either retract or to provide the information that the American people deserve . . . .  I have no reason to believe that the charge is true, but I also believe that the President of the United States could clear this up in a minute.  All he has to do is pick up the phone, call the director of the CIA, director of national intelligence and say, ‘OK, what happened?’

The problem is that the current President is used to asserting confidently to a roomful of his yes-men or to a group of supporters and never getting pushback.  He can say:  believe me, I’ve got information… and they do.  But now that he’s President, his assertions have wider audience and plenty of folks want the backing.