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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Dave Maier tells you interesting stuff about Rorty

Posted by Dave Maier, Guest Author, on 01/25/07 at 11:14 AM

I think literary studies folks should know more about Davidson, and learning a bit about him through a discussion of Rorty, who is also interesting, seems like a good idea, so I’ve made Dave do all the hard work. His blog is here. - the Management

John has invited me to say a bit more about the (R. Brandom, ed.) Rorty and his Critics collection we both like, for those interested (the rest of you can go back to arguing about whether Nabokov was a perv, or a robot, or whatever).  I was going to say “dragooned,” but I must admit I’m always up for talking about Rorty and his critics (seeing as the latter group includes me, me, me).  And I see that I have written a bit more than “a bit.” Oh well.

The Brandom volume came out in 2000.  There are of course a number of previous books collecting critical responses to Rorty, including this one from 1990, and this one, from 1995.  These critics, however, tend to be unsympathetic ones, and unsympathetic critics are not only less interesting to begin with, but bring out the worst in Rorty, who replies (in the second collection) in kind, i.e., less with careful engagement than with more of the same and then some.  There are two basic kinds of unsympathetic critic.  First we have realists who want to remind us that “yes, Virginia, there is a real world” (an actual title, as I recall, although this particular essay is not included in either of these books), and that relativism is self-refuting (an essay in the former collection is called “Auto-da-Fe").  The second group of critics is made up of scrupulous scholars of American pragmatism, outraged at Rorty’s “creative misreadings” of their guys (esp. Dewey; Peirce is not so much “creatively misread” in Rorty as he is dissed and abandoned), and in service of (what they see as) a facile postmodern relativism to boot (as opposed to Dewey’s, and Peirce’s, explicitly scientific and experimental approach; Peirce was a working scientist, you know).  And of course we also have critics on Rorty’s political left, frustrated with the “piecemeal nudging” of reform and downright conventionalist quietism they see in his self-attributed “postmodern bourgeois liberalism” (compare criticism of Gadamer, as well as Wittgenstein, on similar or at least analogous grounds).

Now of course none of these groups is entirely wrong (I will not discuss the third).  In my view as well, Rorty has never given a completely satisfactory answer to the charge that his views are, if this is how we want to put the point, insufficiently realistic; and of course 1990 is ten years earlier than 2000.  I also agree with the second group that when we are concerned with what Dewey was actually up to, we should turn to Ralph Sleeper or Thomas Alexander rather than Rorty; but that doesn’t mean that Rorty’s use of Dewey doesn’t help illuminate his own views, which should be evaluated on their own merits, and not with a set of Deweyan or Peircean doctrines already in place, which would allow us to elide failure to get Dewey or Peirce right with failure to get the world right.

I should also mention two other books.  The single best response to Rorty’s early views (that is, his early pragmatist views, not his even earlier materialism) is the essay on Rorty in Thomas McCarthy’s book (his being a Habermas scholar notwithstanding); and if you are interested in these matters but think the Brandom volume might be too advanced for you (it is indeed difficult; but so is philosophy), I recommend this recent collection, which shares some of the same virtues, but is intended as an introductory book.  In fact I think I’ll read it again after I finish this.

But our topic today is the Brandom book.  I won’t discuss every essay, but zoom in on a few important topics addressed by a few of them, and say why I think this book is more than just a good book on Rorty.

Everybody knows that Descartes believed that mind and matter were two different substances.  That meant that our beliefs, qua mental states, were “in here” while the world they purport to represent is “out there,” such that the former are true if they “correspond” to the latter.  Substance dualism is a tough sell for various reasons, but even when materialism became the dominant view, the Cartesian conception of
mind remained (although now thought of as a state of the physical world).  The dualism changed from one of different substances (subject and object) to one of different points of view (subjective and objective).  Belief remained a subjective representation of objective reality; and so the metaphysical dualism remained, even if not in “substance” form.

Descartes did not invent the philosophical problem of skepticism, but simply put it in a new and pressing form (the ancient skeptics agreed that objective knowledge was impossible, but basically told us to chill out about it – just accept the appearances and get on with your life).  The Cartesian conception of mind presents an intolerable paradox: either we have no knowledge at all of the “external” world, not even that it exists, or we must show that we can bridge the epistemic gap between incorrigible subjective states (sense data and the a priori) and the objective world beyond.  But no such bridge seems possible.  Yet it is impossible simply to give up our beliefs as unjustified and unjustifiable, even in the face of this problem.

The most common responses to this paradox are 1) dogmatism, i.e., continuing to argue (or just assume) that the gap is crossable, and trying to shift the burden of proof back onto the skeptic; and 2) relativism, i.e., admitting the gap is uncrossable, even inconceivable, leaving each subject with his or her own “truth” faute de mieux, as that’s all there is.  The first leaves us with a possibly hopeless and maybe even incoherent aspiration to ground our beliefs; but the latter leaves our beliefs ungrounded and even themselves incoherent qua belief about a world beyond the subject.

Rorty tries another tack.  As he sees it, the problem lies in the idea that our beliefs need “grounding,” if that means seeing them as achieving “objectivity,” which he agrees is either impossible or incoherent (he goes back and forth as to which).  Yet he agrees that relativism is incoherent as well.  So how are we to know what to believe, if we can’t just believe whatever we want?  Sounding a bit like the ancient skeptics here, Rorty suggests that the only “grounding” our beliefs need is in our practices as they stand.  That is, if it is inherent in the very concept of belief that it points beyond the subjective realm – which is what makes relativism incoherent (how can a relativist really be said to “believe” anything?) – and we cannot see it as grounded in an inconceivable “correspondence” to an “objective” world (as we cannot jump out of our skins, as if to attain a “view from nowhere"), then let us turn to a third, intermediate realm: the intersubjective.

I won’t rehearse Rorty’s arguments and slogans here (see his collection of mid-1980’s papers, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, for his most concerted effort to defend them properly), but we should take a look at his often-misconstrued “ethnocentrism” (a word I’m surprised he uses for his view; but see his response to Clifford Geertz, who himself uses the word quite differently, in the above collection).  The idea is that we avoid relativism by recognizing normative constraints on our beliefs (we can’t believe just anything if we are to be rational), but also avoid realism by recognizing that these norms come not from “the world itself” but from our fellows.  The norms of justification vary from culture to culture, so whose norms should we use?  If we are not to derive them a priori, nor to abandon them entirely, we can only answer: ours.  These norms are revisable, not dogmatic; and that process of revision is itself subject to an ideal of free and unforced agreement, indeed open-ended conversation, appropriately enough if one considers one’s own “ethnos” to be that of post-Deweyan “wet liberals” committed primarily to democracy and the avoidance of cruelty (rather than the accumulation of ideally accurate representations of objective reality, or of fealty to the One True Faith, or whatever).

We should thus reject “representationalism,” and see our inscriptions and utterances as just one more set of tools for coping with the world, as it is the subject-object dualism lingering in that picture which causes the endless cycles of realism and anti-realism which have characterized the philosophy of the last century (I almost wrote “this century,” which is of course what Rorty called it at the time).  In other words, again, we should turn away from the world (i.e., so considered, as the object of our subjective representations) and toward our fellow inquirers, as it is to them and not to it that we are obliged.  We thus abandon “capital-P Philosophy” as manifested in the traditional problems, and turn instead to our practices themselves, without worrying about grounding them transcendentally.

This is what provokes Rorty’s turn to Deweyan conceptions of democracy as the political arm of philosophical pragmatism ("The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” in ORT), and his favoring of Gadamerian Horizontverschmelzung over the Habermasian obsession with somehow locating the key to an “ideal speech situation” in Critical (i.e., philosophical) Theory rather than implicit in practice itself.  There is a back-and-forth-and-back between Rorty and Habermas in Rorty and his Critics, but that’s not what I’m going to discuss here.  (For some specifically Deweyan criticism of Rorty’s treatment of Dewey, see Rorty and Pragmatism, the 1995 collection I linked above, esp. James Gouinlock’s contribution.)

As the reference to Gadamer vs. Habermas might suggest, most critics see Rorty’s “ethnocentrism” as just another kind of conventionalism, the left lamenting the loss of critical leverage against tyrannical consensus, and the right bewailing the loss of transcendent objectivity.  In either case, they often suggest that Rorty’s views sound suspiciously like Orwell’s O’Brien, who as I recall actually cops to (metaphysical) “idealism,” seeing “realists” like Winston as naive.  Rorty has addressed the Orwell issue in “The last intellectual in Europe: Orwell on cruelty” (also in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity), and in the Brandom collection James Conant has a typically lengthy and footnote-ridden article in response, which makes some excellent points, and is worth reading until you just can’t get any farther, which should be about halfway through.  Rorty defends himself surprisingly ably in response.

While Conant is the most detailed in his case for the view that, even in attempting to navigate a middle path, Rorty falls off to the relativist side (that is, he fails even by his own lights, a common charge among the commentators here), other commentators are more effective, even provoking unprecedented concessions which will, or should, or so I claim, be the focus of all subsequent Rorty scholarship, as I think Rorty would agree.

Bjørn Ramberg is the author of a fine book, Donald Davidson’s Philosophy of Language: short, introductory, and yet substantive, although as a 1988 release it misses important developments in Davidson’s philosophy since then.  He also wrote the entry on hermeneutics at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; and while we’re over there we might as well check out Jeff Malpas’s article on Davidson.

“Post-ontological Philosophy of Mind: Rorty versus Davidson,” Ramberg’s article in Rorty and his Critics, is itself well worth reading, but it is Rorty’s response that is the most compelling reading in the book.  (Portions of this response, Rorty tells us, come from “Davidson between Wittgenstein and Tarski” (Critica 1998; Davidson’s reply is available online here (scroll down) and on paper here; unfortunately, at the moment at least, the online archives at Critica go back only to this very issue, not the one in which the articles appear to which he is responding.)

Get this.  “Ramberg,” Rorty says in his response (p. 375), “has persuaded me to abandon two doctrines which I have been preaching for years: that the notion of ‘getting things right’ must be abandoned, and that ‘true of’ and ‘refers to’ are not word-world relations.” More specifically, “it was a mistake on my part to go from criticism of attempts to define truth as accurate representation of the intrinsic nature of reality to a denial that true statements get things right” [374].  He explains this realization in the Davidsonian terms Ramberg had used – in particular, the later-Davidsonian picture of interpretation/inquiry (my slash) as a triangle with vertices of speaker, interpreter, and world.  This is the key to Davidson, and for that reason I won’t make a big deal out of my quibbles with the details of Rorty’s long overdue mea culpa.

But let’s at least look at them, and finish up by considering, in the context of three more articles in Rorty and his Critics, the effect of this doctrinal shift on one more key issue: the value of truth in inquiry.  Consider Rorty’s answer, immediately following the above concession to Ramberg [p. 375] to the following question he naturally asks himself: “How many of my previous positions – positions criticized by McDowell, Dennett, and others in this volume – am I now forced to give up?” That answer?  “Not many.  Here are some doctrines which remain unaffected:

“1. No area of culture, and no period of history, gets Reality more right than any other [as there is] no such thing as Reality.”

Okay, but you won’t like the subsequent exegesis, which still sounds antirealist.

“2. Pace McDowell, there is no second norm given us by the facts, in addition to the norms given us by our peers.”

Here the brief explanation looks fine – except one thing: in the sense in which it is correct, there’s no reason to take McDowell as disagreeing with it.  I’ll talk a bit about McDowell’s article below.

“3. To say that we get snow mostly right [i.e., for Davidsonian reasons] is not to say that we represent snow with reasonable accuracy ... The holism of intentional ascription forbids any such talk.”

Poppycock.  Representation, like correspondence and objectivity, can be perfectly well domesticated.  If you don’t think we get snow right, then say so, and give us a better account.  Perhaps naturally, after making such a big concession, Rorty is still concerned with minimizing what he is forced to say rather than with deciding what he still wants to say (or avoid saying).

“4. I [...] still maintain that there is no such thing as the search for truth, as distinct from the search for happiness [ = “getting more of the things we keep developing new descriptive vocabularies to get"].  There is no authority called Reality before whom we need bow down.”

Yes, yes, realism is false.  We get it.  Note the dualistic form here, which is really what we should be jettisoning: our goal, he says, is not truth – that would be Realism! – but instead happiness (as if embracing the one still involved abandoning the other).  Yet to be entitled to the Davidsonian picture, I would argue that we must reinstate truth – given its role there – as a goal.  After all, if we want to know whether snow is white, doesn’t that mean, given its meaning, we are ipso facto concerned with the truth of “snow is white”?  Answer: sure we are.  I’ll say this again in a second.

So this is a big step for Rorty, but it seems he has not yet internalized this shift in doctrine (which, given all the rest of his views, may take some time to do).  It is with this in mind that the other papers and responses should be read (some of which were written before 1998, but if Rorty wanted to change his responses he would have said so, either there or in the response to Ramberg).

In “Is Truth a Goal of Inquiry? Donald Davidson vs. Crispin Wright” (1995, so pre-Ramberg; but this part seems to be something Rorty has not retracted (see #4 above); reprinted in Truth and Progress), Rorty elaborates his view in the following way (T & P, p. 39).

Some Davidsonians might see no reason why they too [i.e., as Wright does] should not say, ringingly, robustly, and commonsensically, that the goal of inquiry is truth.  But they cannot say this without misleading the public.  For when they go on to add that they are, of course, not saying that the goal of inquiry is correspondence to the intrinsic nature of things [i.e., metaphysical realism], the common sense of the vulgar will feel betrayed [footnote: for an example see such-and-such typical realist griping from Searle and Rorty’s reply].  For “truth” sounds like the name of a goal only if it is thought to name a fixed goal – that is, if progress toward truth is explicated by reference to a metaphysical picture, that of getting closer to what Bernard Williams calls [in his book on Descartes, I believe] “what is there anyway.” Without that picture, to say that truth is our goal is merely to say something like: we hope to justify our belief to as many and as large audiences as possible.  But to say that is to offer only an ever-retreating goal, one that fades forever and forever when we move.  It is not what common sense would call a goal.  For it is neither something we might realize we had reached, nor something to which we might get closer.

So instead of saying truth is our goal, because we can’t tell when we have reached it, Rorty would have us say instead that justification is our goal, not truth.  Now as you may know Rorty has been trying to get Davidson to go pragmatist in one way or another for many years.  So prepare yourselves for another landmark in RahC.  Davidson has resisted (as well he might) any “pragmatist theory of truth” In which truth just is “the good in the way of belief” (James) or something “good to steer by” (Dewey); but in “Truth Rehabilitated” (RahC pp. 65-73), he finally joins Rorty in this “somewhat tamer, but clearly recognizable, version” (p. 67):

What is clearly right is a point made long ago by Plato in the Theaetetus: truths do not come with a “mark,” like the date in the corner of some photographs, which distinguishes them from falsehoods.  The best we can do is test, experiment, compare, and keep an open mind. [...] We know many things, and will learn more; what we will never know for certain is which of the things we believe are true.  Since it is neither visible as a target, nor recognizable when achieved, there is no point in calling truth a goal.  Truth is not a value, so the “pursuit of truth” is an empty enterprise unless it means only that it is often worthwhile to increase our confidence in our beliefs, by collecting further evidence or checking our calculations.
From the fact that we will never be able to tell which of our beliefs are true, pragmatists [i.e., those committed to the “pragmatist theory of truth"] conclude that we may as well identify our best researched, most successful, beliefs with the true ones, and give up the idea of objectivity.  (Truth is objective if the truth of a belief or sentence is independent of whether it is justified by all our evidence, believed by our neighbors, or is good to steer by.) But here we have a choice.  Instead of giving up the traditional view that truth is objective, we can give up the equally traditional view (to which the pragmatists adhere) that truth is a norm, something for which to strive.  I agree with the pragmatists that we can’t consistently take truth to be both objective and something to be pursued.  But I think they would have done better to cleave to a view that counts truth as objective, but pointless as a goal.

Let’s not get fuddled by Davidson’s use of “pragmatist” here.  He thinks of Rorty as a “pragmatist” in the sense he uses it on the basis of Rorty’s endorsement someplace or other of the “pragmatist” reduction of truth to utility.  But as we have just seen, Rorty endorses both of the last two sentences of this quotation (and is thus not a “pragmatist” in this sense, at least not by 1995).  Even without the (later) concession to Ramberg that true statements “get things right,” it would surely be pointless for Rorty to say both 1) that truth is not objective, but instead to be identified with utility, and 2) truth is pointless as a goal; for that would mean that utility is pointless as a goal, which is nuts.  So in agreeing to (2), we lose any motivation to deny that truth is objective.  After all, as Davidson tells it, the whole point of (2) was to improve on (1).  But we still have a version of pragmatism here.  Compare e.g. Davidson’s invocation of the Theaetetus with Peirce’s dictum that “the final opinion [his criterion of truth] does not glow in the dark.” And of course realists won’t want to save the objectivity of truth by giving it up as a goal.

But here’s where it gets sticky.  For neither do I.  (Ironic, isn’t it, that after all this time, Davidson and Rorty finally agree on a version of pragmatism ... and it’s wrong.  Ironic, anyway, for those of us who hoped it would go the other way.) And neither do Akeel Bilgrami [full disclosure: my dissertation adviser at Columbia, not like he necessarily agrees with me on anything besides this] and John McDowell, whose articles here are essential (but not essentialist; that’s something else).

Here’s my paraphrase of Bilgrami’s argument (but don’t hold him responsible; read it yourself).  For both Rorty and Davidson, the key point that requires that truth not be a goal (almost wrote “gaol”; who’s that, Foucault?) is that (as Davidson puts it) “we can never tell which of our beliefs are true” (because, again, they don’t come with a “mark” distinguishing them from the false ones).  But wait a second.  There is indeed a truth in there somewhere; but that’s not it.  Let’s be more careful.  We are fallible; our methods of justification do not guarantee that the resulting belief is true.  So every believer (that’s everybody) has some false beliefs (he thinks they’re true, but they’re not; because truth is objective and doesn’t depend on what we think).  Each of us may be required to revise our beliefs in the future, as new evidence comes in.

So far so good.  But you have to watch that first-person plural (the very aspect of “ethnocentrism” that was supposed to help us).  I can say “we all have some false beliefs” because a) everybody else does, and b) I’m fallible too.  But I can’t say “I have some false beliefs just like everybody else,” for Moorean reasons (Moorean paradox: both “it’s raining” and “I believe that it is not raining” may both be true, but to say “It’s raining, but I don’t believe that it is” makes no sense on any remotely straightforward interpretation).  Similarly, you can’t say “I can’t tell which of my beliefs is true.” Try it.
-- How about this one?  Is this one true?
-- Of course it is.  Everyone knows that.
-- So you can tell.  How about that one?
-- Maybe not.
-- Maybe not?  It might be false?
-- Maybe.
-- So you’re in doubt about it; it’s not a “belief” at all.  If you believe something, what can that mean but “I have checked this every way I know how (or at least every way I care to) and it is true true true”?

Moral: only on a third-person view of inquiry can we disavow the transparency (in this sense) of belief.  From the first-person point of view, an inquirer’s beliefs must be true.  But that’s what each of us is – a first-person inquirer.  (Akeel says a lot more, but that’s the gist.)

Let’s just solve the skeptical problem while we’re here.  Here comes a skeptic now.
-- Okay, okay, you believe it (he says).  But maybe you’re wrong about what you believe; you’re fallible, aren’t you?
-- Yes, I am; I’ve made mistakes before.
-- So maybe you’re wrong this time too.
-- We’ll see, won’t we.  Did you have any of my beliefs in mind?
-- Well, how about this one?  Is this one true?
-- Why yes.  Yes it is.
-- But it might be false, say if this (admittedly unlikely) situation were the case.
-- It would be then; but we’re not in that situation.
-- So you say.
-- Yes I do.  Let me ask you: do you believe it?
-- Me?
-- Yes, you.  Do you believe that belief of mine?
-- Of course I do.  I’m a philosopher, not a moron.
-- So you agree it’s true.
-- Yes, but it might not be.
-- It’s true, but it might not be true?
-- Okay, wait.  No, I don’t believe it.
-- You don’t?  What are you, a moron?
-- No, I just, uh, it might be false.
-- So you say.  But if I am to credit you with actually believing that it might be false – that is, that you don’t believe it (i.e., in order to be a consistent skeptic) – then you have to act that way, or you’re just flapping your mouth.  So go ahead, act that way.  Go on.
-- Um…
-- See, you can’t – they’d lock you up.  Congratulations, you’re not a moron after all.  But you have to give up your skepticism.  Either you believe something or you don’t; and if you do, you can’t be a skeptic; but if you don’t, then we’re not talking about the truth of our beliefs; we’re talking about what to believe.  And that’s just first-order inquiry, not philosophical reflection.  Only Cartesians confuse the two, i.e., those who see philosophy as laying down requirements for our practices, not (as Wittgensteinians say) elucidating them or (as pragmatists say, with Peirce) making them clear (of course that’s just what “elucidating” means, isn’t it).

Now, where were we?  Oh yes – we can too tell when our beliefs are true.  To say otherwise is to give them up.  But doesn’t this require absolute certainty?  And wouldn’t that be dogmatic?  Yes, it would; but all we need do is distinguish between degrees of certainty and types of certainty.  Certainty is just the absence of doubt; but the absence of doubt is just belief.  So when I believe something, I’m completely or entirely certain; but I’m not “absolutely” certain, if that means something like incorrigibly certain.  And all I need to do to avoid that is to pledge to revise my views if new and persuasive evidence comes in; but I was going to do that anyway.  So since we can indeed tell when our beliefs are true, there’s no reason that truth can’t be a goal after all.  QED.

Almost done (for today).  My favorite article here is McDowell’s “Towards Rehabilitating Objectivity” (pp. 109-23).  (By the way, that may seem short, but the pages are big, with close print.  You would have gotten your money’s worth with this book, if the price hadn’t gone up to $35.99 in paperback.) Covering some of the same territory as Bilgrami, McDowell hits Rorty on the same points, but from a metaphysical rather than an epistemological angle.  (This makes sense given McDowell’s turn to Kant and Hegel.) As I’ve already mentioned, there’s no point in denying that truth is objective, once we make the necessary pragmatic connection to our practices of inquiry and interpretation (although that connection cannot take the form either of reducing truth to utility or of giving it up as a goal).  McDowell elaborates this point, in the context of showing Rorty’s “pragmatism” to fail by its own anti-Cartesian lights (that’s gotta hurt).

I won’t go into the whole McDowellian picture, which would require a detour into Mind and World and a dozen or so of his most important articles (ooh, and the one in here), but let me just give you a taste (pp. 114-5):

Rorty’s picture is on these lines.  If we use an expression like “accurate representation” in the innocent internal [i.e., to our practices, as in Putnam] way, it can function only as a means of paying “empty compliments” to claims that pass muster within our current practice of claim-making.  Now “the representationalist” finds a restriction to this sort of assessment unacceptably parochial.  Recoiling from that, “the representationalist” tries to make expressions like “true” or “accurate representation” signify a mode of normative relatedness – conformity – to something more independent of us than the world as it figures in our world view [i.e., as an objective world – one, that is, that does not depend our our thoughts about it – so that what the Cartesian demands is fealty to a world more independent of us even than that; this distinction is McDowell’s metaphysical analogue to Bilgrami’s “first-person” epistemology, of which McDowell has his own variant].  This aspiration is well captured by Thomas Nagel’s image of “trying to climb outside of our own minds” [The View From Nowhere; but of course Nagel – a sap, but a good philosopher nonetheless – thinks that this task, which we should all deplore as irretrievably Cartesian, is “philosophically fundamental"].  The image fits a conception, or supposed conception [there’s the Wittgensteinian in McDowell speaking], of reality that threatens to put it outside our reach, since the norms according to which we conduct our investigations cannot of course be anything but our current norms.  [...]
This conception is naturally reflected in just the sorts of philosophical wonderment at, for instance, the meaningfulness of language, or the fact that we so much as have an “overall view of the world,” that Rorty tellingly deplores.  In this conception, being genuinely in touch with reality would in a radical way transcend whatever we can do within our practices of arriving at answers to our questions.  Thus a familiar gulf seems to open between us and what we should like to think of ourselves as able to get to know about.  And the only alternative, as Rorty sees things, is to take our inquiry not to be subject to anything but the norms of current practice [i.e., as we have seen above].  This picture of the options makes it look as if the very idea of inquiry as normatively beholden not just to current practice but to its subject matter [that is, the idea that we want to “get things right,” which Rorty is now willing to equate with “believing true sentences” – but only to abandon both as goals] is inextricably connected with the “Augustinian” picture [i.e. as so described in the opening sections of Philosophical Investigations] and the impulse to climb outside of our own minds.  But a piece of mere sanity goes missing here.

Ooh, the Devil don’t like that kind of preachin’ (as Jimmy Swaggart would say, in rather a different context)!

Okay, that’s enough for now.  Putnam and Dennett have short bits here, and there are also articles from Jacques Bouveresse, Michael Williams, Barry Allen, and the editor himself, all worth reading (but with less gold, by my lights).  Check it out!

Thanks to all for reading this far, if you did, and thanks to John for the invite.  I’ll take questions if you got ‘em.


Gee, you didn’t tell me the point was to learn more about Davidson.  Just as well, I would have dived right in.  Maybe later, eh?

By Dave Maier on 01/25/07 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Dave.  This is very useful, and it clarifies some things that were unclear to me a few months ago, though I do not yet know whether I believe it is “true.”

OK, bad joke.  Here’s the real question.  The foot-shuffling concessions from Rorty and Davidson are fascinating.  I think I’m still stuck, though, at the point where we’re talking about justification, rather than “truth,” as a goal (regardless of whether anyone wants to call it pragmatism).  For in the speaker-interpreter-world triangle in which we first-person plurals deliberate the reasons for our beliefs, does it matter whether the world we’re gesturing at is natural or social?  I mean, your skeptic looks appropriately foolish here when it comes to physical things like rain and snow, and it does not take much to show us that he makes no sense when he suggests that he doesn’t share your belief but cannot coherently act on his (revised) claim to disbelieve it.  But what if a pragmatist were to say, “I believe it would be a good idea to treat other people as ends rather than means, but I am not sure how to go about doing this, and I think the deliberation about how to do it is best thought of as a matter of justification rather than as a matter of objective truth”? 

Or never mind this hypothetical pragmatist.  Let’s say it’s me.  And let’s say that I say, “I believe that you and I should behave as if X were true, where X = ‘we should treat humans as ends rather than means,’ and because I also believe that the question of whether X would be true if there were no humans around is a pointless one, we should therefore proceed to gauge each other’s behavior with regard to X by means of intersubjective justification rather than by reference to a fixed goal.” If I’m saying such a thing, as I am, does it matter how I appeal to your beliefs about the existence of rain, or the characteristics of snow?

Oh, and one ancillary question about the certainty of beliefs.  I picked the “ends / means” bit because I am not sure how to go about it, which suggests that in this case, one of my beliefs, about which I am reasonably certain (i.e., sufficiently persuaded), entails a whole bunch of others about which I am less certain.  Didn’t Wittgenstein have a good deal more to say about this state of affairs, and does On Certainty matter to your argument about Davidson and Rorty?


By Michael Bérubé on 01/25/07 at 04:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Valve - 1
My Free Time - 0

I don’t have time to re-read this and really work up a decent reply right now, but I’ll be back.  For the moment, I’m a little torn about the dialog section, but we may come to similar conclusions in the end, I’m a little fuzzy.

It seems to me that belief’s status as a steadfast commitment is less a logical factor and more a factor of personality.  “I believe X but I am wrong” is a contradiction but “I believe X but I may be wrong” certainly isn’t (though I guess it depends on the definition of belief you’re using.)
It’s like that “paradoxical” result in mathematics about how its rational to believe, for any given lottery ticket, that it will not win, but not rational to believe that no lottery ticket will win.  Bayesian statistics sort of solves the problem.  Once we attach a function of confidence to our understandings, we can use “belief” to categorize things that, roughly speaking, we’d be willing to bet on.
More later, but I absolutely have to go.

By on 01/25/07 at 06:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Dave. I finally had a chance to read it carefully. Later I’ll write something in response. Let me just say for now that I already realized last night that my title had a typo in it but I couldn’t get the software to let me change it until this morning. (Didn’t want you to think I was so slovenly about how I posted your stuff.)

By John Holbo on 01/25/07 at 07:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Once we add confidence functions into the mix we’re into the well-explored world of fuzzy and multi-valued logics, where we no longer have to choose between true and false. Just what other truth values are avaible to us depends on the particular logic, a topic on which I am not at all expert.

By Bill Benzon on 01/25/07 at 07:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So, you’re now living the morning of the 26th, John?

By Bill Benzon on 01/25/07 at 07:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Huh, I thought you were being funny.  (Read what Dave say!  Dave tell you good things, you see!)

I have a looong response to Michael, but let me first reply (quickly, before he/she comes back rested!) to J. S., who says:

“I believe X but I am wrong” is a contradiction but “I believe X but I may be wrong” certainly isn’t (though I guess it depends on the definition of belief you’re using.)”

It certainly does.  Bayesians, as I recall (not my department really), speak in terms of degrees of belief, where I say that you either believe it or you don’t (that is, belief inherits the “flatness” of its closely related concept, truth).  I don’t see why one couldn’t translate back and forth if it helped (I may fully believe Q, where Q = that P is likely to degree phi, for example).  But we need full belief in this context, which I grant is not obvious.  The lottery paradox is indeed relevant here, and so is the preface paradox (I stand by all the statements in my book, and am solely responsible for any mistakes that remain.) But that’s philosophy.  No matter what you do, you end up saying something that sounds funny at first.  The question is: is it worth it?  I say yes.

On the other hand, in my locution, which I do think is not at all unnatural, if not set up for immediate use by Bayesians, “I believe X but I may be wrong” is indeed nonsensical.  For in this sense, “I believe X” means “As far as I’m concerned, X is true (or just X).” And it certainly is nonsensical to say “X is true but it might not be.” But if the controversial sentence means “I believe X, but I reserve the right (and acknowledge the obligation) to change my mind if and when further evidence comes to light (or I just change my mind, or whatever),” then it’s fine.  In my (borrowed) jargon, I endorse “infallibilism,” but not “incorrigibilism” – that is, I endorse “fallibilism” (given that that’s the only term we ever see in the literature) in its “corrigibilistic” form, not the kind that requires/allows that one say “I believe X but it might not be true.”

Again, I see that this issue can be a stumbling block.  I can only give a promissory note: when you get used to talking like this, you see how little you lose and how much you gain.

By Dave Maier on 01/25/07 at 09:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Now for the other guy.  Good questions, Michael!  I think we’re getting somewhere.  Your first question is already familiar to me from before (I was getting to it, honest).  I have not yet elaborated (my take on) the later-Davidsonian view of triangulation (didn’t know that that’s what John was after), which will eventually receive its own post (or book if that’s what it takes).  For now let me say this.

One minor thing first.  You say that in inquiry what we are doing is “deliberat[ing] the reasons for our beliefs.” I know what you mean by this, but the account of inquiry I endorsed (in my discussion of Bilgrami’s article) requires some constraints on our use of “belief” (a word which of course people use in all kinds of ways) if it is to a) work at all, and b) serve as the intended link to Davidsonian semantics.  If something is a “belief” at all in the intended sense, then the issue has been settled, and deliberation is over.  “Belief” means “doxastic commitment,” and serves in inquiry as a resource; it provides the standard for the justification of change in belief (again, in this sense).  (Akeel and I follow fellow Columbian Isaac Levi here.  We may be the only ones on the planet to do so, so even if what I say looks attractive, beware; this is a decidedly minority report.  For now.)

It is the skeptic who comes in and demands “justification” for “belief”, regardless of who holds it in what context of inquiry.  (He fails to recognize that contexts of inquiry are constituted by what is settled there.) And it is the dogmatist who dances to the skeptic’s tune, providing “justifications” where none are needed, or even intelligible (Wittgenstein calls this “digging below bedrock").  Pragmatists judge hypotheses and opinions – which may become beliefs if inquiry warrants – by means of what is already settled.  And of course we may go the other direction – giving up what had been settled, in order to judge whether someone’s objection to it is valid (but of course I need not do this simply because some wiseguy disagrees).  So I am made nervous by locutions like “deliberate the reasons for our beliefs,” which may indeed be harmless but may also spring a nasty trap at just the wrong moment.

Sorry, had to get that off my chest.  Your question remains.  Here is how it does not matter “whether the world we’re gesturing at is natural or social”.  Let’s look at it from the point of view of truth.  “Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit” is true iff water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (which it does).  “We should treat other humans as ends rather than means” is true iff we should treat other humans as ends rather than means.  No difference yet.

We do, of course, decide the truth of these matters in different ways.  But so what?  In inquiry of whatever sort (whatever “world,” as you call it, we wish to know about), we justify a belief – that is, justify a hypothesis in the light of beliefs already held (on pain of circularity) – however we find appropriate.  Once adopted, it is admitted to the jury, which decides not only which further hypotheses to promote to belief status, but also what to do (think practical deliberation here).  So beliefs (hypotheses) about different sorts of thing will be justified with respect to different beliefs, and thus by different standards.  We knew that already.  No philosophy worth calling “pragmatist” (or “Wittgensteinian") can dictate to the natural or social sciences, or anyone, how that practice is to be run.  That’s their business.  Yet once conceptual confusion is indeed diagnosed, we may of course have some suggestions about which of the combatants should be listened to and which ignored.  But that’s all they are.

So someone says “I believe it would be a good idea to treat other people as ends rather than means, but I am not sure how to go about doing this, and I think the deliberation about how to do it is best thought of as a matter of justification rather than as a matter of objective truth.” I don’t get the last part.  Justification and objective truth (which is redundant, as truth is as objective as it makes sense for anything to be) share a conceptual connection.  When we are deciding whether to believe something – that is, whether it is true by our lights, which itself means deciding, by our lights, whether it is true, period – what we do is look for justification, e.g. empirical evidence, or whatever else you’ve got.  Why should I believe that this is a good idea?  Tell me.  If your justification – your grounds for believing it (formulated, of course, in terms which do not already assume its truth) – is good enough, then I too will adopt your belief.  Or maybe I can get you to give it up.  Naturally if I accept your justification, there is no further question for us about its truth.

I love making this point, so let me do it my favorite way.  Peirce is noted for saying that in inquiry, we naturally assume that we are interested in truth, but actually, it turns out that once we have belief (that is, in our terms, once we have enough justification of the right sort to license adoption of the new belief), we find that we have no interest in further inquiry, even though we understand that belief does not in general entail truth.  This makes Peirce a “fallibilist,” and thus a skeptic malgré lui on my account, as he must say, or cannot disallow saying, Moore-paradoxical things like “I believe it but it might not be true.” So yes, once we have justification we have no further question about truth.  But that’s because to believe something just is to believe it true. So I don’t see the difference between a “matter of justification” and a “matter of objective truth.”

So you don’t know how to go about treating other people as ends rather than means, in a context in which not everyone agrees that we should even try (i.e., not everyone believes “we should treat other humans as ends rather than means").  This means either of two things, neither of them relevant to our problem.  First, let’s say we know what it means to do so (i.e. what that sentence means), but we don’t know how exactly actually to do it.  This seems like a merely practical problem.  I know what it means to lose 20 pounds, and I even agree that I should, but that doesn’t mean I know how to do so (that is, how I’m going to do it; don’t just say “diet and exercise").

But maybe we’re not sure what would count as doing so.  Then it seems that we don’t really understand the proposition some of us claim to believe.  That’s common enough, and no reason to panic.  Let’s just get clear on it, and that may indeed happen in the process of trying to justify it (say on one or another construal).  This may even be the normal procedure, esp. in moral cases (and impossibly vague dicta) like this.  Again, this is a matter for practice, and not for the philosophical connections between belief, truth, and justification.

So let’s say that you say, “I believe that you and I should behave as if X were true, where X = ‘we should treat humans as ends rather than means,’ and because I also believe that the question of whether X would be true if there were no humans around is a pointless one, we should therefore proceed to gauge each other’s behavior with regard to X by means of intersubjective justification rather than by reference to a fixed goal.”

Here we have nested propositions.  Take them one at a time.  This has the form “I believe that P,” where P = “you and I should behave ... “.  If I believe this too, we are in agreement.  If I don’t, try to convince me, appealing both to what I already believe and to other things, which themselves will require justification.  All that the content of P affects here is what is settled in the context w/r/t justificatory standards.

So now let’s talk about P, which itself contains an attitude toward a further belief, X.  We should behave, you say, as if X were true.  This is of course not an argument for the truth of X; so it is here, perhaps, that you hope to draw a line.  But if the truth of X is not the issue, neither is justification for believing it.  What I will demand justification for is not X, but P, which we’ve already addressed.

But perhaps you believe that if we act for a while as if X were true, then we won’t care about whether it actually is true.  Fine.  If you think it important that I believe that too, then provide justification (for its truth).  But maybe you don’t care what I believe, as long as I am willing to go along with your suggestion for acting in a certain way, no matter what is or is not the case, morally speaking (i.e., whether X is true, or whether in so acting we will no longer care about its truth).  Okay, but that doesn’t make it “a matter of justification” and not of truth.

Another case still is this: maybe you believe that if in acting as if X were true we will eventually come to believe it.  If this means, whether X is true or not, then I suppose I may want to know why I should be happy to believe a possible falsehood (that is, acting as you suggest may cause us to deceive ourselves).  Maybe you think that’s okay.  I need not disagree.  Of course that truth is a goal in inquiry does not require that it would never be better for us to believe falsehoods (i.e., to deceive ourselves).  All that latter possibility shows is that in that case we are not inquiring, but conspiring to (possibly) deceive ourselves.  Maybe that’s the “right thing to do.” If you think it’s important for me to believe that, then give your argument.  But now this is where we came in.

Final question: “in this case, one of my beliefs, about which I am reasonably certain (i.e., sufficiently persuaded), entails a whole bunch of others about which I am less certain.  Didn’t Wittgenstein have a good deal more to say about this state of affairs, and does On Certainty matter to your argument about Davidson and Rorty?”

It often happens that we see a possible disconnect or tension in our beliefs.  Rationality requires that you work to resolve it.  In some cases (systems of logical inference) any contradiction is fatal; in others, we simply aren’t sure what we mean to say (note escape into neighboring realm of semantic commitment).  Here again this is a first-order task.  Not sure whether something is true?  Go inquire.  Not sure what you mean?  Talk with fellow speakers about the meanings of terms (and of course these two tasks overlap).  No philosophical issue here.

On Certainty is a very interesting text.  It’s easy to forget that it is a notebook and not a treatise (accustomed as we are to LW’s characteristic style).  As I read it, he circles around and around these issues without ever coming in for a landing.  He touches on what I see as the key considerations, but each time he does he immediately asks “but what about this ... ?” and goes off in another direction.  I’ll cut to the punch line.  Wittgenstein there flirts with the idea of “hinge propositions” on which any inquiry must turn, and makes a number of guesses as to what would distinguish them from other propositions – their content, their provenance, what?  My answer, as above: those propositions on which any inquiry turns are simply those believed true in the context.  That’s it.

Phew!  Sorry to go on (again, and not for the last time, I’m sure), but these questions deserve a careful treatment.

By Dave Maier on 01/25/07 at 09:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I got lost somewhere in that last reply but I’ll pick it up again in the morning.
I actually spent quite a bit of time today building a mathematical model so as to elucidate my point, I’m a little irritated no one’s disagreed with me enough to warrant dragging it out.  If you’re interested in what a pseudo-Bayesian model of belief looks like when applied to Moorean argumentation (with interesting asides about foundationalism and next to no calculus!) let me know.
Still, I’m relatively uncomfortable with the terminology.  I’d argue that “belief” would have to translate to “that which we consider ourselves absolutely certain of” in common usage with a pretty overwhelming majority to warrant use in that manner without some kind of preface.  It’s not only us Bayesians who’ll be confused there.

I haven’t read Rorty, and I’ve always shied away from him mostly because I expected him to be really irritating.  I too am inspired by pragmatism and I too am working on a kind of “middle way” between realism and idealism, but I come from a science and mathematics background and so Rorty’s deviations toward anti-realism turn me away.  Your description of him has helped me a lot in at least finding where I can be sympathetic to him.
Michael touched on where I’d part ways with him essentially.  Personally speaking, I think it’s possible to develop a relatively unproblematic account of (subjective, intersubjective and in some senses, objective) truth with respect to certain statements about the natural world, but not statements about moral norms or values.  I’d probably agree with Rorty on a lot if we restrict the discourse to morality but I’m too embedded in philosophy of science right now to not roll my eyes when someone says something like “reality doesn’t exist”.
That is all for now.

By on 01/26/07 at 04:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with J. S. Nelson in being uncomfortable with the way in which Dave Maier uses the term “belief”.  Wasn’t it Chesterton who said something about how of course people believed that they were always right, otherwise they wouldn’t have their beliefs?  It’s a kind of false dichotomy that works well for this analysis, but doesn’t represent what people usually mean.

I would guess that in the vast majority of times, when someone says that they believe X, it means that they are 50-99% sure of X, and are choosing to act as if X because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to do anything.  Almost all scientific, moral, and political beliefs I take to be of this nature; religious beliefs are assumed by social convention to be 100%, but it’s tacitly understood that in most cases they really aren’t.

Not only that, but many beliefs can’t be 100% true or false.  Even ones about the natural world—and I fully agree that reality exists—usually aren’t phrased correctly to work 100% of the time.  Let’s say that you believe in Newton’s theory of gravitation.  Well, it’s mostly true, in that the objects that you see will generally follow it.  So instead you say that you believe in general relativity.  That’s more true, but even the scientists who think that it’s the best currently accepted theory feel that it’s going to be replaced by something more true at some point.

So then you come to statements like Michael’s “we should treat humans as ends rather than means”.  It seems likely to me that this is both not a 100% belief of Michael’s and that, given the vagueness of the statement, it can’t be 100% true.  So Dave Maier’s framework can’t really contribute towards evaluating it.

By on 01/26/07 at 10:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow, not sure that went through.  I did too enter the word in the box correctly!  If this is a duplicate (or triplicate) it’s not my fault.  Complain to the management.

I understand your concerns about my use of “belief,” believe me.  I used to have them myself.  In fact, it would be a mistake to accept “infallibilism” just on what I’ve said here.  I talk this way not just for the reasons I’ve given, but for a number of others which I can’t get into here.  In the big picture it’s really not a big deal.  It really does make things easier.

Of course people are not totally sure about things, or think that what they now accept will “be replaced by something more true at some point.” There are a number of ways to deal with this, a couple of which I already mentioned.  Levi talks about “credal states” in addition to “beliefs,” and has a whole big decision-theoretic apparatus to deal with them, which I never got into.  That’s not the point.  We could use “belief” for those and “doxastic commitments” or something for what I call “belief,” but in the Davidsonian context of belief attribution, which is where we are headed (not that Davidson himself agrees with me, mind you), it’s the most natural way of talking (but again, it won’t kill you to speak Bayesian there, just make extra work).  It is a fault of my exegesis of these matters that this point comes up too early and looks more serious than it actually is.  I just think it’s cool the way certain puzzles (e.g., Gettier, which I won’t go into) disappear in a puff of smoke if you look at them right.  My apologies for any confusion.

“Not only that, but many beliefs can’t be 100% true or false.” Careful with senses of “belief.” It’s easy to slide between “belief” in the sense of “something someone believes” and “proposition, whether or not believed”.  I mean the first.  Naturally when I speak of my own beliefs, I pick them out by their content, which also individuates propositions, and I express them in my language.  But belief and meaning shift across contexts where timeless propositions do not.

I have to think some more about what Michael said.  I think I see what he may be thinking.  I have to go now, but I’ll be back tonight or tomorrow.  Thanks for everyone’s comments.

By Dave Maier on 01/26/07 at 10:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dave, I understand that you’re using specialized terminology, and I don’t follow everything you’re doing, so this may be just a simple misinterpretation.  But I think that I disagree with your second-to-last paragraph above.

You write: “Bayesians, as I recall (not my department really), speak in terms of degrees of belief, where I say that you either believe it or you don’t (that is, belief inherits the “flatness” of its closely related concept, truth).” But I don’t believe that truth is flat.  When discussing natural events, let’s say, truth is how the world behaves.  It’s almost impossible to describe these events in such a way that either your words about them or your thoughts about them (your “belief") really match them.  The kind of truth that you’re talking about seems to be a mathematical or logical concept, not really a good match for truth statements about science, morality, politics, or even those like “it is raining”.

By on 01/26/07 at 12:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So, are we talking about how people actually think, or how they are justified in thinking regardless of what the actually do? If the latter, then arguments about what people mean when they assert belief would seem to me irrelevant. If the former, how do we know that’s how people do in fact think? Do we have empirical research of some sort or are we just taking thought, as it were, and inferring somehow that this or that must be what they’re doing when they make assertions about belief?

People in the computer-graphic animation business talk about “uncanny valley,” where the animation is so realistic that you really really want to think you’re looking at a live-action movie. But it’s not quite convincing. So it’s stuck in this “uncanny valley,” where it’s not perceived as either animation or live action.

Are we in an intellectual uncanny valley between philosophy and cognitive psychology?

By Bill Benzon on 01/26/07 at 12:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Family events prevent me from doing complete justice to this. I have Brandom’s book and I have looked at Ramberg’s piece.

When I look at philosophy I ask whether it is a useful tool for helping someone understand, and deal with, the historical, social, political world he or she lives in. This is a normal pragmatist approach to philosophy, and most pre-analytic philosophies fulfilled that function.

However, analytic philosophy has apparently renounced that task. Rorty’s was only a rather timid proposal for a move in the direction of being able to do that. (His brief pomo flirtation was a false start, as he himself now apparently thinks.)

I think that Berube’s point is good, here and in “Rhetorical Occasions”, that realism about rain or snow is separable from realism about ethical principles, with neither implying or needing the other. With analytic philosophy as represented here, the kinds of rigor usually demanded seem to be dropped when it is off-handedly claimed that there is some kind of link between scientific realism and ethics. The general trend of analytic philosophy seems to be to make ethical or political argumentation hard to do at all.

Ramberg talks about Rorty’s criticism of Davidson’s fundamental distinction between agents and non-agents, which he thinks is necessary. Whether or not you agree with Rorty or not, obviously this is at a very fundamental preliminary stage of the discussion, during which a discussion of substantive historical or political questions will have to be postponed. And as I undertsand, this preliminary stage is already at least twenty years old.

Davidson also did work on “events as particulars”, which struck me as fruitful for someone who wanted to understand historicity and change. ("Essays on Actions and Events” (second ed., 2001). However, rather than going on from there, Davidson has apparently spent 35 years refining his argument and responding to criticisms, rather than trying to actually understand the actual world of events and agents.

My feeling is that anyone trying to speak usefully about any actual human phenomenon would be best off either ignoring what Davidson and Rorty have to say, or else taking certain of their conclusions as given and ignoring the argument about them.

Two citations:

While Russell and the Hinayana construct a ‘person’ with some difficulty out of more real sense-data or dharmas, Wittgenstein and the Madhamikas in general start with embodied people.

Chris Gudmunsen, Wittgenstein and Buddhism, Barnes and Noble, 1977, p. 73.

We do not pity others because we attribute pain to them, we attribute pain to them because we pity them. (More exactly: our attitude is revealed to be an attitude toward other minds in virtue of our pity and related attitudes).

Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, Harvard, 1982, p. 142.

By John Emerson on 01/26/07 at 03:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

”....which Rorty thinks is unnecessary. Whether or not you agree with Rorty, obviously.....”

By John Emerson on 01/26/07 at 04:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill:  Probably.  I prefer the “practice” side but come toward it with models which are inspired by cognitive science but still within the domain of philosophy, so I’m inevitably on the border.

Dave:  I started out concerned for your clarity not necessarily the content of your argument.
I’m a descriptivist of sorts: I think that you can use any word you want to mean anything you want provided that you let us know what you’re doing.  In the future, using belief like that without something like “I use belief in the ‘doxastic commitment’ sense” first opens up an ambiguity for many readers.
Now I’ve come to wonder about the content as well, because it seems like we have different responses to the meaning of falliblism and that leaves room for someone such as myself to derail the argument a bit.  I don’t think I’m alone here.
The problem comes in somewhere around here:  “And all I need to do to avoid that is to pledge to revise my views if new and persuasive evidence comes in; but I was going to do that anyway.” This seems like either a meaningless pledge or a loophole.  If there’s any possibility for new and persuasive evidence then that’s exactly equivalent to saying “I might be wrong” but if new and persuasive evidence is impossible then the pledge doesn’t make any sense.  “It’s impossible but it might happen?” No.  “I’ll change my mind when the impossible happens.” This seems pretty isomorphic to plain old infalliblism, and I think we have to pick one.  Falliblism means simply conceding that ANY belief you have has a possibility of being wrong (even if it is infinitesimal), which means acknowledging from a first person perspective that your beliefs aren’t absolutely required to be true.  All that is required from a belief is that the holder be content with the depth of its justification and be willing to behave as though it were true.
The line of argumentation in the dialogues doesn’t seem to survive taking falliblism seriously.  With falliblism, me saying “X is true” is just shorthand for “I am of the very strong opinion that X is true” and provided that I can clarify myself, the dialogues get short-circuited if I refuse to play the game.

I’m not going to get into objectivity and I’m going to get really brief because as usual I’ve run out of time.  I think that different collections of beliefs can be distinguished from one another by their capacity to generate accurate predictions that are interpretable at least within the system and that truth functions exist within these systems.  That doesn’t guarantee that a system with a certain predictive power is unique; different perspectives always exist but I suspect they’d be isomorphic.  I don’t believe a system of beliefs capable of generating “complete objective truth” is possible, but I do think more powerful systems are advantageous in a sort of Darwinian sense (useful if you will, but useful in a sense that is probably much more specific than Rorty’s).  Thus if “truth” is not a reachable goal, it’s at least a direction we have an incentive to go in.

Furthermore, I think I agree with Rich here but in a characteristically math-jargon-filled way.  I think that propositions are risky philosophical concepts.  Defining a binary truth function over them is convenient for mathematical systems but I’m not convinced propositions describing the natural world have such a convenient truth function.  That is, I believe that our beliefs are lossily-compressed models of the world and that they can bear a kind of functional relationship to it but are always in some degree simplified or distorted.  I think that in practice, the truth function is only defined across these systems of models and is a quota of acceptable accuracy along a kind of gradient.
I have to go to work now, but it’s been a very good discussion so far, and I’ve had to clarify my thinking about a lot of stuff.  As always, I’ll be back.

By on 01/26/07 at 05:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me address an issue that may help somewhat.

My post is a review of Rorty and his Critics.  As I tried to bring out, the book stands out among such collections in featuring sympathetic critics rather than, say, outraged realists.  So when its focus narrows to where the rubber hits the road – where Rorty goes wrong even by his own lights, as evaluated by those very few (or at least it feels that way) philosophers who share, or at least tolerate, his resolutely anti-Cartesian, ambitiously syncretic, “post-analytic” orientation, the discussion will inevitably have a certain entre nous quality to it (even if somewhat hidden by the overt disagreements on display there).  If you’re not already one of “us”, such discussions may not be at all persuasive and will even mislead.  Instead of looking in on the boardroom, you may be happier at the reception desk, reading our promotional materials.  (And of course I say this with all respect, as an outsider to all sorts of other such discussions.) I hope the many links I provided will be of some assistance.

In particular, what my discussion (and in all fairness, the book itself, for the most part) fails to make explicit is the pervasive nature of the post-Davidsonian working assumptions of the participants (or at least Ramberg, Bilgrami, McDowell, and of course Davidson and Rorty themselves).  When Rorty (and in one respect Davidson himself, alas) stands accused of missing the conceptual connections between belief, justification, and truth, this is against the background of a common commitment to those between belief, truth, and meaning, as manifested in Davidson’s account of interpretation, going back to the mid-70’s and beyond (and, I claim, given a decisive new twist in the 90’s and 00’s).

So all this unexpected attention to the infallibilist-pragmatist notion of belief – Bilgrami’s and my borrowed-but-novel-in-the-context way of getting Rorty to acknowledge the normativity of truth in inquiry – makes me feel like I’m playing a game of chess with a bishop and three pawns.  After a few moves I want to move my rook – or at least have it recognized that my bishop is not unprotected.  I’ll be happy to talk about Davidson – maybe I should review the third or fifth volume of his papers – but I don’t want to start over here in the comments.

Let me just say this.  For Davidson, following Tarski, truth is a semantic concept, not a metaphysical one.  The sentence “Snow is white” has the semantic property “true-in-English” iff snow is white.  Davidson uses this not to define truth, but to use the transparency of the concept as manifested here to shed light on meaning.  Try it this way: P is true whenever things are as P says it is; that is, when what it means is indeed the case.

Turning then to the phenomenon of meaning, Davidson modifies Quine’s “radical translation” thought experiment (making it into “radical interpretation") in several subtle ways (never mind how for now).  It turns out (skipping ahead) that explaining linguistic and non-linguistic behavior by attributing meaning to utterances necessarily involves attributing beliefs and desires to the agent as well, in such a way as to manifest certain conceptual relations among the three (I’m trying to keep it short here!).

This allows us to avoid putting too much weight on truth, a relatively simple concept.  (It also allows, indeed requires, a conception of objectivity without the transcendent Cartesian features which make empirical knowledge a mystery by its own lights.) So if “P” is true iff P, then whatever problems there are with the left-hand side, w/r/t getting reality right or whatever, are there on the right-hand side too.  It’s a problem with the proposition, not with truth.  And when concepts get their identity – their meaning – from linguistic behavior (pointing to things, acting in certain ways while speaking, etc.), then they cannot in any serious way fall short of the world they – and here I will use a word Rorty spurns for no good reason – represent.  So the problem, if there is one, is not with our concepts either.

Now of course we can and do fall short of full knowledge about the world – but that only means that there are plenty of truths of which we are ignorant, and concepts which don’t pick out the most useful aspects of reality (and we don’t yet know how to modify them, because of our limited knowledge).  Our knowledge is limited, not by its not being true, or known, or objective, but by its not being infinite.  The only shortcoming in this respect, that is, is our garden-variety ignorance and fallibility, which are perfectly ordinary phenomena, not worth blowing up into a Cartesian gap between ourselves and ... what?  Truth?  No, truth is just the semantic bridge between things we say and things we know.  Objectivity?  No, the objective world has that and that in it, not things beyond our ken (that is, constitutively so).  We see the gap as illusory when we run out of things to put on the other side (e.g. Kantian noumena) – or on this side (the Cartesian subject, intending meanings with a wave of its ghostly hand, constitutively distinct from saying or doing anything in particular).

All that is common ground (more or less) among us post-analytics.  What we chide Rorty for failing to see is that when we get rid of the Cartesian gap, as he himself claims to do, there’s no point in disavowing truth, knowledge, or objectivity as goals, or as goals actually, if incompletely (due to our non-omniscience) achieved.  That means he hasn’t gotten rid of it after all.  Again, my apologies if my own idiosyncratic locutions have obscured that general point.

By Dave Maier on 01/26/07 at 11:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Right, I apologize for derailing this thread away from what it was you’re here to discuss.

“What we chide Rorty for failing to see is that when we get rid of the Cartesian gap, as he himself claims to do, there’s no point in disavowing truth, knowledge, or objectivity as goals, or as goals actually, if incompletely (due to our non-omniscience) achieved.”

I think I completely agree with this and it’s precisely what’s kept me from really getting into Rorty.  Rorty is thus a sort of bizzarro J.S. Nelson and I’ve used my irritation with him as an excuse to stay in my own little world so I have to admit I’m pretty unacquainted with the working assumptions of the discourse at hand.  I think we have similar conclusions I’m just used to getting there in a very different way, and we may or may not disagree about some points along the way.
You’ve definitely got me interested in learning more on the subject and getting into Rorty in a more than “promotional materials” way, as well as Davidson, Bilgrami et al.
Again, I apologize for making you defend stuff that’s not really your focus.  (Though I’m right about falliblism.)

By on 01/27/07 at 01:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

this idea that ‘belief inherits the flatness of truth’ seems really weird to me.  just set aside vagueness and indeterminacy, and assume that a belief is either true or it isn’t.  how is that even relevant to whether i can belief things with varying degrees of certainty?

for comparison, maybe desires are either staisfied or unsatisfied (and not sort of saisfied).  that doesn’t say anything about whether i desire some things more strongly than others.  when i desire some things more strongly than others, it’s not that i all-out desire them to be satisfied to a greater degree than others.  instead, i desire to a greater degree that they be all-out satisfied.

similarly with the bayesian (and common sense) view of belief.  when i believe that there’s no santa claus more strongly than i believe that there’s no god, it’s not that i all-out believe that there’s nothing at all santa-like and all-out believe that there’s something just slightly god-like.

By on 01/27/07 at 04:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, if treating truth as a semantic concept, the problem is redefined so that I don’t see the point of disavowing “truth” either.  “The sentence “Snow is white” has the semantic property “true-in-English” iff snow is white” has the effect of redefining language into mathematics or logic.  Snow is generally agreed to be white, so there is really no possibility of making the statement untrue, even though in some respects it’s false.  If you redefine these statements to have meaning in ordinary English only, you’ve defined complexity out of the world.  If you allow the world its complexity, then such statements can never really be completely true; the iff will never be triggered.  Since I persist in believing that true statements refer to the world, I don’t see the value in setting up the problem this way—it becomes a logic concerned with how the world is generally agreed to be seen, rather than how it is actually seen.

I realize that I really should learn what I’m writing about, and that this thread is about Rorty and his critics, not Philosophy 100.  But I have to agree with John Emerson in this case; a quick glance at the promotional materials leaves me with no desire to take the course.  Sorry for moving the thread.

By on 01/27/07 at 09:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I didn’t mean to accuse anyone of changing the subject; sorry if I came off that way.  I opened the floor for questions, after all, and besides, I was the one to bring up infallibilism – that’s the way I talk (as does Bilgrami in his article).  I simply wanted to emphasize that the main issue lies elsewhere: e.g., Davidson and McDowell do not talk this way (give me a few hours alone with the latter and I’ll convert him though).  Anyway, if you want to take your medicine in metaphysical rather than epistemological form, read the McDowell article (though I quoted the best bit).

Although I am now even more wedded to my epistemological views as before, I appreciate the opportunity to think them through again provided by the challenges y’all have presented.  I haven’t given up on you, and I’ve thought of a number of different ways to get at it.  I think I’ll assemble them and write them up together (eventually) in a new post (not necessarily here, if you’re all tired of that stuff).  Thanks again.

Besides that, though, I do owe answers to a few people on specific points, so I’m not done yet.  And John H. has yet to chime in.

By Dave Maier on 01/27/07 at 09:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Apologies for not chiming in to date. I have a sort of excuse in a combination of family business and peculiarly intermittent internet at home.

Quick point for the benefit of Michael B.: the assertion that ‘snow is white’ and ‘murder is bad’ are very different kinds of assertions seems plausible (because it IS plausible); but, since it ends up committing you to a strong fact-value distinction, also problematic. So much is obvious, of course. If you care to do more reading, Putnam - who considers himself a Deweyan pragmatist these days - has vigorously attacked any attempt to maintain such a thing. More or less on Wittgensteinian grounds. So if you are curious to hear from the other side, without going all the way over to the realist side, check out Putnam: “The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays”, for example.

Second point. Dave is right to emphasize how weird it is that Rorty digs his heels in against the ‘desire to know the truth’ (as opposed to being happy, achieving intersubjective agreement, etc.) Whether or not it makes sense to ‘want to know truth’, it’s perfectly obvious that people do have the desire.

This heel-dig depends on conflating positions that are manifestly distinct. On the one hand, you have, say, the person who wants to know a particular TRUTH about whether his spouse has been sleeping around, or the child who wants to know the TRUTH about who her birth parents are, or the scrappy teen detective who wants to know the TRUTH about who killed Lily Kane. This are desires to know truth that are, more or less, ethical ends, rather than means to ends. Wanting to know whether your wife is cheating on you many be merely a means to the desired end of a divorce settlement, in which case the cost of finding out is balanced against the benefit of a favorable result, and convincing everyone else to BELIEVE it would be just as good, etc. etc. But for most people, a faithful spouse is regarded as an ethical end in itself, as it were. My life goes better if my wife was faithful, whether I know it or not. A fairly common attitude, you will grant. 

(Obviously I’m not contributing to this thread nearly enough because I’m still working through my Veronica Mars, season 1 discs.)

To have such an attitude - i.e. an ethical sense that knowing a truth is important, or that life goes better or worse, depending on whether something is true or not - is not to fail to realize that the desire for truth might be problematic in many ways. There’s wisdom in ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’, as many a “Veronica Mars” episode testifies. So the desire for truth does not imply cluelessness about the possibility of inquiring into the value of this value. But mostly the presently relevant lesson is that such desires for PARTICULAR truths has little, if anything, to do with having as one’s ethical goal the achievement of ‘an absolute conception of reality’ (per that Descartes book by Williams that Dave quotes Rorty citing). No one in “Veronica Mars” is looking for the absolute conception of reality, but all the ethical tension revolves around quests for truth and questions about the ethical value of truth-seeking. Nor is the show terribly philosophical about the whole business. (I doubt anyone is off writing any of those “The Philosophy of ...” books about this show, although it’s smart enough in its way.) It’s not as though they’ve been putting too much Descartes in the water at Neptune High or anything.

Short version: ‘the desire to know the truth’ is, typically, elliptical for ‘the desire to know the truth about x’, and Rorty gets mileage out of ignoring this obvious fact.

That’s about all the commentating I’m up for tonight. (Kids keep you busy. You know what the top sign that someone’s stalling over bedtime is? They make you read the ISBN number off their bedtime story book, on the grounds that they are entitled to hear ‘the whole book’. No kidding. Not an actual example of desire for the truth about ISBN numbers, I suspect.)

By John Holbo on 01/28/07 at 09:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks John, glad you could make it.  John?  You’re breaking up – this connection is really bad.  Try again later.

I have mixed feelings about Putnam.  That’s a great title, for sure; but I didn’t get that far in the book itself.  He’s very readable, and he’s always around the plate, but you’ll rarely find the decisive argument in his books, unless it’s been someplace else first.  I do seem to have at least eight of his books though.  Ethics Without Ontology is another recent one with a promising title (don’t have that one).

The fact/value dualism (as I prefer to call it) is indeed key here, but there doesn’t seem to be general agreement on what it is or how to get rid of it.  Funny story: Nancy Pearcey is a conservative evangelical writer (collabs with Charles Colson), and her book Total Truth argues against, you guessed it, the “fact/value dualism”!  “Huh??” says I.  “How could that be?” Here’s how.  Naturally, she’s a metaphysical realist about facts – that goes without saying – and what she deplores is failing to take exactly the same hardline realist attitude toward values too.

Yikes.  Yet in a way that does parallel my own view – which is of course “blueshifted” with respect to hers – on ethical anti-realism.  (McDowell calls his view “anti-anti-realist” precisely to mark its failure to recoil (back) into realism.) I too think we should bring our attitudes towards facts and values back into line (while of course acknowledging the conceptual distinction between normative and descriptive statements).  So maybe I can make my answer to Michael’s question clearer by distinguish it from Pearcey’s.

For this is what I take him to be resisting: the idea that what we should do, in moral deliberation, is conduct an objective inquiry into the real moral facts of the matter and once the correct morality (usually but not necessarily in “deontological” form, i.e., of exceptionless moral rules) has been established, our moral course is clear: abide by these rules.  For Pearcey, perhaps (haven’t read her book) this is as simple as 1) open Bible to Leviticus; 2) read divinely revealed truth about sins X and (ugh) Y; 3) write laws against X and Y (punishable by stoning) into legal code.  But even moral-realist philosophers have objectivity as an epistemological ideal: we are to strip away the subjectivity from our representations of reality, which (i.e., subjectivity) of course includes “value judgments,” so that these representations may correspond, or “mirror”, an antecedent (moral) reality as perfectly as possible.

Recoiling from this, Rorty says, carelessly by my lights, that the world is “made, not found [i.e., as realists believe]”; we should be “ironists,” not “metaphysicians.” A natural reaction to this is to balk at the idea that we “make” rocks and trees and the like, which are surely, we believe, (in Williams’s words again) out there “anyway.” This is much less intuitive for meanings and values, which are social phenomena and clearly depend, as rocks and trees do not, on human intentional activity.  They thus cannot be “independent of us” in the way the physical world (as well as the “facts” about it) seem to be.

And this of course parallels the evident difference in practice between the natural and social sciences (and morality).  So an apparent compromise position emerges: concede realism (a “found” world of rocks and trees and electrons [real because “sprayable,” as Hacking famously says] and possibly quarks, which even if the relevant theory is accepted may remain “merely theoretical” entities) to the former, while reserving antirealism for the latter (a “made” world of meaning and value, jointly hammered out in mutual interpretation and moral deliberation).

But here’s the thing.  For me, metaphysical realism about anything, including the descriptive facts of science, entails a commitment to a fact/value dualism.  (And antirealism about anything is an ineffectual recoil, leaving the dualism in place even if the antirealism is global and – as I put it in my November post about Michael’s book – one “box” is entirely empty.) This is the sense in which Michael’s position is “not postmodern enough.” For as we Davidsonians say (at the risk of being classed with Fish, Derrida and the like – who of course are not completely wrong in any case), our relation to the world of descriptive physical fact is just as “interpretive” as our relation to the world of human norms and values.

This is because interpretation (into meaning) and inquiry (into truth) are merely different aspects of the subject’s relation to the world (being-in-the-world?).  In terms of the “triangle,” this means, as Rorty himself agrees, or says he does, that each relation involves all three points, not just two (subject/other, whether the latter is other-mind or outside-world).  In inquiry, we hold meaning fixed and attempt to fix belief.  In interpretation, we hold belief fixed (the famous “principle of charity") and attempt to fix meaning.  Yet in either case both aspects are in play, in principle, and often in practice as well.

So while I guess I agree with John in distinguishing “ethical” desires for truth-about-x from (possibly less efficient and therefore possibly dispensable) “instrumental” desires for truth-about-x, and both of them from a generalized desire to “know the truth” as an intrinsic good, I think the link between truth and inquiry is more straightforward.  In inquiry, we want to know whether we should believe X (say, whether or not grass is green).  To believe that grass is green is (holding English meanings fixed for now) to believe “grass is green,” which is itself (via the “disquotational platitude,” here running in the right-to-left, “quotational,” direction) to believe that “grass is green” is true.  This makes truth a goal of inquiry.  No nasty metaphysics required (or, and this is the key point, allowed).

This may help defuse our worries in acknowledging the converse point to the above: namely, that just as inquiry-into-facts is “interpretive” (or, as Putnam likes to say, “value-laden") so also interpretation-into-value is, uh, “inquiry-esque” or “fact-laden”.  In fact, since that’s true even of interpretation-into-meanings, so much more must it be true of something we might already be calling “inquiry,” i.e., moral inquiry.

Does this help?

By Dave Maier on 01/28/07 at 04:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So someone says “I believe it would be a good idea to treat other people as ends rather than means, but I am not sure how to go about doing this, and I think the deliberation about how to do it is best thought of as a matter of justification rather than as a matter of objective truth.” I don’t get the last part.  Justification and objective truth (which is redundant, as truth is as objective as it makes sense for anything to be) share a conceptual connection.  When we are deciding whether to believe something – that is, whether it is true by our lights, which itself means deciding, by our lights, whether it is true, period – what we do is look for justification, e.g. empirical evidence, or whatever else you’ve got.  Why should I believe that this is a good idea?  Tell me.  If your justification – your grounds for believing it (formulated, of course, in terms which do not already assume its truth) – is good enough, then I too will adopt your belief.  Or maybe I can get you to give it up.  Naturally if I accept your justification, there is no further question for us about its truth.

Thanks very much, Dave.  This clarifies a great deal more.  As I admitted in one of my last blog posts, I was flummoxed as to why you said a hermeneutic line wouldn’t be there for me w/r/t the social world if I didn’t take one w/r/t to the natural.  So, then, on your account of things, when we go about justifying beliefs and admitting them to the jury, it doesn’t matter what kind of “world” (natural or social) those beliefs are about, and it’s no problem that there are different protocols for doing so, or, as you put it, we “decide the truth of these matters in different ways.” Got it.  And I’m not being a wiseass when I say I am not yet sure whether I agree with this; I mean that I think I understand why you argue it.  I think I also understand why you are made nervous by locutions like “deliberate the reasons for our beliefs,” because I see that we’ve been operating all this time with different accounts of what counts as a belief.  And that’s why I invoked that gnarly and frustrating On Certainty—because I thought that, at minimum, it gestured toward a theory of degrees of belief, insofar as it ruminates on degrees of skepticism.  I gather that for you, the gesturin’ and the ruminatin’ amount to mere circling around the point at issue, which is that when you have a belief, as “doxastic commitment,” the deliberating period is over.  Again, I don’t yet know whether I believe this, or whether it is good in the way of belief.  For now, then, I will turn to Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules and temporize the way I am wont to do, by saying interesting point.

Oh, one quick clarification for the record, though.  I don’t believe if in acting as if X were true we will eventually come to believe it.  I think that in posing that part of the question that way, I was merely thinking of that famous bit from Philosophical Investigations, “As if giving grounds did not come to an end sometime. But the end is not an ungrounded presupposition; it is an ungrounded way of acting.”

Thanks again for the generosity of your reply--

By Michael Bérubé on 01/29/07 at 12:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll try writing more about this in the coming days.  I wanted to respond but I had a series of tiny epiphanies which have made it impossible to write.
It’s interesting to think of a norm as a chain of reasoning compacted into a kind of conceptual object.  Inquiry into a norm is less trying to find out if the norm is true (objects have a hard time being true or false) but instead takes the form of trying to unpack the sometimes invisible (and often subconscious in the first place) internal logic that went into creating it.
“Don’t run” posted at a pool unpacks to something like “people who run around the pool tend to get hurt” and therefore “it’s in everybody’s interests (and is therefore probably a good idea) that I not run”.  We can conduct inquiry about these descriptive statements in a more meaningful way and determine if they are true or false.  For instance the 8 year old line of reasoning:  “Running is great and I love it, therefore it is probably a good idea” and “I am basically a genius at running, there is no way I could get hurt.” Norm overruled, much to the consternation of many a lifegaurd.

By on 01/29/07 at 04:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Michael – I am happy for now to be thought “interesting” (in Jules’s sense).  I only suggest that you think of my main point not as the epistemological-infallibilist one (which as I have suggested is somewhat detachable) but instead as the Davidsonian-interpretivist one (e.g. as in my 1/28/07 4:04 PM comment, directly above, concerning the fact/value dualism).  I hope we may take this up again in an explicitly (post-)Davidsonian context later on.  Thanks again for replying.

Of course I love that bit from PI.  Naturally in the context he is concerned to avoid the appearance of dogmatism ("not an ungrounded presupposition“): dogmatists and skeptics both attempt to “dig below bedrock” while our own “spade is turned”.  But it would be a mistake to drive too big a conceptual wedge between “ways of acting” – once the foundationalists have been dismissed – and the beliefs (okay, doxastic commitments) one incurs/manifests, to fellow actors/interpreters, in so acting.

By Dave Maier on 01/29/07 at 12:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"When we are deciding whether to believe something – that is, whether it is true by our lights, which itself means deciding, by our lights, whether it is true, period – what we do is look for justification, e.g. empirical evidence, or whatever else you’ve got.”

Of course many, if not most people do not look, at least in informal “truth” situations. Nonetheless, if the “truth” of a particular claim (and a belief might be better read as type of subjective claim, or hunch, brought about by observed events) hinges on observable facts, data, statistics, reports, what have you (as it does in nearly any inductive or investigative research) then doesn’t one overcome ye olde Cartesian epistemic gap? Then most of this discussion appears sort of meaningless. Like most philosophical spats, what really is happening is that someone has created rather strange hypothetical situations, and then takes pot shots at various straw men--whether “realism” or skepticism, epistemology etc.--instead of examining how say a biologist or medical researcher or physicist performs research. Biologists or economists aren’t too troubled by the mind/body problem---So why are “philosophers”? Because they are paid to be. There may be epistemological issues for scientists (Einstein himself suggested there were)---which often boil down to the status of a priori “truths” (space and time, say, for starters)--yet idealists, Cartesians, mystics, non-empiricists etc. have the burden of proving any such a priori-ness.

By Rick Eggerston on 01/29/07 at 01:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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