The Past is [Not] What it is or What it Was

by Daniel A. Kaufman

__

My title is derived from a comment made by our own Mark English, in a recent discussion on his excellent essay on history.  The thought his comment expresses is mistaken, but in the best sort of way, for explaining where it goes wrong helps us to understand something essential – and difficult – about history.

Before we get to history, however, there is a more general point I want to address. In my exchange with Mark, he also said the following:

“[You] are talking about accounts of the past (i.e. historical narratives). I was talking about whatever it is which such accounts normally purport to be about.”

If you thought this smacked of the distinction between a representation and the ding an sich or of the schism between a conceptual scheme and the content it “organizes,” you’d be right, and like these other dualisms, it must be rejected. Kant showed us that the distinction the Enlightenment philosophers made between representation and world on the basis of “mind-dependence/independence” could not be sustained, because mind penetrates the world as much as the world penetrates the mind. One can speak, generically, of the world as unperceived and unconceived, but this “thing in itself” is not the object of knowledge, scientific or otherwise. Hence, Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal, with the former being the object of empirical investigation and the latter nothing more than an abstract postulate.

The point is difficult to express (and to accept) and varieties and versions of it have had to be reiterated again and again, in the centuries since Kant, as a failure to heed (or grasp) it core lesson either leaves us with something incoherent or lands us in a skeptical hole, from which there is no climbing out. We find a version of this lesson in Quine’s “Ontological Relativity,” where we discover that the “analytical hypotheses” belonging to our languages cannot be disentangled from the world itself: does the native in the radical translation scenario speak of rabbits or rabbit-stages, when he utters ‘gavagai’, and beyond that, what distinguishes actual rabbits from rabbit-stages, beyond systems of individuation or counting? The answer, of course, is “nothing,” which is why Quine says: “What makes sense is to say not what the objects of a theory are, absolutely speaking, but how one theory of objects is interpretable or reinterpretable in another.” (1)

We find a variation on a similar theme in Davidson who observes that to apply any sort of scheme to something presupposes that it already has parts and pieces, and yet, the fact that it has parts and pieces means it already is the product of an organizing scheme. “Someone who sets out to organize a closet arranges the things in it,” Davidson explains. “If you are told not to organize the shoes and shirts, but the closet itself, you would be bewildered.” His target, of course, is the “scheme/content” distinction – what he calls the “third dogma of empiricism” – something that Mark clearly seems guilty of embracing, with his talk of “the thing our accounts are supposed to be about.”  There is no such thing, nor does it really make sense to speak of there being one, which is why for Davidson, talk of “the world” or the “reality” which our statements are supposed to be “about” collapses into talk about the truth of those statements:

Nothing … no thing, makes sentences and theories true: not experience, not surface irritations, not the world, can make a sentence true. That experience takes a certain course, that our skin is warmed or punctured, that the universe is finite, these facts, if we like to talk that way, make sentences and theories true. But this point is put better without mention of facts. The sentence “My skin is warm” is true if and only if my skin is warm. Here there is no reference to a fact, a world, an experience, or a piece of evidence. (2)

These are some of the most formidable arguments in the analytic tradition made by some of its most formidable philosophers.  Thus far, when challenged along these lines, Mark has simply said that “there is a profound difference in the way we see the world,” but I’m afraid that won’t fly.  The arguments have to be confronted straightforwardly and in a substantive way.

___

Everything I’ve just said applies to empirical statements as such.  When we focus more closely on historical statements – i.e. statements about what occurred in the past – the situation is, of course, far worse … at least for Mark and what I will call his “neo-Empiricism.” For those of us not inclined to make the sorts of demarcations he seems intent on making or otherwise enamored with his brand of Empiricism, living with the fact that all empirical statements involve the inextricable entanglement of mind and world, representation and world, scheme and world, or what have you is untroublesome.

In the current iteration of my Philosophical Ideas in Literature course, I teach Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), which provides the perfect platform from which to talk with students about the entanglement of fact and interpretation in our talk of the past; of history. The novel describes an alternative history in which the Axis powers were victorious in the Second World War, and the United States has been divided up between German and Japanese empires, the Germans controlling the East Coast, the Japanese the West.  An illicit alternate-history novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which the Allies were victorious over the Axis in the war, is circulated throughout the underground. (This remarkable novel-within-a-novel structure, with its inversion of the reality and alternate-reality, is one of the reasons the book won the Hugo Award the next year.)

Without going into the details of the story, which are fascinating, we are given the very strong impression by the end of High Castle — and I would argue that it is more than that – that in fact, the Allies did win the war, the setting and plot and details of the novel notwithstanding, and in a bizarre momentary interlude, one of the main characters, Nobusuke Tagomi, abruptly finds himself in what seems to be that version of history, only to almost immediately shift back. While one of the most striking moments in the book from a narrative perspective, it’s unclear to me whether Dick was wise to include it, because it inevitably leads many readers down a silly (and boring) interpretive path, according to which the book’s setting is the product of a weird dimensional shift or some other tired science fiction trope, a reading that has the unfortunate effect of rendering the really fascinating questions the book raises about the nature of the past much more difficult to see.

So, I discourage this reading of High Castle and stipulate to my students: The world is exactly as the book describes it. And it is also the case that the Allies won the war.  Then I ask them: How is that possible? What does it mean?

Some of the students immediately see the pressure that Dick is applying to the idea of an historical fact and its relationship to – and entanglement with – interpretations.  Clearly the problem is  far less acute with certain kinds of historical statements. “The Allied destroyer X, sank on ___, in 1940” seems relatively easy to negotiate, although the problems described in the first part of this essay still apply.  But it is worth noting that the sorts of statements about the past that enjoy this relatively unproblematic status are inevitably the least interesting ones. It’s the stuff that we really want to know that poses the greater difficulty. “At the end of the war, the Allies were the victors” or “The war began in _____.”  It is statements like these that really demonstrate the way in which the past is hopelessly and inextricably entangled with its interpretation.

The cleverer students ask in what sense the Germans and Japanese in the book are rightfully described as victors.  Their lot, as described to us, is shit.  Hitler is in the late stages of syphilitic dementia, and the members of the high command are busy knifing each other (figuratively and literally) for power.  The German thirst for never-ending expansion is unhinged and self-destructive (their effort to conquer space is depicted as particularly deranged), and they are planning to go to war with the Japanese, which will almost certainly be catastrophic.  The Japanese, meanwhile, are stagnant and superstitious, ossified in their rigid hierarchies and formalities, and weirdly preoccupied with the ancient oracle, the I-Ching, which they compulsively consult prior to every important decision they make.  Significant portions of the world remain unconquered and a substantial resistance flourishes in the US, in the unoccupied Midwest and Mountain States.  So, did the Germans and Japanese “win”?  Well it depends on what you mean by “win.” Is a Pyrrhic victory a victory?  It depends on what you mean by “victory.”

One needn’t turn to fiction to raise this crucial cluster of issues.  Whether the Americans won or lost the Vietnam war was a divisive, sore point in American politics for the greater part of my life, and the issue only really lost its capacity to raise hackles after the end of the Cold War, decades later.  What started it and when it started was almost as divisive a question.  Was the Tet Offensive a victory for the North or a defeat? It depends, it depends, and it depends. And notice that the problem is not one of a lack of sufficient evidence; that if we just had more information, we’d know the answer.  With respect to questions like this — who won? who lost? when did it start? why did it start? — the very fact of the matter is bound up with how one interprets key terms and in what light one considers key evidence.

Mark has told us that “the past is what it is or what it was,” suggesting – no, implying – that there is some fact of the matter with regard to it, independent of our interpretations; that there is an historical “reality” independent of our conceptualizations; that the past is part of “the world” that our narratives are “about.”

So what is/was it?  Did the Americans win or lose in Vietnam?  Were the Axis or the Allies the victors in The Man in the High Castle?

Which past is or was?

The answer, of course, is “All of them.  And perhaps a bunch more that we haven’t yet considered.”

Notes

(1) For my thoughts re: Quine on this point and others, see:

https://theelectricagora.com/2016/05/25/course-notes-4/

(2) For my thoughts re: Davidson on this point and others, see:

https://theelectricagora.com/2016/06/15/course-notes-5/

164 Comments »

  1. well, now I’m tempted to rethink whether Davidson’s discussion of causal explanation has to do with philosophy of history….

    I’m thinking here primarily about the history of the Civil War, its origins and aftermath. Particularly its aftermath, which continues to unravel to this day. For it’s not simply the case that the history of the War and of the Reconstruction have been interpreted and re-interpreted over the years; but rather that various re-interpretations and counter-interpretations have influenced not only our culture and our social relationships, but even our laws. The infamous Jim Crow laws that instituted segregation, for instance, were tolerated, and sanctioned by SCOTUS, possibly because the Republicans had effectively re-written the meaning of the Reconstruction and its principle accomplishments, following the Compromise of 1876, which allowed Hayes to win the Electoral College.

    The idea that the Civil War was in part a race war, and that white supremacy has been one of its principle legacies, has been obscured and denied in popular culture so well and so long, that many Americans find the notion that this is a defensible interpretation of the evidence somewhat bewildering. But it is clearly arguable that Plessy v. Ferguson and similar decisions, as well as actions in Congress (and actions Congress refused to take) allowed Southern states to function as if they had won the War, as if slavery had ended on their terms, and damn the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th and 14th Amendments.

    And yet there have developed counter-narratives with emotionally incentivized supporters – some have been irrational, and problematic, but some have been the result of tireless scholarship and legal study – and some are just plain obvious once the evidence is allowed to shine through the fog of popular culture.

    The problems developing out of slavery, the conflicting narratives of the Civil War and its aftermath, the difficulty African Americans have had assimilating to what is really their home culture (to which they have contributed enormously, in too many ways to list here); these are the issues for which immediate ethnic tensions and confrontations the media loves to hype and scandalize are merely symptomatic.

    In December 2018, the United States Senate at last passed a bill making lynching a crime. The House has not taken it up. Because the language is inclusive of gays and the transgendered as potential victims, Fundamentalists have opposed it, so it may likely be vetoed by the current President.

    Like

  2. I’ve tried to follow this conversation in the two essays. I admit my ignorance about many thinkers discussed here: for example, I have no idea who Davidson is nor have I ever read a word of Quine.

    However, in my experience the only way to learn is to ask stupid questions, so I’ll wade into this conversation with a few stupid questions and affirmations.

    As far as I can see, this is all about whether the facts of history can be separated from the interpretation of those facts.
    Is that correct?

    For example, Donald J. Trump was elected president of the U.S.A. in 2016. That is a fact, I believe.

    As I’m sure all of us are aware, there are myriad interpretations of that fact. What is the psychology of the Trump voter? Are they racist? Do they feel “left out” by “progress” dominated by coastal elites? There are many more which I will not bother to list.

    I exclude all theories which are obviously ridiculous, such as the stars determined it due to Trump’s astrological sign.

    In theory, I suppose we could do extensive testing on all Trump voters as to their motivations. In practice, that is rather difficult and expensive. What’s more, experts differ on which psychological tests are reliable and on how to interpret those very tests. It may be that in the future more reliable methods of psychological testing will be developed, but at present we work with the methods we have.

    So it seems impossible to determine at present what the motivation of the majority of Trump voters was and when historians study the issue in a hundred more years, even if better testing methods exists, the Trump voters will not be around to take those new and more reliable tests.

    Thus, we have a fact, Trump’s election and we have many theories about why people voted for him. At present we have no way to determine which of those theories is correct. Isn’t there a clear separation here between facts and interpretations?

    Like

    • Yes, as I indicated, historical facts are subject to a range of interpretive entanglements, from the least — “The Allied Destroyer X, sank on Y” — to the most — “The United States lost the Vietnam War.” At the least side of the spectrum, historical facts suffer the sort of basic entanglement that all empirical facts suffer, and which I described in the first part of the essay. At the “most” side of the spectrum, they suffer from a kind of radical indeterminacy, in which the fact in question is utterly entangled with the interpretation.

      Does this help? And by the way, the question is not stupid at all.

      Like

      • Just to chime in from the world of archaeology again. Within the discipline, this discussion between you and Mark would be called an argument between processual and post-processional archaeology. Processual archaeology is positivist, materialist while post-processual archaeology tends to be postmodern, and idealist.

        I think I understand the epistemological issues a la Kant and Quine you raise here and they do trouble me. I do not really know how to square that with my more practical work of describing patterns of data and trying to come up with plausible (and testable) causal interpretations. Archaeology is concerned with human history and the origins and evolution of all our economic and cultural institutions. I do not want to give that up.

        If there is no fact of the matter about the past that we are working to understand people like me might as well pack it in. If the answer to the question “did the united states win or lose the Vietnam War” is “both” I think we are so far down the postmodern rabbit hole as to make adjudicating between interpretations of past events pointless.

        There is a major issue in archaeology right now (and honestly for the whole history of the discipline) of modern political interpretations masquerading as factual accounts of the past. I can tell from a piece of writing if some is making a good faith effort to interpret a set of data about the past in an effort to understand what happened or is riding a hobby horse. I very much prefer the former.

        Also the United States lost the Vietnam War hands down.

        Like

        • I don’t think these philosophical considerations have any significant practical implication for the work you do. Just as the Cartesian and Humean skepticism has no practical implication for the everyday practice of science.

          Like

          • Forgive me, I know you and Massimo have addressed some of these issues in your dialogues but it has been a while since I have watched those. A series of stupid questions:

            If philosophical considerations of an epistemological issue have no implication for a scientific practice what are the implications for the philosophy and the science? Is the knowledge that the practice is purporting to build not reliable? Is it not about the world in some sense? If the knowledge is reliable and is cumulative is the philosophy missing something or off base? Am I misunderstand something?

            In actuallity the second part of your essay is much more of a problem for historical explanations. If the past is not “part of “the world” that our narratives are “about.”” what is it? Are you arguing for some kind of historical indeterminacy?

            Like

          • I am arguing that historical facts are partly constituted by their interpretations. Who counts as the “victor” depends in part about what one means by ‘victor’.

            Like

        • Chris wrote:

          If there is no fact of the matter about the past that we are working to understand people like me might as well pack it in. If the answer to the question “did the united states win or lose the Vietnam War” is “both” I think we are so far down the postmodern rabbit hole as to make adjudicating between interpretations of past events pointless.

          = = =

          This just seems to me a flat-out non sequitur. If one is a Berkeleyan Idealist, one can still drink out of a coffee cup. That’s why Samuel Johnson’s “refutation” was so silly.

          Like

  3. Something interesting happened on June 28, 1914. There are several different accounts of it. Each account purports to represent it.

    Suppose someone asked, “Accounts of what?” What is it that there are several accounts of? What is it that each account purports to represent?”

    That seems like a pretty reasonable request, given the everyday patterns that our use of “represent” and “representation” tend to fall into. Take what Professor Kaufman says in an earlier piece (“Representations, Reasons, and Actions”): “To represent a thing or a state of affairs is to consider it from a particular point of view and under a particular description that depends upon that point of view.” A representation is a representation of something.

    So what is the something that the different accounts represent? Well, in specifying what it is, you’re offering another representation of it, another consideration of it “from a particular point of view and under a particular description that depends upon that point of view.”

    Does this warrant the claim that there’s no one thing that the various accounts are representing? No. But neither does warrant the claim that there *is* one thing that the various accounts are representing.

    The idea that there’s something that our accounts of what happened on June 28, 1914 represent is — to conscript a bit of Kantian vocabulary for different but related purposes — a focus imaginarius. That is, the idea that there is something our accounts are representing is an idea we presuppose in our attempts at representing, an idea that motivates our attempts at understanding. But it is an *idea* and not a bit of knowledge.

    Like

    • Yes, but the “thing” is not an unrepresented ding an sich. The thing is, as Kant would call it, a “phenomenon.” And Davidson takes the point even farther, observing that the very idea of the “thing” that makes the statement true collapses into the truth conditions of the statement.

      Like

    • This does come across as a little melodramatic! I was mostly venting my frustration with the way different theoretical frameworks talk past each other in my own discipline. I would be interested in your opinion about how debates or augments about the past can or should play out.

      It seems to me when two sides are arguing about specific events in the past they will always fall back on debates about facts. What facts are “true” or important or causal ect. Is there another way?

      Like

  4. Excellent. Yes. You saw through to my point, which I failed to make explicit. The “thing” we’ve referred to in our comments is more like what Kant called “the empirical thing-in-itself” (as opposed to the transcendental thing-in-itself). And I’m tempted to follow Kant in claiming that that “thing” is nothing more than the (projected) unity of our accounts or representations of it.

    Like

  5. Chris Kimsey remarked:
    “Also the United States lost the Vietnam War hands down.”
    This is exactly why we need scrupulous historical scholars capable of weaving discordant evidence into a credible narrative; and also why there will be competing narratives concerning the same evidence.

    Having lived through that period, I remember Nixonian conservatives touting America’s withdrawal from Vietnam as a “peace with honor,” under the pretense that the corruption of the South Vietnamese government had been so cleaned up that the people would be willing to fight for it, and that the South Vietnamese Army had been so well trained and equipped that they would be able to defend themselves. This pretense was inaccurate to say the least. Once Saigon had been taken by the North, American conservatives quickly re-wrote their narrative: now the “war had been lost ” due to the naive political intervention of the Left.

    The mainstream liberal narrative of these events is considerably more nuanced, and has to be, in order to account for the fact that the liberal Kennedy and Johnson Administrations had initiated many of the problems that dragged America into a conflict the exact boundaries of which were uncertain, and the conditions of victory unknown. This allowed liberals to live with the rise of Reagan, the intervention in Grenada, the larger long term narrative that allowed Nixon (or at least Kissinger) and Reagan to develop the conditions that would bring about the fall of the Soviet Union and the supposed end of the Cold War. The liberal narrative also forgives the Left for their failed politics (while crippling their involvement in Presidential politics), while also sympathizing with the anxiety and bitterness on the right as part of the process of psychological healing. For how many decades did people and companies and even government agencies fly the POW-MIA flag without protest from liberals or even many leftists, despite the obvious fact that this flag was designed to signify “the Vietnam War isn’t over until we get all our people back,” and despite the obvious reasoning that Vietnam would have no reason to maintain American POWs for decades, and that even if they did, all these POWs would be dying of old age by now?

    One of the problems is that the very nature of the conflict was never well defined, and hasn’t yet been completely defined, despite the fact that we have public access to far more evidence than people did when the politics concerning the conflict were getting hashed out at the time. What if the conflict wasn’t, strictly speaking, a “war?” How then could either side be said to have won or lost?

    Yet we do have historical narratives concerning the conflict, some sincere attempts to uncover its truth – to arrive at a consensus of understanding; while others slant to the right or to the left, because the events and their interpretations remain a vital part of the politics of our own day. Further, it should be remembered that for most people, it is only through such narratives that the evidence itself can be accessed.

    ” If the answer to the question “did the united states win or lose the Vietnam War” is “both” I think we are so far down the postmodern rabbit hole as to make adjudicating between interpretations of past events pointless.”

    In many ways it may be said that the fear of the post-modern is itself a problem of the post-modern – certainly, if it sanctions such disappointment or such skepticism that it questions whether historical scholarship is even possible, it is.

    One problem with the Positivist denial of social context, of politics, even occasionally of history, is that it presumed a narrative trajectory of politics that was inevitably progressive, thanks partly to greater dissemination of the sciences. This presumption was hopelessly naive.

    If the human intellect survives the Post-Modern era – and I certainly hope it does – it will do so by admitting the inevitable politics of intellection, and yet find ways to mediate between acceptable conflicting points of view to reach general consensus over the least deniable interpretations of the past. We may have to give up certainty concerning interpretations, but hopefully we’ll develop greater faith in the evidence and in the interpretations that the evidence can properly be said to warrant.

    Like

  6. Dan: Here’s my reconstruction of the argument.

    (1) “Content” (or in old-fashioned terms “evidence’) is always relative to a “scheme” (or frame of reference)

    Therefore

    (2) No content can count against any scheme

    Therefore

    (3) Every scheme is as good as any other scheme, in respect to the question of content

    Therefore

    (4) With respect to the question of content, Philip K. Dick’s alternative history of WW2 is as good as any other history of WW2 (e.g.., this one” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II).

    OK so far?

    The issue then is whether (1) is plausible. I think not, but that can be discussed if and when we agree so far.

    Alan

    Like

    • I don’t see why (2) follows from (1). As for (1), you may not find it plausible, but you’ll have to go through Quine and Davidson — and Kant for that matter — to explain why.

      Like

      • I inserted (2) because I couldn’t see how to get from (1) to (3) otherwise.

        The connection between (1) and (2) is that if any content X is specific only to scheme X then that content is meaningless or irrelevant whenever applied to some other scheme and hence is unable to serve as a counter-evidence for that other scheme.

        In general, on the view being discussed, each scheme is seen as having an atomic relationship to reality, and no scheme connects semantically with any other scheme.The meaning of ‘rabbit” can be fully understood from its application to rabbit episodes. (Correct me if you think this is wrong.)

        Like

        • From Quine, again: “What makes sense is to say not what the objects of a theory are, absolutely speaking, but how one theory of objects is interpretable or reinterpretable in another.”

          Like

          • Beautifully cryptic. I half get it. But if the radical translation problem is as serious as he claims, we are never able to know whether we have a successful translation or reinterpretation.

            Like

        • alandtapper1950
          “if any content X is specific only to scheme X”
          That’s not the argument. The question is whether content W can fit scheme X, scheme Y, or scheme Z (but not scheme A, B , or C), and whether there is some means to negotiate between schemes X, Y, and Z (while saying that schemes A, B, and C are simply unacceptable if they attempt to so disfigure content W that it is no longer recognizable).

          To use the closet/ shoes metaphor (which I think inexact and cumbersome): So here’s our Marxist carpenter *, and he constructs a Marxist closet, and Cromwell’s shoes seem to fit perfectly well, at least after polishing, and seem to fit better on the left of the closet; but here’s a conservative carpenter **, and as it turns out, Cromwell’s shoes fit her closet pretty well too, although she may have to polish the shoes differently than would the Marxist; they seem, to her, to fit better to the right of the closet.. Then along comes an extreme relativist*** and builds a little box, calls it a closet, and cuts Cromwell’s shoes down to size in order to fit it (only the heels remain), The Marxist and the conservative still have a way to discuss how the shoes fit both closets, and which closet is more useful for keeping the shoes, and the exact positioning of the shoes within each closet; the extreme relativist is just out of it, since the shoes no longer look like shoes anymore.

          Now the important thing here is that the Marxist and the conservative both share a sense of what closets ought to look like, and what they are to accomplish – that’s why they can communicate in a debate concerning the proper arrangement of the shoes. The extreme relativist has entirely different ideas of what constitutes a closet, what function it actually fulfills, and whether it matters that others disagree – the content no longer matters, only the ‘closet.’

          The scheme comes first, because that;s how humans are built, so to speak. We develop our motivations and general biases relatively early, and hold to them unless seriously challenged by experience. That doesn’t mean that our views – on anything – are to be mistrusted on that account. We are social animals, and our views will share in the effort of a society to achieve consensus. This is better achieved in a liberal state, where most people are allowed the opportunity to participate in the construction of consensus, than in most other states where ‘consensus’ is either imposed from above.or determined by faith.

          – – –
          * say, Chris Hill
          ** say, Antonia Fraser
          *** Who cares?

          Like

          • EJ: I appreciate your comments and don’t have any arguments with them. Except this: are you expounding the Quine/Davidson position? I think that position is far more radical than your comments. I think Dan thinks so also. But I could be wrong!

            Like

          • “Except this: are you expounding the Quine/Davidson position?”
            Right now, given Dan’s remark to me on the epistemic/metaphysics differentiation, I feel I should read the original material more deeply. However, I think my example may be useful in understanding why certain conceptual conflicts may result in useful discussion, and why some conceptual positions are not useful at all.

            Like

          • alandtapper1950
            After thinking about it more deeply (and listening to the Rorty-Davidson link Bharath posted), and re-reading Dan’s OP and comments here, I would have to say that my little fable concerning closets is a fair analogy to the epistemic situation in the study of history but not the metaphysical point Dan is raising, which would seem to suggest that in some way the closet is used to invent the shoes so to speak, Which may sound odd, but has real possibilities, if I’m on the right track. After all, we only have the closet because we understand that something of importance happened in an accepted period in a certain country, and we wish to preserved evidence of it for further consideration, such as objects purported to having been worn by someone involved in that event.

            Before geologists began to ask questions concerning the age of transformations of rock strata (in the 18th century I think), rocks shaped as old bones might well have appeared as just that, accidents of nature, or the result of some sudden unknown chemical processes, etc. But once it became possible to imagine the age of the planet and of the geological processes rock strata well beyond the Biblical 4000 years,, then it became possible to imagine that these rocks shaped as bone were in fact bones, and that a long natural process of transformation had resulted in their fossilization. This obviously became a piece of the puzzle of what we now understand as evolution. (I may have events mixed up, but I’m pretty sure the geological question was raised before the biological one, and contributed to it.) However, it is still possible for someone with no knowledge or interest in these matters to conceive our ‘fossils’ simply as rock, and proceed to smash them into gravel.

            One question, somewhat Kuhnian, is how it is that the schema of the age of the earth got changed But certainly that it did, it has contributed to great rethinking concerning the nature of the universe as we understand it.

            I think the debate between Mark and Dan revolves around the question, whether the rocks in question existed *as fossils* independent of any human perception or conception of them as such – indeed completely independently of humans whatsoever – or whether, as objects of consideration that can be communicated between humans, this consideration effectively ‘brings them into being’ (so to speak) as “fossils” – as objects that can be communicated about.

            Now, does this latter view get us “any content X is specific only to scheme X” as you fear? I don’t think so, because we are going to have over-lapping schemes within a given society – we already have two before us, the geological and the biological. We have the stone-crusher who doesn’t know anything about fossils, but we will also have those who stay their hammers and think, ‘that looks like a fossil, I should notify someone about it.’

            However, I still need to read the original texts more deeply; I just didn’t want to leave unresolved any mistaken impression I might have left in my original remark. If I am simply compounding that misunderstanding, I am willing to be corrected.

            Like

          • I think the debate between Mark and Dan revolves around the question, whether the rocks in question existed *as fossils* independent of any human perception or conception of them as such – indeed completely independently of humans whatsoever – or whether, as objects of consideration that can be communicated between humans, this consideration effectively ‘brings them into being’ (so to speak) as “fossils” – as objects that can be communicated about.

            Yes, I think that’s part of the issue.

            I tend to assume that the rocks were always the same, but our concepts changed. And as our concepts changed, we looked at the rocks differently.

            But there’s a problem with this. Can we distinguish between
            (a) the physical world remained the same, but our concepts changed;
            (b) our concepts remained the same but the physical world changed.

            And I think the answer is that we cannot distinguish between those. To determine whether the physical world changed, we have to apply standards for determining that change. But all of our standards are anchored in our conceptualizations. So we really cannot distinguish between (a) and (b).

            Like

          • Surely, the point is more fundamental than this. For a creature who can only perceive, say, differences in temperature, there may be no discrete objects. So “are there” rocks, “really”, insofar as rocks are discrete objects in space? I would suggest that the “really” reflects a basic misunderstanding, which Mark falls into every time he addresses this cluster of topics, and against which he has offered no argument, retreating to “I profoundly disagree” and “we see the world differently,” which, of course, gives not one crumb of a reason to think that what he is saying is true.

            To use the framework I sketched in the essay, rocks are minimally entangled with conceptual schemes, while war victories are heavily entangled with them. That people may disagree with this is perfectly comprehensible, but I am having a difficult time seeing why so many seem not even to understand it.

            Liked by 1 person

  7. Turner (“Davidson’s Normativity”, 2011) has an interesting discussion about how “The Very Idea” comes out of the era of Kuhn and the idea that the physical sciences could demonstrate problems of translation and incommensurability. So this is not limited to history or anthropology.

    I do not think the minor puzzle that “win” and “lose” are complicated concepts is that different from many problems in biology, cosmology or paleontology.

    Like

    • There is more entanglement with historical statements of a certain kind, but as I indicated in the essay, all empirical statements are subject to the more minimal entanglement discussed in the first part of the essay.

      Like

  8. Thanks to Dan and Mark for a great debate.

    It might be helpful to distinguish two claims:

    1) The Davidsonian denial of the third dogma of empiricism
    2) The Rortyian idea that (1) implies that there is no point in trying to find “the truth”, and that instead there are only competing stories, and the relevant activity is getting others to accept this story as opposed to that story.

    I hear Dan as (rightly I think) embracing (1), and I hear Mark as (again rightly I think) denying (2). So if (1) and (2) can be separated, then more room for agreement can come out.

    Here is an interesting conversation between Davidson and Rorty on these themes, and the subtle issue of whether Rorty is getting Davidson right: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6DtYC9N8RM

    The need to separate (1) and (2) is crucial for our current moment. A lot of the far right and far left have basically embraced the worst aspects of postmodern, Rortyian thinking (even though Rorty’s own book “Achieving our Country” is really good), and seem to see debate as a folly, and that all that needs to be happen is get more people to accept the story “we want to tell”. For example, was Obama born in Kenya? Was there a Democratic child sex ring at Comet Pizza? Did Kavanaugh sexual assault Ford? For many people finding out what happened feels secondary to affirming the broader “narrative” one wants to tell.

    Some of the confusion in our public discourse comes from running together the concepts of “schema”, “story”, “narrative”, “worldview”, “opinion”, etc. We can keep apart the Kantian/Davidsonian/Wittgensteinian denial of the third dogma of empiricism from the excesses of postmodern relativism when we distinguish between these concepts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve watched that Rorty/Davidson discussion several times, and I strongly recommend it. Our profession does not produce minds like these anymore.

      I agree with the central thrust of your point here. I certainly don’t have any truck with 2 and don’t think anything I’ve said here entails it, which is why I was surprised to read someone in the comments — I don’t remember which one — refer to my view as postmodern. It is anything but, unless, one wants to characterize Quine, Davidson, and Wittgenstein as postmodern.

      Like

      • I was the one who brought up the postmodern thing. I thank Bharath for raising my question in a clearer and more philosophically informed way than I could.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Chris and Bharath:

          Let me know if this is clarifying:

          What are the studies of the scientist studying mammals “about”? Rabbits, bears, dogs, etc.

          But these are not part of a mind-independent or conceptual scheme-independent reality. They include principles of individuation: after all, everything that is a rabbit is also undetached rabbit parts and also time-slices of rabbit, and yet, the zoologist isn’t studying those.

          In Kantian parlance, the *object of study* the *thing* the theory is about, is the object/thing *as experienced* and thus, the thing *as conceptualized*. To ask, “yes, but what does *that* correspond to — what is the thing it’s *really* about is to fundamentally misunderstand the world and our relationship to it.

          I published an extensive essay on these issues, here, some time ago. It goes into far greater detail.

          https://theelectricagora.com/2015/09/13/knowledge-and-reality/

          Like

          • That’s helpful, but doesn’t touch on the root of the worry, which concerns the link between the Kantian view and relativism.

            To be clear: I believe the Kantian view is right, and I also believe it doesn’t imply relativism. So far am with you. What I don’t feel is it is obvious that the Kantian view doesn’t imply relativism. In fact, here is the line of thought which suggests Kant’s view implies relativism:

            1) we don’t have access to things in themselves because everything we see presupposes the conceptual framework we bring to it.
            2) Different groups of people (be they cultures, religious folk, political groups, races, etc.) bring different conceptual frameworks to bear on their experiences
            so,
            3) At best we can only speak to moves internal to “our” conceptual frame.

            The way to deny this argument is to have “our conceptual scheme” mean “human” as opposed to “our” as in this human group as opposed to that human group. This seems clear enough when it comes features of basic perception, like object constancy, etc. But when it comes to historical and cultural events, how do we tell which conceptual schemes are intrinsic to humans as such, and which are relative to particular groups? Who can be in a position to speak for humanity in that way, and how?

            You end your essay by saying: “Which past is or was? The answer, of course, is “All of them. And perhaps a bunch more that we haven’t yet considered.” If all of them, why isn’t any claim about the past by Trump or AOC or anyone else as valid as any other? What makes the Muller report any more a guide to what happened than the National Enquirer?

            Like

          • I don’t view relativism as some bogeyman that must be avoided at all costs. The framework I sketch in the essay and where I speak of different levels or degrees of entanglement, from the least to the most, suggests the degree to which our empirical statements should be understood as relativistic, and it seems to me it is exactly as one would expect. That a boat sank on a certain day turns out to be minimally so; that a country lost in a conflict turns out to be much more so. Does anyone really believe that the sorts of competing accounts we see of something like the Vietnam war are ever going to cease, regardless of how much more evidence we acquire? I certainly don’t.

            Like

          • You are certainly right: it’s obvious the competing views of the Vietnam war won’t cease. And there is nothing we can point to in order to determine who “really” won the war. But that seems the easier issue. The harder issue: what if someone denies that America ever dropped napalm during the Vietnam war, and they have a whole framework of textbooks, “experts”, media, etc. backing up that claim. On your view, is there still a reality of whether napalm was dropped? If so, what makes that the case?

            Like

          • Look, even the simplest statement “A rabbit ran across the grass” is subject to the indeterminacy of translation and thus, ontological relativity. And yet Quine is among the most scientifically oriented philosophers of the last hundred years. This is why I resist the suggestion that this kind of indeterminacy/relativity somehow renders a discipline “unscientific” or “un-rigorous.” The assumption that it does represents a kind of crude Positivism and a naive conception of “reality,” both of which I thought present in Mark’s remarks and which were the impetus for my writing the essay i the first place.

            Like

          • That makes sense. If I understand, you are arguing that Quine’s view is coherent: he embraced a kind of conceptual relativity, but was as science oriented a philosopher as any in the 20th century. That seems right.

            Still, if one is worried that any view which embraces ontological relativity will be a slippery slope to postmodernism (which I took to be Mark’s point), then one might worry that Quine, though an arch scientistic philosopher and conservative, had given away too much to the postmoderns – that was the trajectory from Quine to Davidson to Rorty to Derrida. To respond to this worry, it is not enough to say Quine wasn’t a postmodernist, but one has to say why Quine’s view doesn’t lead to Derrida as Rorty thought it did. But perhaps you don’t find Rorty’s work that compelling, and that his views of Quine are clearly not what Quine was saying.

            Like

          • I think it’s enough to say that postmodernism is what you get when you do a cheap, superficial, drive-by of Quine and Wittgenstein, in part because you didn’t really understand them. I’m not really “worried” about postmodernists. As their own commitments make them essentially un-persuadable by traditional argumentative methods, they are simply people to be avoided or opposed, as far as I’m concerned.

            Like

          • We differ there. I think the postmoderns, though wrong, are quite insightful about somethings. Rorty didn’t do a superficial drive by of Quine, or Cavell of Wittgenstein or of Austin, and both Rorty and Cavell made interesting connections of Wittgenstein to Derrida and postmodernism more generally.

            Like

          • I didn’t say Cavell was a postmodernist. Just that he took it seriously as something to engage with, and connect to Wittgenstein.

            Like

          • I admire much of Cavell’s work, but as a general matter, I don’t take on board all the commitments of those whose work I admire. So the mere fact that Cavell thought highly of something has no bearing on whether I do. As I said earlier, there are no heroes in philosophy. I evaluate everything on its own merits.

            Like

          • Great, I am all for not having heroes in the sense of saints either. No argument there.

            You seem to switch sometimes from talking about Kant’s views or Quine’s views to making autobiographical claims about who you have use for and so forth. I find it a little hard to know how to connect the two. We are not talking about whether you highly value postmodernism. The issue was whether a Quinean embrace of ontological relativity leads to postmodernism. The fact that Quine as a person wasn’t a postmodernist, or whether later on Rorty was uninteresting don’t speak to the conceptual issue.

            This was one of Rorty’s great achievements I think: he showed that one could make a link between Quine’s views and Derrida’s views, in contrast to most people who assume Quine and Derrida as thinker couldn’t be further apart. This is not about Quine or Derrida as people or even as intellectuals. It is just about their ideas.

            Like

          • I thought I was already quite explicit about that. I don’t think postmodernism follows from Quine’s views at all. That Rorty thought it did means nothing to me. I don’t.

            Like

          • I am not deferring to Rorty. When I speak of him, I am talking about the arguments and his writings, such as Consequences of Pragmatism. I assumed you found that writing at least interesting, so I was using his name as a short cut for the ideas (the way we are using “Kant” instead of talking about the First Critique. If you don’t find it interesting, all good.

            Like

    • I should also say that I’m hoping Mark will weigh in at some point. It’s his essay and the discussion thread after it that inspired me to write this at all. Indeed, so inspired was I that I wrote the entire thing in about an hour.

      Like

      • From your other writings it is obvious your views are far from postmodernism. But as with the issue of Wittgenstein’s “linguistic idealism”, it is a big, interesting question how to separate an embrace of the Davidsonian point from Rorty’s own emphatic equivalence of Davidson with Derrida. What do you think Rorty got wrong about Davidson?

        Also, to take a patently absurd example, if the past is not “what it was”, if I think “JFK was really a woman even thought he didn’t know it”, what makes me wrong? Is it not the fact of JFK’s gender? I am using this example because gender identity discussions is one of the places where you have been most clearly non-postmodern, it seems to me. To be clear, not trying to rehash the gender issue here. This is more a request if you could connect your post here with that issue to illuminate further this issue.

        Like

        • Bharath, it is hard for me to answer your question, as it doesn’t seem at all apparent to me that the postmodern conclusion in any way follows from the Kant – Davidson arc described. It seems to me a flat out non sequitur; one that never even occurred to me, so it’s hard to describe what’s wrong with it, other than to point out that it doesn’t follow.

          Like

          • In your last dialogue with Sartwell, at one point you say something like you always thought Kant was basically a sophisticated empiricist. On your view, Kant seems to be basically Quine. That’s an interesting view, and perhaps it’s the best view. But Kant after all was an idealist of some sort, and it was the idealism, different versions of it, which had a great influence in the 19th century, and then also showed up in Wittgenstein’s views. Again, not here debating whether your take on Kant is right. Just that a lot of debate went on from Kant to our own time trying to make clear why the relativist conclusion is a non sequitur.

            Like

          • And yes, I think that in the 20th century analytic tradition, what essentially happens is a replay of the Enlightenment, but in the linguistic rather than the epistemic idiom.

            Like

          • I agree re the analytic philosophy part.

            And I get it you think the idealism part is a misreading of Kant. I am just a bit nonplussed that you seem to think it is just obvious that it is a misreading of Kant. I think partly different heroes are getting run together with Kant, Wittgenstein, Quine, Davidson, etc. They all have some themes that are definitely similar around the content/scheme issue. But they also have quite big differences. To mention only the most obvious: Kant and Wittgenstein, unlike Quine and Davidson, thought their views made room for religion and science to coexist, which heightens the worries of relativism.

            Like

          • I think Kant brought the misreading upon himself. He muddies the water substantially with all this nonsense about the “noumenal self,” invoked to make room for an entirely unnecessary hyper-radical conception of autonomy. And Quine never quite escapes from the grip of positivism: his epistemology remains essentially foundationalist, regardless of all of the holistic elements he introduces.

            There are no heroes. This is not religion, with a pantheon of saints. Every philosopher I invoke is in terms of what I take to be a “best version.” In graduate school at CUNY, we used to identify this treatment of an historical figure with a “*”, as in: “I’m not talking about Kant, but about Kant*.”

            Like

          • You are talking about Kant*, not necessarily Kant. That helps. So certainly Kant* can be much more like Quine, and having nothing to do with idealism. I think the idealism stuff is much more interesting that I guess you do, so I find all the history moves from transcendental idealism to absolute idealism fascinating and important. But I won’t digress into that now.

            Like

          • Isn’t metaphysical anti-realism a kind of idealism? While it involves no reduction of everything to mind, nor the idea that everything causally depends on conscious perception for its existence, a la Berkeley, it does mean that the existence of any thing is relative to a particular framework, and frameworks are not Platonic Forms that we discover, but rather systems of linguistic rules made up by people seeing things from a point of view.

            Like

    • Bharath, regarding the problem of how to distinguish good narratives from bad ones, given some form of conceptual scheme relativism, would it not make sense to go down the road of pragmatic considerations and coherence as Quine does? Ultimately, some narratives will just be too convoluted to allow us to extract any valuable lessons from them.
      As for distinguishing between shared human schemes and local cultural schemes, I think it has to be done in a piecemeal fashion, looking at particular clusters of concepts and understanding their function, and whet particular aspects of a form of life make them useful. The clusters of concepts that arise out of things that are universal to humans are part of our shared scheme, and those that arise from more particular circumstances are not.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I certainly think there are good narratives vs bad narrative, and human schemes vs local cultural schemes. But I am not so sure how to mark those distinctions. Pragmatic considerations and coherence will play a big role. But certainly these aren’t neutral or obvious, since pragmatic cash value and coherence differ based on broad frameworks.

        But perhaps you mean the only way to mark these distinctions is to do the actual work of working through the particular concepts. We can’t from a standpoint of science or first philosophy or religion determine which are the human schemes and which are more local. If so, I agree completely! Both the realist and relativist are stuck in an abstract debate, assuming the debate has to be resolved at the abstract level before we can make progress. But as you say re piecemeal fashion, the main way to make progress is in the hard work of bringing the discussion back to particulars and to clarify the concepts at a more fine grained level.

        Like

    • Incidentally, the sort of postmodernists who use Rortyan ideas about truth to justify their self-serving political narratives would do well to look at his criticisms of the new left, which are as relevant as ever.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. To address the gap between Davidson and Rorty I would love to a diaglog between Dan and Crispin Sartwell. I think there is also a gap between Dan and Crispin in how they think about the content behind the scheme which might make for interesting discussion. I think they have touched on it in other dialogues but it might merit a it’s own dialogue. Just a thought. Have watched the Rorty, Davidson dialogue yet but plan to.

    Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dan

    In the dialogue you link to, Davidson makes a couple of points which are very pertinent to this discussion. At the 26 minute mark he criticizes historians who say that in each period we revise the truth about history. Davidson accepts that we revise *what we think or what we say*, but is rejecting the sort of relativistic view which these historians are articulating (and which Rorty is sympathetic to).

    Subsequently Davidson is asked by Rorty how he responds to the Goodmanian trope that there is no way the world is. Davidson says he accepts this, but only if it is taken to mean that “there is no one right vocabulary, there is no one right way of describing things.”

    Implicitly, I think, he is making the same distinction which I made between accounts (of the past) and “whatever it is which such accounts normally purport to be about.”

    Like

    • So what is the past as it was? The US won the Vietnam war or lost it? What is the “reality our accounts are about”?

      As for Davidson, read “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” yourself. I quoted the relevant section and will do so again:

      “Nothing … no thing, makes sentences and theories true: not experience, not surface irritations, not the world, can make a sentence true. That experience takes a certain course, that our skin is warmed or punctured, that the universe is finite, these facts, if we like to talk that way, make sentences and theories true. But this point is put better without mention of facts. The sentence “My skin is warm” is true if and only if my skin is warm. Here there is no reference to a fact, a world, an experience, or a piece of evidence.”

      I think perhaps that you are misunderstanding the significance for Davidson of vocabularies as opposed to “reality.” And I also quoted you the relevant section from Quine, “What makes sense is to say not what the objects of a theory are, absolutely speaking, but how one theory of objects is interpretable or reinterpretable in another.”

      And for what it’s worth, the view I’m describing is not a Goodmanesque worldmaking view.

      Like

      • Davidson’s argument seemingly has the effect of eliminating non-deductive relations between truth claims and experience. Mark’s “evidentialist” view, which I share, rests I think on the perceived value of everyday reasoning processes such as “The barometer is falling, so it will rain soon”. In these sorts of cases the premise is not a disquotational version of the conclusion. The premise may not “make the conclusion true” in Davidson’s sense but it does make the conclusion “likely to be true”, which is a form of truth claim.

        Like

        • alandtapper1950,
          ” Mark’s “evidentialist” view, which I share, rests I think on the perceived value of everyday reasoning processes”

          I fear this is reading into Mark’s remarks more than his explicit statements give us. But those statements do suggest an inordinate suspicion of the potential biases in the interpretive process, as well as an overt suspicion of the worth of narrative. Combined, these would not give us an “evidentialist” view. Further, since interpretive bias is something sincere students of history are critically aware of, and since narrative is a normative ordering of experience and of historical evidence, it follows that Mark’s view might not rest “on the perceived value of everyday reasoning processes” as you say; on the contrary it marks a critical distancing from those processes – a distrust, however mild, of processes of historical research and reportage that have been developing since the 17th century.

          Of course, I could be over-reading Mark myself here (and perhaps under-reading Dan, as his remark distinguishing epistemics and metaphysics suggests).

          Like

          • EJ Winner,

            You say that “sincere students of history are aware of interpretive bias”. They may try to be aware, but none of us are really aware of all our interpretive biases. If you live long enough and you travel far enough from where you started out (not in geographical, but in cultural and spiritual terms), you realize how incredibly biased you are, how you are the product of a specific cultural mindset that you were raised in and how difficult it is to escape from that mindset.

            Reviewing my small list of friends, I see I have three friends who are historians, none of them famous, but all with doctorates and who have taught or teach at the university level. I would not describe them as people who have transcended their original cultural interpretive biases. Maybe they are not a representative cross-section of academic historians. To pass the time, I often listen to old episodes of the BBC program “In Our Time”, many times about historical topics and to begin with, the participants are all Brits and that colors their view of the world. I just don’t see historians as being able to transcend their basic biases, any more than the rest of us are.

            Like

          • s. wallerstein
            I didn’t say anything about ‘transcending biases,’ which I’m not sure is possible; only about being critically aware of them, which should come with any good research practice in the Humanities.

            Like

          • I don’t see that most historians are even critically aware of their biases and what’s more, even when they are aware of them, they often or generally don’t even see them as biases but as the best or one of the best perspectives from which to observe and narrate history.

            Like

          • Well. of course a researcher will arrive at an interpretation and believe it to be ‘the best,’ But all I can report is how I was trained and what I have seen, and I have seen considerable concern about developing such critical awareness.

            We’re not talking about saints, but we are talking about a discipline requiring training. If critical thinking is not part of that training, then the training has failed.

            Like

      • Dan

        I am not saying that I agree with Davidson’s general views. Nor do I endorse all of Quine’s views.

        “So what is the past as it was? The US won the Vietnam war or lost it? What is the “reality our accounts are about”? ”

        I did not attempt to say anything about the past as it is/was; only that it is/was as it is/was.

        What I am saying is that, to the extent that the past can be said to have or to have had some kind of reality or existence (and I think it makes sense to talk in these terms), that reality is not dependent in any way on us.

        And when I say ‘the past’ I do not mean ‘history’ (as in written stories and so on). I mean something like the world as it was as a set of physical, biological, social, etc. processes.

        Like

        • So you think there is an independent fact of the matter as to whether the US won the Vietnam war or lost it. I think that is demonstrably false, and I think I explained why in my essay. All I’ve gotten back is an assertion to the contrary, rather than any sort of argument. It’s OK if you don’t have one, but to my mind that is a tacit concession.

          Like

        • “I did not attempt to say anything about the past as it is/was; only that it is/was as it is/was.”
          Dammit, Mark, but that was the question! This sort of prevarication is what most annoys me about your writing – you’ll say something assertive and challenging, which I might find interesting, even when I disagree with it, and then back-step the implications of it.

          Dan’s question was not about what you did say of this (Vietnam), but what you would say. It was a call for a remark on a specific issue, not for a restatement of your general premises.

          Rocks, fossils, biological processes may independent of us – history can never be; and if history isn’t, ‘the past’ damn well can’t be.

          Who knows, maybe despite your confessions to the contrary, you do believe in god; because only a god could know, with absolute objectivity, the ‘past’ (as separate from history) that you suggest here.

          Like

          • The point is that the past is partly constituted by the history, if “history” is playing the role here that “scheme” plays more generally. Hence my point re: whether the past includes a fact of the matter as to whether the US won or lost.

            Like

          • Dan,
            as indicated in my response to alandtapper – and what seems so misrepresented in this discussion – no sane researcher would doubt the evidence, the physical artifacts, the documents, including recorded testimony – outside of my exemplar “extreme relativist.” The problem is that study of the past cannot stop at acknowledgement of this evidence; I don’t even know what that would mean, or what that would look like – and I asked Mark but he gave no response, and has given no indication of this, beyond a rather off-hand remark about Eric Hobsbawm (whom we can reasonably assume he doesn’t agree with, given his own political biases), and his remark that historical literary texts were once required in education.

            I love reading old literary texts – but that cannot itself constitute history; I respect Hobsbawm. but I don’t agree with him.

            Perhaps that’s it – the fear that intelligent men and women can review the same evidence and yet come to different opinions.

            Yes, that’s the case. And most of us learn to live with it..

            Like

          • EJ, I don’t disagree with you, but this makes the problem seem primarily epistemic, when the problem I am posing to Mark is metaphysical.

            In the case of the rabbit in front of me, there is no fact of the matter as to whether it is a rabbit, undetached rabbit parts, or time-slice of rabbit. The only difference is a method of sorting/counting. That demonstrates what I am calling the “minimal” sense of entanglement of conceptual scheme and reality.

            With regard to the War in Vietnam, there is no fact of the matter as to whether the US won or lost the war. The difference is what *sense* one applies to the words “won” and “lost.” This reflects a far greater entanglement of conceptual scheme and reality.

            Like

          • Dan,
            A good point; I do see the difference, although I admit I find it difficult to articulate.

            With evolution, which is the most obvious of the natural sciences relying on interpretation and narrative, it is fairly easy to differentiate between metaphysical distinctions (what makes a rabbit a rabbit and in what sense?) from the epistemic (how do I know this ancient skeleton is that of an rabbit-predecessor?), there are well developed tools and techniques by which agreement on these issues are reached.

            But human history is always motivated – not only in its present interpretation, but in much of the artifacts and documents left to us as evidence. Thus we are often interpreting texts that were already interpretations themselves when they were written! I don’t think students of history spend much time on the metaphysics, the epistemics are difficult enough.

            Which is not to say the metaphysics do not matter.

            Like

        • In The City of God, Augustine says that the recording of human history – a parade of corruption – was senseless, since only ‘Sacred History’ – the relation between Man and God – between ‘knowers’ and ‘truth’ – really mattered.

          By the Buddha, I really hear echoes of that in your arguments here, Mark.

          Like

  11. “…an independent fact of the matter as to whether the US won the Vietnam war or lost”. For me, the scientific “view from nowhere” description is along the lines of “X% of Americans believe they won/lost at time t; there were Y American soldiers and N-Y Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed etc”, “in similar conflicts in the past, the eventual outcomes classified using rule A were etc, and this correlates B with GNP, demography, incidence of further warfare”.

    Here is the recent article about monotheism in Nature:
    https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1043-4

    “…we systematically coded records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality. Our analyses not only confirm the association between moralizing gods and social complexity, but also reveal that moralizing gods follow—rather than precede—large increases in social complexity. [This was c]ontrary to previous predictions…Full coding data with detailed explanations and references are available at http://seshatdatabank.info/data, and are summarized in Supplementary Table 2. The data include the coded levels of uncertainty and disagreement, the textual explanations and the references for each of the variables for all polities used in our analysis. These webpages also make it possible to comment on each of our data points and suggest additions or corrections and thus provide an up-to-date and dynamic dataset that undergoes continual improvement by members of the Seshat team and external scholars. To maximize transparency, we have tied each cluster of variables to the names of the research assistants who gathered the data, and to the names of the experts who reviewed the data.”

    So, is this a hopeless caricature of the history, or have they extracted a natural law from a set of noisy facts? They know perfectly well the actual history is irredeemably complex and largely unknown.

    Like

  12. And regarding Philip K. Dick and “weird dimensional shift[s]”: not only the Japanese are infatuated with the I-Ching – Abendsen and PKD both use it to generate their novels. Mystical overlaying of histories appears in many of his novels pre and post VALIS. He tended to read Heidegger.

    Like

  13. Dan

    Was the Vietnam War a war? It is convenient to use the term. Did America win or lose? If they won, it strains the meaning of the verb “to win” to breaking point.

    But the point is, as you say, that all this involves narratives and interpretations of what happened at a certain geographical location during a specified period.

    Lots of other things were happening there and then too, of course. The natural world went about its normal business; social and economic life continued, etc.. As W.H. Auden noted, Pieter Bruegel the Elder questioned our narratives by emphasizing the background events.

    “So you think there is an independent fact of the matter as to whether the US won the Vietnam war or lost it.”

    There are a lot of facts (evidence) which have a bearing on this, but obviously semantics and interpretation comes into it too.

    Also the exact sense of “independent” is unclear to me. It is unclear whether you mean independent of our perspectives on the matter as distinct, say, from the perspectives of the people involved; or independent of any actual (or possible?) perspective (whatever that might mean).

    “… an independent fact of the matter…”

    Given this phrase, if you want a straight answer to the question, mine would be, “No, of course not.”

    Like

      • Dan

        As I explained above, this is the point I am making: to the extent that the past (as distinct from our stories of the past) can be said to have or to have had some kind of reality or existence (and I think it makes sense to talk in these terms), that reality is not dependent in any way on us.

        Like

        • And the point of the Kant/Quine/Davidson references is that *every* dimension of reality is dependent to some degree on us. Other than the purely abstract “noumenon,” which is not the object of knowledge.

          Like

          • “And the point of the Kant/Quine/Davidson references is that *every* dimension of reality is dependent to some degree on us.”

            I know what they (and you) are saying. And I am saying that I disagree. Profoundly.

            Like

          • It doesn’t matter how profoundly you think something, if you don’t have the arguments. And it appears you don’t, so your contribution to the debate is just a bald-faced assertion.

            Like

          • And frankly, if I had known you weren’t going to offer any arguments but simply double-down on unargued assertions, I wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of writing an essay and engaging with you on this.

            Like

      • That there is no *single, independent fact of the matter* does not mean that there are no facts (i.e. evidence from the past) which can be brought to bear on the issue.

        As I said: “There are a lot of facts (evidence) which have a bearing on this, but obviously semantics and interpretation comes into it too.”

        It is not an all or nothing thing.

        Like

  14. Dan: Your whole argument began from the contention that “scheme” and “content” can’t be sharply distinguished. Hence, historians are mistaken if they think that are settling some fact of the matter about the past. On your view, there is no such fact about, for instance, military victories or losses. You cite the Vietnam War as a case in point. The argument also draws on Quine’s problem with demarcating what counts as a rabbit. So, to generalise, there is no fact of the matter about ordinary objects or past events.

    The argument is ontological, as you say (and not epistemic). But, more precisely, it is the conclusion that is ontological. The premise is semantic. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the semantic premise is the truth-conditional theory of meaning. There is no fact of the matter about whether something is to be called a rabbit or a victory just because the required truth conditions can never be adequately established. The empiricist’s assumption that we can provide good evidence to settle any such matter is misconceived. What something is to be called can only be stipulated.

    The bigger question then is whether the truth-conditional theory of meaning is sound. I for one don’t accept it, at least not in the simple version commonly put forward. But first I’d like to know whether you agree that this is the premise of your position.

    Like

  15. Dan

    “… And frankly, if I had known you weren’t going to offer any arguments but simply double-down on unargued assertions, I wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of writing an essay and engaging with you on this.”

    This is quite unfair.

    As Alan pointed out in a response to ejwinner, you seem to be articulating a very radical view.

    In your own words: “And the point of the Kant/Quine/Davidson references is that *every* dimension of reality is dependent to some degree on us. Other than the purely abstract “noumenon,” which is not the object of knowledge.”

    There are various ways to interpret and judge the writings of Kant, Quine and Davidson. The detailed position you outline here is based on a particular reading of the tradition in question. I don’t want to get into a debate about the relative plausibility of this reading of the tradition from an intellectual-historical point of view. I am more interested in the actual claims you are making.

    As you suggest, there is an ontological aspect of this and an epistemic one. And we are hardly going to settle these perennial questions here.

    You were asking if there was a *single, independent fact of the matter* regarding whether the US won or lost the Vietnam War. That there (obviously) isn’t does not mean that there is no hard evidence which can be brought to bear on this or any historical question.

    Is semantics and interpretation involved? Of course. But so is hard evidence from an actual past (which you seem to want to deny).

    Like

    • There is nothing radical about it, especially if one has any familiarity with the arc of Enlightenment philosophy, as I know you do.

      You said “the past is as it is/ was.” I’ve demonstrated that is false. Some parts of the past may be less entangled with interpretation than others, but the statement you made, which was straightforward and uncompromising, is clearly wrong.

      And I’m afraid you are being evasive and hedging. “There are various ways to interpret and judge the writings of Kant, Quine, and Davidson.” Good, let’s hear your way, according to which their work doesn’t have the effects I have suggested. But you don’t give us that. Rather, you “don’t want to get into a debate on it” and are “more interested in” something else.

      You keep referring to “hard” evidence, as if that word means anything without analysis. I already indicated in my essay that certain historical statements “x boat sank on Tuesday, June y” are less entangled with others. This is as “hard” as historical evidence gets.

      Anyway, I appreciate the exchanged despite it’s being somewhat frustrating.

      Like

  16. Dan thinks these are “some of the most formidable arguments in the analytic tradition”, and that they must be destroyed by equally strong counterarguments by naive realists. I am a bit slow in understanding what the fuss is about. So is Quine correct that there are conceptual schemes that we can associate with particular languages, and that in some cases inter-translation might not be possible? This has some relationship to conceptual relativism, and specifically in the case of science, some interpretations of Kuhn. Should we care that Davidson disagrees with this? One counter from Bombardi (1986) is that it seems quite possible for one language to either be a superset of a second language, in the sense that all the concepts of L2 can be translated into L1, but not vice-versa. One might consider language to do with perceptions some individuals but not others can experience, along with abstracta built on those experiences. Bombardi takes it that Davidson argues for complete symmetry in these matters. Several authors have taken up the idea that anthropologists usually can give us a gloss on concepts from the most different world views from ours, which leads onto approximation and ambiguity in “good enough” translation. I think this naturally extends to the history situation where professional historians wield higher level categorisations that will cover
    the concepts from collections of heterogenous Weltanschauungs.

    When we last heard about The Very Notion… I was quite interested by Davidson’s later thoughts on “passing theories”, and chased up some recent empirical neuroscience that utilises this or very similar concepts in dealing with idiolects and linguistic cum translational ambiguity. A more recent review is
    Stolk et al [2016] Conceptual Alignment: How Brains Achieve Mutual Understanding
    https://langev.com/pdf/5448cb71ce69a6bae921077b641d257f6f8e702a.pdf

    “We share our thoughts with other minds, but we do not understand how. Having a common language certainly helps, but infants’ and tourists’ communicative success clearly illustrates that sharing thoughts does not require signals with a
    pre-assigned meaning. In fact, human communicators jointly build a fleeting conceptual space in which signals are a means to seek and provide evidence for mutual understanding. Recent work has started to capture the neural mechanisms…

    “Given the multiple semantic ambiguities present in an everyday utterance, how can we quickly and reliably identify signals adequate to focus the mind of an addressee on our communicative intention or infer the communicative intention suggested by our interlocutor? …in human communication, an action can be a response to a signal occurring at any time along the interaction’s trajectory, irrespective of linear order or syntactic regularities. These hierarchically embedded and temporally irregular conceptual dependencies…[are resolved by the addressee generating] a set of possible-world scenarios based on his shared conceptual space with the bartender and plans how to probe his inference to the best explanation in his next utterance or move…By embedding signals in a conceptual space defined by the ongoing interaction, communicators can flexibly infer the meanings of those signals and overcome the `curse of dimensionality’ (i.e., a combinatorial explosion with a number of features) intrinsic in signal-centered approaches to human communicative situations….

    “Neuronal Implementation of Conceptual Spaces:….Ongoing contextual inputs that hold neuronal populations near
    an excitability threshold may thus induce changes in the brain signal that are not temporally bound to the occurrence of
    observable events. The upregulation of broadband neural activity during human communicative interactions
    might be an instance of this contextual phenomenon, the extremely broad spectral profile owing to the noise-like
    distribution of input arrival times…

    Like

    • Davidson’s argument only rules out conceptual schemes that are not translatable, but Quine certainly didn’t take different schemes to be untranslatable, so Quinean relativism is untouched by his point about the incoherence of untranslatable languages.
      Youre right to point out that some have suggested a distinction between straightforward direct translation and indirect translation, which involves some imaginative stretching of and elaborating on our existing language, and that this second form of translation can allow us to accommodate some sort of limited relativism. I think Quine’s relativism is certainly defensible on these terms and it’s pretty clear he did take alternative schemes to be translatable in this weaker sense.

      Like

        • Yeah, that’s true. But what do we mean by ‘truly untranslatable’? Because while Quine thought there was room for incompatible but equally valid translations. In order for Davidson to argue that there is no room for conceptual scheme relativity at all, he has to appeal to a pretty strict notion of translation, whereby these translations are not translations at all. However, if a weaker conception of translation can be defended, then some sort of Quinean conceptual scheme relativity can be maintained. So, yes, languages have to be translatable in some sense, but unless you say something about in what sense, that doesn’t do the work Davidson wants it to do against Quinean Kuhn, Goodman, Whorf, etc.

          Like

  17. There seems to me there is a very important difference between questions such ‘Did the US win the Vietnam war’ and something like ‘Did the Holocaust happen’. Wars are complicated multifaceted events with no single well defined victory condition. There are militaristic, economic, cultural and other dimensions. The statement ‘The US won the war’ is in someways meanigless unless you start off describing the precise facet of the war you wish to talk about. Different perspectives can give different answers but not in a controversial and relativistic way.

    On the other hand when we say ‘The Holocaust occurred’ we are committing ourselves to a very specific causal web of events. The world with a Holocaust would be very different to one without. Certain people being alive or dead spring to mind. These causal aspects are not negotiable unless you are fine with a completely incoherent position. This is like commiting yourself to a Flat Earth position, but completely ignoring that your navigation never works.

    Like

    • I tried to account for differences in the kinds of statements about the past that we make, in terms of greater and lesser entanglement with interpretation. The account may not work, but it is an effort to address the point.

      Like

      • Yes, I noticed that. But you still seem to see these statements as all of the same kind, differing only in the amount of entanglement. I agree that this is one way of viewing them, but I suggest that there is also a difference in that some statements can be said to have a ‘fact of the matter’ and some not. So the question of whether or not the US won Vietnam has no fact of the matter. There is only a conversation we can have about which facets of the confrontation we want to emphasize. However, there exists a fact of the matter in whether the Holocaust happened. We would have to simply dismiss evidence to believe otherwise. In fact its hard to understand how the concept of evidence factors into this discussion. What does it mean then to say that we have evidence for X?

        Like

        • some statements can be said to have a ‘fact of the matter’ and some not.
          = = =
          I don’t agree with this, as every term is subject to at least a minimal degree of referential indeterminacy. And I don’t think it has any effect whatsoever on the concept of evidence as it is ordinarily employed in the ordinary practice of history.

          Like

  18. Interestingly, if Danto is correct, artworks are another class of things that are metaphysically constituted by their interpretations. Hence his expression, “the transfiguration of the commonplace.”

    Like

  19. “And the point of the Kant/Quine/Davidson references is that *every* dimension of reality is dependent to some degree on us.” So, what is the metric of entanglement in this discussion?

    Like

  20. More or less entangled implies that there are two categories,and that they are separable. How do we get to the determinations — estimates I suppose — of how much entanglement there is in any given case? Just a matter of the description?

    Like

    • The key demarcation it seems to me is between entanglement that is essentially formal/methodological/grammatical — as in the case of “rabbit”; “undetached rabbit parts”; “time slice of rabbit’ — and entanglement that involve substantive interpretation — as in the case of “winner/loser” and “started/ended” etc.

      Like

      • Where is the ontological issue then? These seem like arguments about interpretations, substantive or not. I think Mark’s point was that your argument entailed the stance that the reality of past events were dependant on living peoples “schemes” ect.

        Like

        • I think Mark’s point was that your argument entailed the stance that the reality of past events were dependant on living peoples “schemes” ect.

          – – –

          Yes, and that’s exactly what I demonstrated through my observations on the Vietnam war.

          Like

          • So if all living people suddenly die the past never happened? Or disappears or something? The past events are so entangled with our minds that they are dependent on them? I don’t think you mean that, but it seems like your argument entails it. I don’t know my Quine ect. but other who do such as Mark and Bharath have pressed you on this as well.

            The reason for pressing this is to try and say that our stories (or theories or schemes) are about something. We may not be able to access it independent of mental categories or linguistic meanings (which will be contested), but by trying to understand the past on its own terms our stories about it are grounded rather than truly free floating. The operative word here is try. It seems to me that the ontological issue (rather than an epistemic one) makes it not worth trying to undertand the past.

            Like

          • Chris wrote:

            “It seems to me that the ontological issue (rather than an epistemic one) makes it not worth trying to understand the past.”

            = = = =

            This strikes me as a straightforward non-sequitur.

            = = = =

            “So if all living people suddenly die the past never happened? Or disappears or something? ”

            = = = = =

            This also doesn’t follow from anything I’ve said or written.

            = = = = =

            “I don’t know my Quine ect. but other who do such as Mark and Bharath have pressed you on this as well.”

            = = = = =

            I am beginning to wonder, given some of the responses.

            Like

          • Dan,

            Just read your reply to Bunsen Burner above (sorry it’s a long thread!). If these greater and lesser entangled statements do seem to be a way out of the conundrum. I have no problem with the entanglement with our mental concepts since that what I always assumed anyway. I always approached this as an epistemological issue. I guess I do not really see how the stronger ontological stance you (and Quine) take does not entail a kind of idealism. This may be due to my lack of training in philosophy though.

            Like

          • It is a very long thread, and it would not be reasonable for me to expect that you read every comment.

            Quine believes that a certain degree of indeterminacy is perfectly consistent with a broadly naturalistic framework, and I tend to agree with him. Indeed, he was convinced that the language of science could only be extensional, which is why he rejects intensional semantics. This of course, means that as far as “reality” is concerned, there is no difference between a “creature with a heart” and a “creature with a kidney”, as they are co-extensive, but non-synonymous expressions.

            The point is not that nothing would exist if conceptualizers didn’t exist. The point is that what the theories and accounts of conceptualizers are *about* is not that unconceptualized reality, but rather, the conceptualized one. The things our theories are about will be very different from the things the theories of a species who only perceives differences in temperature will be about, despite the fact that there is just one world.

            Like

          • Thanks Dan!

            This clarifies things for me and quiets my existential dread. I am going to go back to digging old things out of the ground now.

            Like

  21. I’m reading this discussion with growing amazement. Take the “less entangled” statement:

    (A) “In 1693 at the battle of Landen, French troops forced the allied troops of William III to retreat.”

    Compare it with the much more entangled statement:

    (B) “The battle of Landen was a victory for the French.”

    As far as I know, the consensus is that it was a tactical victory, but not a strategic one. After Landen the French weren’t closer to their aim of conquering the southern Netherlands.

    But there’s a profound asymmetry between those two statements. (B) is an interpretation, but it cannot contradict (A). Interpretations can ignore statements like (A), it can be unaware of them, but there’s no interpretation possible in which the allied troops actually forced the French to retreat at the battle of Landen in 1693 – unless you start to play weird language games that make talking about something in the past a practical impossibility.

    We may not know all the facts about the battle of Landen, some of our knowledge is uncertain (the number of casualties etc.), but there exist statements of type (A) about the past that are resistant against statements of type (B), in the sense that they can’t be contradicted by them. Interpretations, on the other hand, are far less resistant against type (A) statements. Whatever you may feel that a “victory” is, you can’t deny that the troops of William III retreated.

    Moreover, interpretations are dependent on type (A) statements, because without them, there would be very little to interpret (one could always make the meta-move and interpret interpretations, of course).
    On the other hand, the statement “the French forced the allied troops to retreat” is independent from the question “was it a French victory?”
    The dependence of type (B) statements goes even further: if they only select the type (A) statements that support the interpretation, the conclusion will stand on weak foundations. Etc. etc. etc.

    Given this asymmetry between statements of type (A) and (B), I feel it’s reasonable to claim that the past is/was the past, even if our knowledge of the past is incomplete.

    Like

      • OK, (A) is entangled too.

        But do you agree there is a profound asymmetry between (A) and (B)?

        If you don’t, can you explain why there isn’t a single historian(°) who doubts that the French forced the allied troop to retreat at the battle of Landen, while the question “was it a victory for the French?” was a matter of debate and interpretation?

        And if you do agree there’s a profound asymmetry, then what’s your problem with the statement “the French forced the allied troops to retreat”, or in other words: the past was what is was?

        (°) If you know a historian who thinks it didn’t happen, let me know.

        Like

        • As I explained already, I think the key demarcation is between the sorts of statements in which the entanglement is largely “formal,” in the sense I described, and those in which it is substantial or “interpretive,” in the sense I described.

          As for your particular example, the reason why I think it more entangled than you are perhaps ready to accept, is because of the word “forced.”

          Like

          • > As for your particular example, the reason why I think it more entangled than you are perhaps ready to accept, is because of the word “forced.”

            The French didn’t force the allied troops to retreat? Now you’re playing language games.

            > As I explained already, I think the key demarcation is between the sorts of statements in which the entanglement is largely “formal,” in the sense I described, and those in which it is substantial or “interpretive,” in the sense I described.

            OK, but I still want to know why there isn’t a single historian who doubts that the French defeated the allied troops at the battle of Landen. Are they doing something wrong?

            Like

          • I will take your question as rhetorical at this point. As I have said more than once, I don’t believe that any of these philosophical considerations have direct relevance for the practice of any science, including history. Just as nothing prevents a Berkeleyan Idealist from being a physicist, nothing prevents someone with my view from being an historian. (And I happen to be one — having a history degree in addition to my degree in philosophy.)

            Like

  22. “I don’t believe that any of these philosophical considerations have direct relevance for the practice of any science, including history”

    This is weak beer indeed. I then much prefer Popper, Feyerabend, Carnap and even Derrida who liked to think they had something important to contribute to the human project. Even the missing-the-point anthropological studies of scientific practice are more useful.

    Like

  23. ejwinner

    “I think the debate between Mark and Dan revolves around the question, whether the rocks in question existed *as fossils* independent of any human perception or conception of them as such – indeed completely independently of humans whatsoever – or whether, as objects of consideration that can be communicated between humans, this consideration effectively ‘brings them into being’ (so to speak) as “fossils” – as objects that can be communicated about.”

    You make it sound as if I am saying that that something, *as understood in specific conceptual terms*, existed in those very conceptual terms before/irrespective-or-independently-of any perception or conception.

    I am not saying this. It doesn’t make sense to say this.

    But, if we were to trace the history of those objects of which you speak, we would find that they came to have the form they have due to certain specific processes, etc.. Science does its work. Scholarship does its work. And if the claims you seek to make and the conclusions you seek to draw have (as Dan admits) no relevance to these activities, I wonder what the point of all this metaphysical activity is.

    Are we being bewitched by language? I think so. When we talk about these matters we are arguably pushing past the limits of what ordinary language, or formal logical languages for that matter, are good for. A Quinean approach opens the way to a serious metaphysics. But I am not alone in being unimpressed by various aspects of Quine’s work. In particular, I have always found the indeterminacy of translation/inscrutability of reference stuff unconvincing. It just doesn’t get off the ground for me so I have never bothered to refute it. (Others have, however.)

    The profound differences in point of view to which I previously alluded come down to different views concerning how language relates to the world and to thought. In my view certain strands of philosophy make too much of language while, in another sense, failing adequately to understand it. There is a built-in assumption, for example, that language is a sine qua non for thought. I think this is demonstrably false. It is a sine qua non for certain kinds of thinking but many forms of cognitive processing (many of which can reasonably be referred to as involving thought or thinking) do not depend on language.

    This fact alone does not solve the problems which have been discussed here. I am just pointing out that privileging language (and the “linguistic perspective” if I can call it that) inevitably leads to the sorts of conclusions which Dan spells out here. It’s the unspoken assumptions I am questioning more than the arguments.

    Like

    • But, if we were to trace the history of those objects of which you speak, we would find that they came to have the form they have due to certain specific processes, etc..

      What is this “form they have”? It seems to me that we are limited to “the form that we say they have”. And yes, I understand you see this as excessively fussy. However, the form that we say they have is constrained by our conceptualizations of form. And I could make a similar comment about “specific processes”.

      And if the claims you seek to make and the conclusions you seek to draw have (as Dan admits) no relevance to these activities, I wonder what the point of all this metaphysical activity is.

      For me, the point is this. If we are ever to understand consciousness, then we will need to understand how we shape our own conscious experience.

      Like

      • Neil

        What is this “form they have”? It seems to me that we are limited to “the form that we say they have”. And yes, I understand you see this as excessively fussy.

        Why do you say “the form we *say* they have” rather than the form we see or feel or observe them to have? Or the form which is revealed by photographic or measuring devices of various kinds? Why privilege language in this way?

        However, the form that we say they have is constrained by our conceptualizations of form. And I could make a similar comment about “specific processes”.

        Sure, just as the qualities and forms we observe are constrained by the limitations of our perceptual faculties, so our cognitive faculties and languages limit what we can conceive of and speak about. But the sorts of things we are talking about here (rabbits, sinking battleships, fossils, etc.) don’t take us beyond what we can conceive of and talk intelligibly about.

        “And if the claims you seek to make and the conclusions you seek to draw have (as Dan admits) no relevance to these activities, I wonder what the point of all this metaphysical activity is.” For me, the point is this. If we are ever to understand consciousness, then we will need to understand how we shape our own conscious experience.

        I don’t think this is the way to go about understanding consciousness. (Personally, I think we need to start with basic sentience. All the language-related stuff is ultimately dependent on more basic levels of neural (or cellular, etc.) processing.)

        And nor do I think it is necessarily the best way to go about understanding how we shape our conscious experience.

        Like

        • Why do you say “the form we *say* they have” rather than the form we see or feel or observe them to have? Or the form which is revealed by photographic or measuring devices of various kinds? Why privilege language in this way?

          I’m not actually privileging language at all. It’s just that the only way we can communicate about our feelings or sensations is via language. I cannot post feelings on this blog, but I can post language statements.

          Come to think of it, you also used language in the post to which I replied.

          Sure, just as the qualities and forms we observe are constrained by the limitations of our perceptual faculties, so our cognitive faculties and languages limit what we can conceive of and speak about.

          Quite so. And I am more concerned with the limitations of perception than with the limitations of language.

          I do not see perception as a magical black box that presents the world to us. Because it could not be that. Rather, perception is creative. It invents a world that is consistent with our interactions. And, as best I can tell, the kind of world that perception creates for us is vastly underdetermined by those interactions.

          I see this topic as based on the same idea. History, as stories about the past, can only be an invention based on the evidence available to us. And what we invent is vastly underdetermined by that evidence. This is well illustrated by the Omphalos Hypothesis (you can google that). You likely think the Omphalos hypothesis is completely nutty. And, for sure, that’s how I think about it. But it is still completely consistent with the evidence. So it illustrates the extent to which our models of the past are underdetermined by that evidence.

          But the sorts of things we are talking about here (rabbits, sinking battleships, fossils, etc.) don’t take us beyond what we can conceive of and talk intelligibly about.

          But is your conception of rabbits the same as my conception of rabbits? Do we even have a meaning of “the same as” that we can apply here? We can compare our linguistic statements about rabbits, but we cannot compare our conceptions of rabbits.

          Liked by 1 person

    • I wrote an entire essay to engage with you on this topic. So far as I can tell, your response has consisted of (a) bald-faced assertions, with no arguments whatsoever; (b) the remark that you are “unimpressed” by Quine and that others have refuted him. You will understand that I don’t take this as any kind of serious engagement.

      As for your other question, “I wonder what the point of all this metaphysical activity is,” we are well aware that you don’t think most philosophy has much point. That has been evident since the Scientia days. I wonder, though, what the point of your own writing is? It doesn’t have any relevance to anyone’s activities either.

      I, for one, engage in philosophical inquiry because I find it interesting. I read your essays for the same reason: I find them interesting.

      Like

      • Dan

        With regard to your main criticisms, I can’t deal with them now. I am very short of sleep and it’s the middle of the night. Let me just say that I have made a sincere attempt to defend those two statements and to explain my point of view — without engaging with Quine and Davidson. To do so convincingly I would have to do more background reading. It’s years since I read Quine and my knowledge of Davidson is sketchy. I was hoping that others would come in, and quite a few people did.

        “… As for your other question, “I wonder what the point of all this metaphysical activity is,” we are well aware that you don’t think most philosophy has much point.”

        Certainly I have made no secret of my impatience with (most kinds of) metaphysics.

        “I wonder, though, what the point of your own writing is? It doesn’t have any relevance to anyone’s activities either… I, for one, engage in philosophical inquiry because I find it interesting. I read your essays for the same reason: I find them interesting.”

        This is a good answer. It was wrong to suggest that just because a certain style of philosophy does not have any particular relevance to other forms of inquiry, it has no point.

        Like

      • Dan

        Just to be clear, when I said that I had “made a sincere attempt to defend those two statements and to explain my point of view”, the two statements I was referring to were the ones you were saying were false or mistaken, namely the claim that the past is as it is; and the distinction between accounts of the past and (as I put it) “whatever it is which such accounts normally purport to be about.” The latter was carefully phrased. (I stand by it.)

        It is unfortunate that my relative unfamiliarity with the philosophical work associated with interpretations of Quine and with Davidson’s work made it impossible for me to respond at short notice in a way which would have been more closely aligned to your way of framing the issues.

        I have more to say but this thread is very long and probably soon to close.

        Like

  24. Neil

    “Why do you say “the form we *say* they have” rather than the form we see or feel or observe them to have? Or the form which is revealed by photographic or measuring devices of various kinds? Why privilege language in this way?” I’m not actually privileging language at all. It’s just that the only way we can communicate about our feelings or sensations is via language.

    Yes but my original point was about examining and figuring out what processes formed the things we call fossils, in other words observation and the methods of science, not communication. Sure, the scientific process is a social one which requires communication.

    I do not see perception as a magical black box that presents the world to us… Rather, perception is creative. It invents a world that is consistent with our interactions…

    I am aware that perception is an active, brain-driven process.

    I see this topic as based on the same idea. History, as stories about the past, can only be an invention based on the evidence available to us. And what we invent is vastly underdetermined by that evidence.

    Since we don’t have direct perceptual access to the past, our sense of it in holistic terms is as you say. However, as with ordinary perception, we can be confident about many specific claims.

    You likely think the Omphalos hypothesis is completely nutty. And, for sure, that’s how I think about it. But it is still completely consistent with the evidence. So it illustrates the extent to which our models of the past are underdetermined by that evidence.

    I would say this is an extreme example which undermines your case to some extent. I am familiar with the story of the Gosses, father and son (and the book Father and Son). The hypothesis is, as you say, quite nutty. We can be utterly confident (in effect, we *know*) that it is false.

    “But the sorts of things we are talking about here (rabbits, sinking battleships, fossils, etc.) don’t take us beyond what we can conceive of and talk intelligibly about.” But is your conception of rabbits the same as my conception of rabbits? Do we even have a meaning of “the same as” that we can apply here? We can compare our linguistic statements about rabbits, but we cannot compare our conceptions of rabbits.

    I agree that the word “rabbit” for each speaker of English will trigger a different complex of ideas, based on our personal histories and experiences (of pet rabbits, wild rabbits, rabbit stew, cartoon rabbits, VW Rabbits, etc.).

    But all I was claiming was that we can conceive of and talk intelligibly about rabbits and battleships and so on. The context obviously helps us identify in what general sense the word is being used. But I am not claiming that the linguistic data carry some kind of set meaning from brain to brain.

    Like

  25. My view (for what it’s worth) is that the root of the problem being discussed is the semantic theory being assumed. As I see it, the capacity to recognise an X in the wild is quite distinct from the ability to understand the concept “X”. So however difficult the recognition problem may be in actual cases (of rabbits and victories), that in no way reflects adversely on the intelligibility of the concept. Nor does that sort of difficulty tell us anything “ontological” (about the nature of rabbits or victories).

    The semantic theory being assumed is the truth-conditional theory: to know the meaning of a term or sentence is merely to know the conditions that would make the term applicable or the sentence true. One simple objection to this theory is that we know the meaning of terms that have no actual exemplifications (e.g., “unicorn”) or terms that have not yet been found to apply (e.g., “Higgs boson” before the thing had been found). To put it differently, the world does not dictate our concepts to us.

    More generally, knowing the meaning of “X” involves three components: (1) To know the meaning of a term is to know what would make its application true or false or what would be irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the use of the term. That is a lot more than just knowledge of truth conditions. (2) To know the meaning of a term is to situate that term in relation to its cognates. We understand “red” in terms of the conceptual relationships that make up the colour repertoire that our culture uses. Likewise for the repertoires associated with “rabbit” and “victory”. (3) To know the meaning of a term is to be able to apply it in a socially-created practice of some sort. Concepts are practical abilities, used in our engagement with the world and with each other. There are numerous such practices, including zoology for rabbits and international relations for victories.

    Whether the world contains any actual rabbits or victories is a matter for empirical investigation. It may or it may not. The same is true for the question of whether this actual bit of the world is a rabbit or a victory or whatever. Philosophers should have nothing to say about that sort of question. They are a matter for the relevant experts.

    All this is what I take to be the mainstream Wittgensteinian view. It is best expounded by Patricia Hanna (a Quine expert) and Bernard Harrison (a Wittgenstein expert) in their splendid 2004 book “Word and World”.

    Like

    • Alan

      The view that you are putting certainly seems like it might provide a way of resolving the issues but I am still not quite sure what it implies etc..

      By the way, a review (by Anat Matar) of the book you recommend seems to typify for me so much of the extensive body of literature which constitutes the realism/antirealism debate within the philosophy of language. She praises the book highly but then claims that the authors get their own position totally wrong!

      “If metaphysical realism is, as Putnam puts it, the claim that the world is independent of any particular representation of it, then at the level of the constitution of linguistic practices we confront a world of which metaphysical realism is simply true.” But despite their thoughtful and sincere attempts to explain, in the pages that follow the above quote, why their philosophical proposal can be seen as realist, I think that Hanna and Harrison do not succeed in conferring on their notion of the world the independence needed for a genuine realist position. Their world – I am happy to say, as an anti-realist – is strongly connected to our linguistic practices and cannot be disentangled from them. Indeed, there is no particular representation of the world that “captures” it, hence it may seem that the world is indeed independent of any particular representation of it – but, according to Hanna and Harrison themselves, the world is dependent on the ongoing linguistic practice, as fractured, multi-layered, multi-faceted and even inconsistent as it is. Such a view is, luckily, metaphysical indeed – but it is not a metaphysical realism.

      https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/word-and-world-practices-and-the-foundation-of-language/

      Like

      • I quote Harrison in reply (from a later essay):

        “One cannot indicate which concept a term expresses by, in effect, pointing to the world, precisely because the world is, conceptually speaking, mute. To attach a conceptual content to a term one must, precisely, turn away from the world to elucidate the place of the term in a human practice. But that is not to say that the practices which establish conceptual content are one and all arbitrary constructions of human caprice, in the manner of a mere game, such as chess, or that the world has no say in determining their character and structure. Concepts cannot be correct or incorrect. What they can be, or if natural circumstances change, cease to be, is adapted to and supported by the (extra-conceptual) nature of things.”

        Hope that hits the point.

        Liked by 1 person

        • But surely to talk of an unconceptualised reality is just to invoke Kantian noumenalism, a generic stuff, and it is precisely this that Davidson argues is incoherent. None of the philosophers Dan cites as supporting his anti-realism thought realism involved a commitment to conceptualised reality existing apart from us. Had they thought that, there would have been no reason for them to write as much as they did on the matter, as the refutation would have been indisputably trivial. Essentially, the problem is that if you posit an unfonceptualised nature of things, then it isn’t clear what it even is for language to describe it. Of course, from the point of view of our conceptual scheme we can articulate an alternative which would have done just as well, so in that sense we can say that 2 different concepts can describe the same reality equally well, but that doesn’t mean that there is a view from nowhere, from which God might see the way things REALLY are, apart from our conceptualisations.

          Liked by 1 person

        • In other words, it is a mistake to think that because once we have a conceptual apparatus, we can give an account of how it emerged which is contingent such that we might have had very different ones, doesn’t mean there is a way things are which transcends descriptions. I also don’t see how this view could be considered Wittgensteinian since Wittgenstein claimed that ‘nothing will do as well as a something about which we can say nothing’, which is exactly what the real nature of things would have to be! Also I don’t see how this is compatible with Wittgenstein’s deflationism about truth, since it entails an equivalence between things having a certain nature, and the proposition that they have that nature being true, and there can be no such proposition if we are talking about the non-conceptual nature of things.

          Like

        • Finally, the Quinean view does not entail that our choice of conceptual scheme is a matter of caprice or arbitrary. External constraints on what is a useful or even a usable concept exist, but the facts that constitute those constraints are themselves only statable relative to a conceptual scheme. To insist that anti-realists can’t help themselves to such constraints seems to me to straightforwardly conflate it with some sort of idealism or solipsism.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Hi KM303: Good comments. I hesitate to engage with someone with such a scary name. However …

            My first response is that I really struggled to see what argument Dan was putting forward. I tried to reconstruct it but could not get far. I have the same problem with what you are saying. Maybe you are right that “the facts that constitute those constraints are themselves only statable relative to a conceptual scheme”. But so far it is just a claim, illustrated by a few to me unconvincing examples, backed by some big name allusions.

            Second, you say: “Essentially, the problem is that if you posit an unfonceptualised nature of things, then it isn’t clear what it even is for language to describe it.” What language “describes” is the world as we happen to find it through our engagement with it. It has whatever nature we happen to find out there. How language does this explained further by describing how our investigatory practices work. For example, botany or astronomy. Is there a further problem here?

            As for the interpretation of Wittgenstein, I bow out of that. Bernard Harrison is the man to engage with. See further: https://bernardharrison1.academia.edu

            Like

          • A further clarification. We engage with “the world” as physically embodied agents, not as outsiders, as Cartesian minds, scanning the environment from outside that environment. Our practices are hands on activities. So there is no deep problem about how we describe the world. We do it by devising practices that involve intervening physically in the stuff around us. In the first place that concerns finding safe food and water. Later we find it useful to look for ways of classifying things more taxonomically. I don’t think the “God’s eye” issue can even arise for us, since we are not even remotely godlike. But you probably agree on all this.

            Like

          • Kripkensteinsmonster303

            “To insist that anti-realists can’t help themselves to such constraints [i.e. “external constraints” on “what is a useful or even a usable concept”] seems to me to straightforwardly conflate it with some sort of idealism or solipsism.”

            I am uneasy about the claims of certain anti-realist philosophers precisely because I see their stated views as entailing something like idealism (where language stands in for mind as the creative force).

            You say that you accept that “external [to language?] constraints” exist. But you qualify this admission by saying that “the facts that constitute those constraints are themselves only statable relative to a conceptual scheme.”
            You claim that it is “facts” which constitute the constraints. The word “fact” can be used in subtly different ways and has different senses, but generally it is tied to language and what is statable. Characterizing the constraints in this way could, then, be seen to be undercutting/undermining/in conflict with your previous assertion about external constraints (if indeed you meant external to our linguistic claims etc.).

            Like

          • Mark, I see what you mean, but I think you’re confusing the logical dependence of facts upon conceptual frameworks with the causal dependence of the external world on the existence of linguistic practices. Someone who accepts the latter cannot accommodate the idea of a physical reality prior to the emergence of language using animals except perhaps by invoking Berkley’s God, and even that seems dubiously compatible with the private language argument, since what would it even be for God to teach us His language? On the other hand, the metaphysical anti-realist can comfortably talk about a time when there were no conceptualisers, while maintaining that once we have established that the descriptions of it that presuppose a particular scheme are true, there is no further question as to what it was really like, apart from any conceptualisation.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Alan, thanks for the link! I’m no Wittgenstein exegete, but my understanding of him is that he was a metaphysical anti-realist, and that his views fit in quite nicely with Quinean relativism, although it’s entirely possible I’ve read my own views into him.
            I agree entirely with what you say about how we describe the world, but given my comments about constraints I don’t see any incompatibility between it and anti-realism. The issue as I see it is this: you say that there is a way the world is apart from any conceptualisation, and that naturally invites the question of what that nature is. But if you’re serious about it being unconceptualised, then I don’t see what could count as an answer. Metaphysical realism seems to be committed to the idea of there being a way things are from no particular point of view, hence the remark about how God would see things, but such facts would not be statable in any human language, and would have nothing to do with our actual epistemic practices.
            Peter Hacker has a great paper on the idea that there is something it is like to have any experience, where he exposes its incoherence by simply pointing out that if this were so, we could ask, what is it like? But in many cases there simply is no answer. And while the analogy is imperfect, I guess my concern is similar inasmuch as I think realism entails the coherence of questions which can have no answer.

            Liked by 1 person

  26. Mark,
    What a long strange trip, it’s been, the past couple weeks!

    Your closing remarks on your own essay provided ample evidence of a couple of my claims – for instance, that you have an ideological bias, that you refuse to admit is an ideological bias. It is not simply a “position” for which you argue (and I think Dan is right, that you have provided little argument here)’ but of course you think you are so right in this position that you believe it almost self-evident that other positions must be wrong. But your attack on other positions is to question their motivations, Apparently yours has no motivation?

    No – except to press forward your now evident scientistic grand narrative, which will eventually change the very nature of academic society (and I suppose of society – will we all be talking about neurons shooting off in our brains, rather than of love or disappointment, as some scientismmists have suggested?

    I tried to draw your evident biases to their logical conclusions, despite being father than you would accept, in order to shake you awake to how your presentation might be read, and the consequences of that.

    The scientististic thinkers you admire, eg. Rosenberg, do not value the literary tradition you do, and in their perfect world, it would be cancelled out.

    I’ll set aside Sellars’ two images argument, since you’re not going to engage in it anyway. I will say, in the strongest terms possible, that the scientistic notion that much of the humanities, eg, for instance, literature, is mere entertainment (‘enjoyment and pleasure” is disgusting; and further, it is not what your scientistic avatars believe – they believe – or at least argue – that’s it’s entirely pointless. (You want your cake and eat it. They don’t.)

    It is certainly a form of knowledge of the concrete social reality of its day; as such it is an important document in history.

    But beyond that it is also part and parcel of our social reality (which you deny because of your assumption that “there is only one reality” – which happens to be true, but not in the way that you think.

    One of the benefits of the arguments of Quine and Davidson – which you say “have been refuted by others” (which I can find no trace of, since meaningful criticism of either has engaged the same basic language and assumptions of both) – is that the stereoscopic vision of reality Sellars argues for actually coexists with Davidson’s anti-dualistic destruction of scheme=content distinctions, and Quine’s web-of-belief arguments. Reality is both mechanistic on the level of physical events, and motivated on the level of social events. That’s because we are not just brain activity, not reducible to our electro-chemistry. Science cannot tell us all we need to know of reality. History is not determined by the hard evidence – whatever that might mean (and I still don’t know what you mean by that, although I now accept that you have done some proper reading of history). It is constructed by interpretation.

    And it doesn’t matter if the interpretation is not to your liking (and thus must be subverted by your hermeneutics of suspicion). Most people don’t care what is to your liking or not.

    I’ve always found that annoying. But I always read history (or historical biography, which is all i read these days) knowing that my hopes for a perfect congruence between what I believe and the history, and people who participated in it is largely impossible.

    The processes of what we know as evolution were determined as objects of study by human beings, You mention photographs and measurement – entirely social constructs, human inventions. ,Nothing was ever “a foot long” until invention of the 12 inch ruler Which required invention of the inch.

    Your skepticism of historical narrative is the very font of post-modern relativism. You can’t see that, but it is the case, nonetheless. We can distrust ‘grand narratives’ (including yours) – but if we distrust narratives just as such (or because they don’t adhere to what we want from them) – we have no history to talk about. And no need to pay attention to the literary texts of the past.

    Do you want your cake? or eat it? you can’t do both, sorry..

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Rorty (1981) states the question, if not a solution:

    “why our criteria of successful inquiry are not just our criteria but also the right criteria, nature’s criteria, the criteria which will lead us to the truth. If this motive is finally given up, then philosophy of language is simply ‘pure’ Davidsonian semantics, a semantics which does not depend upon mirror-imagery, but which, on the contrary, makes it as difficult as possible to raise philosophically interesting questions about meaning and reference.”

    We accept the “no miracles” argument about efficacy of many of the sciences, in pragmatic terms but also in the terms of the sciences as rational activities that have criteria for good and for erroneous models. Sure this is harder for the historical sciences, both physical (cosmology say) and social, but we use the correctness of prediction in the face of newly acquired facts as one such test. Is our conceptual world tangled up with the “outside” world? By necessity, otherwise it wouldn’t have any sense. Is history an outside world? The point is we try to understand “what our ancestors were talking about” (Rorty again) using exactly the same tools of rationality we apply in a law court, a laboratory, doing a mathematical proof, or reading a PKD novel. One reading of Davidson, according to Turner, is that he had:

    “established the necessity of some sort of logical or rational core to human thought that is transcultural or culturally invariant by showing that translatability was transitive…Davidson’s explicit denial that there was ‘a neutral ground, or a common coordinate system’ between schemes, was taken to rule out an independent realm of ‘content,’ but it was not taken to rule out an independent realm consisting of a common ‘scheme.'” Many see this either in terms of collective intentionality or norms of rationality. These are not necessarily realist solutions, of course.

    Like

    • Who is the ‘we’ that accepts the no miracles argument for scientific realism? Plenty of philosophers of science reject it.
      I think the point about Davidson’s views on translation and language are spot on, though. If correct, they make realism unnecessary for avoiding the sort of wild relativism associated with Rorty

      Like

      • Hi KM303 – “Plenty of philosophers…” is the type of statement Dan complained about above. We can find plenty on both sides, as per the PhilPapers Survey:
        “Accept or lean toward: non-skeptical realism 82%; scientific realism 75%; Non-Humean Laws of nature 57%”. But I will happily remove you from the “we” list 😉

        Like

  28. kripkensteinsmonster303

    “I see what you mean, but I think you’re confusing the logical dependence of facts upon conceptual frameworks with the causal dependence of the external world on the existence of linguistic practices.”

    I am doing nothing of the sort! I totally accept this distinction. It is at the heart of my thinking on the matter.

    What you seem to be referring to is this statement of mine: “I am uneasy about the claims of certain anti-realist philosophers precisely because I see their stated views as entailing something like idealism (where language stands in for mind as the creative force).”

    It is perfectly clear what I am saying. And the point was not only to explain the root of my concerns but also to get a clear statement from you with respect to your position on the idealism question.

    (I note a previous comment of yours: “Isn’t metaphysical anti-realism a kind of idealism? While it involves no reduction of everything to mind, nor the idea that everything causally depends on conscious perception for its existence, a la Berkeley, it does mean that the existence of any thing is relative to a particular framework, and frameworks are not Platonic Forms that we discover, but rather systems of linguistic rules made up by people seeing things from a point of view.”)

    Your reply to me provides some clarification:

    “Someone who accepts the [causal dependence of the external world on the existence of linguistic practices] cannot accommodate the idea of a physical reality prior to the emergence of language using animals…”

    Yes. And I am glad to see that you explicitly reject this view and accept the existence of a past physical reality.

    Like

  29. KM303: You say, above: “The issue as I see it is this: you say that there is a way the world is apart from any conceptualisation, and that naturally invites the question of what that nature is. But if you’re serious about it being unconceptualised, then I don’t see what could count as an answer.”

    I don’t see why the actual nature of natural things (as shown, for example, by the Periodic Table) should be related to any actual conceptual system. Let’s suppose that Yttrium is an actual element. No-one knew this until 1828. Before that all our conceptual systems were faulty in that respect. That we now have a conceptual system that matches that fact about the real world is a contingent truth. All our conceptual systems are related to the natural world only contingently.

    Things are different for the social world. Our social relations are governed by our conceptual systems. A rook in chess is whatever the concept “rook” determines it to be.

    Like

    • Correction: it was correctly isolated in 1843, not 1828. I’m sure many readers already knew that.

      Like

    • I think your Yttrium example misses the point.

      If we go back far enough, the elements were earth, water, air and fire. Nobody was making the kind of distinction that we make today when we talk of elements.

      You example of Yttrium is more an issue of naming than an issue of conceptualizing.

      Like

      • Why do you saying it is “naming” rather than “conceptualising”?

        “If we go back far enough, the elements were earth, water, air and fire. Nobody was making the kind of distinction that we make today when we talk of elements.”

        True, but so what? I can’t see what sort of argument you are offering.

        Like

        • If you go back to around the time when Yttrium was discovered, people already had concept of element that would apply. So that fits with what you say is “the actual nature of natural things”. All that was missing was its discovery and name. But if you go back to the time of Aristotle, there was no comparable concept, and what we call elements today would not have been thought to fit the nature of natural things.

          Like

          • Neil: If you don’t like my Yttrium example, here are a few other 19C inventions: “gene”, “dinosaur”, “electromagnetic radiation”, “electron”, “cumulus”. Science progresses through conceptual inventions that match discoveries.

            Like

    • So, do you think it possible to describe the nature of things without invoking a conceptual scheme? Because if not my point about ineffability stands.

      Like