Sunday, October 2, 2016

Command and Assertion

I have started reading Newman's An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. It is clearly written, as one would expect. It is also closely written, to be read slowly and carefully.

I am still in the early pages, where Newman lays out the forms of propositions, interrogative, conditional, and categorical, corresponding to the ways or modes of holding them: doubt, inference, and assent. On the second page appears the paragraph
No one is likely to deny that a question is distinct both from a conclusion and from an assertion; and an assertion will be found to be equally distinct from a conclusion. For, if we rest our affirmation on arguments, this shows that we are not asserting; and when we assert, we do not argue. An assertion is a distinct from a conclusion, as a word of command is from a persuasion or recommendation. Command and assertion, as such, both of them, in their different ways, dispense with, discard, ignore antecedents of any kind, though antecedents may have been a sine qua non condition of their being elicited. They both carry with them the pretension of being personal acts.
The passage recalled a paragraph from Herbert Simon's memoirs, Models of My Life, from his early years teaching at Carnegie Tech (as it then was):
Once when I was auditing [Elliot Dunlap Smith's] class (for a time he hoped that I would understudy him, but ultimately let me go my own way), he made a particularly sweeping statement, then turned to me and asked, "Isn't that so, Professor Simon?" My father had carefully taught me, "Never sign in the presence of the salesman," and I had learned that valuable lesson well, to the point of reflexive response. Recovering from my momentary shock, I quickly replied, "On the whole, it seems reasonable." Smith turned to the class and, his voice dripping with sarcasm, said, "Professor Simon says on the whole it seems reasonable. I tell you it's so."
 There I think is a good illustration of the difference between the categorical and conditional proposition, and of the personal nature both of assertion and command.


  1. Now I know better what you are reading! I wonder what I would read if I did not read in service of particular purposes--often gathering background for some project. I like the anecdote of senior and junior on the academic tilting field and how you use it.

  2. I remember long ago reading an essay on T.S. Eliot, in which Eliot, whether as banter or in earnest, spoke of the burden of always reading pen in hand. The essay may have been by Empson; it was collected in a book of essays introduced and collected by Hugh Kenner. And it was a review by Kenner, in the magazine Byte, that made me hunt up Simon's book.

    But it is one of the privileges of the amateur to read whatever comes to hand and catches the attention, I suppose. I guess that is something like the privilege of the recreational runner, to take a path through the woods and not go to the track for interval work.