Monday, August 14, 2006

On the Nature of Things

In the early chapters of his recent book, Paul Boghossian considers a generalized relativism about facts that he attributes, with some hesitation, to Richard Rorty. The idea is to make sense of Rorty's remarks about the equal validity of conflicting worldviews – like those of Galileo and Cardinal Bellarmine – by interpreting their claims as follows:
According to such-and-such theory, which we accept: p.
Rorty is therefore saved from self-contradiction: when he insists that two conflicting views are equally valid, he is not committed to the truth of both p and not-p.

According to Boghossian, however, a problem remains. We cannot make sense of sentences like the one that appears above without conceding their absolute truth, or initiating a vicious regress on which the facts take an infinitary form:
According to such-and-such theory, which we accept, there is a theory we accept, and according to this latter theory, there is a theory we accept…according to which: p.
Such facts would correspond to "propositions that we could neither express nor understand".

It is true that Rorty interpretation is "tricky" – as Boghossian complains in a footnote – but this is not the only way to conceive his view. We are led to the relativistic theory if we take "conflicting" to mean "contradictory", so that conflicting theories cannot both be true. There is an alternative pragmatist reading, which attends to the rhetoric of passages like this:
Given that it pays to talk about mountains, as it certainly does, one of the obvious truths about mountains is that they were here before we talked about them. If you do not believe that, you probably do not know how to play the language games that employ the word "mountain." But the reality of those language games has nothing to do with the question of whether Reality as it is in Itself, apart from the way in which it is handy for human beings to describe it, has mountains in it.
Here, and elsewhere, the picture seems to be one in which propositions about mountains are simply true, as we can see when we use them to think about the world. The question is whether it pays to do so. In the background is a theory of intentionality on which employing a concept is a matter not only of inferential habits but habits of action. The kind of conflict that reality does not resolve is not between p and not-p, but between families of propositions that do not contradict one another, but whose concepts are incompatible in practice: one cannot act on both conceptual schemes at once.

This approach is tempting for pejoratives: a natural response to propositions about "Krauts" is not to contradict them, but to refuse the concept, even though one knows what it would it be to use it. (Hence the scare-quotes in the previous sentence.) This analogy is invoked by Rorty, when he refers to "true" and "justified" as "compliments we pay to propositions".

On this form of conceptual pragmatism, we dispense with the relativity that Boghossian finds troubling. But we still get to say that no language game is favoured by "Reality as it is in Itself": the choice of concepts is not a matter of correspondence, but of whether it pays to think of mountains or molecules, or both, of justification-as-science or justification-as-scripture. In this limited sense, "there is no description-independent way the world is".

In the end, I don't think any of this can be sustained. But its confusions are at least a bit more subtle than those of the relativist. One puzzle emerges when we try to think through a case of conflict, in which we respond to practical inconsistency by rejecting another's concepts altogether. If we do not understand those concepts, the disagreement makes no sense. But if the concepts are ones that we can grasp, it is unclear what we can say to ourselves in setting them aside. As pragmatists, we are not permitted to deny the claims of our interlocutor, since they are on a par with our own and do not contradict them. What we have to say is something like, "That's quite true – but it's not how we think about these things." The problem is that one can't acknowledge the truth of a proposition without being compelled to think it. Once we are inside the alien perspective, there is no rational way to give it up – short of concluding that its claims are not correct.

I doubt that this perplexity amounts to a refutation, or that the interpretation I have sketched is exactly right. But in its attention to the pragmatist theme, it seems to me more promising than the forms of relativism – global and epistemic – that Boghossian's book confronts.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's the use of prgamatism?

The way Rorty tells it (in the papers in Consequences Of Pragmatism, at least), it's all about not bothering any more about the realist/anti-realist debate about truth and reference and just getting along accepting that various kinds of statement can be true, without needing a theory of truth that works the same way in all cases.

Unfortunately this requires it to be the case that no one (apart from philosophers) actually cares about the truth-debate, or takes it that the realist conception is involved in what they are doing. A scientist who thinks that realism/anti-realism is a live debate when applied to quantum theory, for example, would have to be just misguided, according to Rorty. But how can he insist on that?

The trouble lies in the widespread myth that science is useful. Most of it isn't. Engineering is useful, but not science, as Richard Braithwaite insisted. Most science is only useful in the trivial sense of helping us to settle scientific questions - but in that case it is useful as a guide to truth, or at least the scientists may freely conceive it as such. But then the pragmatist view does not supplant the R/AR debate in the way Rorty imagined it would. (JN)

5:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rorty is most plausible in the light of stories like this one - in which there really isn't anything more to the question "Is Pluto a planet?" beyond our willingness to classify it as such (rather than as a large asteroid, or some other term).

Trouble is, not all scientific questions, or factual questions in general, are as simple as that. The planets are a quite discrete class of items, and how we split and divide them has no influence on life down here (cf: Goodman's comments about "making the stars", deriving from the plasticity of constellations).

It's less plausible to suggest that terms like "material object", "organism", "mind" etc. are open to arbitrary reclassification because we use them in many different locales and contexts. We can't just start changing the rules in one place without making trouble in another one.

That seems to me to be the trouble with Goodman's claims. It's quite right that constellations are arbitrary - plenty of them were invented and later abolished when the invention of the telescope made lots of "new" stars visible. But that plasticity doesn't extnd to the stars themselves, because they are a subset of material objects. And to reply, as Goodman did, "which part of the stars did we not make?" merely deserves the answer "All of them - unless you are using "make" and "part" with radical new meanings".

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The definition debate rumbles on...

5:52 AM  
Blogger Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Aside from what Boghossian says Rorty says (which may or not be what Rorty says) would Rorty be so silly as to assert “the equal validity of conflicting worldviews”? Rorty could say that philosophy’s efforts over its long history to find a definitive or absolute way to determine which of varying worldviews is absolutely true has not been successful. So let’s not pursue that. Setting that project aside, he would deny the equal validity of conflicting worldviews. As you write, he could say, this worldview is (pragmatically) better for these reasons and (pragmatically) worse for these reasons.

So the question is: Equally valid on what level of analysis? You get the feeling with Boghossian that the constructivist has to make some absolute, yes-or-no statement or say nothing. He’s been criticised for this, a few years ago, by Barbara Herrnstein Smith who tried to correct his dramatic misperceptions of constructivism in her reply to his critique of her. His recent book from 2006 doesn’t even cite Herrnstein Smith’s rebuttal. His characterization of constructivism is terribly skewed. He can’t imagine it as it is, but needs to fit it into his analytic framework, even after she told him that that was what he was doing. The constuctivists must be asserting things in the way he says they do because he can’t conceive of another way. One suspicious indicator of this is his getting quotes of some constructivists not from their own books but from the books of other constructivist critics, like Alan Sokal.

In addition, Boghossian supposedly dispatches Goodman’s “stars” argument by asserting that there must be some ultimate stuff that is used to make the stars, or molecules or particles. But this has been answered by Goodman himself in reply to Putnam and, more recently than that, by Robert Schwartz in two articles where Schwartz even uses the same baking metaphor that Boghossian uses. But with Schwartz’s metaphor the ultimate stuff that must exist disappears or shifts around depending on the world one is mentally inhabiting. You’d think a professional philosopher like Boghossian would deal with the leading edge of the argument.

You write: “As pragmatists, we are not permitted to deny the claims of our interlocutor, since they are on a par with our own and do not contradict them.” I appreciate your tentativeness in exploring this puzzle, but would the pragmatist say this? The pragmatist can do a lot of denying short of asserting the absolute truth of his perspective. Our perspectives are on an a par absolutely (so the question of why I believe what I believe and you believe what you believe is interesting) but if we are not discussing on that level then there is a lot to discuss, deny and agree with.

Regarding Goodman’s argument about us “making” stars. The use of “make” may be radically new. Goodman’s perspective on it is new, but its newness doesn’t matter, its coherence does. Goodman is saying that we make (construct) with our words and concepts as they’ve come to us through cultural history. We don’t realize how much fashioning of the world we do. Even the distinction between the literal and figurative is historically contingent. It’s radically new to understand the degree to which we can conceive of how we fashion with words.

5:55 PM  

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