Monday, September 25, 2006

Lorraine Code: Taking Subjectivity Into Account

Two thoughts occurred to me after today’s discussion of Code’s article “Taking Subjectivity Into Account.”

The first is that her point can be boiled down to a very plausible set of claims, something like the following: It’s a mistake to define objectivity in terms of value neutrality. Why? Because perfect value neutrality is impossible. This means that attempts to be value neutral are doomed to failure. What’s worse, we’ll think we’re being value neutral when really we aren’t. And there’s no way to discover our remaining biases when we think we’ve already achieved value neutrality. Finally, the situation is exacerbated when we surround ourselves with people who think like us. So what’s the solution? It’s to listen to people who don’t think like us: that’s an effective way of weeding out persistent bias.

That seems so plausible it almost doesn’t bear comment. Of course, in class, Code received a lot of flak. In particular, lots of people were upset with her use of the word “feminist.” And it finally dawned on my why.

So, second, I’d forgotten that her essay is directed primarily at other professional philosophers. And we don’t have any problem with feminism, since it just refers to gender equality: who could be against that? Of course, in class, “feminism” has a lot of other connotations for the students reading her essay. And they objected to it not so much because they themselves are opposed to feminism but rather because they find it an inflammatory word and are worried, somehow, by how others will react to it. An analogy would be the word “liberal” which has a particular meaning for academics, referring to the liberal political tradition that pretty much encompasses both the left and right in US politics. But if you’re not thinking in these academic terms, then “liberal” has a more popular meaning that has successfully been turned into a pejorative.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Misak and Pragmatism and Deflationism

Today we discussed an article by Cheryl Misak in my epistemology class. The essay is “Deflating Truth: Pragmatism vs. Minimalism” (The Monist, 1998) and it’s one of my favorites. It discusses many of the same themes as Misak’s book "Truth, Politics, Morality" (2000) but very efficiently and succinctly.

I especially like the argumentative structure: starting with the basic platitudes of disquotationalism and deflationism, and then grafting on a quasi-Peircean theory of truth (quasi-Peircean because Misak avoids talking about a hypothetical “end of inquiry” and instead treats truth as a property of beliefs that will never disappoint us).

The last section of the article discussed whether truth can be applied to moral discourse; Misak concludes that it can. She writes:

Moral discourse has the requisite basic discipline; it is full of candidates for truth. We aim at getting things right, we distinguish between thinking that one is right and being right, we criticise the beliefs, actions and cognitive skills of others, we think that we can make discoveries and that we can make discoveries and that we can improve our judgments, and we think that it is appropriate, indeed required, that we give reasons and arguments for our beliefs....Such phenomena are marks of objectivity; they are indications that an area of inquiry aims at or aspires to truth.

I think that just about nails it on the head. Certainly one of the advantages of the theory Misak proposes is that it can be extended to moral discourse. After all, it’s on questions of morality that I most want to get things right. As I tried to articulate in class, if I’m mistaken about my scientific beliefs that’s something I can live with; but being wrong about what is morally right or wrong is truly distressing. That’s where the question of truth becomes especially pressing, and an adequate theory of truth needs to recognize this. Misak’s does, and that’s a powerful reason in its favor.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Truth and the Future

We had the first meeting of my upper level epistemology course today. Among other issues we're taking up theories of truth. So one of the questions I posed was whether a statement about the future can be true at the time it is uttered.

A number of people said no, and I think the reasoning is something like this: a statement can't be true in the absence of the fact that makes it true, and since statements about the future are about events that have not yet happened, it is impossible for these statements to be true until those events come to pass.

That makes a certain amount of sense, but I still disagree: if statements about the future cannot be true, then that means it is impossible to have knowledge about the future (since knowledge requires truth) and that's too much of a sacrifice to make. Any theory that denies we have knowledge of the future, it seems to me, is a reductio ad absurdum.

In addition, and this should come as no great surprise, this line of thinking points in the direction of a pragmatic theory of truth (or so I think). After all, the line of thought described above links truth to specific facts that make a statement true. A pragmatic theory, on the other hand, might say that a statement is true if it would stand up to scrutiny for as long as you please. On the pragmatic theory it's no mystery how statements about the future can be true: to say they are true is just to say that they would stand up to scrutiny. Problem solved.