Friday, July 1, 2011

Chapter 1

In the first chapter of his book Joyce explains what error theory is. It is (p. 9):
the position that holds that a discourse typically is used in an assertoric manner [i.e. to make assertions], but those assertions by and large fail to state truths.
This means that if you think most of the assertions in a particular discourse (or language game, if you prefer) are false then you are an error theorist about, or with regard to, that discourse. But you would equally be an error theorist if you thought the assertions were neither true nor false, or if, like the early Wittgenstein (Joyce is explicit about this) you think they are nonsense (as long as you think the discourse is still assertoric).  

Moral discourse (think of sentences such as "Slavery is wrong" and "The Nazis were evil") seems to be assertoric. Sentences in works of fiction also look like assertions ("Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested"--although some of the examples found here are not obviously untrue in this way), but if you asked someone reading these sentences whether they were really true you might well get the response "Of course not." That is not the response you would expect if you asked whether slavery is really wrong or whether the Nazis were really evil. Quite the reverse. So moral discourse is not fiction, and Joyce's fictionalism should not be taken to claim otherwise.

The next chapters argue that moral discourse as we know it consists largely of assertions that are not true though.


  1. What does "assertoric" mean here?

    If a sentence is nonsensical, then how can we tell that it's "assertoric"? If it's just that it's "the sort of thing that could be used to make an assertion, if it was a thing with the right sort of sense instead of what it in fact is (nonsense)", then that's true of any sign, and any speech act.

  2. Daniel asks a good question. I assume Joyce will say something like: an assertion makes a statement (say, of fact). But there are no moral facts. So all of what look like moral assertions fail. (And there are no moral facts because there is no such property as "must/mustn't-be-done-ness.") Yawn. Have a nice weekend, everyone!

  3. Yes, that is a good question, and Joyce will say something very much like this in response. I think the idea is that people take themselves, believe themselves, to be asserting something true but they really aren't. So what they are saying is assertoric but not true.

    I think there are interesting questions here about whether this really is what people believe themselves to be doing, whether there is a language game of moral 'assertions' that has its own rules, whether a certain kind of moral talk is nonsense, whether all ethical statements are nonsensical, and so on. But I'll get to (some of) them later.

    If we're all signing off for now then thanks for the comments, and have a good weekend and/or Fourth of July.