Thursday, July 03, 2008


Grice and Doxastic Voluntarism

It's generally seen as an objectionable consequence of an account that it entail a robust form of doxastic voluntarism. For instance, take epistemic deontologicalism, which has it that we should understand epistemic justification in deontic terms such as 'requirement', 'blame' and 'obligation'. This view has been criticized on the grounds that it is committed to the appropriateness of assessments of beliefs in these terms, even though such assessments seem to presuppose that we are responsible for our beliefs - that we have voluntary control over what we believe. It is taken as pretty obvious that we have no such control.

Feldman, Heironymi, and others have offered a partial response to this argument by questioning whether the appropriateness of assessing beliefs in deontic terms really does commit us to doxastic volutarism. My concern here is not with this dialectic, however, but with a parallel issue that arises once one adopts certain aspects of Grice's philosophy of language. In 'Meaning', Grice writes:

'Suppose I discovered some person so constituted that, when I told him that whenever I grunted in a special way I wanted him to blush or to incur some physical malady, thereafter whenever he recognized the grunt (and with it my intention), he did blush or incur the malady. Should we then want to say that the grunt meant(nn) something? I do not think so. This points to the fact that for x to have meaning(nn), the intended effect must be something which in some sense is within the control of the audience, or that in some sense of "reason" the recognition of the intention behind x is for the audience a reason and not merely a cause. [...] It looks, then as if the intended effect must be something within the control of the audience, or at least the sort of thing which is within its control.'
(p221 in Studies in the Way of Words)

Now, Grice's account of imperatives looks okay here; the view he comes to in the William James Lectures is that the intended effect should be that one's audience forms a particular kind of intention, and a sufficiently robust voluntarism about intention-formation doesn't seem problematic. But in the case of 'informative' utterances, Grice suggests the intended effect is that a particular belief is induced in one's audience. So, assuming that doxastic voluntarism really is a bad consequence, we seem to have a straightforward objection to Grice on our hands.

Some contemporary Griceans have suggested weakening the intended result in the case of informative utterances to the following: one intends one's audience to entertain a particular thought, rather than to form a particular belief. (For example, see Ray Buchanan and Gary Ostertag's contribution to the Mind volume celebrating the centenary of 'On Denoting'.) Here again a sufficiently robust voluntarism doesn't seem too objectionable - at the very least, the weakening seems to do better with respect to the problem I've sketched than Grice's original suggestion, so some progress seems to have been made.

But the problem still seems to remain for Gricean accounts of assertion. Consider Bach and Harnish's familiar Grice-inspired proposal (Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts: 42):

In uttering e, S asserts that p if S expresses:

1. the belief that p, and

2. the intention that her audience believe that p.

For the purposes of Gricean accounts of meaning, saying and communicating, it might be satisfactory to suggest that the intended result is that one's audience entertain a particular thought. But I'm worried that an attempt to amend Bach and Harnish's (2) along these lines is too weak - that something of the force of assertion, in contrast to mere saying, gets lost. Clearly some work needs to be done clarifying and defending this last point, but hopefully the basic idea is clear enough for now.

Additionally, if this inchoate line of thought is to be developed into an objection to Gricean accounts of assertion, Grice had better be right that the intended result must be under the audience's voluntary control, and doxastic voluntarism had better be genuinely problematic. So there are a lot of interesting issues to be considered before the force of the objection I'm trying to mount can be properly assessed.

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"within the control of the audience, or that in some sense of "reason" the recognition of the intention behind x is for the audience a reason and not merely a cause."

Isn't that italicized part already sufficient? We already admit that there are reasons for belief, even if belief is not within the control of the audience.
Thanks Kenny,

I wrote the post fully intending to comment on the very phrase you quote. Not sure what happened to derail that - you're right, of course, that it's clearly of import here.

Yes, so the two disjuncts Grice offers in the quote above seem to make quite different demands on us from one another, though Grice doesn't really seem to make much of the second.

And the second does strike me as a little weak by itself. Suppose a General visits an injured soldier, inferior in rank. The soldier is a tragic case, having lost both legs in combat. The General may bark 'Walk over there and get me some coffee from the canteen!' until he's blue in the face, but he's just being a jackass; Grice and others will want to say he can't really intend that the soldier ambulate to fetch him the coffee. The fact that the intention behind the order would be a reason for the soldier to ambulate if he could, rather than a cause, doesn't seem enough to enable the General to have the intention in question.

I'm implicitly appealing to the principle, used by Grice and by Griceans all over the place, that one cannot intend something if one knows there is no possibility of that thing happening (see p101, for instance). That seems considerably less demanding than the first of the disjuncts from the quote above, which required that the intended result be under the control of one's audience. And it might help here: while we might hold that our beliefs aren't under our control, they're not entirely out of our control either, and so one might suggest that a speaker or asserter can intend her audience to form a certain belief because her utterance will be a reason for adopting that belief, and not just a cause, and because she (rightly) thinks there some chance that her audience will be able to respond in the appropriate manner.

We're running into some tricky issue about intention here, and I'm feeling a little out of my depth. But I do want to propose that cases like the jackass General, and more generally cases in which it's clear that one's audience is not capable of a certain kind of response, suggest that the second Gricean disjunct by itself isn't enough; the mere fact we're in the space of reasons, so to speak, doesn't show that a speaker can have the required intentions. As for the harder questions about whether there's a weaker requirement on intending that is compatible with doxastic involutarism, well, those are the kinds of issues I had in mind when I wrote: 'if this inchoate line of thought is to be developed into an objection to Gricean accounts of assertion, Grice had better be right that the intended result must be under the audience's voluntary control'. Sadly, I'm not feeling physically, mentally or spiritually strong enough to take on these kinds of issues just now.
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