Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Jonathan Rée on Relativism & Objective Truth

Jonathan Rée has a problem with the word ‘objective’ when used in the context of the phrase ‘objective truth’. Like Frank Ramsey in the case of p and 'p is true', the addition of ‘is true’ and ‘objective’ doesn't add anything to the sentence or to the proposition which is true:

I mean it’s ludicrous to think that adding the word “objective” makes a truth any more true. There is a very important distinction between propositions that are true and propositions that are false. But I don’t know what further distinction is intended by adding the word 'objective'. It is simply a rhetorical move that does mischief to the whole debate.” (196)

So what does the word ‘objective’, as in ‘p is objectively true’ add to that locution? Is it about the impartiality of the statement or even about the impartiality of the speaker who asserts p?

Perhaps it's objective because it's about objects – that is, facts. Or it may be objective because it's not subjective – it's not a subjective truth, a truth simply about the speaker’s personal opinions rather than about hard matters of fact. What is the difference between

  1. 2 + 2 = 4’ is true.


  1. 2 + 2 = 4’ is objectively true.

There is no real difference. The difference, if there is a difference, is that they are two different ‘speech acts’ or that they have different ‘illocutionary forces’. That is, the latter doesn't add anything to the proposition itself; though it does add something to the force of the speaker’s locution.

The illocutionary force, according to Rée, is simply ‘a rhetorical move’. It's an attempt, perhaps, to hint that what the speaker is saying is true in an extra-special sense – more than true, objectively true.

Basically, Rée thinks that the use of the word ‘objective’ is a ‘rhetorical move’ in the relativism-objectivism debate; though one which actually “does mischief to the whole debate” because the use of that word doesn’t actually get us anywhere or make the terms of the debate any clearer.

Despite all that, Rée goes on to make what seems to be a relativistic point about truth when he says:

What people need to understand is that the only truths that are available to us are those of specific historical contexts, but that they are no less true for that.” (196)

Perhaps the operative words here are “available to us” as in “the only truths that are available to us are those of specific historical contexts” (196). This may be an epistemic point in that we only have access to truths as they appear in specific historical contexts. That is, they must appear in some context or even that they must appear in some context or other. Truths don't float free of the world or of their specific historical or social contexts. More precisely, the truths that are given to us, as it were, are given to us care-off certain historical or social contexts.

Perhaps it couldn't be any other way. After all, all truths are given us in the guise of a particular contingent language with its equally contingent words or concepts. And these languages - these words or concepts - are bound to colour what it is that is said by them. There is no artificial or ideal language that can break free of its many contexts and somehow describe the world or its properties in some kind of algorithmic manner (outside logic and mathematics, that is).

If truths are context-dependent, if not context-relative, then it may still be the case that truths “are no less true for that” (196) if there's no alternative but to recognise the social context or context-sensitivity of truth. If there are no free-floating truths, then context-sensitivity can't be avoided. Just because truths are expressed in contingent languages (with their contingent words and concepts), that doesn’t make them any less true. Perhaps the contingency of language is not passed on to the truths expressed in such a language. However, that seems hard to accept. Perhaps contingency is transitive or iterative in these respects.

Ree on Objectivity and Intersubjectivity

Jonathan Ree then brings Richard Rorty into to the debate and endorses his view that we should talk about ‘intersubjectivity’ rather than ‘objectivity’. After all, if the word ‘objective’ is little more than a ‘rhetorical move’ in philosophical debates in which the ‘objectivist’ can always trump the ‘relativist’ with his use of the self-complimentary word ‘objective’, then perhaps we should leave that word well alone:

I think this is why Rorty, who is quite wise about this matter, says that you should talk about intersubjectivity rather than objectivity. The question is not about different realities and how they connect up, but different conceptions, different vocabularies, and how they connect up. What you need to do is to experiment with trying to have conversations with people and to see whether you can negotiate some kind of linkage between the way that you’re talking about things and the way that they do.” (197)

Firstly, we can say that if ‘intersubjectivity’ is little more than a synonym for ‘objectivity’ then there is little point in substituting the former word for the latter word. So intersubjectivity must be something more than objectivity. Either that, or objectivity isn't really something to be more than - or to be different to - if what Ree said earlier is correct and that ‘objectively true’ amounts to nothing more than a ‘rhetorical move’ or an ‘empty compliment’ paid to the speakers truth-claim or belief.

For a start, intersubjectivity is evidently about communal agreement and the agreements communities or different kinds have on rule-following and what the terms of the debate or discussion are. Objectivity, on the other hand, is something someone can have, or claim to have, all on his own despite what others think – even others within his own community or his own specialism.

To follow a Wittgensteinian line. If knowledge in splendid isolation makes little sense, then perhaps we can say the same about private objectivity – after all, doesn’t one need knowledge to have objectivity?

It's also interesting that Ree, and even Rorty, don't go as far as, say, Nelson Goodman and talk about ‘world-versions’. Instead, what Ree says is that this debate is not about “different realities and how they connect up” (197). It's about “different conceptions, different vocabularies, and how they connect up” (197).

So we all share the same world. We just happen to say different things about that same world. And that isn't surprising, at last not on the same scale.

There's a table in front of both me and you. It's the same table. However, that table’s very existence and even its nature won't guarantee that both you and I will say the same things about it. You may say that “It’s a fine example of Chippendale furniture”; whereas I may say that “It’s a nice size for a family”. These different ‘conceptions’ of the table don't contradict each other. However, they do reflect how it is we look at it. After all, you may not have a family and I may never have heard of Chippendale. And as it's often said, the physicist would say things that are remarkably at odds with what both you and I say about the table. He may say that “It’s made up mainly of empty space” or whatever. But that doesn’t contradict what we’ve said either. It's still the same table which we're talking about but we're talking about it in different ways. Some philosophers would even say that “It’s a portion of physical reality that is shaped table-wise”. None of this really matters if we're talking about the very same segment of reality or even the very same object. The physicist and metaphysician still eats off the table in front of them even though they look at it in very strange ways – at least when they have their academic hats on.

Of course some philosophers do believe that we literally inhabit different worlds. That is, if our conceptual schemes are different, then our worlds are different. Especially if conceptual schemes determine the worlds we experience and there would be no world if there were no conceptual scheme through which we experience or conceive it.

Many would argue that this would still not literally give us different worlds; especially if all of us are still in causal contact with the world and its objects no matter how we describe that world. The problem is that “causation does not come under a description”, according to Donald Davidson. And neither is causation in and of itself ‘explanatory’ in nature.

However, Davidson denies that there are genuinely different conceptual schemes in the first place primarily because we all causally interact with the world and we all inhabit a world which includes “medium-sized dry goods” like basic objects, animals, other minds and other persons. Once these fundamentals are in place, it would be hard to believe that we literally inhabit different worlds no matter how different our descriptive our explanatory practices are. That fact in itself does not give us different worlds. It gives us the same world described or explained in different ways. But that's no surprise to anyone – not even the metaphysical realist.

None of these fine metaphysical debates really matter in Rorty’s case anyway because his prime concern is ethical or political. It's about the importance of conversing with other people with different views in order to achieve at least a little consensus and therefore a little less conflict. This is an ethical or political aim, just as it was for Heidegger, Emanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida.

If we were really to think that other communities or cultures literally spoke ‘nonsense’, or even that they inhabited different worlds, or simply believed that they did, then that very ‘incommensurability’ would almost be bound to lead to political or social conflict of some kind. Rorty, and the rest, simply wanted to create the philosophical means to counteract such destructive possibilities. That is why Heidegger’s metaphysics is really an ethics or, at the least, 'ethico-ontology'. I doubt that Heidegger, or Derrida, would have denied this because they would have argued that the ethics-ontology dichotomy is false. Similarly, Rorty wouldn't have denied his ethical or political motivations for stressing intersubjectivity rather than objectivity or warranted assertibility rather than truth. These are tools to keep the ‘conversation’ going both within the West and between the West and the non-Western world.

Ree himself puts his own slant on the ethico-philosophy or ethico-ontology debate:

I mean the fact s that it can always turn out that the things that we are convinced are unrevisably true might in fact be problematic in completely unexpected ways.” (197)

That is obviously the case. Of course what we take to be ‘unrevisably true’ may turn out to be mistaken in some way or even absolutely false. That is the lesson of ‘fallibilism’ taught to us by Peirce and which permeates all the natural sciences. Indeed, according to Quine, this may turn out to be the case with our cherished logical laws and mathematical truths. This is what the quantum physics has said to the law of excluded middle and paraconsistent logicians even believe that the very same proposition can be both true and false.

So perhaps modesty, if not humility, is a good strategy if we can't even trust the truths of logic and mathematics. (Of course many philosophers would question these so-called ‘revisions’ of the logical laws and also say that of course we can make mistakes in mathematics. Though if a mathematical statement is true, it's true regardless of our knowing it or proving it to be true.)

Ree on Relativism & Scientific Truth

Ree says something that seems, prima facie, to be incredible vis-à-vis the debate on relativism and truth:

... it is simply an unfair debating point to suggest that to be a relativist is to be someone who does not believe there is such a thing as truth. It is just that a relativist is someone who tried to be explicit about the various standards by which truth is measured in different contexts.” (198)

Is Ree saying that the relativist believes in truth only that he thinks that truth just is relative to context? That is, one can't even have, or even imagine, a context-independent truth. What would such a truth be like? Of course the anti-relativist would say that truth isn't dependent on context or on anything else for that matter. Though surely it is dependent on what the truth is about. That is a kind of context for a start.

Another thing the anti-relativist would say is that a truth stays the truth that it is in all contexts and in spite of contexts. That’s what makes truths true – that very context-invariability. Something can't be true in one context and false in another or true at one time and false at another time. If a truth is susceptible to such variability then it isn't, in fact, a truth at all.

Even time-indexed truths like “It is raining today” can be made explicit if the statement itself is reformulated to include a reference to the time of its utterance. That would be the complete ‘thought’ which originally hid behind the utterance in the first place (at least according to Frege, Michael Dummett and others).

Ree makes a distinction:

  1. Relativism about ‘the various standards by which truth is measured in different contexts’ (198).


  1. Relativism as applied to truth or the concept of truth itself.

The truth realist or objectivist would accept the relativity of our “various standards by which truth is measured in different contexts”; though that relativism isn't passed on to truth itself. It's about the relativity of standards or epistemic procedures. The relativist, on the other hand, would say that if one accepts the relativity of the standards by which we come by truths, then that relativity must be passed on to truth itself. If our standards are context-relative or subject-relative, then truth itself must be context-relative or subject-relative. We simply can't have one without the other.

This is the point that was made by Hilary Putnam and Richard Rorty, amongst others, when they talked about ‘warranted assertibility’. That is, we can't separate truth from our acts of warranted assertibility or even justification. And if truth always comes along with warranted assertibility, then perhaps there is no truth at all without warranted assertibility or our justifications of what it is we believe. The separation of truth from the variable standards by which we come to truth ceases to make sense or is simply unworkable.

The anti-relativist will still say that we must make a distinction between the relativity of our standards by which we arrive at truth and the relativity of truth itself. Can the anti-relativist justify or legitimise such a distinction and if he can, how does he do so? I for one can't think of a feasible separation of powers, at it were, between relativity about standards and relativity about truth itself.

Ree goes on to say that what the relativist argues about science is little different to what scientific instrumentalists or anti-realists say about science:

Listen, everything that the 'friends of science' want to say about the extraordinary achievements and progress of the natural sciences, both in terms of knowledge and in terms of technique, all of these things can be said by someone who describes themselves as a 'relativist'...” (199)

The instrumentalists, and others, say that we don't need the notion of truth at all in science for us to accept the achievements and techniques of science. Science can still have remarkable predictive and explanatory power without it saying that these things depend on truth. (Hartry Field says the same about the notion of truth in mathematics. All we have in mathematics is correctness: never truth.)

Scientific realists, of course, say that science has predictive and explanatory power because what it says is true. Others say that it is true because of its predictive and explanatory power. The instrumentalists say that “this is a difference that doesn't make a difference”. If science can only have predictive and explanatory power if its theories and hypotheses are true, then this addition of truth is an addition that adds nothing to the debate. After all, even the scientific realist must admit the possibility of something’s having predictive or explanatory power even if it were not true. If something’s can only have explanatory or predictive power if what that something says is true, can’t we just stick with that something’s explanatory or predictive power and leave it there – that is, not add truth to the equation? That is, if predictive or explanatory power = truth, or truth = predictive or explanatory power, then predictive or explanatory power = predictive or explanatory power and truth is eliminated from the equation entirely. This is the same as saying if

  1. p

Is the same as

  1. p is true.

then we don’t even need “p is true” at all.

The other thing we can say is that one can agree with Ree when he says that the relativist can agree with “everything that the 'friends of science' want to say about the extraordinary achievements and progress of the natural sciences, both in terms of knowledge and in terms of technique” by saying that relativity only applies to the standards by which science has achieved these great things, not to the results, or even to the truths themselves (that is, if we accept what we said earlier about this). Even if the relativist does actually believe in truth, his relativism would only be applied to scientific standards or their ‘epistemic norms’ and so on and not to any truths discovered by the natural sciences. Whether this is a coherent position or not is of course debatable.

Ree again stresses the superfluity of the idea of something’s being objective. Claims to objectivity do not add to anything we say and it doesn’t get us anywhere. And if there will always be one thing that scientific truth is relative to, it is “relative to human discourses” (200):

... science improves the knowledge and control we have over things that matter to us. Of course, you can say 'well, it does that because it tells us the truth about the objective structure of the world' and that’s fine, you can say that, but it’s hardly an ontological big deal.” (200)

Indeed to talk about “the objective structure of the world” isn't only not “an ontological big deal”: it may be no kind of deal at all if what we have already said is correct. Again, this is a question of whether we can still say that “science improves the knowledge and control we have over things that matter to us” without bringing on board truth - never mind objective truth. If science “improves the knowledge and control we have over things that matter to us” does it matter if this is because what science says is objectively true or even true at all? Perhaps the words ‘objective truth’ or ‘objective reality’ are empty compliments we pay to science but which it nevertheless does not need or require. Is this a difference between

  1. What science claims is objectively true.


  1. What science says is true.

Indeed is there a difference between

  1. Science improves the knowledge and control we have over things that matter to us.


  1. Science improves the knowledge and control we have over things that matter to us because what science says is objectively true (or even just true).

What is the ontological difference between objectively true and just plain true? What is the difference between science improving the knowledge and control we have over things and science doing the same because what it says is true?

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