Believing What You Publish

Alexandra Plakias has an interesting piece, titled “Publishing Without Belief“, that I think I agree with in spirit, but not in the details.

Plakias examines some cases where a paper is published that the author doesn’t believe, and defends against charges of impermissibility.  Notably, she says:

In looking for the norm that PWB violates, we might begin with the thought that publication is a subspecies of assertion, and is therefore subject to the norms of assertion. Williamson (19962000) defends an account of knowledge as the norm of assertion; others have offered truth (Weiner 2005), justified belief and (the weakest of these) belief. But all of these are too strong to serve as norms of philosophical publishing.


Furthermore if it is ‘platitudinous’ that ‘asserting something is … claiming that it is true’ (Wright 1992: 23), the link between assertion and truth is stronger than the link between philosophical publishing and truth ought to be: it should not be a platitudethat publication is a claim to truth.

The line of thinking Plakias rejects here is one that I am sympathetic to.  I think that we largely write papers in an assertoric mode, when we publish them we are taking steps to widely disseminate a set of our assertions, and I think that there is no difference in this sort of case between asserting “parthood is antisymmetric” and “it is true that parthood is antisymmetric”.  There are historical modes of publication that are not essentially assertoric (such as dialogues, meditations, etc.) but we are far less diverse in our genres and forms of writing than we once were, and so, most papers are best understood as a series of claims made by the author.

At this point it probably sounds like I am in strong disagreement with Plakias, but I don’t think that I am.  I think that having first order philosophical views is overrated, and I think people without such views can and should make contributions to the ongoing discussions in the field.  My position is that one should be asserting the “higher order” position to which they are actually committed.  For example, if one writes a paper defending expressivism about moral terms from the Frege-Geach problem, the paper should, I think, include sentences asserting things like “this response to the Frege-Geach problem overcomes the worry”.  I don’t think the person writing this paper should say “moral terms express non-cognitive attitudes, rather than beliefs” if that isn’t something they wish to assert.

Is this quibbling? I don’t think so.  We have a clear, dominant genre of philosophical writing. It is first person prose exposition in an assertoric mode.  If someone writes a paper in which the sentence “externalists about epistemology cannot answer the generality problem” and this isn’t part of a quote being attributed to someone else, or otherwise couched as not being asserted, I should be licensed to say “that author said that externalists about epistemology cannot answer the generality problem”.

So my stance is that you should believe what you publish, but that it is fine to publish “higher order” conclusions like x is worth investigating or y is not very promising as a response to z.

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