Saturday, October 4, 2014

The truth in relativism?

[This post is a follow-up to this comment and subsequent comments here and here. Knowing this won't make what follows crystal clear, but it might help.]

Bertrand Russell writes (about Plato's political philosophy):
Two general questions arise in confronting Plato with modern ideas. The first is: Is there such a thing as "wisdom"? The second is: Granted that there is such a thing, can any constitution be devised that will give it political power?
"Wisdom," in the sense supposed, would not be any kind of specialized skill, such as is possessed by the shoemaker or the physician or the military tactician. It must be something more generalized than this, since its possession is supposed to make a man capable of governing wisely. I think Plato would have said that it consists in knowledge of the good, and would have supplemented this definition with the Socratic doctrine that no man sins wittingly, from which it follows that whoever knows what is good does what is right. To us, such a view seems remote from reality.
That seems right. As does this:
It should be observed, further, that the view which substitutes the consensus of opinion for an objective standard has certain consequences that few would accept. What are we to say of scientific innovators like Galileo, who advocate an opinion with which few agree, but finally win the support of almost everybody? They do so by means of arguments, not by emotional appeals or state propaganda or the use of force. This implies a criterion other than the general opinion. In ethical matters, there is something analogous in the case of the great religious teachers. Christ taught that it is not wrong to pluck ears of corn on the Sabbath, but that it is wrong to hate your enemies. Such ethical innovations obviously imply some standard other than majority opinion, but the standard, whatever it is, is not objective fact, as in a scientific question. This problem is a difficult one, and I do not profess to be able to solve it.
The first of these passages raises a question about what a philosopher might be. Surely not a lover of wisdom if wisdom does not exist. The first sentence of the second passage points out that the consensus of opinion is against the idea that the consensus of opinion is the standard of truth/rightness (i.e. the idea that I think of as relativism). In other words, as is well known, simple relativism undermines itself.

Rejecting platonism in favor of something like relativism leads to the idea that there is a standard other than majority opinion, but not an objective fact of the kind found in science. I think this is right. And it suggests also that philosophy is, or at least perhaps might be, the teasing out of this kind implication and the clarification of its not being an instance of various kinds of mistake (such as platonism and relativism) despite appearances to the contrary. This "something like relativism" rejects views that "seem to us remote from reality" and that "few would accept." Not in a superficial way though. It does not, for instance, simply take platonism and then substitute the consensus of opinion for an objective standard. That would lead to a conservatism that few would accept. Instead it investigates our language from the inside, looking not so much at opinions as they might be reported to outside observers but at what we say and would say. And we can know what we would say because the 'we' in question includes us. Of course sometimes we might be divided, and then one can only speak for those who think like oneself, but this need not be a big problem in many cases.

This is what I mean when I say that relativism properly thought through leads to ordinary language philosophy. I can't say that I have properly thought this through myself, though, so I could be wrong. Or it might have been said much better long ago. Or both.



    1. sure, helped me translate from continental-pomo to OLP.

  2. Of Socrates Russell writes:

    ––The oracle of Delphi, it appears, was once asked if there were any man wiser than Socrates, and replied that there was not. Socrates professes to have been completely puzzled, since he knew nothing, and yet a god cannot lie. He therefore went about among men reputed wise, to see whether he could convict the god of error. First he went to a politician, who "was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself." He soon found that the man was not wise, and explained this to him, kindly but firmly, "and the consequence was that he hated me." He then went to the poets, and asked them to explain passages in their writings, but they were unable to do so. "Then I knew that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration." Then he went to the artisans, but found them equally disappointing. In the process, he says, he made many dangerous enemies. Finally he concluded that "God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name by way of illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing." This business of showing up pretenders to wisdom takes up all his time, and has left him in utter poverty, but he feels it a duty to vindicate the oracle.––

    This precedes the first passage you quote. I find it suspect (as I do much of what surrounds it) because Russell ends it by saying that Socrates made it his business to show up pretenders. As if that were in any way an honest description of what Socrates was doing: some sort of sophistry or point-scoring (as is the rule in these times).

    And of course this may be because Russell thinks Socrates was wasteful since he did not, in contrast to Russell, think of himself as having something to say, i.e. as someone who had knowledge to sell or impart. So it follows that if one applies modern ideas of what is useful (the cash value of everything) to philosophy Socrates is found wanting. Especially since "wisdom" is not something that can be taught as there is no curriculum.

    Kierkegaard would say it is something that one brings forth from the ground of the learner. On this I think Kierkegaard, following Socrates, had e.g. the example of Meno's slave in mind.

    Wittgenstein too, I believe, had the same or a like conception when he spoke of philosophy as being free of doctrine and theory—that it leaves everything as it is. (Seeing the world aright is not conditional upon new data.) So in a sense wisdom is not a thing one can have or possess as one has coins in one's pocket or a diploma (or several) behind one's desk.

    What Russell has written here says a great deal about Russell or the modern, if one takes Russell to be the vessel of the modern. But what he hasy to say one Socrates, Plato, wisdom etc., is ... well, as Wittgenstein said to Drury: "Russell's books should be bound in two colours: those dealing with mathematical logic in red—and all students of philosophy should read them; those dealing with ethics and politics in blue—and no one should be allowed to read them." (Recollections of Wittgenstein,* ed. R. Rhees, Oxford 1984, p. 112.)

    Having read the book you linked to (not having ever read it before, so thank you) I think that is sound judgment.

  3. But this book, like The Problems of Philosophy, doesn't really fall into either of Wittgenstein's categories. It certainly has faults, but I don't think it's all bad. I'm sorry you didn't like it.

    Here's another related passage from later in the book:

    The Protagorean position, rightly interpreted, does not involve the view that I never make mistakes, but only that the evidence of my mistakes must appear to me. My past self can be judged just as another person can
    be judged. But all this presupposes that, as regards inferences as opposed to percepts, there is some impersonal standard of correctness. If any inference that I happen to draw is just as good as any other, then the intellectual anarchy that Plato deduces from Protagoras does in fact follow. On this point, therefore, which is an important one, Plato seems to be in the right. But the empiricist would say that perceptions are the test of correctness in inference in empirical material.

    This also seems right to me.

    In general Russell is sometimes good and sometimes bad, and he tends to be good when he writes about logic (not that I think he's always right), less good when it comes to other subjects, especially religion. For instance, I think this is crude: The Egyptians were preoccupied with death, and believed that the souls of the dead descend into the underworld,
    where they are judged by Osiris according to the manner of their life on earth. They thought that the soul would ultimately return to the body; this led to mummification and to the construction of splendid tombs.

    So I sympathize with Wittgenstein's remark, but I certainly wouldn't say that no one should be allowed to read Russell's popular philosophical works (apart from the one on mathematical philosophy).

  4. Hi Duncan,

    I just (re?)disovered your blog and included this post in this month's edition of the Philosophers' Carnival.

    This post motivated me to put pen to paper today and do a post I had been meaning to get around to, on my view of, as you put it, the truth in relativism. It's called Granularity and Relativism about Truth.

    It doesn't engage directly with this post, so pardon me if this is a slightly annoying comment.

    All the best and keep blogging.

    1. It's not annoying at all! I'm glad I was able to help inspire your post in some way.

      And thanks for including the post in the Philosophers' Carnival.

  5. Truth is probably inaccessible, given that we all have an intact personal experience of unknown "cause" for our reasoning. From our ongoing subjective thoughts and feelings, we assume "the world out there and oneself within it" are realities rather than mere figments. Until we know how that subjective experience of "intelligence" arises, we cannot rely upon its fleeting character. That is the problem with Truth.

    Proof is another issue, as it involves levels of satisfaction with what we construct in our minds as the purported "truth", "out there", beyond the subjective experience. I write about all of this in considerable depth in my free book on skydrive Read pages 7 - 10 then proceed to chapter 11 if it interests you.

    1. I wouldn't say that we assume that the world and ourselves are realities. I think it's built into the meaning of 'world' and 'reality' that the world is real. To put it another way, 'world' and 'reality' are pretty much synonyms. truth, I would say, is something like the set of all truths (or "true truths" if we need to distinguish these truths from what people like to call, e.g., "my truth"), and these are the same as facts. Many people are skeptical about Truth. Fewer are skeptical about facts.

      But no doubt there are mysteries we do not understand and things we do not know.

      Thanks for the link to your book.