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Saturday, 7 March 2015

Michael Williams's Critique of Epistemological Realism

Michael Williams’s position is primarily aimed at what he calls the “epistemological realist”.

The epistemological realist believes that there's a single correct view of, say, justification, a single kind of truth, a single correct method and so on. However, Williams looks at what actually is going on in science and realises that such a position on these terms is both counter-productive and unworkable.

For example, he doesn't think that there is such thing as the “unity of science”: He writes that

[t]here is no way now, and none in prospect, of integrating all the sciences, much less all of anyone’s everyday factual beliefs, into a single coherent system”.

This would be to say that in science there is no single method common to all disciplines. One such method, according to Williams, would be “a finitely axiomatized theory with specified rules of inference”. Though philosophers like Nagel believe that uniformity of methods and epistemic rules are both possible and desirable in themselves. According to Williams, his view that we have “our view of reality” is either simpleminded or naively hopeful (or both). Instead we “have not got a ‘view of reality’ but indefinitely many”. Indeed Williams doesn’t even think that we have a “system” of beliefs at all. This too is wishful thinking. Each individual, therefore, may live and breathe within many systems, some of which may well be mutually contradictory.

Williams looks back in history to see if we can see examples of this desire to systematise one’s beliefs into a coherent whole. He finds Descartes, who “ties his pre-critical beliefs together…by tracing them to ‘the senses’”. In other words, that’s what all his pre-critical beliefs had in common – they were all tied to the senses. He found a common factor in all his beliefs, no “matter how topically heterogeneous, and no matter how unsystematic, his beliefs [were]”.

In a sense, so Williams thinks, Hume too attempted to “totalise” (to use Jacques Derrida’s term) and systematise all our beliefs. Hume achieved this by explaining the nature of human nature. But this wasn’t topical integration, a la Descartes. The common factor amongst all our beliefs, and all subject matters, is, according to Hume, that they all “lie under the cognizance of men, and are judged of by their powers and faculties”. So Hume self-consciously put men, or their faculties, at the centre of the epistemological enterprise. This meant that these human faculties were subject “to the same underlying epistemological constraints, rooted in our ‘powers and faculties’”. So if we have uniform faculties, we may well have or developed uniform epistemological devices, methods and constraints. (There's an almost Kantian tone to this aspect of Hume.)

With his conclusions about human nature, Hume did in a sense attempt to unite the sciences.

In order to unify the sciences he had to put them under the jurisdiction of the most important science: “the science of man”.

Today this may be called “psychology” or, at least, “philosophical psychology”. The Humean enterprise, therefore, wanted to insure that the science of man isn't dependent on any other science. It was to become First Science, as it were.

Hume, just like Descartes before him, attempted “a wholesale assessment of our knowledge of both the physical and the moral world”. And, again like Descartes, he couldn't take existing knowledge for granted.

So, strangely enough for an empiricist, there's a certain sense in which Hume’s pursuits were a priori in that he couldn’t rely on the findings of the other sciences or worldly knowledge generally. He didn’t, therefore, attempt to naturalise epistemology in a Quinian manner. On a more specific technical and empiricist level, Hume believed that “experiential knowledge [was] in some very deep way prior to knowledge of the world”.

Although Hume’s almost a priori stance on the faculties of the human mind, and also on the philosopher’s independence from the other sciences and worldly knowledge, had a rationalistic flavour to it, he gave his position a very empiricist twist. To him, it isn’t our internal capacities that mattered, but our situation in the world.

Our “epistemic position” changed when Hume arrived on the scene. The axis of epistemology for Descartes is the autonomous person and his mind. Now, for Hume, it was experientially acquired knowledge regardless of our innate faculties or our innate reason.

These systematising or totalising penchants of philosophers clearly have their drawbacks. For Wittgenstein it was called “the craving for generality”.

Now generality is fine if there is generality; though what if that isn’t the case?Williams sees Quine as a good example of an anti-epistemological realist. He discusses Quine’s take on the analytic/synthetic distinction.

Traditionally empiricists divided sentences into the analytic and the synthetic. Analytic sentences were true by virtue of their meanings alone. Synthetic statements, on the other hand, were true by virtue of matters of fact in the external world. Quine saw this position on meaning as essentially atomistic; whereas his take on meaning is essentially holistic. That is, single sentences or statements are not self-standing atoms separated - or separable - from their surrounding sentences. Each sentence is part of a network of other sentences and therefore it gains its meaning (and truth?) from being part of that surrounding network. This means that we can't neatly separate a sentence’s meaning from it “empirical assumptions”. There's no clear diving line between meaning and matters of fact.

This “craving for generality” and craving for simplicity was what Quine fought against. Though what is at the heart of epistemological realism?

Williams thinks that epistemological realism is very much like scientific realism.

Take the case of the analysis and classification of heat.

When the scientist explores the nature of heart he looks for

some underlying property, or structure of more elementary components, common to [all] hot things”.

He thus tried to turn heat into a natural kind. For the scientific realist,

deep structural features of the elementary components of things determine the boundaries of natural, as opposed to merely nominal or conventional, kinds”.

The epistemological realist attempts to do the same kind of thing with knowledge itself and also the methods and means to acquire knowledge. He thinks that “there must be underlying epistemological structures or principles”.

Here Williams emphasises an important terminological point.

This example of realism “is not a position within epistemology…[but] realism about the objects of epistemological inquiry”. In other words, this is realism about epistemology, not realism within epistemology. This essentially means that although a philosopher may be an anti-realist within epistemology, he may be a realist, or probably is, a realist towards or about epistemology itself. More precisely, he may be anti-realist in that he thinks that we can’t acquire knowledge of an objective, mind-independent reality. However, he may still believe that there are “underlying epistemological structure or principles” common to all epistemological research.

The epistemological realist

thinks of knowledge in very much the way the scientific realist thinks of heat: beneath the surface diversity there is structural unity”.

This leads him to believe that not “everything we call knowledge need be knowledge properly so called”. His job is to generalise and extrapolate. That is, to bring “together the genuine cases into a coherent theoretical kind”. The right kind of justification, say, becomes effectively a natural kind. Warrant too may be a natural kind. And so on. Bundle all these things together and we get knowledge as a whole as some type of natural kind. Though what if the concrete world and the world of knowledge and epistemology aren’t like that?We may just have “various practices of assessment, perhaps sharing certain formal features”. Though that’s all we’ve got. Williams writes:

It doesn’t follow from this that the various items given a positive rating add up to anything like a natural kind.”

They may not even be a “surveyable whole” or a “genuine totality rather than a more or less loose aggregate”.

Williams again refers to Quine’s critique of the analytic-synthetic distinction.

Here again, as in the case of knowledge or epistemology, the epistemologist attempted to generalise and perhaps create two natural kinds – the analytic and the synthetic. That is, there isn’t a “fixed, objective division between a theory’s meaning postulates and its empirical assumptions”.

Williams comments on two other “natural kinds” – the external and the internal.

Descartes was the prime example of an internalist. Externalism, on the other hand, has come to the fore in the 20th century. In traditional epistemology “external” meant everything outside the mind (including the body). So there was a radical division between internal experiential knowledge and knowledge of the external world. Though perhaps the internal and external, as traditionally seen, form a single unit. Or, as Williams puts it, “the very idea that knowledge has any fixed, context-independent structure” may be radically misplaced. We cannot separate ourselves from the world. As Wittgenstein put it in his Tractatus: “I am the world.”

Explanation or Deflation: Truth

Just as Williams detects epistemologically realist views about epistemology, so too does he detect it about truth.

Put at its simplest, the problem is that many people see truth as a thing, even if an abstract non-spatiotemporal thing. Truth may not be a thing or an entity at all. And if this is the case, we can't analyse truth or discover its true nature.

Williams firstly tackles the deflationary view of true.

According to this view, the ascription of truth just cancels the quotation marks in this

Snow is white” is true iff snow is white.

will become

Snow is white is true iff snow is white.

The first example refers a sentence to the world in which snow is white. Therefore it may entail a property of correspondence. The second example is simply an identity statement that does not entail correspondence between two unlike things (say, a sentence and a fact).

Why can’t we just say

Snow is white.

without having to say

Snow is white” is true.

Does the truth predicate “is true” serve any purpose? Not according to the deflationist.

The deflationist doesn’t think that true is a “theoretically significant property”. Perhaps he doesn’t think it is a property at all. All we have, instead, is the sentence

Snow is white.

itself and nothing more.

True sentences are “merely a nominal kind”. That is, all true statements don't share something, viz, the entity or property truth.

Williams says that “there are endlessly many truths, [but] there is no such thing as truth”. (Perhaps we should write here “Truth” instead.)

Realists about truth, on the other hand, believe that truth is a property or even a thing. Therefore, like heat or a cat, it can be analysed and correctly explicated. Truth is an “important property shared by all true sentences”. The realist needn't say what truth is, exactly; though he may offer these possibilities: “correspondence to fact, incorporability in some ideally coherent system of judgements, or goodness in the way of belief”. If one of these is the true way of describing truth, then all true statement will, say, be incorporable into an ideally coherent system (take your choice).

The truth realist wants something very substantial. He wants something shared by all true statements. He isn't interested in the “use of a word” [‘truth’] or the “point of the concept [truth]”. More to the point, “there is more to understanding truth than appreciating the utility of the truth-predicate”.

So let’s get away from metaphysics and back onto epistemology.

For a long time many epistemologists agreed that knowledge was “justified true belief” (even if they had problems with justification and belief). Then along came Gettier’s demonstration that that analysis of knowledge “fails to state a sufficient condition for knowledge”. Perhaps this is because knowledge is not a thing or property that can have a correct analysis in all situations, which isn't to say that there is no such the thing as knowledge.

Williams makes a distinction between

theories of knowledge


theories of the concept of knowledge

which he also made about truth.

The latter could be said to be about the word “knowledge” and how it's used (or the concept or meaning behind the word).

A theory of knowledge, on the other hand, is about the thing or property knowledge. The former presupposes that there is something above and beyond the words, concepts and usages!

Again, Williams makes a connection with analysis in science:

“…we might be inclined to suppose that just as in physics we study the nature of heat, so in philosophy we study the nature of truth. But once plausible deflationary views are on the table, the analogy between truth [knowledge] and things like heat can no longer be treated as unproblematic.”

Essentially we hypostasise or reify truth and knowledge: we turn them into two - even if abstract and non-spatiotemporal – things or properties.

Just as it we can offer a deflationary account of truth, so too can we can do the same with knowledge (this is done much less often than with truth).

This is where Miachael Williams becomes very Wittgensteinian as well as deflationary. He says that a deflationary account of the word ‘know’ may show “how the word is embedded in a teachable and useful linguistic practice”. That is a meaning-is-use definition of “know”: one that doesn’t suppose that being known to be true “denotes a property that groups propositions into a theoretically significant kind”. Williams says that nevertheless the word ‘know’ has utility value. (Perhaps we could say that it works!)

Williams finishes off this section by referring again to Nagel’s realist view of epistemology.

According to Williams, Nagel’s phrase “our knowledge of the world” implies various presuppositions because it assumes that there is a “genuine totality” – it's a totalising statement. It also assumes that “there are invariant epistemological constraints underlying the shifting standards of everyday justification”. Nagel sees the universal and general rather than the Wittgensteinian particular.

Williams refers to Wittgenstein’s position on knowledge.

At first his description of Wittgenstein makes his position seem anti-foundationalist and contextualist. He says that Wittgenstein thought that “all justification takes place against a background of judgments affirmed without special testing”. That is, the background may determine what is foundational; therefore what is foundational is not really foundational at all (in the strict sense). Yet Williams says that Wittgenstein’s position is “formally foundationalist”. In any case, the foundations aren’t taken in isolation, as they have been traditionally.

*) This systematising and totalising impulse can be seen in foundationalism, according to Williams.

All beliefs

arrange themselves into broad, theoretically coherent classes according to certain natural relations of epistemological priority”.

That is, beliefs fall into different kinds. The most important beliefs, according to foundationalists, are prior to other beliefs and more basic. They defend or justify themselves, as it were. They are fundamental; though other non-basic beliefs are inferential.

Again, Williams stresses the fact that foundationalists see different beliefs as falling into different kinds. A particular kind of belief will have “certain elements in their contents” and they will stand in “natural epistemological relations and thus fall into natural epistemological kinds”.

All this, to Williams, is a little too neat and tidy – too precise. It's too much the product of totalising and systematising minds.

Perhaps it's the topics or subjects themselves that determine our epistemological methods and perhaps our goals too. Perhaps it all depends on the subject or topic we're studying. That is, is there “an order of reasons [that operate independently] of all circumstances and all collateral knowledge”? Does every subject have the same methodology? Do even all the sciences follow, say, the hypothetico-deductive method? Is this even a feasible wish?

According to Williams:

In both science and ordinary life, constraints on justification are many and various. Not merely that, they shift with context in ways that are probably impossible to reduce to rule. In part, they will have to do with specific content of whatever claim is at issue. But they will also be decisively influenced by the subject of inquiry to which the claim in question belongs (history, physics, ornithology, etc.). We call these topical or…disciplinary constraints.”

There are no epistemic invariables – that is, rules, regulations and methods applicable to all subjects.

Williams gives a down to earth and commonsensical example of one of these constraints.

Take the subject history.

Does the average, or any, historian “[e]ntertain rational doubts about the age of the Earth”? Perhaps Williams, however, is wrong when he says that historians don’t entertain “radical doubts [about] the reliability of documentary evidence”. Perhaps he simply means that they don’t entertain radical doubts about all documentary evidence. If they were, say, Cartesian historians, they would hardly get started.

Williams’s position here is very Wittgensteinian. The Austrian philosopher also said that there are things we cannot doubt if we are to doubt at all. To put that in Williams's way:

Disciplinary constraints fix ranges of admissible questions [doubts].”

Again Williams emphasises the relativity of justification: it is, he says, “context-bound”.

For example, even the foundationalists must realise the type of tests we employ “can shift with context”. Though, according to the foundationalist, context must not be relevant “all the way down”. There must be something invariable and pure that works as a core or axis for our various contextualisations and relativities.

Williams clarifies the contextualist position. He says, of propositions, that

the epistemic status of a given proposition is liable to shift with situational, disciplinary, and other contextually variable factors…”

Williams goes further than this. He says that without context “ a proposition has no epistemic status whatsoever”. That is, there is “no fact of the matter as to what kind of justification it either admits or requires”. This seems perilously close to epistemological relativism.

In the last section, Williams reiterates his position on justificational relativism or contextualism. He writes:

An examination of ordinary practices of justification strongly suggests…[that they] are at least topic-relative, which is to say determined in part by the subject under discussion.”

This isn't to say that “anything goes”. It's simply to say that methods of justification aren't invariable.

One recurring topic in Williams’s paper is the impossibility of global scepticism. This impossibility has nothing to do with the usual epistemological refutations of universal scepticism: it's a Wittgensteinian/Humean statement on both the psychological and logical impossibility of universal or absolute doubt.

Williams firstly comments on Hume’s position on the psychological impossibility of absolute doubt. Williams says that

Hume’s offhand suggestion that only carelessness and inattention save us from a permanent, debilitating awareness of the truth of scepticism, hence from lapsing into a state of chronic, paralysing doubt”.

Williams puts his own particular slant on Humean, as it were, commonsense about scepticism. He says that it’s all about “exempting certain propositions from doubt”. And it is this that “determines the direction of inquiry”.

Williams then quotes Wittgenstein to back up his position against universal doubt. I will quote the passage from Wittgenstein's On Certainty in full:

It may be…that all enquiry on our part is set so as to exempt certain propositions from doubt, if they are ever formulated. They lie apart from the route travelled by enquiry.”

It's not just philosophical universal doubt that Williams is referring to; but universal doubt in any discipline. Williams again refers to the case of the historian. He says:

“…intruding sceptical doubts about whether the Earth really existed a hundred years (or five minutes) ago does not lead to a more careful way of doing history: it changes the subject, from history to epistemology.”

The subject itself partly determines the limits of one’s doubt. If one does ask questions about the age of the earth, then one stops doing history and starts doing epistemology.

The impossibility of universal doubt or global scepticism, therefore, is not just epistemological and psychological impossibility: it's also logical (as Wittgenstein said). As Williams puts it:

“…some doubts are logically excluded by forms of investigation that [we] find significant, important, or perhaps just interesting.”

Williams again refers to Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. And, again, I will quote the Wittgenstein passage in full:

The questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn. That is to say, it belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are indeed not doubted.…We just can’t investigate everything…If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put.”

As well as there being a logical impossibility of universal doubt - it's also pragmatically advisable not to doubt everything.

Williams is more detailed about why some propositions, as Wittgenstein put it, “are exempt from doubt”.

It's a “matter of methodological necessity in connection with the disciplinary constraints that determine the general directions of…inquiry”. Williams put this point more simply and logically: “Asking some questions logically precludes asking others.”

We can't ask every question that can be asked. Even in our own specialised discipline this will be the case. (Perhaps in our sub-branch of that specialised discipline this too will be the case.) There are innumerable possible questions.

Williams also refers back to Hume again.

This time he discusses his psychological approach to global scepticism.

A Humean naturalist, according to Williams, “sees our everyday inability to entertain radical doubts as showing that nature has simply determined us to believe certain things” (e.g., other minds and bodies, the perdurance of objects, cause and effect, etc.). However, Williams says that it’s just as much a question of methodology as it is of psychology. Again he says that “certain exemptions will be logically required by the direction of inquiry”. Williams goes on:

In particular contexts on inquiry, certain propositions stand fast as a matter of methodological necessity.”

As can be seen, “necessity” is a strong word here. However, to offset accusations of “relativism” Williams has this to say on the truth of these exempted propositions. He says that inquiry “will [only] have knowledge is these [exempted] propositions are true, which they need not always be”. So in Williams’s epistemological scheme there is still room for truth!

Like Putnam, Williams makes a distinction between a

a proposition’s epistemic status


a proposition’s truth (or falsehood).

Epistemic status is “context-sensitive”. Though “[t]ruth, however, is not”. More directly:

A proposition is either true or not.

Is this a reversion to realism and also a belief in the Principle of Bivalence?Those who believe in warranted assertibility, for example, may believe that a proposition is true “because it stands fast”. A realist, on the other hand, may think that a proposition “stands fast because it is true”. Williams, in contradistinction, believes that “a proposition is neither true because it stands fast nor stands fast because it is true”. Truth has indeed a special and privileged status according to Williams.

Towards the end of the paper Williams lets an epistemological realist speak for himself. He quotes Clarke thus:

Each concept or the conceptual scheme must be divorceable intact from our practices, from whatever constitutes the essential character of the plain…[we] ascertain, when possible, whether items fulfil the conditions legislated by concepts.”

The above is a strong piece of metaphysical and epistemological realism. It's also, Williams would no doubt argue, an epistemically realist position towards epistemology (which is of course the main tenor of Williams’s paper).

Williams stresses the fact that concepts, conceptual schemes, epistemological methods, etc. are determined by the nature of our practices – they have no reality apart from our contingent practices. Clarke, on the other hand, says that the aforementioned can be “[divorced] intact from our practices”. There is a right and a wrong about our concepts. The correct concepts match the world as it is in itself. Incorrect concepts etc. distort the world’s true nature. Williams too must believe in the falsity or truth of our concepts. However, their truth or falsehood will be internally determined by what Clarke calls our “practices”. Without practices there is nothing.

At the end of the chapter, Williams sums up his general position thus:

Contextualism simply takes seriously and at face-value what seem to be the evident facts of ordinary epistemic practices: that relevant evidence varies with context, that content alone never determines epistemological status…”

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