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Friday, May 12, 2006

A Stance of Trust

Alex Katz

Paper submitted for the volume Language and Theory of Mind edited by Tomoko Matsui. Draft. Do not quote

A Stance of Trust

In a famous novel written by Jerry Kosinski, Being There - upon which a movie with Peter Sellers was based- Chauncey Gardiner is a mentally retarded gardener who, through a series of fortuitous accidents, becomes a heir of the throne of a Wall Street tycoon, a presidential policy adviser and a media icon. His simple words on how to conduct a garden have great impact on the President of United States, whom Chauncey meets in the house of Mr. Rand, the Wall Street Tycoon he happens to live with.
In a conversation with Rand and Chauncey, the President asks: “And you, Mr. Gardiner? What do you think about the bad season on the Street?”. Chauncey replies: “In a garden, growth has its season. There a spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then, spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well”.
“I must admit”, the President says “that what you’ve just said is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in very, very long time […] Many of us forget that nature and society are one! Yes, though we have tried to cut ourselves off from nature, we are still part of it. Like nature, our economic system remains, in the long run, stable and rational, and that’s why we must not fear to be at its mercy […] We welcome the inevitable seasons of nature and yet we are upset by the seasons of our economy! How foolish of us!”
It may seem just one among the millions of examples of misunderstanding in interpretation, but let’s have a closer look of what is happening here. The simple fact that Chauncey is in Mr. Rand’s house gives the President enough background information about his reliability as a source of knowledge. The President’s epistemic assessment of Chauncey’s words is based on his reputation, established by the social network they are sharing: a friend of a reliable person - Mr. Rand- is also reliable. This background assumption, together with the standard inferential processes of interpretation, explain the President’s extra-effort in order to work out a relevant interpretation of what Chauncey said. We may also add a “confirmation bias” in the President’s interpretation, that is, he tends to reconstruct what Chauncey said in a way that confirms what he already thinks and hopes of the economic conjuncture in United States. Of course, he doesn’t simply accepts Chauncey’s words under authority: he interprets them in the context of his own thoughts about US economy. What Chauncey said is just further “food” for his thoughts and helps him in coming out with a positive interpretation of the bad season in Wall Street, a message he will repeat immediately after the dialogue on television.
In a sense, this is a case of epistemic luck: A gross misunderstanding about the background conditions resolves in an insightful and optimistic interpretation of the vagaries of American economy. Although he lives in Mr. Rand’s house, Chance is not a reliable source of information on US economy: worse, he is not reliable at all. Also, he is not sharing any mutual background with the President: his reply is simply misplaced. Nevertheless, the way in which the President adjusts his interpretation under the assumption that Chauncey is reliable is a much more general interpretive bias than it is usually acknowledged.
This example illustrates the complex interplay between the epistemic dimension of communication, that is, how we come to believe what other people say, and its pragmatic dimension, that is, how we interpret what our interlocutors say. Two areas of research, epistemology and pragmatics, inquire these two different dimensions with very little overlap. I think that a better understanding of the mutual influence of trust and interpretation would help to throw some light on how we acquire new beliefs through the words of others.
Epistemic trust is an ingredient of communication. It influences our interpretations and is influenced by them. Here I would like to argue that the “stance of trust” that is displayed in conversations has interesting epistemic consequences . My aim is to highlight the epistemological significance of the psychological and pragmatic analysis of trust in communication by arguing that a stance of trust is a fundamental ingredient of our interpretive practices.

Some conceptions of epistemic trust

The epistemology of testimony inquiries on what conditions we are justified in acquiring information from others. There are various attempts in past and present philosophy to justify our reliance on others, which prima facie contradicts the intellectual autonomy that is required for acquiring justified beliefs. Reductionist, say, “humean” approaches reduce the assessment of the reliability of testimonial reports to that of any other kind of evidence, that is, an inductive inference on the probability of its truth. Antireductionist approaches see trust in testimony as a basic channel for acquiring information, not reducible to more fundamental mechanisms such as perception or inference, and ground it in some innate psychological bias (as Reid’s principle of credulity) or structural properties of language: for example, Tyler Burge argues that language is a purely preservative process - as memory - that preserves meanings through communication, and it is this structural feature of language that entitles us to believe what we are told. Reliance on testimonial reports is thus for Burge a priori warranted by the preservative nature of the linguistic channel. Anthony Coady invokes a “davidsonian” charity principle as a warrant for testimonial reports: we cannot interpret others without presuming that much of what they say is true. Hence, a presumption of truth is automatically elicited, according to Coady, by any act of linguistic communication, otherwise language could not have ever stabilized among humans as a mean of communication. Language and trust thus come together and the very fact that we are language users warrants our default trust in other people’s reports. Other contemporary approaches base the coherence of granting intellectual authority to others on the acknowledgment that our own cognition is continuously and thoroughly shaped by others in everyday life and in our development, so it would be unreasonable not to grant others intellectual authority if we grant it to ourselves, given that the way in which we think is determined in a fundamental way by our interactions with others. [1]
Antireductionist approaches are appealing because our cognitive dependence on information that comes through language and that we are not able to check on our own is such a permanent condition of our mental life that there must be at least a prima facie justification in accepting what other people say without further inquiry. In most cases we simply do not have enough non-testimonial information to make an inductive inference about the reliability of our informants. Still, although the contrast between reductionist and antireductionist approaches has dominated the epistemology of testimonial knowledge for a while, one can acknowledge that there is no way out to our epistemic dependence -because testimonial access to knowledge is too ubiquitous- without granting any a priori justification to testimony. For example, Elisabeth Fricker [2] has recently argued that, even if cognitive autonomy is an ill-founded epistemological ideal, we can always check our epistemic dependence out of principles of epistemic propriety that warrant our deference to others. Even when we lack any evidential access, we are able to check - thanks to our folk-psychological competences - various cues of sincerity and competence, hence to reduce our deference to others to a set of warranted inferences about the reliability of our informants.
Surprisingly, most of these approaches don’t take into account the complex interplay between understanding and coming to believe that characterizes the rich inferential process of communication [3] . Understanding is considered either a precondition of trusting our interlocutors (see Fricker, cit., p. 28), or an outcome of linguistic communication ruled by language conventions (cf. Burge and Coady).

I would like to illustrate an alternative view on epistemic trust, that grounds it within the inferential process of communication. Knowledge from the words of others is not a two step process in which we first decode what other people say and then decide whether to accept or to reject what they say. Our trust in others influences what we come to believe from their words and, conversely, is influenced by what we understand.
I think that this approach is also an alternative way out from the opposition between reductionist and antireductionist approaches in epistemology of testimony, because it stresses the role of inferential processes in acquiring beliefs through others while invoking an autonomous notion of epistemic trust that is not reducible to the standard inductive inferences we make to confirm hypotheses about the world.

Trust, truthfulness and interpretation

A platitude that epistemology seems to ignore is that each social contagion of beliefs goes through a process of communication that varies from street-level conversation to more institutionalized settings of information exchange. People don’t just pack their ideas and then transfer them through language into other people’s heads. People talk, exchange opinions and mutually influence each other’s thoughts and convictions.
Philip Pettit and Michael Smith characterize the dynamic dimension of conversation conducted to epistemic effect in this way:

People do not set out just to form their own intellectual beliefs and then inform others of them. They listen to one another in the course of belief formation and they invest one another’s responses with potential importance. They are prepared often to change their own minds in the light of what they hear from others and, if they are not, then they usually feel obliged to make clear why they are not and why indeed the others should alter their views instead [4]

Epistemic standards and norms of discourse vary enormously: for example what is practically at stake in acquiring information influences what we come to know. We can accept from a friend in a dinner party a loose way of speaking about the alleged presence of a nuclear plan in Iran, while we would require a much greater commitment to the exactness of that information if what is at stake is a governmental decision to declare war to Iran. Nevertheless, it is interesting to notice how good we are in dealing with these “epistemic shifts” during conversation and adjust our interpretation and our demands of trustworthiness towards our interlocutors as the context varies. Here I would like to define a notion of stance of trust as the minimal reciprocal trust that participants into a communicative exchange must concede each other in order to understand and to be understood. How to define this form of trust in a way that allows for the continuous mutual adjustments through the dynamics of conversation?

Various attempts exist in philosophy to elucidate the nature of the presumption of trust that underlies all communicative interactions. Most of these attempts discuss the presumption of trust as a transcendental condition of linguistic communication, either by imposing as a constraint on linguistic interpretation a default attitude of holding true or accepting as true [5] what a speaker says, or by imposing constraints on the authority the subject’s commitment to the norms of conversation, which place the participants in a common space of reasons.
To give some examples, in his essay on Radical Interpretation Donald Davidson argues that a theory of interpretation must maximize agreement by making the interlocutors right as often as possible, thus generating a massive attribution of true beliefs [6] to them. But this doesn’t explain how this massive amount of true beliefs play a role in the real process of interpretation: most of the beliefs that will be automatically attributed to optimize interpretation are inert: they don’t play any active role in the interpretation of a particular sentence. Also, most of them are trivial, like the belief that rabbits are animals and that men are mortal, hence not immediately relevant to constraint our interpretation of what is being said. What such a normative principle doesn’t explain is the mechanisms that underlie a particular attribution of belief in a particular case.
Another possible candidate to explain the presumption of trust is David Lewis’ convention of truthfulness [7] as a way of achieving coordination among users of a language L. But it fails to explain on what bases in any particular context of communication we discriminate what our interlocutors say and don’t systematically come to believe all that they say. Lewis’ convention of truthfulness is, on one hand, too strong: it suffices that someone “wants to get the others to share some of his beliefs” and “he can accomplish his purpose by uttering sentences he takes to be true in L” [8] thanks to the existence of a regularity of truthful uses of L in the past that has shaped his interlocutors’ present expectations. But nobody comes to believe what others say just under the presumption of a truthful use of the language shared. The context of communication influence how we filter information and what we come to know. On the other hand, the principle is also too general for our purposes: it fails to explain what are the mechanisms that filter information in a given context of communication.

Paul Grice’s solution is a step forward to the understanding of the underlying mechanism of real interpretations. He describes the presumption of trust in terms of a maxim of truthfulness that we assume people intentionally conform to in conversational contexts. Any violation of this maxim biases the comprehension process towards a predictable interpretation of what the speaker meant. It is the recognition of a violation of a maxim, together with the assumption that the speaker intended to be cooperative, that makes the hearer adjust her interpretation of what the speaker meant. Of course Grice is not claiming that interlocutors are always genuinely cooperative: They can participate in a conversation in bad faith and try to deceive their audience, or be too incompetent to provide a truthful contribution to the conversation. What he is claiming is that the hearers interprets as if the speaker is speaking the truth, and that acts as a bias on his interpretation. Still, one may object that adopting a stance of trust in the truthfulness of what others say may seem a too rigid epistemic stance for comprehension. Each departure from the literal meaning of a sentence is, in his perspective, a violation of the maxim of truthfulness, and each recognition of a violation automatically biases the interpretation in search of the pragmatic implicatures that are required to justify the departure from truth. But epistemic standards may vary and even change during a single conversation: our epistemic tolerance seems higher than what Grice is willing to concede. Also, Grice’s maxims seem to play a role in interpretation ex post facto, that is, once that a sentence has been uttered the speaker reasons about it by following the maxims. But the stance of trust that guides interpretation seems to be there at the beginning of conversation: the very fact that someone intentionally addresses us his word to us is enough to making us adopt a stance of trust towards what he’s saying.
Other attempts [9] stress the role of the subject’s commitment to social norms in order to explain the presumption of trust that his speech acts elicits. The very fact that people endorse their assertions, thus take responsibilities on what they say, entitles us to be trustful. It is this normative commitment that explains, for some authors, the default trust we grant in conversation. Still, this requirement seems too strong and too limited to face to face conversation conducted to epistemic ends. As the example of Mr. Chance shows, a subject’s commitment to shared norms of linguistic conduct can be quite vague and underspecified by the context. Also, as I have stressed, the strength of these commitments vary in the dynamics of the conversation and hearers are able to adjust their trust accordingly.

Towards a pragmatics of trust

Instead of looking at trust just as a condition of possibility of interpretation, I think that the interplay between trust and interpretation that I want to highlight here is better understood by taking into account the pragmatic dimension of communication. It is within the rich inferential process of communication that we come to believe what other people say. Our almost permanent immersion in talks and direct or indirect conversations is the major source of cognitive vulnerability to other people beliefs and reports, even when the exchange is not particularly focused on knowledge acquisition [10] . Communication is a voluntary act. Each time we speak we are intentionally seeking the attention of our interlocutors and thus presenting what we have to say as potentially relevant for them. Each time we listen, we intentionally engage in an interpretation of what has been said, and expand our cognitive effort in order to make sense of what our interlocutor had in mind. It is remarkable how effortless and natural this process is: we don’t seem to make a series of heavy assumptions on the rationality of speakers, their commitments to shared norms of truth etc., rather we infer what they say in the context of our own thoughts and sometime we gain new insights about reality and may update or revise our beliefs. Contemporary pragmatics (cf. Sperber & Wilson 2002) makes the hypothesis that each act of communication elicits a presumption of relevance that guides interpretation. The search of relevant information is a general trait of our cognitive life. Communication is a special cognitive activity in which the search of relevant information is guided by our interlocutor. The simple fact that someone intentionally tries to attract our attention towards his words elicits a presumption of trust in the relevance of what he says. We adjust our interpretation in order to satisfy this presumption, and this adjustment takes into account the credibility and benevolence of our interlocutors. An act of communication thus not only elicits a series of social reciprocal expectations (as in Goffman) but a mutual cognitive environment of shared thoughts and hypothesis that is sustained by the stance of trust we adopt towards our interlocutors in providing us relevant information.
So, to adopt a stance of trust in our interlocutors means to accept a degree of cognitive vulnerability to share with them a number of assumptions, representations and hypothesis that are elicited “for the sake of the conversation”. We do not trust our interlocutosr to provide us with knowledge. This seems an irrealistic epistemic aim and implies a too restrictive view of linguistic communication as a matter of information transfer. We happen to acquire knowledge through communication by reworking what we’re been told in the context of our own thoughts and epistemic objectives, as in the example I have discussed above.
Thus trust in conversation is in a sense a sort of “virtual trust” that doesn’t commit us to accept as true what is said in conversation. We may take the risk to trust the speakers willingness to be relevant and yet check her trustfulness and reliability through the process of interpretation. But without previous virtual trust, that acts as a sort of “presumption of innocence” we won’t be able to share enough resources with our interlocutors in order to succeed in communication.
A stance of trust is both fundamental and fragile: it is fundamental in the sense that it is elicited by any act of communication; but it is fragile because we can revise it at any time if new evidence becomes available. To adopt a stance of trust is thus compatible with the cognitive autonomy necessary to our thought. To be trustful doesn’t mean to be gullible, but only to accept the cognitive vulnerability that each commitment to a verbal exchange implies, that is, the vulnerability of sharing a world of thoughts with others.


1 See for example R. Foley (2001), chapter 4.
2 See E. Fricker (forthcoming).
3 An exception is Richard Moran (2005) who argues in the line of Angus Ross (1986) that the speech act of telling has a special epistemic function, that is, it has not the function to provide the hearer with a piece of evidence about the world, rather to bind speaker and hearer in a normative relationship of mutual expectations of responsibility.
4 Cf. P. Pettit & M. Smith (1996), p. 430.
5 For this formulation, see Davidson (1975), p. 161.
6 Cf. Donald Davidson (1973) p. 136.
7 Cf. D. Lewis (1969), p.177-195 and Lewis (1983) « Langage and Languages », in Philosophical Papers, vol. 1, Oxford University Press, pp. 160-
8 Cf. Lewis (1969) p. 177 passim.
9 I am thinking of Robert Brandom’s normative pragmatics in Making it Explicit, and Richard Moran’s discussion of the role of the speaker’s explicit assumption of responsibility for his statement as a key ingredient of our interpretation (cf. Moran 2005).
10 On the fortuitous character of lot of our knowledge, cf. R. Hardin: “If it Rained Knowledge”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 33, pp. 3-24; and [2004] “Why Know?’ manuscript. Cf. also Jennifer Lackey: “Knowledge is not necessarily transmitted via testimony, but testimony can itself generate knowledge” [Jennifer Lackey (1999) “Testimonial Knowledge and Transmission”, The Philosophical Quarterly, 199, p. 490, vol. 49 n. 197]


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