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An Austinian View of Knowledge
and Knowledge Claims
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# Krista Lawlor 2013
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To my son, Ian
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1 The speech act of assurance
2 Austinian semantics
3 Austinian semantics and linguistic data
4 Paradox, probability, and inductive knowledge
5 Idiosyncrasy, disagreement, and the reasonable person standard
6 Assurance and radical skepticism
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We are asking ourselves: what do we do with a statement
‘I know . . . ’? . . . And that is how one must decide whether something is knowledge or not.
Wittgenstein (1969, }230)
There are a great many devices that can be used for making clear . . .
what act it is we are performing when we say something—tone of
voice, cadence, gesture—and above all we can rely upon the nature
of the circumstances, the context in which the utterance used . . .
Still, in spite of all these devices there is an unfortunate amount of
ambiguity . . . If I say something like ‘I shall be there’, it may not be
certain whether it is a promise, or an expression of intention or
perhaps even a forecast of my future behavior . . . and it may matter
a good deal . . . precisely which of these things it is. And that is why
the explicit performative verb is evolved—to make clear exactly
which it is, how far it commits me and in what way and so forth.
Wittgenstein and Austin both advise us to start our study of knowledge
with knowledge claims, beginning with what one does when one says
‘I know . . . ’. What is it that one does with such statements?
The simple answer is—one claims to know something.1 But claiming to
know is more than making a report about one’s epistemic position. In
claiming to know, one offers one’s assurance to others. When one claims
to know that one’s phone is working again after the outage or that the
1 One can of course say many things with ‘I know’, not all of them involving a claim to
know. For instance, one can give encouragement to a listener, or indicate boredom (‘I know,
I know . . . ’). I’ll be focusing on cases in which one uses ‘I know’ to give an explicit assurance,
and ‘He knows’ to communicate information about who has assurance-giving power.
meteor shower begins tonight, one offers an assurance to the effect that
these things are true. And when one seeks out someone who can answer a
question, one seeks someone who knows—one seeks someone who can
give sound assurances.
What sort of thing is an assurance such that it can express a claim to
know? And what sort of thing is knowledge such that it can be claimed by
an assurance? In answering these questions, J. L. Austin will be my guide.
Austin’s work on language and knowledge has been under a cloud, in
part, because developments in the philosophy of language made his
methods look questionable. Gricean pragmatics made Austin’s use of
so-called ‘ordinary language analysis’ seem simple-minded; this formed
the basis of criticisms from important epistemologists, especially Barry
Stroud. To make matters worse, Austin himself never produced a
connected statement of the way his insights into language and
knowledge ﬁt together. So Austin is largely neglected when philosophers try to understand knowledge and knowledge claims.2 I think this
neglect of Austin is a mistake. My aim in this work is to articulate the
relation Austin sees between knowledge and assurance. Doing so yields a
uniﬁed view, a view that speaks powerfully to many pressing questions
about knowledge and knowledge claims. Questions such as: How do
practical interests affect the truth of our knowledge claims? How can
one’s claim to know something be true, despite deep disagreement with
Austin’s insights about knowledge, speech acts, and the semantics
of natural language produce a mutually supporting set of answers to
three intertwined questions: What is knowledge?, What is distinctive about
the speech act of claiming knowledge (that is, assurance)?, and What is the right
semantic account of knowledge claims? Austin himself, of course, does not tell a
uniﬁed story about knowledge and knowledge claims that addresses these
questions. But the elements of such a story are to be found in Austin’s
writings. In this work, I offer an account, inspired by Austin, sometimes
expanding signiﬁcantly on what he says, that addresses these three
2 Happy exceptions include Travis (2008) and Kaplan (2000). On the philosophy of
language side, Austinian views have fared better; see, for example, Alston (2000) and Récanati
(1988). As this book was going to press, Gustafsson and Sorli (2011) was published, too late,
regrettably, to bring to bear on the work here.
To give a brief overview: ﬁrst, Austin suggests that when we claim to
know a proposition, we perform a distinctive speech act. We don’t simply
state a fact—we give our assurance. For example:
you: Is the electricity back on yet?
me: Yes, it’s on just now.
you: Are you sure?
me: Yes, I know it is—I’ve got the radio on.
The speech act of assurance is not the speech act of assertion. This can be
lost to view, in part because they share important features and in part
because our assurances can sometimes be expressed with simple declarative
sentences. For instance, in our little dialogue, I could be giving my
assurance with my ﬁrst remark, or give it simply by saying emphatically,
‘Yes—I’ve got the radio on’ or ‘Yes, I’m quite sure—the radio’s on.’ The
surface grammar is only a rough guide to when one gives an assurance.
(For this reason as Austin notes, to be explicit we use ‘I know’ when giving
an assurance.) Though easily mistaken, an assurance is not an assertion.
With an assurance, one ‘takes a new plunge.’ One does not just vouch for
the truth of what one claims, as one does with an assertion of fact. Austin
‘Swear’, ‘guarantee’, ‘give my word’, ‘promise’ all these and similar words cover
cases both of ‘knowing’ and of ‘promising’, thus suggesting the two are analogous.
Of course they differ subtly from each other; for example, know and promise are in a
certain sense ‘unlimited’ expressions, while when I swear, I swear upon something,
and when I guarantee I guarantee that, upon some adverse and more or less to be
expected circumstance arising, I will take some more or less deﬁnite action to
Austin notes that in both cases of claiming to know and promising, the
kind of guarantee one offers is somehow ‘unlimited.’ I will argue that for
Austin, in the ﬁrst instance, assurance giving requires being ready with
reasons that would satisfy all comers.4 When I assure you the electricity is on,
I stand ready with an unlimited guarantee—I’m ready with reasons you
should rest assured the electricity is on, no matter what your doubts might
be. Nonetheless, Austin himself also notes that knowledge claims are made
3 Austin (1946, p. 173, note).
4 Eventually, we will have to modify this claim to take account of chains of assurance
with an expectation of reasonableness of one’s interlocutors. Assuring is like
promising, as Austin often notes; in each I give a guarantee against all the
ways I could fail to deliver, to all comers—but only—and here is a crucial
qualiﬁcation—insofar as they are reasonable.
This fact brings us to the second strand of my Austin-inspired story. The
second strand concerns not just assurances or knowledge claims, but
knowledge itself. Austin advocates what I call a ‘reasonable alternatives
theory’ of knowledge. His view is very like the familiar ‘relevant alternatives theory’, on which knowing that p (where p is a proposition) requires
being in a position to rule out all the relevant alternatives to p.5 Again,
Austin emphasizes what is reasonable to expect from one’s evidence, in
terms of its power to rule out alternatives:
Enough is enough: it doesn’t mean everything. Enough means enough to show
that (within reason, and for present intents and purposes) it ‘can’t’ be anything else,
there is no room for an alternative, competing, description of it.6
For Austin, knowing a proposition requires being in a position to rule out
all the reasonable alternatives to the proposition. When we view knowledge itself, as Austin does, in terms of having reasons sufﬁcient to rule out
all reasonable alternatives, there is a link between assurance giving and
knowledge. Knowledge claims are offered with assurances because assurances are the sort of things given against reasonable alternatives. Austin’s
emphasis on the role of reasonableness in assurance giving, and in knowledge, will be a theme in the view I will develop.
A sound assurance is a true assurance—it is backed by one’s knowledge.
But when are assurances true? The third strand of the Austin-inspired
story concerns how assurances, or knowledge claims, are true or false.
Austin tells us that all utterances are true only with respect to the situation
in which they are made.7 An utterance is true if there is a match between
(i) what we might call ‘the descriptive content’ of one’s claim and (ii) the
situation one is talking about (where situations comprise particular individuals and facts). When we apply this insight to assurances in particular,
5 Dretske (1970, 1981). Relevant alternatives theory has been criticized for vagueness, or
for being a kind of useless dogleg, or for not being able to account for inductive knowledge
(DeRose 2009; Vogel (1999)) I will try to address these challenges, in articulating an Austinian
reasonable alternatives account.
6 Austin (1946, p. 154–5) (my emphasis).
7 See ‘Truth’, in Austin (1979b).
we get a promising new account of the semantics of knowledge claims
that combines the virtues of contextualism and invariantism about the
semantics of knowledge claims.
These strands in Austin’s work form a uniﬁed account of assurances and
knowledge. Knitting together the three strands of the Austinian story will
be one of my goals. We see the outline already, but just the bare outline.
We will come to see in detail the way that the semantic theory, the theory
of assurance as a speech act, and the substantive account of knowledge
support and inform each other. The central idea running through the
whole is that of reasonableness. This is, I believe, one of Austin’s key
achievements: unearthing the way in which the concept of reasonableness
underwrites our concepts of knowledge and assurance.
In what follows, I hope to show how systematic thinking about assurances along Austinian lines helps us to resolve some of the most interesting
and difﬁcult puzzles in epistemology. Here is a brief guide to the book.
In the ﬁrst chapter, we look at the distinctive speech act that is assurance.
Austin notes that ‘I know’ serves a purpose—the purpose of making clear
‘how far it commits me and in what way and so forth.’ This suggests we
should look to the normative dimensions of assurance to see what is
distinctive about it. We ﬁnd that the norms governing assurances as speech
acts are distinct from the norms governing assertions. Moreover, we ﬁnd
that assurance givers and receivers have commitments that they can only
shoulder by appeal to a standard of reasonableness. So there is a link
between knowledge and assurance. When we view knowledge itself,
as Austin does, in terms of having reasons sufﬁcient to rule out all reasonable
alternatives, and we view assurance as a guarantee against reasonable alternatives, it turns out the link between assurance giving and knowledge is
forged by a notion of reasonableness.
In the second chapter, we build the notion of reasonable alternatives
into the foundation of an Austinian semantic theory for knowledge claims.
As we will see, the Austinian semantic account turns out to combine
features of both contextualism and invariantism to produce a powerful
fusion. The resulting view is a new form of contextualism that helps to
resolve some standing problems for contextualists.8 The view rejects one
aspect of more familiar forms of contextualism, namely, that the meaning or
8 Contextualism has been defended very ably by Cohen and DeRose among others (Cohen
(1986, 1988, 1999, 2000; DeRose 2009). See also Neta (2002, 2003) and Blome-Tillman
alternatively the semantic contribution of ‘knows’ shifts with context.9 The
Austinian maintains invariant meaning of ‘knows’ and invariant semantic
content of knowledge claims, while allowing for context sensitivity of
the truth values of knowledge claims. The possibility of combining the
context sensitivity of truth values with the invariance of semantics of
‘knows’ is an important possibility, not yet explored.10 I will argue that it
gives us what we need in order to make sense of some perplexing features
of our practice with knowledge claims.
In Chapter 3 I consider some linguistic data about our use of ‘knows.’
We will see how Austinian semantics resolves some puzzles that challenge
other semantic accounts of knowledge claims. We’ll see more speciﬁcally
how the Austinian account differs from more standard forms of contextualism, as well as Subject Sensitive Invariantism and Assessment Relativism.
My aim in this chapter is not to offer a full-blown evaluation of all
the contending views—others have already done that work, and better
than I could.11 My aim is to demonstrate the power of the Austinian view,
especially for resolving some outstanding problems for contextualists.
Chapter 4 looks at some paradoxes in epistemology that can be resolved
in light of the Austinian view of assurances. I consider paradoxes owing
to Vogel, Cohen, and Hawthorne. Underlying these challenges is a
skeptical ‘argument from ignorance’, where our lack of knowledge of
merely probable propositions is made to spread.12 The Austinian view
of knowledge, with its corresponding semantics, permits an answer to the
2009a,b). In several key respects, contextualists still face difﬁculties that the Austinian approach
9 Semantic Contextualists sometimes differ about whether it is the linguistic meaning of
‘knows’ or the semantic content of knowledge claims that varies with context. (Sometimes it
is not clear which it is that a given author thinks varies with context.) I believe the idea that
the meaning or the semantic contribution of ‘knows’ is context sensitive should be rejected if
we are to account for curious features of our linguistic usage (see Chapters 2 and 3).
10 In fact, it is little understood. Recently, MacFarlane (2009) identiﬁes just such a view and
does a lot of work to make it intelligible. See Chapter 2 for brief discussion of the contrast
between Austinian contextualism and the non-indexical contextualism MacFarlane identiﬁes.
Travis (2008) argues that Austin offers a unique semantics that can be applied to knowledge
claims, but leaves the difference between Austin and more standard contextualisms underspeciﬁed; Travis also links his semantic story to disjunctivism about perceptual knowledge,
which is not a link I believe we need to make in order to develop an Austinian response to
11 See especially MacFarlane (2008) and Hawthorne (2004).
12 Unger (1975).
argument from ignorance. To resolve the skeptical paradoxes, we must
focus on how we have knowledge of merely probable propositions, and
once again appeal to a standard of reasonableness will be central. Focus on
our knowledge of merely probable propositions naturally leads to further
questions about the broad category of inductive knowledge. I show
that, contrary to what some believe, a reasonable alternatives theory can
provide an account of inductive knowledge.
In Chapter 5 I turn to explore further the hurdles we face in assurance
giving. One constant hurdle we face is ignorance of the needs of our
interlocutors. Another less constant hurdle we face is disagreement. Sometimes one receives assurances one cannot accept or, alternatively, one gives
assurance but one’s audience cannot be assured. What happens to the truth
or falsity of one’s knowledge claims in such cases? We ﬁnd that the notion
of reasonableness again plays a crucial role. The Austinian view, which
makes reasonableness fundamental to the notions of knowledge and
assurance, explains how what we say can be true or false, despite these
hurdles. In contrast to recent ‘practical interests theory’,13 the Austinian
holds that there are limits on the extent to which idiosyncratic practical
concerns of listeners can affect the truth or falsity of our knowledge claims,
and in contrast to some contextualists14 the Austinian holds that disputed
claims can be true despite active disagreement between speakers and
hearers. In this chapter I also provide a substantive characterization of
the reasonable person standard, and describe how it helps to determine
the set of reasonable alternatives in a given situation.
The notion of reasonableness also lies at the heart of radical skeptical
challenges, which is the topic of the sixth and ﬁnal chapter. Contrary to
many readers of Austin, I believe that Austin’s insights into the nature of
our practice of making and challenging knowledge claims holds important
I want to enter a note about the spirit of the text. This is not a scholarly
discussion of Austin’s work: I do not propose alternative interpretations of
his work and defend my own with the tools of historical analysis. I beg the
reader’s understanding here. My aim is to produce a view that is Austinian,
drawing on what I take to be his central claims and extending them as well.
13 Stanley (2005); Fantl and McGrath (2009).
14 See especially DeRose (2009).
I am very grateful to the anonymous readers of the manuscript and to
Peter Momtchiloff for all his work and encouragement.
Thanks for helpful comments to Sam Asarnow, Peter Hawke, Dan
Halliday, Arezoo Islami, Meica Magnani, Katy Meadows, Grant Rozeboom, Adam Simon, Laurel Scotland-Stewart, Hywote Taye, Greg
Taylor, Han van Wietmarschen, and Jessica Williams. Special thanks to
Wes Holiday for many helpful and enjoyable discussions.
And always I’m grateful to and for David, for everything.
The speech act of assurance
We all feel the very great difference between saying even ‘I’m
absolutely sure’ and saying ‘I know’: it is like the difference between
saying even ‘I ﬁrmly and irrevocably intend’ and ‘I promise’.
Let’s begin with what we do when we say ‘I know . . . ’. Austin thinks one
can perform a distinctive speech act with ‘I know . . . ’; to have a name for
it, I call this the act of assurance.1 When one claims ‘I know that the phone
is working again’ after the outage or ‘I know the meteor shower begins
tonight,’ one performs a special sort of act, different in kind than simply
asserting ‘the phone is working again’ or ‘the shower begins tonight.’ In
the next chapter we will develop Austin’s suggestions about the semantics
of the knowledge claim expressed by an act of assurance. And in subsequent chapters, we’ll see how Austin’s view of assurance as a speech act
combines with the semantic story to yield a powerfully explanatory view.
The task for the present is to begin to understand assurance as a speech act.
Admittedly, the individuation of speech acts is a somewhat murky
business. We start with the fact that we hear various ways of expressing a
proposition as distinct, and we interpolate from our usage the purposes,
effects on hearers, and commitments that seem to be characteristic of the
distinct speech acts being performed. My ﬁrst aim in this chapter is to
begin to ﬂesh out what makes assurance distinctive. When we look closer,
we will ﬁnd that assurance is distinguished from assertion in its purpose, its
effects on hearers, and in the commitments it engenders on the part
of both assurance giver and receiver. As we will see, one of the most
The term ‘assurance’ has many uses—for instance, game theorists use ‘assurance game’
for a kind of cooperative game known as the ‘Stag Hunt.’ The term also arises in theories of
THE SPEECH ACT OF ASSURANCE
important distinctive features of assurance is the role a standard of reasonableness plays in giving and receiving assurances.
Seeing exactly how assurance is distinct from assertion is a difﬁcult task,
made that much more difﬁcult by the fact that there is little agreement about
what assertion is. Moreover, assurance and assertion share important features,
and—to make matters worse—our assurances can sometimes be expressed
with simple declarative sentences. I give my assurance with ‘I know the
meeting is next week’ but in the right circumstances, I can also give an
assurance by saying ‘Yes, I’m quite sure—it’s next week’ or in the right
circumstances even simply by saying emphatically, ‘Yes—it’s next week.’
Surface grammar is only a rough guide to when one gives an assurance.2
Since I cannot simply help myself to a widely agreed view of assertion,
so as to compare assertion and assurance, my strategy will be to start with
normative dimensions of assurance, where we ‘feel a difference’ in the
speech acts. Austin encourages us to compare assurance and promising.
I take this suggestion and show how assurance answers a distinctive interest
of ours, and generates distinctive commitments, on the part of both the
giver and receiver of assurances. What we will ﬁnd is that speaker and
hearer are only in a position to assume the commitments and obligations of
assurance if they can make tacit appeal to a standard of reasonableness.
My other aim in this chapter is to show how the Austinian story about
assurance that I tell connects with an Austinian story about knowledge.
Although Austin tells us about what it takes to know something, he never
draws an explicit connection between his view of assurance and his substantive view about knowledge. I believe there is a connection here, and a
goal of this chapter is to make the connection explicit. When we view
knowledge itself, as I believe Austin does, as requiring reasons sufﬁcient to
rule out all reasonable alternatives, and we view assurance as a guarantee
against reasonable alternatives, it turns out there is a link between assurance
giving and knowledge: what makes for this link is the role of reasonableness
in both assurance giving and knowledge.
While I cannot hope to address all possible objections to the idea that
there is a special link between assurance and knowledge, I will address one
possible objection: some would see assertion, instead, as the speech act that
is intimately linked to knowledge. Speciﬁcally, as some would have it,
See Austin (1979a, p. 242) and Saddock (2004).
NORMATIVE DIMENSIONS OF ASSURANCE
assertion is the speech act governed by a norm of knowledge.3 And if
assertion is thus intimately linked to knowledge, what relation to knowledge could assurance have—indeed, why think there is a distinctive
speech act of assurance at all? In section 5 I address an argument based
on the so-called knowledge account of assertion, to the effect that we should be
skeptical about the idea that there is a speech act of assurance, with special
connections to knowledge. In response, I will turn this argument on its
head: compelling criticisms of the knowledge account of assertion point to
the existence of assurance.
I should add that I do not aim to give an exhaustive characterization of
the speech act of assurance, and still less to settle disputes in the theory of
speech acts. The link between assurance and knowledge is a very large
topic, covering territory in theory of knowledge as well as the epistemology
of testimony. With respect to the latter, we will only begin to see some of
the issues emerge from our study, issues which in most cases we will only be
able to note in passing.4 My aims are to investigate what makes assurance a
distinctive speech act, to understand the role that a notion of reasonableness
plays in making that speech act possible, and to investigate the link between
knowledge and assurance suggested by Austin.
1.1 Normative dimensions of assurance
Austin himself repeatedly encourages us to compare assurances with
promises. For instance:
When I say ‘S is P’, I imply at least that I believe it, and, if I have been strictly brought up,
that I am (quite) sure of it . . . But now, when I say ‘I promise’, a new plunge is taken:
I have not merely announced my intention, but, by using this formula (performing
this ritual), I have bound myself to others, and staked my reputation, in a new way.
Similarly, saying ‘I know’ is taking a new plunge . . . When I say I know, I give others
my word: I give others my authority for saying that S is P’.5
Williamson (1996, 2000); DeRose (2002, 2009).
For instance, I only give a passing nod to issues about knowledge transmission, and about
the relation between speaker and hearer, about which See Moran (2005). Noting the fact that
in assertion one vouches for the truth of a claim, Moran is led to call assertions ‘assurances.’
The choice of terminology I favor requires separating assertions from the distinct speech act
that I call ‘assurances’, but nothing in my choice of terminology reﬂects disagreement with
Moran’s project. I would enter the same note about the need to distinguish assertion and
assurance in other work on testimony (for instance, Fricker (2006) and Weiner (2003)).
Austin (1946, p. 171) (my emphasis).
Author Krista Lawlor Isbn 9780199657896 File size 2MB Year 2013 Pages 240 Language English File format PDF Category Philosophy Book Description: FacebookTwitterGoogle+TumblrDiggMySpaceShare Claiming to know is more than making a report about one’s epistemic position: one also offers one’s assurance to others. What is an assurance? In this book, Krista Lawlor unites J. L. Austin’s insights about the pragmatics of assurance-giving and the semantics of knowledge claims into a systematic whole. The central theme in the Austinian view is that of reasonableness: appeal to a ‘reasonable person’ standard makes the practice of assurance-giving possible, and lets our knowledge claims be true despite differences in practical interests and disagreement among speakers and hearers. Lawlor provides an original account of how the Austinian view addresses a number of difficulties for contextualist semantic theories, resolves closure-based skeptical paradoxes, and helps us to tread the line between acknowledging our fallibility and skepticism. Download (2MB) Rethinking Epistemology, Volume: 2 Proof Theory of N4-Paraconsistent Logics The Dynamics of Thought Proof-theoretic Semantics Reasons and Intentions in Law and Practical Agency Load more posts