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Warranted assertion

I suggest returning to the idea of warranted assertability without the implication of the truth of assertions. A warrant is a form of justification. When our assertion is warranted, we either have appropriate justification for stating it or are in an appropriately authoritative situation to assert it. And this idea seems natural enough in the context of historiography. In Chapter 5, I suggested that historiographical works should be viewed as manifestations of reasoning and informal arguments, which implies that the historian provides support through literary work for some specific claim about the past. In other words, by the end of a successful historical study, the historian should have a rational warrant for his or her assertion. But, if my analysis about the colligatory nature of synthesizing historical theses is correct, assertions cannot be true.8 To repeat, the reason is that, provided that the correspondence theory of truth expresses the meaning of truth and that the correspondence theory requires the existence of truth-makers in the past, the theses cannot be true since there are no truth-makers for the colligatory expressions employed.

The implication of all of the above is that we need to speak of the justification of historiographical theses without the presumption of their truth. Against the background of traditional epistemology this may appear problematic because the point of justification has typically been seen to consist of its relation to truth. Richard L. Kirkham claims that justification must be defined or analyzed with reference to truth or, alternatively expressed, that the concept of justification presupposes the concept of truth. Laurence Bonjour in turn surmises that, if truth were somehow directly accessible to us, as it may be for God, then the theories of justification would not be very interesting. But 'we have no such immediate and unproblematic access to truth, and it is for this reason that justification comes into the picture' (Bonjour 1985, 7). This intimate link between truth and justification seems to lurk behind the whole Western epistemological project:

Because the motivation for epistemology is concern over whether and how our beliefs can be justified as true, it is the truth of beliefs with which an epistemologist is ultimately concerned. (Kirkham 2001, 47; my emphasis)

But what if we are not interested in truth but only in justification? What would justification without truth be? While this may be a problematic orientation in traditional epistemology, it may also provide a fresh and ground-breaking perspective on historiography.

Wilfrid Sellars believed that all knowing, including sense experience, presupposes both concept formation and the understanding of the conceptual space in which the knowledge claim is located. According to Sellars even the use of color concepts, such as 'looking green', implies awareness of the kinds of circumstances, both physical and linguistic, in which the concept can be appropriately used. Thus even a report on our inner experiences is irreducibly intersubjective and the competent use of all concepts is built on and presupposes their role in intersubjective discourse. Sellars summarized this thought in the following famous sentence:

The essential point is that in characterizing an episode or a state as that of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says. (Sellars 1997, section 36; my emphases)

In other words, all 'descriptive knowledge', including reports on experiencing, are assertions in the (social) space of reasons and endorsements of specific claims (Sellars 1997, section 16).

Sellars' idea that all knowledge claims are assertions in the logical space of reasons resembles that of Dewey's 'warranted assertability', but is even more useful. As many have noted, knowledge claims have a normative dimension. That is, they are endorsements or promises to defend and give grounds for one's claim. And their specific location in the 'space of reasons' largely defines the kind of grounds that must be given in defense. Rorty interprets Sellars' sentence of what knowing implies as a position that knowledge is inseparable from social practice and specifically from the practice of justifying one's assertions to one's fellow-humans (Sellars/Rorty 1997, 4). Knowledge comes into being through this practice.

One of those who has developed Sellars' account into an interesting direction is Robert Brandom. Developing Sellars' account of knowledge, Brandom suggests that one takes assertions as inferential moves in the 'game of giving and asking for reasons'. At the core of this discursive practice is the notion of 'discursive commitment'. That is, when making an assertion, one is engaged in a social practice and makes an 'asserto- nial commitment'. Thus in the 'game of reasons', assertion can serve as a reason for another assertion or it can itself stand in need for further reasons:

Uttering a sentence with assertonial force or significance is putting it forward as a potential reason. ... Assertions are essentially fit to be reasons. The function of assertion is making sentences available for use as premises in inferences. For performances to play this role or have this significance requires that assertonial endorsement of or commitment to something entitles or obliges one to other endorsements. (Brandom 1994, 168)

The interesting thing with this account is the idea that in assertions one undertakes a responsibility, a commitment, to 'vindicate the original claim by showing that one is entitled to make it' (Brandom 1994, 171). According to Brandom, this kind of discursive commitment implies a broader normative use through which one can assert authority. In other words, the responsibility to defend one's claim and give reasons for it, if and when requested, is justificatory. Brandom writes:

In asserting a sentence, one not only licenses further assertions (for others and for oneself) but commits oneself to justifying the original claim. . .. Specifically, in making a claim, one undertakes the conditional task responsibility to demonstrate one's entitlements to the claim, if that entitlement is brought into question. Justifying the claim when it is queried, giving reasons for it when reasons are asked for, is one way to discharge this obligation. I f the commitment can be defended, entitlement to it demonstrated by justifying the claim, then endorsement of it can have genuine authority, an entitlement that can be inherited. (Brandom 1994, 172; my emphases)

I hope the way in which justification and epistemic authority can be acquired through rationality is slowly becoming clearer. Asserting is a normative sort of social practice that authorizes certain sorts of inferences and makes the asserter responsible for giving reasons for the assertion. When one manages to draw appropriate inferences, other assertions, for the main claim, one can be said to be entitled to that claim or be said to possess appropriate authority for the claim. What is it that yields this authority or warrant in the 'game of giving and asking for reasons'? It is, precisely, the successful practice of providing assertorial inferences. This practice forms the reason or reasons for the claim. To put it differently, in the situation in which the respondent manages to give reasons, his or her assertion can be said to be rationally warranted or justified. The inferential practice of giving reasons is thus itself a form of justification.

We might say that justification lies in the inferential act of rationality itself and not, for example, in the copying of prior states of affairs or in referential relations. Or, as Dewey said, 'the value of any cognitive conclusion depends upon the method by which it is reached' (1929, 200). Despite some differences in how 'truth' and 'warranted asserta- bility' are understood, my proposal fits well with the pragmatist notion of justification. According to Dewey, in the 'traditional conception' the thing to be known is something that exists prior to and wholly apart from the act of knowing whereas in the new conception 'knowing is a form of doing’ (1929, 205; my emphasis). Dewey further complained that the traditional conception implied that discursive knowledge always had to involve reflection on what is immediately known in order to be validated. Validation could not be seen to 'bring its credentials with it and test its results in the very process of reaching them'. According to Dewey, this meant that the 'old conception' implies that knowledge reached through inferential conclusions is simply a 'matter of restatement' of what pre-exists (1929, 181-182). In the next chapter, I continue this line of reasoning and attempt to show how epistemic credentials can emerge through the actual practice of articulating a thesis in historiography without any need for mirroring, re-presenting or re-constructing reality 'as it is'.

 
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