Assertion: On the Philosophical Significance of Assertoric Speech

Assertions and their norm
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This view has some similarities with fictionalism, discussed below. More recently, Stephen Mulhall has suggested that some religious utterances can be understood as unresolvable riddles the meanings of which we are unable to grasp fully, inviting an open-ended process of articulating their meaning that is pursued by those engaged in religious discourse.

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Also relevant here are the works of authors in the apophatic and mystical tradition that was particularly prominent from mid-antiquity through to the late medieval period. Two themes that are found in their writings are particularly notable. Far from being pointless, religious discourse about God may assist in the recognition of our intellectual and linguistic limitations Cloud of Unknowing : ch. For further discussion and other interpretations of these works see Turner and for a detailed review focused on religious language see Scott and Citron One difficulty that might be pressed by supporters of the face value theory is these theories, as least to the extent that they are providing accounts of religious language, appear revisionary rather than descriptive of the meanings of religious utterances.

The sentence is used in a variety of apparently descriptive ways by speakers: it is said to be true or false , it is used in apparently valid arguments, can be embedded in a conditional, it is said to be a matter of belief or even of knowledge. We can call these following Dummett the disputed and reduced class of sentences respectively.

The Philosophical Significance of Evil

Commonly discussed examples include logical behaviourism see Graham , which reduces sentences about mental states to ones about behaviour, and temporal reductionism see Markosian which proposes that sentences about time can be reduced to sentences about temporal relations between things and events. Most varieties of religious reductionism posit various naturalistic phenomena as the subject of the reduced class of sentences. Unlike other positions considered in this section, religious reductionists agree with face value theories that religious utterances have propositional content, however, they argue that the content in question is not the face value subject matter but instead the subject matter described by the reduced class of sentences.

A variety of reductionism adopted by early Christian writers in their treatment of pagan religion, such as Lactantius [4 th century] 22 and Augustine The City of God , VII ch. However, this is clearly not a linguistic reductionism. Linguistic reductionism does not seek to explain religious belief but identifies a reductive class of sentences by which the truth or falsity of sentences in the disputed class is determined. Linguistic reductionism has never received widespread support, and has never been developed systematically or comprehensively for religious language.

Nevertheless, it has an interesting pedigree. For example, Spinoza, one of the most influential defenders of pantheism, suggested ways of interpreting sentences about God in terms of facts about nature Mason He writes:.

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Since all human actions are, according to Spinoza, the product of the predetermined order of nature, we can—following the reductive strategy—say that nobody acts except by the will of God. So, for example, 6 is true if 5 is true. Spinoza also proposes naturalistic reductions of talk about the Holy Spirit [, ] , divine action and providence [, ] and miracles [, ]. Naturalistic interpretations of religious language became popular in the s in both Britain and America. For example, Julian Huxley suggests that talk of God could be understood as a way of talking about forces operating in nature or about aspects of nature that we do not understand see Bowler , and proposes naturalistic interpretations talk of the Holy Ghost and the Son of God Wieman offers various naturalistic accounts of talk of God, usually identifying God with natural processes that yield or facilitate ethically or socially desirable results.

Also notable is the work of Gordon Kaufman, a leading figure in the development of modern liberal theology. He observes that in many cases the natural phenomena that are integral to giving our lives meaning are deeply mysterious, for instance, that humans are capable of consciousness and thought and the appreciation of beauty. Does truth-conditional reductionism offer a plausible theory of religious language? The obvious place to start is whether there are any compelling reasons to prefer a reductive rather than a face value theory.

Unfortunately, reductionists appear to stumble at this first hurdle. It is clear from the writings of reductionists that the reductionist interpretation of religious discourse is not advanced from a consideration of the meanings of what speakers say when they talk about God but instead on the basis of religious or metaphysical theories about the nature of the universe.

However, the belief that there is no creator God is not a reason for giving naturalistic truth-conditions to 1 ; it is a reason for thinking that 1 is false. Notably, even among writers more sympathetic to linguistic reductionism we find lapses into non-linguistic reductionism. For example, while Kaufman sometimes presents his theory as an account of what is meant by talk about God, at other times he presents a much more clearly revisionary proposal. For further discussion of reductionism see Alston and Scott ch.

Suppose that religious sentences represent a religious subject matter, i. There remains the further question of what speakers mean when they use religious sentences. The semantic or propositional content of a sentence and its truth conditions is one thing, the information that a sentence is used to communicate is another. Any philosophical account of religious discourse must allow for non-literal utterances, where the propositional content of the utterance and the thought that it is used to communicate appear to diverge.

The first is that religious utterances—including utterances of indicative sentences that are apparently literal—are not literal assertions but fall under some other standard category of speech act. Examples include assertions, questions, commands, warnings, threats, statements of intention, requests. Proposals include analogy or metaphor 3. The two main kinds of non-literal discourse that have been seen as particularly important in religion are analogy and metaphor. Do these expressions have the same meaning when used to talk about God, or are they used analogously: is the conventional meaning they have when used to talk about mundane objects in some way modified when used to talk about God?

Discussion of religious analogy was particularly lively in early medieval theology and Aquinas was a leading proponent of an analogical treatment of religious predicates. See Roger M. A detailed contemporary account of analogy by Richard Swinburne ch. A syntactic rule for the use of a term p sets down general conditions governing its use. A semantic rule for p gives examples of the things to which p correctly applies, or does not correctly apply. For instance, giving a semantic rule for red might involve pointing to various examples red objects and contrasting them with objects that are not red In using an expression analogically, Swinburne proposes, its semantic or syntactic are loosened.

For example, consider the following utterances:. Lawns do not, of course, have four sides of equal length and in saying 11 the speaker does not mean that the audience was not making any noise whatsoever. Understood in this way, however, analogy is not distinctive of religious discourse but a prevalent characteristic of normal communication.

When God is the subject matter, expressions undergo a suitable ad hoc loosening as part of normal, literal communication. Recent research has focused more on religious metaphors. Since metaphors are commonplace in various areas of discourse, it may seem that questions about religious metaphor should be subsumed under questions about metaphor in general raised in the philosophy of language. However, some have proposed that what is said about God is irreducibly metaphorical.

William Alston, the chief critic of the theory, offers the following statement of irreducibility theory 17—19 :. Alston sees the supporter of IT as construing even apparently literal claims about God as metaphorical. IT fails, according to Alston, because metaphors, religious metaphors in particular, are always in principle susceptible to literal paraphrase. Scott — argues that IT, on any plausible account of what metaphors are, faces insurmountable problems. For example, according to one standard theory Searle , metaphors say something that is usually patently false with the aim of implying something other than the false thing that is said.

However, it follows from IT that if a metaphor about God implies anything true about God then that implied claim should also be metaphorical. This appears to undermine truthful communication about God. If, however, talk of God is not in the business of expressing truths, according to what norm are utterances about God affirmed or rejected? Metaphor theories therefore face challenges in specifying and defending the irreducibility claim as well as in as well as elaborating what a metaphor is.

Although some caution is needed in placing work in continental philosophy into the analytic classifications that inform this article, the treatment of religious language by Jean-Luc Marion , [] and Jacques Derrida appears sympathetic to the speech act theories considered in this section.

Speakers, according to Marion, in uttering indicative sentences about God praise God and thereby express devotion, awe, and so on, towards God rather than express beliefs about God. Derrida is critical of Marion; not, however, because he endorses a face value approach but because he believes speakers are better understood as voicing prayers to God rather than praise. Conceiving of something, according to Marion, involves placing some descriptive limitation or restriction on that thing. In talking of God, therefore, speakers praise God but recognise the inadequacy of the concepts they are using to represent God: the predicate expressions are not used with the belief that they accurately represent God.

For further discussion see James Smith Even if it is not a predicative affirmation of the current type, the encomium preserves the style and the structure of a predicative affirmation. Derrida proposes instead that religious talk about God should be understood as prayer rather than praise. Unlike praise, prayer is a form of address that, Derrida argues, is entirely non-descriptive.

He elaborates:. I will hold to one other distinction: prayer in itself, one may say, implies nothing other than the supplicating address to the other, perhaps beyond all supplication and giving, to give the promise of His presence as other, and finally the transcendence of His otherness itself, even without any other determination; the encomium, although it is not a simple attributive speech, nevertheless preserves an irreducible relationship to the attribution.

Marion does not give specifics, but one way of developing his is account is to take 12 to be communicating something like :. Derrida is, in effect, reading too much into the surface appearance of utterances: 12 and 13 may look similar but they are not thereby speech acts of the same type. There are, however, some obvious challenges that need to be addressed. For example, Marion claims in praising God the predicates that are ascribed to God are recognised as inadequate by speakers.

This seems implausible. Speakers in many cases appear to believe what they are saying about God. Some fictionalists propose that that speakers employ quasi-assertion. A quasi-assertion is a speech act that has the appearance of an assertion—it is the utterance of an indicative sentence—but it does not commit the speaker to the truth of the expressed proposition. The speaker goes along with or accepts the content of what is quasi-asserted but does not thereby believe it. The details of quasi-assertion depend on the kind of fictionalism being proposed and a variety of options have been proposed for an overview see Kalderon — On some accounts, quasi-assertion involves the assertion of something other than the propositional content of the uttered sentence.

For example, a fictionalist about mathematics might argue that a mathematical sentence M is used to assert that M is true according to standard mathematics Field Alternatively, to quasi-assert a sentence might be to pretend to assert it. Comparable approaches are found among religious fictionalist. Peter Lipton , for instance, suggests that engagement with religious could be akin to immersion in a fiction; the fictionalist accordingly pretends that the claims of religion are true.

Other religious fictionalists such as Robin Le Poidevin propose that the fictionalist, without believing that a religious utterance is true, may say it on the basis that it is true within some religious tradition. Particularly important for our purposes is the distinction between revolutionary and hermeneutic fictionalism. Revolutionary religious fictionalism is not a theory of religious language—it is not a position on what speakers actually mean—but instead a revisionary proposal that is usually offered in response to error theory about religion.

Despite religious claims being untrue, revolutionary fictionalists argue religious discourse has sufficient pragmatic benefits that we should continue to employ religious language and engage in religious thought rather than eliminate it, even though we should not believe that it is true. In general, revolutionary fictionalism is motivated by the wish to continue to receive the social and other benefits of engagement with a religion without commitment to its truth.

LePoidevin and Lipton are both revolutionary fictionalists. The Sea of Faith Network, inspired by the work of Don Cupitt , can also be understood as sympathetic to revolutionary fictionalism because it promotes Christian practice and the continuing engagement with religious discourse without religious belief. Interesting though they are, we will not be investigating these theories further because they are not saying anything about the meaning of religious utterances. Instead, they recommending a change of attitude towards the claim of religion and quasi-assert rather than assert them.

Hermeneutic fictionalism about religion is the view that speakers are not committed to the truth of what they say on religious matters: speakers are quasi-asserting rather than asserting indicative religious sentences. This is not offered as a proposal about what speakers should do but instead as a fact about current linguistic practice.

Religious Language

Speakers accept but do not believe what they say when engaging in religious discourse. Nevertheless, there are a couple of positions that look to be potential contenders for religious hermeneutic fictionalism.

1. Introduction

This book concerns the speech act of assertion. It defends the view that this type of speech act is answerable to a constitutive norm—the norm of assertion. Sanford C. Goldberg, Assertion: On the Philosophical Significance of Assertoric Speech, Oxford University Press, , pp., $ (hbk).

First, Georges Rey has defended a position that he calls meta-atheism according to which practitioners of religion exhibit widespread self-deception about what they say For anyone with a basic education in science, Rey contends, it is obvious that religious claims are false. Rey is not proposing, however, that educated speakers are insincere when they affirm religious claims since they may think of themselves as believing what they are saying Instead, speakers are in a state of self-deception.

While they may recognise on a more critical level that religious claims are false, they do not entertain this when engaging in religious discourse. Why do religious people do not recognise and consciously draw out the implications of their disbelief? However, with some assumptions about self-deception, we can understand meta-atheism as a kind of hermeneutic religious fictionalism. Speakers are in a conflicted state of self-deception that falls short of belief: on some level or in some uncritical contexts speakers treat religious claims as if they were true, while also believing in critical and reflective contexts that they are false.

Accordingly, in uttering religious sentences speakers engage in quasi-assertion whereby they accept what is said without genuinely believing it to be true. Second, a point of debate in current research on the nature of faith is whether propositional faith—i.

Supporters of traditional doxastic accounts defend this condition while supporters of non-doxastic theories of faith argue that it is sufficient that one have a positive cognitive attitude towards p other than belief. Various proposal for what this non-doxastic attitude is. Candidates include: acceptance Alston , assent Schellenberg , assumption Swinburne ; Howard-Snyder , trust Audi , hope McKaughan ; Pojman and , or acquiescence Buchak However, to the extent that religious discourse is in the business of trading in the expression of faithful attitudes then it follows from the non-doxastic position that a speaker may sincerely affirm their faith in a religious proposition without believing it to be true.

Notably, some non-doxastic theorists offer linguistic evidence to show that speakers to not believe what they say. It seems likely that many proponents of non-doxastic theories of faith will not welcome the characterisation of their position as a variety of hermeneutic fictionalism see Howard-Snyder and F.

Malcolm forthcoming. However, non-doxastic theories are usually presented primarily as psychological or epistemological theories about the nature of faith; the implications of the position for religious discourse, and its relationship with hermeneutic fictionalism, have yet to be fully set out. We have been looking at theories than characterise the affirmation of indicative religious sentences by a type of speech act other than literal assertion.

However, some accounts propose that religious discourse, rather than exhibiting a distinctive type of speech act, employs language for certain distinctive purposes. This section will consider the accounts from Ian Ramsey and more recently Rowan Williams According to Ramsey, full-blooded religious engagement involves two things: a commitment and a discernment.

With respect to utterances about God, Ramsey says:. My suggestion is that we understand their logical behaviour aright if we see them as primarily evocative of what we have called the odd discernment, that characteristically religious situation which, if evoked, provokes a total commitment. Some utterances he takes to be expressive of attitudes. Some are metalinguistic claims about the proper use of religious discourse:. However, for Ramsey, religious sentences have representational content but are used by speakers in a variety of non-representational ways—expressive, metalinguistic, to generate a sense of mystery—for the purposes of evoking discernment and encouraging commitment, rather than descriptively.

Recently Rowan Williams has proposed that religious language serves to challenge us both morally, by undermining selfishness and complacency, as well as conceptually by encouraging us to think about the world in different terms. A similar approach is taken to discourse about God. These purposes can be furthered even by using religious sentences that are not consistent.

One obvious point to raise is that if engagement in religious discourse is driven by the purposes that Ramsey and Williams describe then it seems that one need not be concerned with the truth of what one says. Notably, Williams appears to by sympathetic to the endorsement of incoherent claims if they further the broader proposed purposes of religious discourse.

However, caution is needed in classifying these accounts as descriptive of religious discourse rather than revisionary proposals for objectives that speakers might aim for. If they fall into the latter category, then they are in a similar position to revolutionary fictionalism. For convenience, let us call these realism-relevant concepts. The opposition involves two main ideas. First, rather than posit a demanding standard that a field of discourse must meet to count as genuinely descriptive, minimalists propose that a discourse that satisfies very modest conditions—for example, that it possesses a truth predicate and standards of justification for what is affirmed or rejected—is thereby descriptive.

Minimalists thereby reject a uniform account of descriptiveness across different areas of discourse. Descriptiveness, reference, truth, and so on are language-game-internal concepts: they are constituted differently in different areas of discourse. The discussion in this section touches on issues that have been explored in detail outside of the philosophy of religion. Intuitively, it seems that there must be such conditions if the meaning of the expression remains the same when it is used in different contexts.

Putnam proposes that Wittgenstein took a similar lesson to apply to notions like language , reference and truth :. There are overlapping similarities between one sort of referring and the next, that is all. Philosophical confusion results when, for instance, we attempt to apply standards of reference appropriate to descriptions of the perceived world to mathematical claims. Putnam then extends this point to religion:.

A similar point is taken to extend to truth, descriptiveness and other realism-relevant concepts. Second, Putnam argues that truth can be understood as idealised rational acceptability. To be truth-apt, it is sufficient that the assertoric utterances of religious discourse are governed by internal standards of warrant.

While the standards of warrant in a given area of religious discourse may be significantly different to those in science appealing to the authority of the Bible or the Pope, for instance, would not count in favour of a scientific theory , the condition that there are such standards is clearly satisfied. To arrive at a positive account of what constitutes truth and other realism-relevant concepts in religion , therefore, requires and examination of the specific standards of justification that are in play in religious discourse or, more accurately, the different standards in different religious discourses.

Phillips was a leading interpreter and champion of a Wittgensteinian approach to philosophy of religion. His early writings appear sympathetic to a non-cognitivist account of religious discourse. Rather, the expression of such praise and glory is what we call the worship of God. But please remember that, as yet, no conceptual or grammatical clarification has taken place. Here, Phillips allows that religious expressions refer and religious sentences are descriptive, etc.

In general, religious minimalists agree on a number of points. They grant that religious statements have propositional content, and may be true, descriptive, factual, and so on. Second, realism-relevant concepts are understood as language game internal concepts. To know what makes for truth in religion, for instance, we need to look at the internal standards of justification that inform religious discourse.

Third, the primary aim of minimalism, at least in the Wittgensteinian form it takes in philosophy of religion, is to elucidate the different standards that characterise different areas of discourse, and to spell out the differences between realism-relevant concepts in religion and realism-relevant concepts in science or history. However, there is also an important area of disagreement between religious minimalists.

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In contrast, Putnam appears to be more sympathetic to a pluralist account of truth: the truth predicate has certain necessary and sufficient conditions for its use such as the disquotational schema but may be additionally constituted by different further conditions according to whether we are talking about religious truths, scientific truths, or ethical truths see Wright ch. Fragmentary accounts of truth of the kind that Phillips appears to endorse have been widely criticised—see, for example, Timothy Williamson Christine Tappolet Religious minimalism is usually offered as a program of research rather than a detailed account of religious discourse.

There is talk of the need to attend to the practices and forms of life of religious believers, an emphasis on the difference between religious and other areas of discourse, and warnings against applying scientific or historical standards to religious judgements, but the positive story of the meaning of religious utterances is often left as a promissory note.

However, there are some areas where more substantial points of disagreement can be pursued. For instance, many supporters of the face value theory will reject the pluralist or fragmentary accounts of truth that inform the minimalist approach. Also, even if one is sympathetic to a pluralist account of truth, it does not straightforwardly follow that truth in religion is different from truth in science or history for a defense of this point see Scott ch. Religious minimalism will also be rejected by non-cognitivists. If the descriptiveness of religious language is secured as easily as minimalists propose, then this will undermine the non-cognitivist position that it is—despite superficial appearances—not descriptive.

For a defense of this see Blackburn His remarks have been seen as lending support to many of the positions considered in this article. Wittgenstein was even attracted if only briefly to a subjectivist interpretation of God-talk [PO]: Given Wittgenstein writings on religion are only infrequent and relatively brief, it is perhaps not surprising that, beyond his clear resistance to the face value theory, he would not have settled views on the topic.

For accounts profoundly influenced by or interpretative of Wittgenstein, see Winch , N. Malcom , Rhees The minimalist reading of Wittgenstein is supported by his apparent endorsements of a deflationary account of truth , although he does not explicitly endorse the idealised justification theory that Putnam proposes.

However, the best evidence for minimalism comes from his emphasis on the differences between the use of religious sentences, and historical or scientific and in general empirical and descriptive sentences.

1. Preliminaries: The Face Value Theory

Specifically, he points up differences between the standards of warrant employed in religious and other discourses—the kinds of circumstance in which a religious believer judges something to be true, grounds for disagreements between religious believers and non-believers, and so on. This pervades his work on religion. Here Wittgenstein seems at pains to emphasise the contrast between religious discourse and empirical discourses. Indeed, he implies that when taken or where offered as reporting scientific facts or scientific theories, religious sentences are in error.

Wittgenstein is not, according to the minimalist interpretation, seeking to find any disadvantageous comparison between religion and science; to show, for example, that religion is merely expressive of attitudes, while science is properly descriptive. Rather, he is describing the different standards that make for truth and descriptiveness in these fields of discourse and, in so doing, elucidating the distinctive characteristics of religious truth as well as other realism-relevant concepts.

Notably, if Wittgenstein was a minimalist about religious discourse then one standard line of objection to his account is misplaced. Wittgenstein is sometimes criticised as proposing that religious discourse should be quarantined from other areas of discourse, in particular science and history. This is seen as leading to a variety of fideism, where religious beliefs are compartmentalised and unsusceptible to non-religious intellectual evaluation. The objection is forcefully prosecuted by Kai Nielsen.

According to Wittgenstein, Nielsen argues,. However, contrasting the different standards exhibited by religious and scientific discourses is consistent with scientifically or historically well-founded evidence informing religious judgement. Insofar as this happens, the verdicts of historical or scientific investigation can modify religious judgements. In a similar way, many religious judgements are dependent on historically or scientifically assessable evidence. However, minimalists can allow that empirical evidence is part of the justification for many religious beliefs while maintaining the theory that religious discourse employs distinct standards of justification to science.

Although they have received less attention that the other topics in this article, two other issues relating to religious language should be noted. From this starting point, attention has focused on how to apply the rich resources of research on names from the philosophy of language to this case. The latter theory can be combined with a causal theory of reference Kripke to explain how the name becomes attached to the referent. Although many of the arguments in this debate derive from the philosophy of language, there are also interesting implications of these positions for the philosophy of religion.

For instance, a descriptivist theory appears to place limits on how wrong we can be about what God is like. A causal theory of reference, in contrast, will need to be backed up by a defence of the possibility of causal interaction with God and an account of how God is named. For discussion of these theories see Alston and , Gellman and Sullivan For a recent review of the field see Scott ch.

Does religious language adhere to a non-classical logic? This issue has been raised in at least two contexts. Second, Michael Dummett considers a number of arguments in favour of the view the divine omniscience entails bivalence, i. For example, if God knows that p , then He knows that he knows that p and therefore it is true; but if God does not know p then He knows that He does not know it and hence knows that it is not true.

From this it can be shown that God must know whether p is true or false, thereby securing bivalence 94—96; see also —9, — Since, for Dummett, realism for a field of discourse hinges on the success of the principle of bivalence for the statements of that discourse, it would follow that theism leads to global realism. Ayer, Alfred Jules cognitivism vs.

Scott manchester. Religious Language First published Fri Aug 4, Preliminaries: The Face Value Theory 2. The Content of Religious Utterances 2. Braithwaite 2. 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 , establishes different features for assertions related to its epistemic significance :.

Assertion: On the Philosophical Significance of Assertoric Speech - Semantic Scholar

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. 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.

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 , 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.