Monday, May 07, 2007

Are Factive Verbs a Myth?

I’ve just came back from 2007 Rutgers Epistemology Conference. The one that interested me most was Allan Hazlett’s ‘The Myth of Factive Verbs,’ winner of the 2007 Young Epistemologist Prize and forthcoming in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. I’m afraid I disagree, however.

Allan argues against the orthodox view among philosophers that certain two-place predicates—‘knows’, ‘learns’, ‘remembers’, and ‘realizes’, for example—are factive in the sense that an utterance of ‘S knows p’ is true only if p, that an utterance of ‘S learned p’ is true only if p, and so on. He presents two consideration aimed to constitute a prima facie case against orthodoxy, and then discusses and rejects certain arguments in favor of orthodoxy.

I found the two considerations less than fully compelling. The first depends on the contention that “if the orthodox view is true, then we should expect the claim that all known propositions are true to be obvious to anyone who knows the meaning of ‘knows’” (p. 2). But on the face of it, this seems to unduly equate something like ‘analyticity’ with the obvious: the fact that ‘remembers’ or ‘sees’ might not be obviously factive for some competent users is clearly compatible with their being indeed factive all the same. As to the second, and as pointed out by several people in the discussion at Rutgers, it seems to depend on a too narrow conception of the phenomenon of loose talk.

It would be argued, however, that if the typical arguments for orthodoxy fail, this is remarkable regardless of the issue as to whether there is or not an antecedent prima facie case against it. The main one discussed by Allan is quite straightforward:

The appearance of contradiction. Someone who says ‘I know p, but not-p’ contradicts herself. Therefore, knowledge is factive. Mutatis mutandis for learning, remembering, realizing. (p. 6)

To which he replies:

‘I know p, but not-p’ is not contradictory, but an utterance of it is Moore paradoxical—to know that p is to believe that p, and ‘I believe p, but not-p’ is paradigmatically Moore paradoxical. (p. 6)

One typical way of arguing that ‘I believe p, but not-p’ is not contradictory, however, concerns the fact that is aproblematically OK when turned into the third person: ‘She believes p, but she’s completely wrong: not-p.’ In the case of ‘know,’ by contrast, it sounds exactly as bad as the original first-person version: ‘She knows p, but she’s completely wrong: not-p.’

Allan anticipates this objection, and says:

In §4 I outline what I think are some correct proposals concerning the pragmatics of the use of ‘knows’—and there I maintain that an utterance of ‘S knows p’ typically implies that p is true. I think this goes some way towards explaining why ‘S knows p, but not-p’ often sounds improper. (p.6)

Section §4, however, offers a "Gricean" account of the “implication” which exploits that knowing requires believing and a sufficient quantity of epistemic justification for one’s belief. But even in cases where S clearly satisfies both it would still sound contradictory to assert ‘S knows p, but not-p.’


allan hazlett said...

I'm pretty dissatsfied with the "it should be obvious" argument, and I aim to give it up. This is for reasons that I don't think came up at the conference -- that "Everything you know you believe" isn't obvious to most people. Now I think the reason for that is a confusion similar to that which results from scalar implicatures: "Everything you love you like" isn't obivious to most people either. But regardless of that, there's no good argument from the lack of obviousness to a burden of proof on the "orthodox view." (Something I'd still endorse, though: if it were obvious, then the burden would be on me.)

About the "appearance of contradiction" argument. I think there's a quicker reply on my behalf, that doesn't have to appeal to the Gricean story at the end of the paper. You say that 'knows' (unlike 'believes') sounds bad in the third person, just like in the first person. I think we should just deny that, and the proof is in the non-factive uses of 'knows' canvassed at the beginning of the paper: "They knew p, but not-p" is fine; "Everything you know about such-and-such is wrong" is fine, etc.

But even in cases where S clearly satisfies both it would still sound contradictory to assert ‘S knows p, but not-p.’

Something important (perhaps tangential to this claim): suppose knowledge is justified belief. This doesn't entail that anytime someone has a justified belief it's going to sound right to say that she knows. (Sometimes people want to offer counterexamples non-standard analyses of knowledge in that fashion.) But the truth isn't always assertible, and (I claim, anyway) an utterance where we can't make sense of any reason why the person who makes it would make it -- that kind of utterance often strikes us as "weird" or "wrong", etc. So just finding a case where someone has a justified belief but it would be weird or wrong to say that she knows -- that's not enough, I think, to show that the proposed analysis is wrong.

That wouldn't apply to "sounding contradictory" ... I haven't given a lot of thought about how important our instincts about what sounds contradictory are ...

Dan López de Sa said...

Hi Allan!

Thanks for your comments here. I am not sure I understand your new “quicker” response to the objection, though.

At the beginning of your paper, you consider some statements of the (let’s say) “S knows p, and not p”–form which perhaps are, due to “loose” talk (says your opponent) or otherwise (you say), sometimes felicitous:

(1) Everyone knew that stress caused ulcers, before two Australian doctors in the early 80s proved that ulcers are actually caused by bacterial infection.

This being so does not affect the fact that plenty of others clearly and strongly sound contradictory, such as:

(2) She knew that there was beer in the fridge, but she was totally wrong: it was completely empty!

and as opposed to

(3) She thought that there was beer in the fridge, but she was totally wrong: it was completely empty!

which is, of course, perfectly fine.

If this asymmetry is indeed, as it seems, a fact (and you seemed to acknowledge in your paper that it was), it certainly calls for an explanation. The orthodox view you oppose has a neat one: it sounds contradictory because it is contradictory. In the paper you advanced your hope that the Gricean story at the end could provide an alternative explanation. As I said in my original post, however, it is not clear how this could possibly go. In your comments now you seem to give up the hope that the Gricean story would do the trick. Merely pointing to cases such as (1), however, would clearly not do the trick either. And in the absence of any such alternative explanation, the case for the orthodoxy view seems to me to remain quite strong.