Thursday, October 16, 2014

Philosophers' Carnival #168

The new Philosophers' Carnival is here, featuring A Bag of RaisinsJon Cogburn's Blog, and this blog, among others. Thanks to Tristan Haze for the link.

On my post ("The Truth in Relativism") Tristan writes:
It's not clear to me from the post what the scope of the relativism is that he has in mind (is he talking about the subject matter of philosophy? or all subject matter?), and I don't find myself resonating with much of it.
I've added some links to the post that might help clarify what I'm talking about, but I'll try to say a little about it here too. I had in mind a very general kind of relativism, what Russell calls "the view which substitutes the consensus of opinion for an objective standard." This view might be held with regard to ethics, say, or to anything else. It seems to me that it can seem that we really have nothing to go on but the consensus of opinion. Don't we decide both matters of empirical fact and ethical questions in this way? (I'm not saying that we do, or don't. I'm saying that it can seem this way.) And maybe everything else too. (Some people seem to talk as if they think this way, at least.) Hence the consensus of opinion is the measure of all things.

But I think that a better measure of opinion than taking a poll is looking at what people actually do. And this includes the way they use words. So step one towards an improved version of relativism is to judge matters of fact, ethics, or whatever it might be by how people ordinarily talk about such things. What is called a fact, what is called right, and so on. (And the "and so on" ought to cover a wide range, including what people actually do as well as what they say they think they ought to do.)

When we take this step we should see that 'right' does not mean (is not used synonymously with) 'considered by the majority to be right' and that 'fact' does not mean 'generally regarded as a fact'. If the consensus of opinion is our guide then we must speak with the vulgar, and the vulgar speak like realists. But they don't mean the philosophically objectionable things that realists mean. So we must speak and think with the vulgar in the sense of not reading philosophical mistakes like platonism into ordinary language, despite the learned temptation (compulsion, almost irresistible tendency) to do so. We must understand, that is, that language does not have--in itself--the metaphysical implications that we think it does (and that, therefore, it really does have, though only for us, not in itself ). So step two is rejecting anything that it would make sense to call relativism and going back to ordinary ways of talking, but rinsed free of the problematic philosophical entanglements that we had found there.

The more I write about this the more convinced I am that it's right but also the more I think I'm just repeating Wittgenstein. (By which I don't mean everything Wittgenstein ever wrote.) So I don't mean to take credit for ideas that aren't mine. But I don't mean to saddle Wittgenstein with my mistakes either. If this sounds like a (crude, blog-post) version of Wittgenstein then good. Perhaps I still haven't explained what I mean well enough for anybody to be able to tell though.


  1. Insofar as I understand you I agree with you. We tend to think things must either be objective or subjective - ie, either definitively provable or just a matter of opinion. (That's similar to the way we tend think things must either be rational or irrational, familiar or unfamiliar, etc.) But that's an assumption. And it seems to me that if you actually look at our moral behaviour (including our moral pronouncements) things are not nearly so clear-cut.

    1. Yes, and once we realize how much subjectivity comes into things, we might exaggerate its importance, or deny that anything is ever objective.

      Tristan Haze writes:

      It has often been observed (most saliently in my memory by my former teacher Adrian Heathcote, in unpublished writings) that relativism about truth appeals to people in some domains, such as morality and aesthetics, where it would never seem appealing in others. And so the general, woolly-seeming doctrine that all truth is relative can be and often is condemned as being based on a far too narrow diet of examples: you may be tempted to say such a thing after considering some moral or aesthetic matter (for instance), but with other matters such as basic geography or facts about how many chairs there are in some easily observable room, the notion that something may be true for me, while something else is true for you, would never occur to anyone, and seems completely absurd.

      I agree with this, but the fact that we all agree how many chairs are in the room (to take that example) is surely important. And then it might seem that an objective fact is simply one on which we all agree. So it's still subjective, and relative, but relative to the majority, not each individual's perception. And perhaps the majority of one group or culture would have a different view from the majority of some other group. (Especially if one culture has the concept 'chair' and another does not.)

      This type of thinking can lead, I think, to the view that there is no such thing as objectivity, just varying degrees (at most) of subjectivity. Everything depends on the majority view, or on the consensus of opinion.

      And that can seem like a real insight, seeing through the naive myths that others foolishly cling to. There is no Truth-with-a-capital-T to be found, it's all just different people's opinions! That kind of thing. And then you can start analyzing the power structures that cause some people's opinions to count for more than others. And so on.

      I'm not saying that people should not analyze power structures, but I think that the supposedly non-naive view fails to follow through on what insight it contains. It's OK to reject belief in a platonic truth-with-a-capital-T, but it's not OK to think that everyone who talks about truth is talking about this platonic myth. To be truly perceptive we need to look at how people actually use words, and when we do we will see that they don't always use the word 'truth' (and related words like 'fact') in some problematically platonist or theological way. And what goes for 'truth' and 'fact' also goes for concepts like objectivity.

      But I don't know whether I'm adding any clarity, just repeating myself, or actually muddying the waters even more.

    2. Yes. There is no truth with a capital T, but that doesn't mean it's down to the consensus or people's opinions. And, as you hinted at a couple of posts ago (if I read you right) Wittgenstein skewered that tempting response in 241: "What is true or false is what human beings say; and it is in their language that human beings agree. This is agreement no in opinions, but rather in forms of life."

      "That's immoral" doesn't mean either "I personally think that's wrong but you do what you want" OR "most people disapprove of that so you shouldn't either".

    3. Exactly. And don't just take a look (quickly concluding that things are just as they seem at first glance) but keep looking, and look around.