Rorty is tough on the idea that while your emotions are your own business, "your beliefs are everybody's business."


Thus, since "believing is inherently a public project:all of us language-users are in it together. We all have a responsibility not to believe anything which cannot be justified to the rest of us.To be rational is to submit one's beliefs -- all of one's beliefs -- to the judgment of one's peers."


Clifford people says the following:

Here is the sum:

"Desire, hope and other noncognitive states can be had without evidence -- but belief cannot. In the realm of belief, which options are live or forced is not a private matter. The same options face us all; the same truth candidates are proposed to everyone. It is intellectually irresponsible either to disregard these options or to decide between these truth candidates in any other way than by argument from the sort of evidence which the very meanings of our words tell us is required for their support."


James of course cannot agree with this position because he believes that "the only point of having beliefs in the first place is to gratify desires", not to gets things right about the world. 


The issue here is to sort out which claims need public testing of the Clifford sort and which do not and how to keep the kinds from clashing.


Science and religion, as Rorty says, "fulfill two different sets of desires. Science enables us to predict and control, whereas religion offers us a larger hope, and thereby something to live for."


Rorty admits that some beliefs incur intellectual responsibilities. :

We must " cooperate with others on common projects designed to promote the general welfare, and not ... interfere with their private projects. For the latter, projects such as getting married or getting religion -- the question of intellectual responsibility does not arise."


Now Rorty says one of his most important things:

He says that James is "insisting that the impulse to draw a sharp line between the cognitive and noncognitive, and between beliefs and desires, even when this explanation is relevant to neither the explanation nor the justification of behavior, is a residue of the false (because useless) belief that we should engage in two distinct quests - one for truth and the other for happiness."

Now Rorty moves to his reservations about crucial points at which James fails his own enterprise, points that we will take up next week.



In this essay Rorty takes up the issue of what James is really getting at in his "Will to Believe", and in the process Rorty adds some corrections to James and fills in a great deal of background about 20th and 21st century takes on belief and truth. 

His ultimate question is: is religious faith intellectually responsible and if it is in what way is it? His answer, to make the long essay short, is that it is under the condition that the act of faith fall under his characterization of romanticism. So, Rorty is for his redefinition of religious faith but in the process he decisively rejects any idea that there is some real being outside us to which we owe anything and to whom/which we are to look for guidance. tr is not that Rorty denies that we can believe anything  we like in a religious sense. All he wants to establish is that such beliefs have to remain private, which means that they cannot be advanced in any publicforum as if they were claims deserving consideration as utilitarian descriptions of reality.

Let me be clearer: Rorty believes first that no religious claim can have anything to do with prediction and control and second that this privileges faith claims that bear exactly no resemblance to claims that assert prediction and control. Thus the vaguer and less God-centered the faith claim is the better it is because the easier it is to hold and use. Claims that make specific assertions about God and his interactions with the world appear to say that religious believers know things about forces that will help them control and predict the future. But Rorty thinks such claims, when made publicly as candidates for shared belief, are strictly non-starters. They cannot stand up to any ordinary test for predictive and controlling claims. We can freely believe such claims in what he calls a 'symbolic' way, act as if these were true, but always understand that such claims are entirely indefensible in any public discussion.


Analytic philosophy and transformative philosophy

RICHARD RORTY ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHY AND TRANSFORMATIVE PHILOSOPHY (1999) 1. Platonists, Positivists, and Pragmatists. Introduction ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHY AND TRANSFORMATIVE PHILOSOPHY Many analytic philosophers do not like to think of their discipline as one of the humanities. They regard their own brand of philosophy as the disciplined pursuit of objective knowledge, and thus as resembling the natural sciences. They view the humanities as an arena for unarguable clashes of opinion. Philosophers of this sort prefer to be placed, for administrative purposes, as far as possible from professors of literature and as close as possible to professors of physics. That is why, in the tables of organization of US universities, philosophy departments are sometimes found in the Division of Social Sciences rather than the Division of the Humanities. It is also why beleaguered non-analytic US philosophers sometimes try to rally under a banner inscribed “humanistic philosophy”. When analysts and non-analysts get on each other's nerves, academic administrators sometimes try to solve the problem by splitting the department in two—creating one department for the analytic “techies” and another for the non-analytic “fuzzies”. The antagonism between analytic and non-analytic philosophy is tediously familiar to all us insiders. But references to that split often puzzle non-philosophers. They have no idea what the fuss is about. They are quite unclear about what distinguishes analytic philosophy from other brands, what problems analytic philosophers spend their time talking about, and why American philosophy departments are often content to have figures like Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, and Foucault taught elsewhere in the university (by the political scientists, or the professors of comparative literature, or the intellectual historians, for example). I shall devote most of this lecture to the history and the sociology of analytic philosophy within the US academy. This will supply the background for my claim that the analytic philosophers have completely failed to do what they most hoped to do: put philosophy on the secure path of a science. But I shall conclude by saying that the analytic philosophers who have done most to undermine the scientistic pretensions of the movement have made a permanent, very valuable, contribution to philosophy. The moral of my lecture will be that both the failure of analytic philosophy and the history of its autocritique give additional reasons to abandon, once and for all, the very idea that philosophy can be made into any sort of science. Both help us replace the assumption that philosophy should add bricks to the edifice of knowledge with the thought that philosophy is, as Hegel said, its time held in thought. There is often said to be a “crisis” in the humanities departments of American universities. But people who say this usually have in mind the excessive political correctness which is still sometimes found in US departments of literature. American philosophy departments had their last crisis back in the 1940’s and 1950’s—the period during which analytic philosophy accomplished its takeover. There has been no dramatic generational shift since then, except for the sudden emergence, in the 70’s, of feminist philosophy as a new area of specialization. Whereas the aftermath of the radicalism of the 60’s had a profound impact on several disciplinary matrices elsewhere in the university, it left American philosophy largely unaffected. Many analytic philosophers were politically active, but this activity usually did not lead them to change either their professional self-images or their reading habits. Analytic philosophy may crudely be defined as an attempt to combine the switch from discussing experience to discussing language—what Gustav Bergmann called “the linguistic turn”—with one more attempt to professionalize the discipline by making it more more scientific, The linguistic turn is common to all twentieth-century philosophy--as evident in Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas and Derrida as in Carnap, Ayer, Austin and Wittgenstein. What distinguishes analytic philosophy from other twentieth-century philosophical initiatives is the idea that this turn, together with the use of symbolic logic, makes it possible, or at least easier, to turn philosophy into a scientific discipline. The hope is that philosophers will become able, through patient and cooperative research, to add bricks to the edifice of knowledge. So there will no longer be philosophical schools, but only philosophical specialities. Prior to the linguistic turn, Edmund Husserl had made a similar attempt. His exhortations to scientificity and teamwork sound much like those of Carnap and Reichenbach a few decades later. But in Being and Time Heidegger managed to package Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean thoughts in a jargon that made them sound like respectable philosophical doctrines, rather than mere literary conceits. By imposing a quasi-Kantian, professional-sounding form on Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean content, Heidegger helped make it possible for philosophers to be much more interesting to literary intellectuals than either Carnap or Husserl thought they had any business to be. He thereby founded the tradition that analytic philosophers refer to as “Continental philosophy”-a tradition which, in the US, is studied in many humanities departments, but not usually in the philosophy department. Carnap and Husserl both thought that Plato was on the right track when he preferred the mathematicians to the poets. But whereas Husserl’s initiative was nipped in the bud by Heidegger, Carnap’s hopes for scientificity, and his suspicion of Heidegger and of literary types who take Heidegger seriously, are alive and well today in American philosophy departments. Such hopes and suspicions help explain the Blimpish outrage displayed by many American philosophy professors when they learned that Cambridge University was about to offer Derrida an honorary degree. Between 1945 and 1960, analytic philosophy took over most of the important American philosophy departments. Emigré logical empiricists such as Carnap and Hempel replaced Dewey and Whitehead as the heroes of the younger generation. This replacement produced a striking, thorough-going, change in the graduate curriculum of these philosophy departments, and in the self-image of the Ph. D’s who graduated from those departments. Before analytic philosophy took over, the study of philosophy in both anglophone and non-anglophone countries had centered around the history of philosophy. Anybody who taught philosophy was expected to be able to talk about the relative merits of Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes and Spinoza, Kant and Hegel, Nietzsche and Mill. That was of course not all you were supposed to do: you also had to take part in current debates in the journals. But nobody in this period had any doubt that philosophy was one of the humanities. For advanced training in philosophy did not differ all that much from advanced training in departments of literature: one read canonical texts, developed views about their relative merits, and tried to stitch them together in interesting new patterns. Up through the forties, university teachers of literature and history in the US usually had some idea of the interests and views of their colleagues in the philosophy department, and conversely. This had ceased to be the case by 1965. As a graduate student of philosophy in the years 1950-54, I found myself caught between two quite different sorts of teachers: those who, like McKeon and Hartshorne, expected me to develop views on what was living and what dead in the thought of various great philosophers and those who, like Carnap and Hempel, expected me to be familiar with current journal articles: in particular, articles centered on attempts to provide what were then called “rational reconstructions” of various parts of culture—for example, the testing of scientific theories. One of the hot topics we discussed in Hempel’s philosophy of science seminar was the Raven Paradox—the fact that familiar accounts of “the logic of scientific confirmation” had a counter-intuitive consequence: the existence of any non-black non-raven confirms the proposition that all ravens are black. I spent some years, and a portion of my rather schizophrenic dissertation, worrying about a related problem: that of nomologicality. A true non-nomological generalization such as “All the coins in my pocket are silver” does not license the counterfactual claim “If this penny were in my pocket it would be silver”. A true nomological generalization such as “All ravens are black”, on the other hand, does license the counterfactual claim that “If this bird were a raven, it would be black”. But it is harder than one might think to specify what makes a generalization nomological. My dissertation was a comparison between three treatments of the concept of potentiality: those offered by Aristotle, by the 17th-century rationalists, and by Hempelian/Carnapian philosophy of science. So I spent two-thirds of my dissertation research reading commentaries on great dead philosophers and the other third reading up-to-the-minute journal articles offering exciting new analyses of subjunctive conditional sentences. My dissertation research left me, if you will forgive the awkward metaphor, stranded between the ebbing wave and the rising tide. By the time I had finished with graduate school and military service, it was 1958. By then it was clear that if you did not know about analytic philosophy you were not going to get a good job. Looking like a promising young philosopher at Princeton, where I got a job in 1961, was almost exclusively a matter of talking the new talk—of keeping up with the current journals and getting on the right preprint circuits. If you were hoping to get tenure, as I was, there was little percentage in being in being historically minded. This was partly because of the influence of Willard van Orman Quine. Quine was Carnap’s best student, the arbiter elegantarium of analytic philosophy, and everybody’s ego-ideal. He was openly scornful about the study of the history of philosophy. In his own student years, Quine had made a point of reading as few of the canonical texts as possible, and he recommended this practice to his students at Harvard. He believed the history of philosophy to be just as irrelevant to current philosophical inquiry as is the history of physics to current research in that field. Quine admired Carnap for having, when asked to teach an introductory course in Plato, responded that he would not teach Plato, because he would teach nothing but the truth. Quinean attitudes of this sort were widespread at Princeton. The Princeton students dutifully competed with one another in argumentative skill and dialectical acumen, rather than in acquiring a wide range of learning. We excused one of our cleverest students from the foreign language requirement on the ground that it would be unfair to let an idiosyncratic genetic disability—lack of Sprachgefuehl—delay the brilliant career this student was destined to have (and which, in fact, he went on to have). No such compassion would have been shown to a student who claimed that his genes made it impossible for him to master symbolic logic. Toward the end of my time at Princeton, around 1980, the philosophy department abolished the foreign language requirement for graduate students altogether. That step would have been unthinkable thirty years before (and was, in fact, later reversed.). By 1980 the difference between students trained in anglophone departments of philosophy of the Harvard/Princeton type and those trained in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and most other European countries (outside of Britain and Scandanavia) had become very great indeed. The latter students typically knew both Hegel and Heidegger reasonably well. They had views about the relative merits of the grand geistesgeschichtlich stories those two men told, as well as about how to interweave such stories with various equally grand stories about the history of art and literature on the one hand, and the history of social and political institutions on the other. Some anglophone students also had read these two philosophers and had views about such stories, but such students were atypical, and often marginalized. Again, some students in non-anglophone countries were intensely interested in analytic philosophy, and prepared to follow Quine’s advice about ignoring the history of philosophy. But they too were atypical, and often marginalized. Most of these deep differences persist today. There is still a big difference between young people aspiring to become philosophy professors in anglophone and in non-anglophone parts of the world. The greatest difference is in their differing notions of what it means to be a philosopher--in the self-image and the ambitions which an advanced student of the subject acquires. It is this difference which makes it very unlikely that there will be a rapprochement between the analytic tradition and a tradition that still trains students by shepherding them through the canonical Plato-to-Nietzsche sequence. Among anglophone philosophers, sheer argumentative ability—of the sort typical of forensic litigators--matters most. It is still most important to be what my Princeton colleagues used to call “quick in the head”. Elsewhere, on the other hand, it is still most important to be learned---to have read a lot, and to have views on how to pull the various things one has read together into some sort of story, a story which draws a moral. That is why non-anglophone students of philosophy on the Continent usually have little problem chatting up, and being chatted up by, students of literature and history. Philosophy graduate students in the US often have a problem doing this. The anti-historicism of analytic philosophy has, however, not prevented the study of the history of philosophy from making something of a comeback in the US. There is far more first-rate work being done in this area by American philosophers nowadays than twenty years ago. But it is typically work that avoids Geistesgeschichte. Rather, it sticks to a particular figure or period, and points no world-historical moral . It has few points of contact with the concerns of people who take seriously Hegel’s and Heidegger’s stories about the Plato-to-Kant sequence. This study of the history of philosophy is, however, equally far removed, however, from the concerns of the so-called “core” areas of analytic philosophy. It owes very little to analytic philosophy, and is continuous with historical work done before Russell and Carnap proposed the paradigm-shift which revolutionzed anglophone philosophy. The historians of philosophy in American philosophy departments are, so to speak, “analytic” only by courtesy. Whereas in the first flush of analytic enthusiasm there were some awkward attempts to make Aristotle a sort of proto-Russell or proto-Austin, and to make Kant a mixed-up proto-Strawson, nowadays there is often little difference between commentaries on canonical texts written by philosophy professors and those written by political scientists or intellectual historians. As with the history of philosophy, so with moral and political philosophy. John Rawls would have written the same book even if Russell and Carnap had never lived, and even if the linguistic turn had never been taken. Insofar as writers like Rawls or Charles Taylor or Peter Singer use “methods” they are the same “methods” used by Sidgwick, Mill and T. H. Green. The linguistic turn has made no difference to their inquiries. The only effect which the dominance of analytic philosophy has had on these fields is to relegate the history of philosophy, moral philosophy, and political philosophy to the margins of the philosophical curriculum. The central position in American philosophy departments is now occupied by the so-called ‘core’ specialities—metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind. The presumed centrality of these areas encourages students to think work in other areas of philosophy as soft and wimpy. The hard “core” consists precisely in work which is not only wildly different from anything done by professors in literature or history, but whose point is obscure to anyone who is not a philosopher by profession. The “core” status of this work is due to the fact that this is the part of philosophy which still seems to offer hope of achieving definitive, quasi-scientific results—of attaining knowledge, as opposed to mere opinion. To give you a feel for the sort of thing that hard-core analytic philosophers take seriously, consider the following example. It was pointed out by Edmund Gettier in 1962 that there was a flaw in the traditional definition of knowledge as justified true belief—the definition first put forward by Plato. Gettier noted that you could have a justified true belief which would nevertheless not count as knowledge, simply because it was caused in the wrong way—caused by irrelevant events. For example, if I believe that somebody in my department now owns a BMW, but believe it to be Jones, who told me last month that he owned one, then I may have a justified true belief. But, because Jones sold his BMW yesterday, my belief is only true because it was another of my departmental colleagues, Smith, who bought it from Jones. Because my justified belief was caused by the wrong thing, so to speak, I do not know that a colleague owns a BMW, even though one of them in fact does, and even though my belief that one of them does is justified. Getter's observation has given rise to what are called “causal theories of knowledge”. Such theories try to specify what kind of causal link obtains between knowings and objects of empirical knowledge. Those interested in such theories go on to discuss whether such links exist as well in the case of mathematical and moral knowledge. Such inquiries tie in with Kripke-inspired causal theories of reference. These are theories about how what we are talking about is determined not by what we say about it, but rather by causal linkages between our use of certain words and the things those words were originally used to name. There is much debate among analytic philosophers about the value of such theories—about whether we need either a theory of knowledge or a theory of reference, about whether Getter's discovery is of any philosophical interest, about whether causal theories can ever be made to work, and about what they would be good for if they did. But a student of analytic philosopher is expected to have views on all these topics, if only to be sure of passing the “epistemology and metaphysics” section of the Ph. D. qualifiying exam. You will get more points in my profession for having a novel argument relevant to these topics than you would get from, for example, publishing a comprehensive history of moral philosophy in Europe from Montaigne to Kant. Such a history was published a few years ago by Jerome Schneewind, who teaches philosophy at Hopkins, Fifty years ago, when Lovejoy, Jaeger, Cornford, Gilson, Wolfson, and Kemp Smith, were still names to conjure with, a long, learned, original, and imaginative work in the history of philosophy such as Schneewind’s THE INVENTION OF AUTONOMY would have been heralded as one of America’s most important recent contributions to philosophy. Nowadays, however, it will probably find more readers outside of philosophy departments than inside. The majority of American teachers of philosophy will remain unaware of its existence. The main reason for this distribution of prestige is, once again, that analytic phliosophers would like, above everything else, to feel that they are adding bricks to the edifice of knowledge. Analytic philosophers are of course not as suspicious of historians as they are of literary critics. For they acknowledge that historians who confine themselves to ascertaining which events actually occurred do offer knowledge rather than mere opinion. . But because historians of philosophy like Lovejoy or Schneewind are concerned with trends rather than events, they are often classed with the opinion-mongers. They are thought of as looking more like literary critics than real philosophers, professional philosophers, ought to look. This is because telling a story about trends is an invitation to the next generation of intellectual historians to tell another, competing, story about the same trends, just as setting up a literary canon invites the next generation of critics to revise that canon. By contrast, the explanation of a macrostrural physical phenomenon by reference to detailed microstructural arrangements typically does not invite the next generation to offer a competing explanation. For the first explanation is often agreed to have added a brick to the edifice of knowledge, making it unnecessary to revisit that spot on the wall. That sense of definitiveness and finality is what analytic philosophers yearn for. Such a sense is obviously not achievable by a book like Schneewind’s. The contrast between analytic and non-analytic philosophy roughly parallels C. P. Snow’s contrast between the scientific and the literary cultures—the, hard-soft, or techie-fuzzie, contrast I mentioned earlier.. Most people who go in for what the analytic philosophers call “Continental philosophy” are willing, and often eager, to fuzz up the boundaries between philosophy, intellectual history, literature, literary criticism, and culture criticism. They are relatively indifferent to the results of the so-called hard sciences. They see every reason why philosophy professors should read THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS and little reason why they should subscribe to SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. The typical reader of Heidegger and Derrida views the hard sciences as handmaidens of technological progress, rather than as providing windows through which to glimpse reality unveiled. Such a reader will agree with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche that Plato and Aristotle were mistaken in thinking that the pursuit of objective truth is the most worthwhile, and the most distinctively human, activity of which we are capable. Most such readers will agree with Nietzsche that what the Greek philosophers missed was the priority of art and literature to science and mathematics—the need to view science through the optics of art and of life.. Plato envisaged a science-centered education, whereas Nietzsche envisaged an art-centered culture, one in which we acknowledge that the poets determine our ends, and that the scientists merely provide means to realize these ends. This line of thought is nicely summarized by Kierkegaard’s insistence that what we call “objective knowledge”, whether it is of mathematical theorems or of physical facts or of the occurrence of historical events is merely “accidental” knowledge. The bricks that make up the edifice of human knowledge are irrelevant for the only purpose that really matters. That purpose is to transform what Kierkegaard calls “the existing individual”. “All knowledge,” Kierkegaard writes, “which does not inwardly relate itself to existence, in the reflection of inwardness, is, essentially viewed, accidental knowledge; its degree and scope is essentially indifferent… Only ethico-religious knowledge has an essential relationship to the knower.” The paradigm case of existential transformation for Kierkegaard is becoming a New Being in Christ. But this is obviously not the only example of acquiring what Heidegger called authentic existence—a life whose goals are not simply taken over from one’s culture or one’s tradition, but which are the result of an idiosyncratic, alienating, ecstatic encounter with something or somebody new. This is the sort of encounter Plato had with Socrates, Pico della Mirandola with Plato, Romeo with Juliet, Hitler with Wagner, Quine with Carnap, Harold Bloom with Blake, and many idealistic young people with social movements such as Marxism, feminism, fascism, and gay liberation. Clearly, not everybody in the humanities is looking for existential transformation. Nor are all non-analytic philosophy professors. But the existence of the phenomenon of existential transformation is as important for the humanities as the phenomenon of consensus among knowledgeable experts is for the scientific culture. If there were no such phenomenon, there would be no literary culture, just as there would be no scientific culture if attaining consensus were not a familiar and expected product of conducting laboratory experiments. This does not mean that the chief products of humanities departments are books which effect existential transformation. Rather, the principal product of those departments are contributions to Geistesgeschichte: stories about past transformations, especially narratives connecting many successive transformations in social and individual self-images. These are stories about, for example, how the Greeks got from Homer to Aristotle, how literary criticism got from Dr. Johnson to Harold Bloom, how the German imagination got from Schiller to Habermas, how Protestantism got from Luther to Tillich, and how feminists got from Harriet Taylor to Catherine MacKinnon. These narratives tell us how human beings managed to change their most important self-descriptions. All such narratives are endlessly contestable, and endlessly revisable in the light of more recent changes. So the very idea of a last, definitive historical account of any of these transitions is as silly as the idea of a last, definitive, Bildungsroman. Such narratives, when woven together with one another, and with a reader’s own unwritten Bildungsroman, offer that reader a sense of what Hegel called the course of the World-Spirit. Books which weave together many such narratives, and which imbed a moral within the design of the resulting tapestry, perform the task which Hegel called “holding our time in thought.” That phrase was one of Hegel’s many definitions of philosophy. It seems to me a plausible definition of what the humanities departments of our universities hope to do for their students. By telling stories about past transformative encounters, members of these departments hope to put students in a better position to have similar encounters of their own, encounters some of which may help shove the World-Spirit along.. Holding one’s time in thought is to the humanities what puzzle-solving is to the sciences. One of the chief satisfactions of being a natural scientist, even a very minor-league natural scientist, is that you may solve a puzzle, at least a minor-league puzzle, once and for all. A great scientist is one who solves a great big, long-standing puzzle—why the planets move in ellipses, for example, or the microstructure of radioactivity, or the physical realization of genetic coding. A very great natural scientist may solve puzzles in a way that transforms our whole sense of how things work. This is why Einstein is sometimes referred to as a “philosopher-scientist”. His achievement conforms to Wilfrid Sellars’ definition of philosophy as an account of how things, in the largest sense of the term, hang together, in the largest sense of the term. But a very great philosopher, someone like Plato or Hegel , may do the same sort of thing that Einstein did. So may a very great religious writer like Kierkegaard or a very great poet like Shakespeare. The things being made to hang together in a new way are different , but the largeness is comparable. In the scientific case the relevant things are non-human objects (including pieces of human beings such as neurons or genes). In the humanities, they are human things—human institutions, lives, character-traits, achievements, and so on. Great, but not very great, historians, literary critics, and philosophers stand to people like Kant and Shakespeare as run-of-the-mill Nobel Laureates in physics stand to Einstein. They do not effect transformations, but they facilitate the next round of such transformations. Whereas the physicists build up to the next transformation by solving puzzles, the humanists build up to it by telling stories about how past transformations do or do not hang together. Comte and Marx, for example, were trying to hold their time in thought, when they spun retrospective narratives in support of their respective suggestions about how the cruel inequalities that had survived the French Revolution might be corrected. . So were the Renaissance humanists when they offered suggestions about what Christendom might become, now that we had become able to appropriate the wisdom of the ancients. The greatest non-analytic philosophers of our century, Dewey and Heidegger, spent a lot of their time telling stories about decline and about progress, stories which led their readers to reconceive themselves and their surroundings. The potentially transformative reconceptions these two men offered obviously cannot be described as providing us with new knowledge. Yet to call them suggestions for change in opinion is equally misleading. For those who follow Kierkegaard in distinguishing the existential and important from the objective and relatively trivial are right to brush aside questions about consensus and certainty. They are also right to have no interest in the knowledge-opinion distinction. . When one switches professions, spouses, lovers, or religions one does not ask for either certainty or consensus about the rightness of one’s choice. Nor is it in point to do so when choosing between Dewey’s upbeat narrative of our ascent to social democracy and Heidegger’s downbeat narrative of our descent into mindless technological gigantism. To illustrate the difference between a history-centered kind of philosophy which has no problem about its relation to the other humanities and the kind of philosophy which considers history inessential, let me recur to Schneewind, whose book I mentioned earlier. In a seminar covering the material of the book, a student who was bewildered by his approach asked Schneewind anxiously “But you do believe, don’t you, that there is a body of objectively correct moral knowledge which moral philosophers are asymptotically approaching?” When Schneewind said that he believed nothing of the sort, the student was genuinely perplexed as to what the point of writing a history of moral philosophy was supposed to be. This perplexity would not, I suspect, have been found in an American philosophy student of fifty years ago. I cite this anecdote in order to suggest how deeply ingrained in the culture of analytic philosophy is the ideal of the pursuit of non-time-bound, unrevisable, truth. If you have this ideal before you, what goes on in departments of literature and history is bound to seem beside any possible philosophical point. Conversely, if you agree with Kierkegaard that knowledge of such truths is trivial by comparison with “ethico-religious” transformation, then you will have little interest in analytic philosophy. Because most readers of philosophy do agree with Kierkegaard, analytic philosophy has few readers outside anglophone philosophy departments. Most of the other professors in anglophone universities neither know nor care what goes on in the philosophy department. Insofar as they think about it all, they dismiss that department as having been taken over by “technicians” whose work is of no interest to non-specialists. . Many analytic philosophers would go along with the view of philosophy put forward by David Lewis, one of the most respected and admired of contemporary American philosophers. His system-building and puzzle-solving abilities, as well as his argumentative acumen, are the envy of his colleagues. But he has as little interest in the history of philosophy, and in whether his students are familiar with this history, as did his teacher Carnap,. Lewis writes that “One comes to philosophy already endowed with a stock of existing opinions. It is not the business of philosophy either to undermine or to justify these opinions, to any great extent, but only to try to discover ways of expanding them into an orderly system. A metaphysician’ analysis of mind is an attempt at systematizing our opinions about it. It succeeds t the extent that (1) it is systematic, and (2) it respects those of our PR-philosophic opinions to which we are firmly attached.” (Lewis, COUNTERFACTUALS, p. 88) Philosophers who agree with Lewis often have little patience with those who, like Kierkegaard, hope that reading a philosophy book may, by undermining or justifying our present opinions, permit self-transformation. Kierkegaard’s claim that only the ethico-religious really matters is the antithesis of Lewis’s view of what philosophy is good for. The difference between the two men is, as I have already suggested, the difference between telling stories, especially stories of redemption or of decline, and solving puzzles. Lewis is the archetypal philosophical puzzle-solver. His solutions to puzzles are original and brilliant, and they fit together into a truly beautiful system. But those who think that philosophy should concentrate on dissolving traditional puzzles rather than on solving them typically do so because they hope that such dissolution will help us replace a worn-out jargon with a new, transformative, way of speaking and thinking. Such people will see Lewis’ system-building as having merely aesthetic value. The sort of philosopher who finds Heidegger useful, precisely because of his attempt to get rid of all the presuppositions common to Plato and to analytic philosophy, is especially likely to take this view. If analytic philosophy is to retain any hope of realizing its dream of scientification and full professionalization, then there must be meanings which stay fixed despite changes of usage, and intuitions which remain platitudinous despite cultural change. It is essential for this movement that historicism have its limits-that not every way of speaking and thinking be up for grabs, not every philosophical problem be a candidate for therapeutic dissolution.. For if all ways of speaking and thinking are potentially replacable, then the analytic puzzle-solvers will always be in danger of finding themselves parochial, time-bound, obsolete. This is the principal reason why, within contemporary analytic philosophy, holism, contextualism, pragmatism, and historicism are viewed with so much suspicion. For the more meanings, concepts and intuitions seem to be at the mercy of history, the less hope there is that philosophy will someday attain the secure path of a science. Historicism in philosophy is the chief enemy of professionalization. Fear of deprofessionalization has come to play, among the analytic philosophers, a considerable role in the choice of substantive philosophical views. I myself am a convinced holist, historicist, pragmatist, and contextualist. I do not believe that there are any little analyzable nuggets called “concepts” and “meanings” of the sort that the analytic philosophers’ job description requires. My first impulse, upon being told of a philosophical puzzle, is to try to dissolve it rather than to solve it: I typically question the terms in which the problem is posed, and try to suggest a new set of terms, terms in which the putative puzzle is unstatable. This sort of behavior may account for the fact that I am often characterized as an “end-of-philosophy” philosopher. But I am not. Philosophy cannot possibly end unless cultural change ends, and, like everyone else, I hope that such change will continue. Given cultural change, there will always be people trying to put the old and the new together. Plato tried to put the best features of Hesiod’s Olympians together with the best features of axiomatic geometry, Aquinas tried to put Aristotle together with Scripture. Dewey tried to put Hegel together with Darwin, Annette Baier tries to put Hume and Harriet Taylor together with Freud. All these people are appropriately called philosophers, both on Sellars’ and on Hegel’s definitions. They were all trying to make human things hang together in a large, wholesale, way, and also to hold their rapidly changing times in thought. The reason philosophy always buries its undertakers is not that there are deep permanent, puzzles which pop up like jacks-in-the-box in every epoch and in every culture, but simply that the times keep changing. Such change always makes it hard to see how things hang together, because it forces us to describe new phenomena in terms which were designed for use on old phenomena. The useful philosophers are the ones who think up new terms, and thereby make old vocabularies obsolete. .The invention of such terms cannot be made the goal of a program of scientific research. So what I do hope will come to an end is the attempt to set philosophy on the secure path of a science. If such attempts do come to an end, however, analytic philosophy will not be regarded by intellectual historians as having been a waste of time. On the contrary, I believe that they will see analytic philosophy as having produced powerful new considerations in favor of historicism and against scientism. Nothing has so become analytic philosophy as its constant self-criticism—its habit of chipping away at its own foundations, calling its own pretensions into question. Receptiveness to such autocritique as permitted analytic philosophers such as Kuhn and Putnam to formulate far deeper criticisms of Russell and Carnap’s attempt to put philosophy on a scientific footing that any that have been produced outside the analytic movement. The reaction against logical positivism which has dominated analytic philosophy for the last forty years should not be seen as a tempest in an anglophone teapot, but as a substantial contribution to world philosophy. If historians are to appreciate the magnitude of the achievements of analytic philosophy, they would do well to brush aside the self-serving rhetoric which the analytic philosophers unfortunately continue to employ. They can safely disregard the claim that analytic philosophy exhibits an unusual, and perhaps unprecedented, degree of clarity and rigor. They should attend, instead, to the internal dialectic of analytic philosophy. Thanks to what Hegel called “the cunning of reason”, this dialectic has enabled analytic philosophy4rs to explain more clearly than ever before why clarity and rigor are relative to cultural circumstance. In the forty-odd years since analytic philosophy took over, no more agreement has been achieved among American analytic philosophers than was achieved among the neo-Kantian philosophers in Germany during the second half of the nineteenth century, or among the pre-analytic American philosophers who discussed the relative merits of James, Russell, Bradley, Whitehead and Bergson. The Russell-Carnap attempt to use symbolic logic to put philosophy on the secure path of a science has been as complete a fizzle as was Husserl’s attempt to use the phenomenological epoche for that purpose. Analytic philosophers are as quick to divide into schools, each dismissive of the other's importance, as were the scholastics of the fourteenth century. This sort of scholasticism is hard to avoid when a profession has no responsibilities except to itself. What counts as a real problem in, for example, jurisprudence, is a matter on which society as a whole has opinions. But society has no opinions about what counts as a philosophical problem. That is why, ever since philosophy became professionalized in the time of Kant, philosophers have spent at least half their time explaining why their colleagues’ problems are unreal. What one acquires as a graduate student in an analytic philosophy department is not a set of methods or tools, but simply familiarity with the various language-games presently being played by the faculty of that department. These are language-games which may well be viewed with contempt by the analytic philosophers at the next university down the road. Nevertheless, familiarity with such language-games is what constitutes initiation into the profession. In this respect, graduate training is precisely the same process for students of David Lewis or Donald Davidson as it for students on the other side of the abyss--disciples of Albrecht Wellmer or Gianni Vattimo, for example. In all four cases, you acquire what suspicious outsiders call pointless jargon and what convinced insiders call indispensable tools. When in 1950 I sat starry-eyed at Carnap’s feet, I actually believed that by the end of the twentieth century philosophers around the world would be bedecking their articles with quantifiers, talking the same ideally perspicuous language, trying to solve the same puzzles, adding bricks to the same edifice. But during my years at Princeton, watching the winds of doctrine veer about, and last yearns urgent new philosophical puzzles wither and die in the blast, I realized this scenario was unlikely to be played out in even a single university, much less on a global scale. Still, the realization that my Princeton colleagues no more agreed about when a brick had been added to the edifice of knowledge than about what counted as an important philosophical problem did not diminish my growing conviction the best of the analytic philosophers have done a lot for the transformation of the human self-image. In various books and articles I have tried to tell a story about how the linguistic turn in philosophy both made it possible for the heirs of Kant to come to terms with Darwin and encouraged an anti-representationalist line of thought which chimes with Nietzsche’s perspectivalism and with Dewey’s pragmatism. This line of thought, running through the later Wittgenstein, as well as through the work of Sellars and Davidson, has given us a new way of thinking about the relation between language and reality. Thinking in this way may, at long last, do what the German idealists vainly hoped to do: it may persuade us to end discussion of tiresome pseudo-problems about the relation of subject and object, and of appearance to reality. These analytic philosophers, I would argue, can help us get philosophy back on the Hegelian, historicist, romantic, path. This is the path that nineteenth-century neo-Kantians , Husserlian phenomenologists, and the founders of analytic philosophy all hoped to block off. The story I have tried to tell elsewhere about how analytic philosophy tried and failed to avoid taking this path culminates in the claim that human beings can, with the help of Wittgenstein, Sellars and Davidson on the one hand, and Heidegger, Foucault and Derrida on the other, get away from the old idea that there is something outside of human beings—something like the Will of God, or the Intrinsic Nature of Reality—which has authority over human beliefs and actions. It is a story about how certain intuitions we inherit from the Greeks can be undermined and replaced, rather than systematized. Whether or not one accepts or likes this story, it is a story of transformation, a story of the sort that Kierkegaard could acknowledge as having ethico-religious import (even though its import is radically atheistic). My story, in short, is not about how to avoid analytic philosophy, but rather about why you need to study certain selected analytic philosophers in order fully to appreciate the transformative possibilities which the intellectual movements of the twentieth century have opened up for our descendants. The disciplinary matrix of analytic philosophy, despite the hollow defensive rhetoric with which it resounds, is one with which future intellectual historians will have to become familiar, just as they have had to become familiar with the disciplinary matrix of German idealism. German idealism too produced a lot of hollow scientistic rhetoric, but it did shove the World-Spirit along. So, I have argued, will the line of holist and contextualist thinking that led Wittgenstein from the TRACTATUS to the INVESTIGATIONS, that persuaded Quine to mock the analytic-synthetic distinction, that led Sellars to abandon the Lockean idea of pre-linguistic awareness, and made Davidson repudiate the very idea of a conceptual scheme. Students of the history of philosophy in the twenty-second century will, I predict, have to struggle through the technicalities that litter this train of thought, just as today’s students have to struggle through the technicalities of Kant’s CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. . For all its pretentious architectonic and its Rube Goldberg-style solutions of pointless pseudo-puzzles, Kant’s book has turned out to have transformative, ethico-religious, effects. We think about ourselves differently because Kant wrote what he did. For all its pseudo-scientistic pretensions, and despite the countless dead ends it has backed itself into, twentieth-century analytic philosophy will also have transformative effects, and so will put our descendants in its debt. Analytic philosophy may not have lived up to its pretensions, and may not have solved the puzzles it thought it had. Yet in the process of finding reasons for putting those pretensions and those puzzles aside it helped earn itself an important place in the history of ideas. By giving up on the quest for apodicticity and finality that Husserl shared with Carnap and Russell, and by finding new reasons for thinking that that quest will never succeed, it cleared a path that leads us past scientism, just as the German idealists cleared a path that led us around empiricism. The anti-empiricist lesson of German idealism took a long time to learn, and so may the anti-scientistic lesson of analytic philosophy. But someday intellectual historians may be able to see these apparently opposed movements as complementary. Richard Rorty November 10, 1999








The New York Review of Books


Volume 56, Number 20 · December 17, 2009

'Fear of Knowledge': An Exchange

By Kathleen Lennon, Edwin M. Schur, Reply by John R. Searle


In response to Why Should You Believe It?* (September 24, 2009)


To the Editors:


There was something pleasantly nostalgic about John Searle's review of Fear of Knowledge by Paul A. Boghossian [NYR, September 24], riding to the defense of Enlightenment values of truth, objectivity, and rationality. I was however rather surprised to find myself (although in good company) representative of the forces of darkness he needed to justify his crusade. Along with the good old-fashioned intellectual virtues he claims to espouse, many of us were taught another one. That is to read someone's work before making it an object of discussion (or derision as I think we might say in this case).


On the basis of a few lines from my paper in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (Supplementary Vol. 71), lines he urges us to read closely and then perversely misreads, he draws wild conclusions, which even the most cursory reading of the paper would have made impossible. He claims that I reject an independently existing reality, when all that was argued was the widely accepted point of the impossibility of an unmediated access to it. More astonishingly he attributes to me and my fellow barbarians (feminist, postcolonialist, and poststructuralist thinkers) the view that "if we are to be truly free, free to create a multicultural democracy, we must above all liberate ourselves from 'objectivity,' 'rationality,' and 'science.'"


In place of such a fantasy my paper was instead addressing how rational assessment of knowledge claims is possible, if we accept the situatedness of knowledge seekers. It points out that feminists cannot be relativists for "feminist criticisms aimed to challenge and discredit the masculine accounts they critiqued, not simply to add a further perspective. This requires the possibility of rational encounters between the positions."

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One of the problems with Searle's characterization of his supposed opponents is a running together of different positions. Those who argue that historical, social, and material locatedness constrain what we can discover and make sense of are accused of relativism: here the view that knowledge is knowledge-relative-to-a-certain-framework/ time-or-place. But these are quite different claims. Searle also glosses the suggestion that facts are socially constructed as "if we do not like a fact that others have constructed, we can construct another fact that we prefer." Yet those who argue that we are the source of the frameworks in terms of which we understand the world do not have to claim that we do this in a way unconstrained by an independent reality, even while accepting that such reality does not dictate to us the single best way of making sense of it.


The failure of Searle to engage with the positions he is so eager to dismiss is puzzling. What is he afraid of here? That a willingness to see something valuable in his opponents might make his own position somewhat less heroic?


Kathleen Lennon

Ferens Professor of Philosophy

University of Hull

Hull, England


To the Editors:


In discussing Paul Boghossian's critique of relativism, John Searle cites with approval the assertion that "the fact that descriptions are socially relative does not imply that the factsdescribed by those descriptions are socially relative." From a sociological perspective, emphasizing (even claiming) such a distinction may prove inadequate.


In many social situations the "descriptions" (perceptions, definitions, judgments) are infinitely more consequential socially, and for a commonsense understanding of what is going on, than the alleged "facts." And since there may well be differing and even "competing" descriptions, what the anti-relativist might like to see, in a given situation, as "fact" or "truth" might better be viewed as an outcome of processes of social perception and definition. Apposite examples are myriad.


Is the husband hitting his wife a "mere domestic disturbance" or is it "wife- battering"? The hitting may be objective "fact," but how it is defined and reacted to will be crucial. Did the man who fell to his death have an "accident" or commit "suicide"? The evidence may be inconclusive, but in any case a social definition will be applied. What is the objective "truth" value of "clinical depression"? If the distinction between it and extreme sadness is a matter of considered yet still subjective judgment, is clinical depression a "fact"?


Should a critic feel that, by focusing in this way on "descriptions," I am simply by-passing the philosophical debate, I would return to my earlier point about social (and psychological) consequentiality. It may be that a chair, a tree, a human body, and a physical act are "facts." But in the arena of human interaction we constantly encounter social characterizations of people, acts, and situations. More often than not, and in the absence of a truly "established" body of supporting evidence, there is little or no consensus regarding which particular "description" or "vocabulary" is applicable. As my earlier comments suggest, in their ramifications and effects the ones that do emerge "successful" make all the difference in the world.


Edwin M. Schur

Professor Emeritus Department of Sociology

New York University

John R. Searle replies:


In my review of Boghossian's book I cited a passage that he quotes from Kathleen Lennon, in which she contrasts "knowledge as a neutral transparent reflection of an independently ordered reality, with truth and falsity established by transcendent procedures of rational assessment" (a conception she rejects) and "all knowledge [as] situated knowledge, reflecting the position of the knowledge producer at a certain historical moment in a given material and cultural context" (a conception that she accepts and that she assumes refutes the transcendent conception she rejects). I pointed out that contrary to her view, these are not inconsistent. It is trivially true that knowledge is always arrived at by historically situated individuals in historical contexts and it is also true that these individuals sometimes produce theories that meet universal standards of rational assessment.


She says, correctly, that I had not read her article. I was reviewing Boghossian's book, not her article. I have now read the article with some care, and I believe it contains a deep inconsistency. In her letter to me she denies that she is a relativist, and insists that the passages she quotes from her original article support her denial of relativism. But the key sentence in her original article is this: Theories cannot be assessed by reference to universal norms. This is an astounding claim, because it denies that there are universal norms such as truth, evidence, consistency, rationality, and coherence, by which we can assess theories.


Her grounds for this claim are in the passage Boghossian and I quoted where she assumes that the situatedness and contextual dependency of actual research is inconsistent with universal norms. They are not inconsistent. The rejection of universal norms implies relativism. If there are no universal norms, then what sort of norms can we use? And the answer is implicit in what she says: norms are derived from a given material and cultural context. That is relativism. She cannot have it both ways. She cannot insist that she is not a relativist and yet deny that there are universal norms of validity.


Edwin Schur makes an important point that I want to emphasize. Where brute physical reality is concerned, we can typically state facts that are totally independent of any human attitudes: that the earth is round, that hydrogen atoms have one electron, for example. But where human reality is concerned, there are many facts where the descriptions of the fact are partly constitutive of the fact in question. Something is money, property, government, or marriage only insofar as we represent it as such, and that representation requires some use of language.


Furthermore, there are many human attitudes where language is partly constitutive of the attitude. In order to fall in love or resent injustice, you have to have a certain way of conceptualizing your feelings, because the concepts are partly constitutive of the attitudes in question. And the point is not, as he suggests, that the evidence might be inconclusive. Given complete evidence in some cases you cannot separate the facts from the interpretation. I think these are very important points, and indeed I have written two books about them and related issues, The Construction of Social Reality (1995) and Making the Social World (forthcoming). I am glad that Professor Schur enables me to make this point.


A number of other questions were raised in the numerous letters commenting on my article, and I want to answer at least one familiar objection: the fact that science frequently changes is sometimes taken to support relativism. In fact scientific change is an argument against relativism. We would not bother to change our scientific theories if we did not think the new theory was closer to the truth than the old one. For example, we give up the Newtonian conception of space and time and replace it with an Einsteinian conception, because the latter is closer to the truth.



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Searle on Relativism




Volume 56, Number 14 · September 24, 2009

Why Should You Believe It?


By John R. Searle

Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism

by Paul A. Boghossian

Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 139 pp., $19.95 (paper)



Relativism has a long history in our intellectual culture, and takes several different forms, such as relativism about knowledge and truth, ethical values, aesthetic quality, and cultural norms, to mention a few. Paul Boghossian's book concentrates on the first of these. The basic idea he opposes is that claims to objective truth and knowledge, for example the claim that hydrogen atoms have one electron, are in fact only valid relative to a set of cultural attitudes, or to some other subjective way of perceiving the world. Furthermore, according to relativism, inconsistent claims may have what he calls "equal validity." There can be no universally valid knowledge claims.


There is a traditional refutation of relativism, as follows: The claim that all truth is relative is itself either relative or not. If it is relative then we need not accept it because it is only valid relative to somebody's attitudes, which we may not share. If it is not relative, but absolute, then it refutes the view that all truth is relative. Either way relativism is refuted. Boghossian considers this traditional refutation and though he thinks it is serious, he does not regard it as decisive. For one thing, most relativists regard it as a kind of logical trick. They think that they are possessed of a deep insight, that all of our knowledge claims are made relative to a certain set of attitudes, cultural norms, and prejudices. This insight is not refuted by logical arguments, or so they suppose.



The currently most influential form of relativism is social constructivism, which Boghossian defines as follows: "A fact is socially constructed if and only if it is necessarily true that it could only have obtained through the contingent actions of a social group." The social constructivist is anxious to expose construction where none had been suspected, where something that is in fact essentially social had come to masquerade as part of the natural world. Many social constructivists find it liberating because it frees us from the apparent oppression of supposing that we are forced to accept claims about the world as matters of mind-independent fact when in reality they are all socially constructed. If we do not like a fact that others have constructed, we can construct another fact that we prefer.


What do relativism and social constructivism look like in practice? Boghossian gives a number of striking examples. According to our best evidence, the Native Americans arrived on this continent from the Eurasian landmass by crossing over the Bering Strait; but according to some Native American accounts they are the descendants of the Buffalo people, and they came from inside the earth after supernatural spirits prepared this world for habitation by humans. So here are two alternative and inconsistent accounts. Some anthropologists say that one account is as good as the other. As one put it, "Science is just one of many ways of knowing the world. [The Zunis' worldview is] just as valid as the archaeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about." Our science constructs one reality; the Native Americans construct another. As Boghossian sees it, this is not acceptable. These two theories are logically inconsistent with each other; they cannot both be true. Is there any way to eliminate the inconsistency?


The answer, say the relativists, is to see that each claim is relative. We should say not that the early Americans came by way of the Bering Strait, but rather: "according to our theory," they came by the Bering Strait. And "according to some Native American theories," they came out of the earth. Once relativized, the inconsistency disappears. Indeed all claims are relativized in this way (including presumably the claim that the original claims were inconsistent and the claim that they have been relativized). Will relativism rescue social constructivism? Boghossian sees correctly that relativism fails to solve the problem, and much of his book is about this failure. I do not agree with all of his arguments but I support his overall project.


problem faced by social constructivism concerns facts about the past. Are we now constructing facts about the past when we make claims about history? One extreme social constructivist cited by Boghossian, Bruno Latour, accepts this conclusion with somewhat comical results. Recent research shows that the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II probably died of tuberculosis. But according to Latour, this is impossible because the tuberculosis bacillus was only discovered by Robert Koch in 1882.[1] "Before Koch, the bacillus had no real existence." To say that Ramses II died of tuberculosis is as absurd as saying that he died of machine-gun fire.


What is one to make of Latour's claim? The machine gun was invented in the late nineteenth century, and prior to that invention it did not exist in any form. But the tuberculosis bacillus was not invented. It was discovered. Part of the meaning of "discovery" is that to be discovered something has to exist prior to the discovery, and indeed could not have been discovered if it had not existed prior to the discovery.


The claim that knowledge is a social construction is not meant to state the commonplace truth that many facts in the social world are indeed socially constructed. For example, something is money, private property, a government, or a marriage only because people believe that's what it is, and in that sense such things are socially constructed. Social constructivism makes the much more radical claim that physical reality itself, the very facts we might think we have discovered in physics, chemistry, and the other natural sciences are socially constructed.


This view has been influential in a number of disciplines: feminism, sociology, anthropology, philosophy of science, and literary theory among others. The titles of some typical works express various degrees of support for the doctrine: Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality; Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar's Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts; Andrew Pickering's Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics; Donald MacKenzie's Statistics in Britain, 1865–1930: The Social Construction of ScientificKnowledge.[2] Boghossian quotes a feminist view as follows:


Feminist epistemologists, in common with many other strands of contemporary epistemology, no longer regard knowledge as a neutral transparent reflection of an independently existing reality, with truth and falsity established by transcendent procedures of rational assessment. Rather, most accept that all knowledge is situated knowledge, reflecting the position of the knowledge producer at a certain historical moment in a given material and cultural context.[3]

This passage is worth a close reading. On the face of it, the two views being contrasted, that knowledge is a "reflection of an independently existing reality" and that "all knowledge is situated knowledge," are perfectly consistent. Historically situated investigators can discover the truth about "an independently existing reality." But the point of the passage is to claim that most feminists reject the idea that knowledge reflects an independently existing reality; and the rhetorical flourishes in the passage, such as "transcendent procedures of rational assessment" and "neutral transparent reflection," are designed to reinforce that point.




Boghossian distinguishes three features of constructivism and considers each separately: constructivism about the facts (the facts themselves are social constructions), constructivism about justification (what we count as a justification of a belief is a matter of social construction), and constructivism about rational explanation (we never believe what we believe solely on the basis of evidence).


About the first and most important of these theses, Boghossian considers arguments from three philosophers: Hilary Putnam, Nelson Goodman, and Richard Rorty. Putnam imagines a hypothetical universe consisting of three circles: A, B, and C. Then he asks: How many objects are there in this universe? Three? No, says Putnam, because according to certain Polish logicians (he cites S. Lezniewski), we can construe one object as A, one as B, one as C, one as consisting of A+B, another as B+C, yet another as A+C, and finally, one of A+B+C. So on this basis, there are really seven objects in the universe. Because we can correctly say that there are three objects or seven objects, Putnam concludes that there is no objective fact of the matter about how many objects there are.[4]


As Boghossian sees, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Once you have selected your conditions for something being an object, there is a straightforward fact of the matter about how many objects there are. For Putnam to say that there is no fact of the matter would be like saying that there is no answer to the question "How many guests came to the dinner party?" because you could say eight people or four couples.


Goodman's argument is also weak. Goodman says we construct the constellations of the night sky by drawing certain lines and not others. We draw one set of lines that creates the Big Dipper, for example. All other constellations are similarly created, and what goes for constellations goes for everything, according to Goodman. All of reality consists of human creations.Once again, a bad argument. Constellations are patterns we have selected in the sky because we can discern through our perceptual apparatus certain geometrical forms such as the Big Dipper. Constellations are, in this sense, observer-relative: the actual stars exist independently of any observer, though the patterns we use to name constellations exist only relative to our point of view.


But the stars, as well as mountains, molecules, and tectonic plates, are not in that way relative to an observer. True, we have to select a vocabulary of "stars," "mountains," etc., but once the vocabulary has been selected, it is a completely objective fact that Mount Everest is a mountain, for example, and not a giraffe. The general pattern of error is to confuse, on the one hand, the social relativity of the vocabulary and the making of descriptions within that vocabulary with, on the other, the social relativity of the facts described using that vocabulary. This comes out strikingly in Rorty's argument.


orty says that we accept the descriptions we do, not because they correspond to the way things are, but because it serves our practical interests to do so. Boghossian agrees that the fact that we give the descriptions we do is a fact that reflects something about us and our society. But, he points out, the fact that descriptions are socially relative does not imply that the facts described by those descriptions are socially relative. Boghossian cites an argument by Rorty attacking an article of mine[5] in which I said that mountains, for example, exist completely independently of us and our descriptions. Rorty answered as follows:


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 usual language-games which employ the word "mountain." But the utility of those language-games has nothing to do with the question of whether Reality as It Is In Itself, apart from the way it is handy for human beings to describe it, has mountains in it.[6]

This is a strange passage. Rorty is saying correctly that we adopt the vocabulary that we do because it serves various interests to have that vocabulary. But what he neglects is that the facts in this sort of case exist quite independently of the vocabulary. He begins, "Given that it pays to talk about mountains...," implying that somehow the existence of mountains depends on the usefulness of the vocabulary. But it does not. The facts are the same, whether or not "it pays to talk about mountains."


Let us agree that we have the word "mountain" because it pays to have such a word. Why does it pay? Because there really are such things, and they existed before we had the word and they will continue to exist long after we have all died. To state the facts you have to have a vocabulary. But the facts you state with that vocabulary are not dependent on the existence or usefulness of the vocabulary. The existence of mountains has nothing whatever to do with whether or not it "pays to talk about mountains." And it does not help Rorty's case to sneer at the existence of mountains as "Reality as It Is In Itself," because insofar as that expression is meaningful at all, it is obvious that Reality as It Is In Itself contains mountains.


I think Boghossian does a public service by pointing out the weaknesses of all of these arguments. But I fear that the real target of his book is not addressed by refuting bad arguments of the sort I have just cited. People who are convinced by social constructivism typically have a deep metaphysical vision and detailed refutations do not address that vision.


In a sense Boghossian makes it easier for himself by taking on more or less rational authors, specifically Putnam, Goodman, and to a lesser extent Rorty. Their views are reasonably easy to refute because they are, at least in the case of Putnam and Goodman, fairly clearly stated. It is much easier to refute a bad argument than to refute a truly dreadful argument. A bad argument has enough structure that you can point out its badness. But with a truly dreadful argument, you have to try to reconstruct it so that it is clear enough that you can state a refutation.


oghossian takes bad arguments by Putnam, Goodman, and Rorty and refutes them. But what about the truly dreadful arguments in such authors as Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and other postmodernists that have been more influential during the last half-century? What about, for example, Derrida's attempts to "prove" that meanings are inherently unstable and indeterminate, and that it is impossible to have any clear, determinate representations of reality? (He argues, for example, that there is no tenable distinction between writing and speech.) The atmosphere of Boghossian's refutation is that of a Princeton seminar. And in fact Boghossian was a student of Rorty at Princeton. But he does not go into the swamp and wrestle with Derrida & Co.[7]


Boghossian observes that we could say, with logical consistency, "according to our view" the Native Americans came by the Bering Strait, and "according to their view" they came from the center of the earth, but that this nonetheless does not solve the problem of relativism. However, it seems to me that Boghossian gives the wrong account of why it does not solve the problem. He says that it does not solve the problem for three reasons:


(A) If we relativize the claims by saying "according to our view," we still have some nonrelative facts left over; there will still be nonrelative facts about what different communities accept or do not accept, for example, physical evidence of people crossing the Bering Strait.

(B) It is often much harder to figure out what people believe than it is to figure out what actually happened. The mental is more puzzling than the physical (this is one of his weaker arguments).



(C) if we get out of objection (A) by saying that there are no nonrelative facts, we get an infinite regress. Here is the regress. We start with:

(1) According to a theory we accept, they came over the Bering Strait.

But if everything has to be relativized then (1) has to be relativized, which produces:

(2) According to a theory we accept, there is a theory that we accept and according to that theory...

And so on ad infinitum.


I agree with objections (A) and (C) but I think they are symptoms of a deeper objection, which Boghossian does not make. The deep objection to relativizing is that the original claims have been abandoned and the subject has been changed. The original claims—that the ancestors of the Native Americans came via the Bering Strait, and that they came out of the center of the earth—were not about us and our theories but about what actually happened in human history regardless of anybody's theories. Our claim is not that we hold a certain theory. Our claim is that the actual ancestors of the early Americans came via the Bering Strait, that there were actual physical movements of physical bodies through physical space. Relativizing of the sort that Boghossian considers does not solve the difficulty; it changes the subject to something irrelevant. It changes the subject from historical facts to our psychological attitudes.


This is the most important criticism of constructivism. It is of the very essence of the speech act of stating or asserting propositions of the sort we have been considering that the speech act commits you to the truth of what you say and therefore to the existence of a fact in the world corresponding to that truth. Such speech acts are made from a point of view and typically within certain sorts of ways of thinking, but the statements and assertions do not thereby become about the points of view or the ways of thinking. If you treat them as being about the point of view and way of thinking you get a different statement altogether, one that is not about the physical movements of Native Americans but about the psychology of the speakers. Boghossian is right to see that the relativization still leaves you with nonrelative facts about speakers and their attitudes and that if you keep going you get an infinite regress, but these are just symptoms of the deeper incoherence. The constructivists do not have a coherent conception of the speech act of asserting or stating.




The second version of relativism Boghossian considers is about epistemic systems, that is, systems used to acquire knowledge and justify claims to knowledge. We justify our beliefs using one epistemic system but somebody might have a different epistemic system that would give different results from ours. It may look like any effort to justify ours would be circular because we would have to presuppose the validity of our system in order to try to justify it. Richard Rorty gives the example of the dispute between Cardinal Bellarmine and Galileo.[8] Galileo claimed to have discovered, by astronomical observation through a telescope, that Copernicus was right that the earth revolved around the sun. Bellarmine claimed that he could not be right because his view ran counter to the Bible. Rorty says, astoundingly, that Bellarmine's argument was just as good as Galileo's. It is just that the rhetoric of "science" had not at that time been formed as part of the culture of Europe. We have now accepted the rhetoric of "science," he writes, but it is not more objective or rational than Cardinal Bellarmine's explicitly dogmatic Catholic views. According to Rorty, there is no fact of the matter about who was right because there are no absolute facts about what justifies what. Bellarmine and Galileo, in his view, just had different epistemic systems.


The point I believe Boghossian should have made immediately, though in the end he does get around to saying something like it, is that there are not and cannot be alternative epistemic rationalities. Bellarmine and Galileo reached different conclusions but they worked, like everybody else, within exactly the same system of rationality. Bellarmine held the false view that the Bible was a reliable astronomical authority. But that is a case of a false presupposition, not an alternative epistemic rationality.


Why can't there be alternative and inconsistent epistemic rationalities? Consider the example of the statement that the Native Americans came by the Bering Strait. I have pointed out that anyone who makes such a statement is thereby committed to the existence of a fact. But that commitment in turn carries a commitment to being able to answer such questions as, How do you know? What is the evidence? Furthermore, only certain sorts of things can count as evidence for and against the claim. These requirements of rationality are not accretions to the original statement, but they are built into it. The requirement that claims admit of evidence and counterevidence and that only certain sorts of things count as evidence is not something added on to thought and language. It is built into the fundamental structure of thought and language.


Consider another example. I now believe my dog Gilbert is in this room. What is the evidence? I can see him. It is in the nature of the claim in question that what I see counts as evidence. Notice that, if in response to a demand for evidence, I said "1 + 1 = 2," that would not answer the demand for evidence.


Boghossian is worried by the possibility that we might encounter an "alternative to our epistemic system...whose track record was impressive enough to make us doubt the correctness of our own system." In such a case, he fears, we would not be able to justify our own. But what is meant by "track record"? The fact that he uses this metaphor without adequate explanation ought to worry him and us. The only "track record" that would be relevant would be a body of established knowledge. But in order to ascertain the presence of a "track record" in this sense, to ascertain the presence of a body of knowledge, we would have to use the only epistemic rationality we have, the one already built into thought and language. The hypothesis of alternative epistemic rationalities has no clear meaning. Eventually, after three difficult chapters (5, 6, and 7), Boghossian seems to come to something like this conclusion.


In the great debates of the 1960s and after, I was once asked by a student, "What is your argument for rationality?" That is an absurd question. There cannot be an argument for rationality because the whole notion of an argument presupposes rationality. Constraints of rationality are constitutive of argument itself, as they are of thought and language generally. This is not to say that there cannot be irrational thoughts and claims. There are plenty of irrationalities around. (For example, given the available evidence, it is irrational to deny that the present plant and animal species evolved from earlier forms of life. Why? Because, to put it as an understatement, the evidence is overwhelming.)




The last form of relativism that Boghossian considers is the explanation of belief. Here the claim is that the explanation of why we believe what we do is never a matter of evidence or solely a matter of evidence, but involves some irrational factors, some social condition in which we find ourselves. I am puzzled why Boghossian takes this claim very seriously, not because it is obviously false, but because it does not really matter to the issue of the truth or falsity or the justification of the claims under discussion. If we have justifications for our beliefs, and if the justifications meet rational criteria, then the fact that there are all sorts of elements in our social situation that incline us to believe one thing rather than another may be of historical or psychological interest but it is really quite beside the point of the justifications and of the truth or falsity of the original claim. It is a factual question to what extent people reach their beliefs by rational appraisal of the evidence, not a question adequately settled by philosophical argument.


I think the reason that Boghossian is so concerned about this is that some who have written about the sociology of scientific knowledge think that they can explain all of our beliefs, both the true and the false, the well-supported and the unsupported, by a common pattern of sociological explanation. He cites David Bloor's Knowledge and Social Imagery[9] as an example, along with the works by Latour, Woolgar, and Pickering that I mentioned earlier. The writers in question adopt what Bloor calls "symmetrical" modes of explanation: they argue that true and false beliefs, as well as rational and irrational beliefs, must be explained by the same causes. One example, cited by Bloor, concerns a study involving physicists in Weimar Germany who attempted to "dispense with causality in physics." A "symmetrical" understanding of this scientific project would argue that, while considering how the physicists thought about observed evidence, one should consider as well how they attempted "to adapt the content of their science to the values of their intellectual environment."


Boghossian points out correctly that symmetry about truth and falsehood is quite different from symmetry about rationality and irrationality. Symmetry about truth is a possible research program in the sociology of knowledge because people typically arrive at their scientific views, both true and false, through the study of evidence; thus, in most cases at least, both true and false beliefs can be seen as arising from the same cause, evidence. Some evidence may be more revealing of truth than other evidence; nevertheless, if we put aside the use of fraud, both true and false theories have the same underlying cause: observed evidence.


But that is not the same as treating rationality and irrationality symmetrically. First, as we've just seen, for both true views and false views to be symmetrical, they must originate in the same cause: argument based on evidence. But all argument based on evidence assumes a common rationality. Thus, as Boghossian argues, the case for the symmetry of truth is wrong because it rests on "the falsity " of the "symmetry about rationality"; both cannot simultaneously be correct. True views and false views may be arrived at by symmetrical methods, but when those methods involve evidence, they are themselves manifestations of a common rationality and thus make impossible the symmetry, or equality, of rationality and irrationality. This is one of the best arguments in Boghossian's book.




What motivates social constructionism? After all, we pay an enormous intellectual price if we deny the objective validity of the past three and a half centuries of scientific investigation. Boghossian thinks constructionism is motivated partly by intellectual argument and partly by political correctness. In the postcolonial era, some have felt that we should not impose our conception of reality on other cultures. Why shouldn't we, in a multicultural democracy, grant that each culture, or indeed each person, can have his or her own reality? I think in fact the antirational, antiscientific bias of current versions of relativism and constructivism are motivated by a much deeper metaphysical vision than one based on postcolonial political correctness.


What exactly is that vision? Hints of it occur in the passage on feminist epistemology that I quoted from Kathleen Lennon. It is a vision according to which all of our knowledge claims are radically contingent because of their historical and social circumstances. According to this vision, all of us think within particular sets of assumptions, and we always represent the world from a point of view, and this makes objective truth impossible. For someone who accepts this argument, the idea that there are scientific claims that are objective, universal, and established beyond a reasonable doubt seems not only inaccurate but positively oppressive. And for such people the very idea of an objectively existing, independent reality must be discredited.


On this view, if we are to be truly free, free to create a multicultural democracy, we must above all liberate ourselves from "objectivity," "rationality," and "science." The motivation, in short, is more profound than Boghossian allows for, and it bears interesting affinities with earlier forms of Counter-Enlightenment Romanticism of the sort described by Isaiah Berlin in his The Roots of Romanticism.[10]


Boghossian has written an excellent book. It is very compressed, and it is not always easy reading, but it contains relentless exposures of confusion, falsehood, and incoherence.



[1]Bruno Latour, "Ramses II est-il mort de la tuberculose?," La Recherche, March 1998.


[2]Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Doubleday, 1966); Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts (Sage, 1979); Andrew Pickering, Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics (University of Chicago Press, 1984); Andrew Pickering, "Science as a Cultural Construct," letter to the editor, Nature, June 5, 1997; and Donald A. MacKenzie, Statistics in Britain, 1865–1930: The Social Construction of Scientific Knowledge (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981).


[3]Kathleen Lennon, "Feminist Epistemology as Local Epistemology," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary, Volume 71 (1997), p. 37.


[4]Hilary Putnam, The Many Faces of Realism: The Paul Carus Lectures (Open Court, 1987), p. 18.


[5]John R. Searle, "Rationality and Realism: What Is at Stake?" Daedalus, Fall 1993.


[6]Richard Rorty, "Does Academic Freedom Have Philosophical Presuppositions?," Academe, Vol. 80, No. 6 (November–December 1994), p. 56.


[7]See my article and exchange about Derrida in these pages: "The Word Turned Upside Down," October 27, 1983, and "An Exchange on Deconstruction," February 2, 1984.


[8]Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 328–331. Quoted in Boghossian, p. 61.


[9]University of Chicago Press, second edition, 1991.


[10]Princeton University Press, 2001.