October 22, 2006

Alive! And Something about Assertion

I was thinking of putting the blog on official hiatus, for reasons related to this and partly for other reasons (e.g.: busy), but I think I'm not going to. Instead I'm just going to update really really infrequently.

This is inspired partly by the presence of some dialogue somewhat of philosophical interest in The Illusionist, which is very spoilery so I've put it below the jump. I can reveal an anti-spoiler, though; the plot of the movie differs in several key respects from the plot of the story, "Eisenheim the Illusionist" by Steven Millhauser. For instance, in the story the crown prince doesn't appear, and the Jessica Biel character is not a childhood friend or a countess nor very important at all. So, you know, some changes.

Also (political) I endorse this.


One time, when Uhl is interrogating Eisenheim, Eisenheim says something like, "Would the people support the crown prince if they knew he was a murderer?"
Uhl responds, "You don't know that!" Eisenheim says, "No, but you do."

When I saw this scene my first thought was that it was another blow against the knowledge account of assertion. If knowledge required assertion, then Eisenheim's "No but you do" would be improper; he cannot assert that Uhl knows that the prince is a murderer without knowing that Uhl knows that the prince is a murderer, which means that he himself knows that the prince is a murderer; but he himself has just denied this. Whereas the truth account of assertion can handle this; if it is true that the prince is a murderer and that Uhl knows this, and Eisenheim has some reason to believe this but doesn't know it, then Eisenheim's assertion is true and perfectly proper.

Of course the mere truth of Eisenheim's assertion doesn't let him off the hook on the truth account; if he luckily asserted something true without having any reason for it, we would criticize him for asserting without justification even if he'd randomly managed to guess the truth. There has to be some account of how what Eisenheim says can be true and he can have some reason for thinking it without knowing it. In the movie the reason appears to be this: Eisenheim has discovered Sophie's body and knows that the crown prince was the one who was most likely to kill her, but has no concrete evidence for this. And Uhl's shifty appearance (he's Paul Giamatti, for chrissakes) indicates to Eisenheim that he's hiding something, that he may have come across concrete evidence that the crown prince murdered Sophie. For that matter, so does saying "You don't know that!" instead of "He is not!" So Eisenheim doesn't have any direct evidence for either half of his assertion, but he has the sort of indirect evidence that gives him a well-grounded guess.

Now [REALLY BIG SPOILER] at the very end of the movie it turns out that this is all wrong. Eisenheim and Sophie faked her murder and planted all the evidence incriminating the crown prince. So what Eisenheim says is false, and he's simply manipulating Uhl. Nevertheless, I think the scene still tells somewhat against the knowledge account; Eisenheim is trying to convey to Uhl more or less what I described in the above scene.

In fairness, knowledge account defenders can probably handle this scene by arguing that Eisenheim is not seriously asserting or seriously denying knowledge. And the fact that Uhl says "You don't know that!" seems to give some support to the knowledge account.

Posted by Matt Weiner at 09:08 AM | Comments (4)