My Philosophical Temperament

By Robert Gressis


I find myself to be a realist. By ‘find myself’, I mean that, despite sometimes wanting to not be a realist, I keep on returning to Realism, basically on the grounds that I don’t understand any kind of Anti-Realism.

My lack of understanding can be encapsulated in the following kind of argument:

[1] Whenever anyone formulates any version of Anti-Realism, they can’t help but to think that their own version of Anti-Realism is true rather than false.

[2] In thinking this, they commit themselves to Realism.

[3] Therefore, it’s impossible to formulate any version of Anti-Realism that doesn’t immediately collapse into Realism.

I like this argument. It persuades me. Or at least, it describes how I think, and perhaps even how I can’t help but think. But it’s usually not convincing to other people. Unless someone else is already a realist (and sometimes, not even then), they don’t find arguments like this persuasive or useful.

If I manage to corner someone and ask them why the argument is unconvincing, they will point out that the problem with the argument is premise [2]. And premise [1]. Let me go through the problems with each.

First, the problems with premise [2]: Imagine you’re a pragmatist, and you think that what makes a claim worthy of being described as “true” is that it “works.” Then, I ask you whether Pragmatism is itself true. We’ll have this little dialogue:

PRAGMATIST: Um … yes, dude. Pragmatism is itself true, i.e., Pragmatism itself works.

ROB: But is it true that Pragmatism works?

PRAGMATIST: Yes, it’s true. Because Pragmatism works, it follows that it’s true that it works.

ROB: But how do you know it works?

PRAGMATIST: The same way I know anything. I use my brain. I interpret things, I explain things, and I predict things. And Pragmatism passes all my tests better than any other view.

ROB: Yes, but is it true that it passes all those tests better than any other view?

PRAGMATIST: Give it a rest. We can play this game all day. The longer we play it, the more it will stay the same. You, the realist, interpret all my utterances of “true” according to your own theory of truth – probably the correspondence theory. And I’m going to interpret all my utterances of “true” according to my own, pragmatist theory of truth. And there will never be any point where I’m forced to use your interpretation, nor will there be any point where you’ll be forced to use my interpretation. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go have some of the Clams Casino.

Second, the problems with premise [1] Another dialogue:

ANTI-REALIST: the Realism/Anti-Realism debate is a debate in meta-philosophy, not philosophy. In other words, it’s an argument about how to understand first-order philosophical claims. But it does not itself take place in the realm of first-order philosophical claims. So, even if I end up saying something like, “‘true’ just means “works,” it doesn’t follow that this claim is supposed to apply to itself!

ROB: Why isn’t it a first-order claim? It sure looks like one to me! And in any case, don’t criteria for being true or working apply to second-order claims as much as they do first-order claims?

ANTI-REALIST: It’s not a first-order claim because it’s a claim about first-order claims. That is definitionally a second-order claim. And no, from saying, “when we make first-order claims, the sense in which those claims are true is that they work,” it doesn’t follow that this claim is saying anything about itself. Again, this is literally a second-order claim; a claim making claims about first-order claims. So why on earth would what it says about first-order claims apply to itself?

ROB: No fair! You can’t just say something is a second-order claim, shut up, and then run away. Meta-philosophy is a part of philosophy! So, it has to apply the same logic to itself that it applies to first-order claims!

But alas, when I said this, the anti-realist had already turned around and started watching a Geico ad on his phone.

As I hope to have made clear, I tend to exasperate anti-realists, not because my arguments are so compelling, but because they seem to them so much to miss the point. But I can’t help it!

Or at least, so it seems to me. Maybe I could help it. Maybe if I got the right kind of (philosophical) therapy, then my Realism would lose my grip on me. And the reason I think this is that I notice my attraction to Realism waning or waxing depending on what I think its consequences are.

Now, at first blush, whether Realism or Anti-Realism is true should have exactly the same consequences. After all, they are both meta-philosophical theses meant to explain exactly the same data. They’re not supposed to change the way you do philosophy.

And yet, when I’m attracted to, say, Wittgensteinianism or Pragmatism – which I sometimes am – I think it’s because I believe these meta-philosophies make my religious or ethical views more defensible. If natural science is just one language game among others, and has the same ontological heft as other language-games, then my religious views, or my ethical views, may be just as defensible as natural science. I realize that that consequence doesn’t follow of necessity, but Wittgenstein seemed to be open to it (and G. E. M. Anscombe and Norman Malcolm, both important Wittgensteinians, were both practicing Christians). Similarly, if Pragmatism says that ‘true’ is best understood as meaning “works,” then just so long as my religious and ethical views “work” in some important ways, then they are just as true as my scientific views.

Other times, though, I find Realism much more attractive. For example, imagine that the elites of a society came to believe a particular ideology – it took hold of academia, the establishment media, much of the government, and the employees of many Fortune 500 companies. And imagine further that this ideology was extremely (for lack of a better word) “social constructionist”; it said the following:

[1’] What we think of as true or false about the world is a just a social construct; and it said, further, that …

[2’] social constructs, being constructs, can be constructed differently; and finally, imagine it said that …

[3’] the main determinant of how we should create those constructs depended on their effects – if the way we talk about identity has negative effects on certain marginalized groups, then we should change the way we talk about identity until we get to a way of talking that has positive effects on certain groups.

I realize that it sounds fanciful to think that anything like this could ever happen. Remember, though, it’s just a thought experiment!

Anyway, if something like this happened, I could imagine myself finding Realism extremely attractive. Why, though?

Well, the short answer is: It would give me a way to say that the elite ideology of a society was wrong. I mean, if social constructionism were the “correct” meta-philosophy (whatever that ends up meaning), then I couldn’t say that the elites were wrong. They would win by fiat. And there seems something, well, wrong about that, even as a possibility. It offends my sensibilities. I want the world to be such that everyone could be wrong; because if the world isn’t that way, then I can imagine a state of affairs where someone seized power and then became right, forever.

But there’s another explanation for why thinking of regnant social constructionism makes me find Realism attractive. There’s philosophy as it’s practiced in the ivory tower, and there’s philosophy as it’s practiced in the streets. If you read a debate between Michael Dummett and Crispin Wright about Realism, things will not only be very technical, but also very precise. It will be difficult to understand the views being presented, let alone figure out how we should reinterpret our own practices in light of them. And that’s from a practicing philosopher, who not only was smart enough to get a Ph.D. in philosophy, but who also got a fairly good philosophical education, and has been involved in philosophy for twenty-eight years.

What happens, though, when philosophy moves from the tower to the streets? Things get over-simplified, and very quickly. This is for a few reasons:

  • First, to be good enough at philosophy to grasp it, you have to be smart. The average person, though, is not smart. Nor is he dumb. He is average. Consequently, he won’t be good enough at philosophy to grasp it.
  • Second, even if the average person could grasp philosophy, he wouldn’t have time to get into its intricacies, because he has other things to do with his time. Why try to get into Michael Dummett, or even a dumbed-down Dummett, when you’re tired from working all day? Who wants to go home after work to do more work? (Answer: a few people, but not many!)
  • Third, even if the average person could grasp philosophy, and had time to get into its intricacies, why think he would want to? Even if I’m smart and energetic enough to do philosophy, why do that instead of watch an NBA game, or garden, or jog, or spend time with your family playing Jenga?
  • Fourth, even if the average person could grasp philosophy and had time to and wanted to, he would also have other reasons not to want to. Why try to complicate things with nuanced philosophy when you can take simpler views that people will let you get away with taking? Who wants to be the killjoy at a party who says, “yes, but what do you mean by ‘nachos’?” And even if you like annoying other people, who wants to be the kind of person who is always second-guessing himself, as philosophy will sometimes make you do?

It’s for these reasons that I think that philosophy translates extremely badly when it moves from the heights to the depths. No matter how sophisticated the philosophical devices you give people, and no matter how excellent your instructions, you will discover that when people radically misunderstand you. It’s like you give someone a colander, and they use it as a helmet.

I bring this up because I think that it’s also these reasons that help to explain my wavering attraction to Realism. When Realism becomes de rigueur among people, it manifests as deference to experts. “Follow the science,” says the person who wears a mask when she is outside, by herself, in the middle of Greenland. Similarly, when Anti-Realism becomes the vogue, it manifests as epistemological anarchism. “Let me speak my truth,” says the person who sticks his dick in a light socket.

Now, there’s much more to say about this than I can say. In particular, it’s easy to see that Realism or Anti-Realism loses its shape the more popular it becomes. But, it’s actually not clear to what extent, if any, high-level philosophical positions influence the masses, as opposed to philosophy’s being entirely reactionary. It’s possible, after all, that Hegel is right, and the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of dusk. Moreover, even if philosophy does influence the masses (after all, when the owl flies, people may be able to see it, and so the philosophy at the end of one era may launch the beginning of another era), just how it will do so will probably always be unpredictable. It’s almost as easy to imagine an Anti-Realism that manifests as deference to authorities as it is to imagine one that encourages anarchy. Similarly, you could imagine a Realism that encourages egoistic individualism. Ayn Rand thinks of herself as a realist, and she also encourages egoistic individualism!

So, what’s going on here, I think, is that my temperament is doing a lot of work. But it’s worth spending at least a little bit of time on what a philosophical temperament is.

The outlines of how I think about philosophical temperament can be discovered in what I’ve written above. For one thing, philosophical temperament helps to explain the philosophical strategies that one finds attractive. In my case, I like transcendental arguments: “In order to believe P, you must assume Q; you can’t help but to believe P; so you can’t help but be committed to Q.” I also like genealogical arguments: “It looks like you believe P for reasons R1…R­3, when you’re in circumstances C1, but when you’re in circumstances C2, you believe ~P for reasons R4…R6; consequently, it’s probably your circumstances rather than your reasons that explain why you believe P or ~P.” The fact that I like both of these strategies is, in fact, unsurprising, for they interact with each other in appealing ways. Transcendental arguments are, if correct, inescapable. Consequently, if I can find a transcendental argument for a conclusion, then I don’t have to worry so much about the genealogical argument that tells me why I really believe that conclusion.

My philosophical temperament also covers the philosophical positions I find attractive. When it comes to ontology, I find desert landscapes (as Quine put it) attractive. And I also find revisionary metaphysics (as Peter Strawson put it) attractive. Again, these two points of view complement each other: following commonsense doesn’t lead to a desert, but rather a fairly verdant field. And of course, one way to revise commonsense is to desert-ize the verdant field. (Perhaps this explains why I’m attracted to Berkeleyian idealism, and interpret Kant as a kind of Berkeleyian.)

But your philosophical temperament also covers your fears. Despite my taste for ontological deserts, I also fear stripping away all that’s meaningful in life and reducing it to matter in motion. Iain McGilchrist would say that I fear the dominance of left-brain thinking, though it’s kind of perplexing that I do, because I’m also fearful of not having explanations for things. Denying the principle of sufficient reason is anathema to me: there must, finally, be an explanation for things. All things. No brute facts, thank you very much.

The Realism I endorse makes things come full circle when I reflect on my temperament, for thinking about my temperament makes me worry about just how damned contingent all my beliefs are. Perhaps I wouldn’t have remained a Catholic if hadn’t gone to a Catholic university, or if I had experimented more with drugs and alcohol at a younger age. Perhaps if I’d had different teachers, or read things in a different order, I would have ended up with different positions.

Against this, I want to say, “Sure, but my temperament isn’t purely a product of the environment, but also of my nature. And my genetics constrain, to some obscure degree, the kinds of positions I could ever find myself endorsing. So, there is not infinite contingency in what I end up believing.”

That’s true, but the fact that I have the temperament I have is also contingent. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I could have had a different nature – after all, if I had, I wouldn’t have been me, but someone else. No, what I’m saying is that the fact that I have this temperament, informed as it is by nature and environment, is contingent. That means that the positions that seem so true to me, the techniques that seem so secure, are ones that other people don’t find true or secure simply because they have a different temperament.

This helps to explain a position I’ve held in secret for a long time (don’t worry; it’s not a scandalous position – it’s just weird. I’ve never announced it because it’s never come up): individualistic epistemological relativism. According to this position, some philosophical positions are live options for you and some are not, and this is because of your temperament. Now, some positions are right and some are wrong. But if you have the wrong temperament, then it may be that you can never arrive at the right position. This is at least a possibility. And if that’s true, so much the worse for you.

But you can still aim at justification. That is, one of your epistemological goals is to find the positions that, given your temperament, are the most justifiable. This makes philosophy individualistic and even existential, and so it is, to that degree, somewhat Wittgensteinian. But it’s also got a realist element to it: you may still reason badly—objectively badly—within the sphere of your contingent but unavoidable priors.

I think this position is really right, and right for everyone (though some people, because of their temperaments, may be cut off from accepting it). But anyway, it’s my first stab at exploring the importance of philosophical temperament from the realist point of view that I find myself temperamentally inclined to endorse.  


†Arguably, even if Pragmatism (and note: the social constructionism I presented above is just one form of Pragmatism) is right, everyone could be wrong. Maybe everyone has criteria according to which something counts as working, and everyone agrees that such-and-such state of affairs works, but in fact it doesn’t work according to the criteria everyone has. So, everyone is wrong. But where do the criteria come from? And what if people just picked criteria that allowed them to interpret everything as working?

‡ Ordering effects matter too. If the first arguments from analogy you’re exposed to are really weak, then you may become significantly more suspicious of arguments from analogy in general than if the first such arguments you’re exposed to are really strong.


54 responses to “My Philosophical Temperament”

  1. Very interesting. I think though the need to invoke first vs second order and temperament comes from trying to handle too many questions at once: a realist notion of truth as correspondence; and a realist notion of the objects of knowledge as what obtains independent of our cognition (so “true” is “true of actual stuff.) Social constructivist antirealism has a real hard time explaining if there was “a way the universe was” before human society was around to construct anything. The “foundational” question, can we know that the totality of our knowledge (taken collectively) truly represents its objects is indeed incapable of a noncircular answer. But from a naturalist perspective there is no reason to doubt we are mostly right about a lot of stuff, and there is an explanation for why that is so: evolution. So a fallible realism seems not to have much trouble.

  2. Our yet-to-be-released Sophia dialogue on this got me thinking about your challenge, and so does this excellent piece. Isn’t my pragmatism – that insists that the best we can ever do, and all we need to do, is find beliefs that work best when put to the various tests -itself a truth claim in the realist sense?

    I can see some force to that idea, and that’s maybe why I do not follow some pragmatists – like Rorty – who say that we can abandon metaphysics. We all have a metaphysics, and even a view that says that our relation to the world is such that we cana do without metaphysics is still ultimately a metaphysical view of some sort, a description of the world that presents itself as correct.

    But I guess I see a sort of ‘error theory’ analogy here. We can’t help but see our own view of things as the true one in a sort-of realist sense, otherwise we’d not have it. I can, however, say that I have strong reasons to think that when we do this – claim to know what the world is like in that realist sense, we are doing more than we have a right to claim we can do. This in the way that I am fully convinced – via a scientific understanding – that the color I see on the wall is not literally on the wall. It is a complex interaction between the wall’s texture, my eyes, and the light waves that travel between the two. So, when someone talks about the color on the wall, or when I see that color on the wall, I have reason to think it is an error, a byprduct of how we inevitably experience color. But despite “knowing” that, I cannot cease to see the color as anywhere but “on” the wall.

    In a similar way, I agree with you that if we really dig into my psyche by pulling out my brains, breaking them apart with a rusty spoon, and interrogating the bits of brain matter (maybe that is going too far…), we’d find that I DO think that pragmatism truly describes our relationship to the world. But that I am human and maybe fated to have convictions I think are true (in a realist sense) doesn’t mean I don’t also hae strong reasons to think that that feeling is better described as a sense that the view works for me better than rivals, that I wrongly take as something more?

    But is that, you will ask, true? I’d just answer that by asking it, maybe we reveal how stuck we are in a language game that we can’t get fully out of but nevertheless can call into question as anything but a quirk of our psychology.

  3. What i said above, by the way, is also why I have a preferred response to the so-called self-referential problem within pragmatism and similar views. I fess up to it, shrug my shoulders, and remind folks that my view of things is not calibrated to satisfy the rules of consistency that are only valid in philosophy classrooms.

    “But isn’t your denial of truth in a realist sense itself a realist statement of truth?”
    “I don’t think so. But if you do, I’ll just fess up to it. Great, I’m incoinsistent on that point. Why does it matter?”
    “Well, it matters because inconsistency indicates a wrong belief.”
    “Okay, what about the sprawling and messy kluge that we call the human brain – with its lengthy and evolutionary history – gives you the strange impression that it evolved to produce beliefs and belief systems that were internally consistent?”
    The answer is usually something about formal logic, which just begs the entire question I think I clarified was at issue.

  4. Jay Jeffers

    Interesting essay. A lot to chew on. The early part in particular is too good for me to pass up, which of course might just be my philosophical temperament.

    I do feel like your performative contradiction objection to anti-realism seems a little too quick. But there’s a good chance we’ll get stuck in the same sort of argumentative loop you sketched in your piece. So, I’ll try to see if I can get around it here.

    Anti-realism can be thought of as a weak claim, in the sense that weak claims can still have a kind of sturdy justification. To analogize to the everyday, if a person on a hike with friends said, “Wow that’s a beautiful bridge,” but that all person’s friends responded, “what bridge?” then there would be a disagreement about the realism of the alleged bridge. The friends don’t see a bridge, and don’t see why one would have been put in anywhere around where they were hiking. They could prod and ask if the bridge realist was using the term figuratively or loosely, but let’s say the bridge realist insisted that she meant the term in a completely literal, conventional, modern sense.

    The bridge realist could say “Well are you saying it’s TRUE that there’s no bridge there??” I don’t think it would cost the bridge anti-realists very much to simply say, “yes,” so long as that yes were taken to mean something like “the conditions that would make it warranted to believe that there’s a bridge there are not met.”

    Now, I’m not saying the anti-realists in this example are correct, and there is a disanalogy there somewhere, because the anti-realist hikers are denying the reality of the bridge in a much more everyday sense than anti-realist philosophers deny realism. The only point I’m making is that the bridge anti-realist hikers are not advancing an **incoherent** position by denying the bridge and accepting other things as having a kind of reality, even if you and me were to take a hike out there and see the bridge in question.

    It could be that we’re dealing with different forms/strengths of anti-realism, or perhaps we’re approaching anti-realism at different levels. In any case, I don’t tend to take anti-realism as some sort of global rejection of intellectual sensibility. In other words, I would have thought that one can be an anti-realist while still believing that we’re equipped to evaluate whether a certain kind of justification holds. Of course, if anti-realism is the position that we hold no such capability at all, then of course you’d have a gotcha objection on that conceptual level.

    So, maybe in your view the anti-realists don’t have a full intellectual right to intellectual sensibility, having rejected realism. This might be correct, I don’t know, but it at least feels a little further along than denying the anti-realist the right to coherently deny things. In other words, maybe I would understand the argument better if it were moved to the level of whether realism is necessary to make the kind of judgements anti-realists are making of the world, what anti-realists are helping themselves to that they haven’t paid for and how realism makes those purchases more legitimately, etc. But that’s a lot to talk about, so I’ll take this exchange as a good day’s work.


  5. Hi Robert: I think there are more than two possibilities here. A third option is anti-realism or pragmatism about concepts, and realism about truth. A fourth position is realism about concepts and anti-realism about truth, but leave that aside.

    The third option seems to me to capture what is attractive about pragmatism, while allowing one to retain a robust and scientific sense of reality. Concepts have no truth value. They are not reflections of reality. Rather, they serve our purposes as rational language-users. In that sense they “work”. They are also the constituents of the propositions by means of which we can describe real states of affairs. But truth and falsity apply to propositions and not to the concepts that are the components of propositions.


  6. It seems humility is in order.

    Given humanity’s evident individual differences, we should not assume that what’s real for us is necessarily real for all. In pragmatic terms, what works for me does not necessarily work for you. However, given a shared external reality and the fact that there is a high degree of human similarity (over 99% base pair congruity in our genetic code), it is not unreasonable to seek common truths or a common shared reality. In pragmatic terms, there are certain things that work for everyone.

    In other words, “individualistic epistemological relativism” should be balanced with shared epistemological absolutism. Both perspectives are needed and each is at an extreme. Perhaps reality may be best accessed by a group coming together than by any individual by themselves.

    Society of necessity is built on a shared reality and what works for all. This requires an individual humbly listening to the perspective of other temperaments and being epistemologically flexible enough to see reality from that perspective and perhaps even changing one’s own reality to incorporate the view of others into one’s own reality for the sake of coming together. That’s certainly what works for society.

    In other words, epistemologically – it takes a village.

  7. Bharath

    Realism vs anti-realism seems to me a classic example of a philosophical debate without any consequences. It’s a debate over which words have emotional resonance for different people. For some truth feels authoritarian, while for others giving up on truth feels authoritarian. Is there a fact of the matter one way or the other? One can be a skeptical realist who is very open to others who have different views or interests, and one can be a dogmatic anti-realist who forces on everyone his ideas of what works in practice.

    What seems important is a virtue of balancing openness and critical thinking, and there is much to explore and debate on this. But when it gets framed as a metaphysical question, the practical virtue is covered over with abstract theory which doesn’t add much. It’s like having a conversation over how to load the dishwasher in the mode of a debate team with pro and con sides, assuming that the debate team format makes the conversation more rigorous. But it can only give a form of rigor without any further clarity and instead making things murkier.

  8. I think that the arguments against realism aren’t so much “realism doesn’t make any sense” but rather “realism gets you into conceptual confusions” or “realism means that ordinary folks are massively deceived” or something like that. But I should say, I’m no expert in this literature. I’ve been trying to do some catch-up on it after I submitted the article. I have also learned that a lot of my thinking about the realism/anti-realism debate comes from Peter van Inwagen’s chapter on it from his book, _Metaphysics_ (the chapter is called “Objectivity”). But I have learned that van Inwagen is thought of by some (or at least: by one philosopher) to be an extreme realist.

  9. That’s very interesting. It reminds me of Bart Streumer’s book, _Unbelievable Errors_, according to which error-theory-about-ALL-normativity is true, but also that we cannot believe error-theory-about-ALL-normativity.

    It strikes me that if you’re going to go that route w/r/t pragmatism that you have to have a pretty strong argument for why we ought to be pragmatists. Is it going to be something like “realism is literally self-contradictory”?

  10. I feel like this is above my pay grade, which is sad, because this is literally the kind of work I’m paid to do.

    But anyway, “the conditions that would make it warranted to believe that there’s a bridge there are not met.”

    To assert/believe X, there have to be conditions that make it warranted to assert/believe X.

    I mean … I’m just going to very quickly and annoying ask, “what makes one warranted when one describes the conditions or warrant?”

  11. I’m trying to figure out what this gets you, as well as how it works. Let’s take an everyday example.

    I have two cats, and I have the concept CAT.

    I assert, “I have two cats.”

    That assertion is true.

    My concept CAT, though–which figures in the true assertion–has no truth-value.

    OK, what might it mean to say that CAT has no truth-value? I mean, I can’t even understand what the sentence, “CAT is true, but WITCH is false” means. You spell this out a bit by saying that concepts do or don’t serve our purposes. So, let’s say the following is true of me:

    I think my cats are the best cats.
    In fact, I think my cats are so good that I don’t want anyone else’s cats to count as full cats or in some cases, as cats at all.
    My purpose is to get everyone to admit that my cats are the most cat-ish cats.
    Luckily for me, I’m a dictator, and I can impose my will on everyone.
    So I pass a law saying that only Avon Meowsdale and Saul Kripkat are cats, and the rest of the things that people have thought are cats are not cats.
    Now, when my friend Chris asserts that he has three cats, is his sentence false?

  12. I’m very tenuously advancing my individualistic epistemology.

    One of the things I want to say is that knowledge is a matter of true and false beliefs. Justification is a matter of how good your evidence is for those beliefs, and that, as a result of individual temperament, some people can’t know things that are true, and will have much better justification for things that are false.

    I agree that people are very similar, and that most beliefs will be ones that people will be able to share. But there may be outliers who just can’t know some things, and this may be especially true when it comes to philosophical beliefs, where the sphere of agreement will be much smaller.

    As I spell out my view, I think maybe it just means that I’m an externalist about knowledge and an internalist about justification.

  13. Bharath, do you think that the realism/anti-realism debate in the philosophy of science is similarly pointless?

  14. Jay Jeffers

    That might actually be helpful, annoying or not. In other words, for some reason pushing arguments to their more abstract level is sometimes clarifying for me. I do suspect at that point you’re meaning something different than the anti-realist and/or quietest means when they say a table (or a bridge or whatever) is really there, or at least you mean something different when you talk about it philosophically. To the extent that I understand it, Rorty and Putnam’s beef was largely over the nature of justification/warrant. Rorty said it was merely sociological, Putnam said it wasn’t.

    We might overlap a bit here, honestly. I’m not sure I agree with Dan or Kevin in total as much as that the performative contradiction argument against anti-realism doesn’t do it for me, at least on this level, but I might be missing something about it.

    I remember Dan writing about how Donald Davidson advanced a sort of realism, but it was of little comfort to the more robust realists because it was a kind of “no-choice-but” realism. I remember finding that attractive.

    So maybe I’m more amenable to a straight assertion that anti-realists lack the resources to say that something is really there, and for that to be fleshed out in a way that favors realists. Maybe the reason I’m not as moved by the performative contradiction objection to anti-realism is that I don’t find my own realism to be much to write home about either. It’s a bit like how I actually believe in causation and find that induction really does penetrate something real, but I also find Hume’s objections so powerful that I don’t put a fine point on my causation realism, or whatever you’d call it. That is, I push it back to an even weaker level of realism, and eventually it’s watered down enough that it makes one adopt a live and let live approach to anti-realists.

    I’m meandering, so I’ll just say that I think at some point the process stops because the anti-realist and/or quietest will simply claim not to know what you mean when you ask if something is ***really*** there. They will give you a description as if your question is everyday rather than philosophical and ask you to be satisfied with that. I’m probably just somewhat more satisfied with that answer than you, but I do feel the force of your overall objection a bit too. I’m a world-class squish.

  15. The concept “cat” belongs to all of us. You have the concept as one of us, not as you the individual. Thus, you can’t dictate to others the meaning of the term.

    Putin may call his war a “special military operation” but to the rest of the world it is a war. It fulfils all the standard criteria of being a war. All the implications of it being a war follow, whether or not he calls it a special military operation.

    Concepts are formed not by dictatorial fiat but by shared agreement. The really are social constructions. This is “the truth in anti-realism”.

    Your reply rests on a radical individualism. But if concepts worked the way you say they do, we would not have language. More importantly, you miss the way in which concepts are grounded in social practices.

  16. Bharath

    Great question. Had to think about that. But first a clarification. I don’t think the realism vs anti-realism debate re truth is pointless. I think there is no right answer and the metaphysical articulation of the issue misses what seems pressing about it, which is usually a practical issue about dogmatism or coercion, etc. In general, any conversation anyone wants to have has a point if the people having it find it interesting. Paraphrasing Wittgenstein, if someone scratches an itch, that’s not pointless.

    In philosophy of science, the metaphysical and practical are more fused together because the practical issues are themselves very theoretical. Are atoms real or are they only ways of talking about experimental data? To me as a lay person this has no practical upshot one way or the other. But should I actually believe there are these tiny things which make up the universe? Again, this is moot since my believing in atoms is entirely based on the practical issue of my trusting physicists as knowing more than I do. There is no special non-physicist metaphysical sense of “real” which I as a non-physicist share with physicists. As if physicists talk about atoms qua physicists but I talk about atoms qua objects that anyone can talk about.

    In cases where philosophy of science is important and insightful (Is the many world interpretation of quantum mechanics right? Is natural selection explanatory? etc), the practical issues have to do with live options for research in those sciences. The upshot of the metaphysical questions are things like which research programs to favor, which new questions to ask, which old ones to forget about, and so on.

    In Newton’s time when physics was natural philosophy, the research practical questions and the metaphysical questions had an intuitive connection because physicists, philosophers and lay intellectuals all roughly moved in same circles. The metaphysical questions had live practical resonances which they were all familiar with. As physics spun off from philosophy, and then biology and then psychology, etc, the metaphysical questions lost those practical resonances. A non-physicist asking “what is the nature of time?” and Einstein asking “what is time?” in relativity theory aren’t really asking the same question, or scratching the same itch. I think this is the key insight of early analytic philosophy: surface grammar misleads. There is no uber metaphysical question “what is time?” which incorporates both Augustine’s discussion and Einstein’s. Just as there is no uber question “What is truth?” independent of the different kinds of truths we care about: family truths, physical truths, economic truths, emotional truths, personal truths, horrible truths, etc.

  17. I feel a bit reluctant to get too involved, but isn’t one point that most people are anti-realist (and/or error theorist) about something (the M’s, fictions etc), including the “average person”. The bifurcation thesis is that there is somewhere sensible we can cut (and the various global anti-Realisms that there ain’t). As for truth, coming from the scientific side, it seems to me that there is only more or less incorrect – the phrase “contrite fallibilism” is not quite cover the quantitative (and mathematical) nature of model adequacy.

  18. Jay Jeffers

    A real quick thing to add on this before I jump off for a few days. I’ll check back but might not be able to reply. That’s one good thing about comment threads at EA: they don’t go on forever.

    I only studied philosophy formally as an undergrad but have maintained a hobbyist level interest over the years, so take this with a grain of salt as I sketch where I’m coming from in a bit more of a responsive fashion, rather than simply saying the performative contradiction objection doesn’t do it for me. The most I can probably do here is lay out a roadmap without much depth or explanation.

    So, I’m not denying that you have *some* level of force behind your prodding here, it’s just that in my experience with philosophy, any endeavor at finding ultimate resolution or answers to perennial epistemological questions ends, if it ends at all, anti-climactically. If I’m right about that, then it’s not so much that realist concerns have no force at all, just that they have about the same force as every other objection once the pain point is reached at some threshold of inquiry. Regardless of the stance in not only metaphysics but also epistemology, it’s either turtles all the way down, or some brute fact or foundation or something. If you’re not paying up on Monday with one view, you’re still paying before the week ends. There’s no way out – that I’ve seen at least (but of course if you had found a way out, I’d be interested in seeing it).

    Many in the quietest and anti-realist camps just abort the mission sooner, because they’ve seen the roadmap or have been to the end of the road or what have you (though I would part ways with a strong quietest claim that the kind of inquiry you’re interested in makes no sense at all). Again, you can delay payment until Friday, but you’re still paying whether you pay on Monday or Friday or anywhere in between.

    In other words, a major part of my concern is that you could do something like you’re doing with truth, perhaps not the exact same thing, but somewhere in the family tree, with any strong view as well, at some point in the discussion. You might not agree with that, but at least in terms of validity, IF I’m right about that, then you could probably agree that it deflates much of the motivation behind trying to tie anti-realism in knots with performative contradiction.

    That’s just a little on how, even if Dan and Kevin are a bit more, I don’t know, deflationary(?) or quietest or Wittgensteinian than me, realist of some stripe that I am, I still don’t feel the tug of the performative contradiction very strongly.

    But I definitely appreciate your essay and it’s gotten us to talking about some cool stuff!

  19. rgressis
    the problem with your hypothetical concerning cats is multifold.

    First, despite the “no matter, never mind” dilemma between Berekley and Hume, and Descartes’ nasty demon, the fact is that no one doubts the existence of physical existants. We can debate the precise definition of what constitutes a “cat” (as, say a member of the family of feline species), or even whether any concept can properly contain the individual, but no one doubts that there is that hairy/ furry entity sitting at the window; nor that we generally, and by common agreement, call it “cat.” Some philosophers make this a point of contention, because such disagreement seems to have implications for modern science; but modern scientists seem to have no problem with it. There’s the entity, we call it “cat.” is that a metaphysical claim or a physical claim or a nominal claim on a “web of belief?” Ultimately, it just doesn’t matter. Until there is further scientific research we can trust into the species and its individual manifestations, we call it: “a cat.” So what.

    But matters change profoundly when we take this problem into the social realm. Suppose Donald Trump is declared President-for-life (which is unfortunately possible); and he issues a proclamation, institutitionalized by a fascist Republican Congress, that only white (fundamentalist) Christians can be considered “Citizens of America” (Not of “the United States,” a title fascist Americans rarely use, since they hold that only states dominated by Republican governors and legislatures are “free states.”) So, if this law is upheld by a fascist-Trump appointed Supreme Court, has it effectively defined the citizenship of Americans (and the non-citizenship of those not so defined)? The answer, sadly, unfortunately, is ‘yes.’ Citizenship is defined under and by the constitution, written (or unwritten but traditional and assumed) of the society in question. And we have historic examples of this in the arduous effort to recognize African Americans as American citizens, and the removal of all rights of citizenship from Jews in Nazi Germany.

    Now the realist wants to say, the Nazis were simply wrong to do this. And the effect and result of this was horrific. But they were not ‘wrong’ in any political or even ontological sense, because citizenship is a grant of the State. American fascists will talk (and do talk) of “God-given rights,” and this is one reason they insist (as they do insist) that only (white) (fundamentalist) Christian Nationalists should be considered American citizens. But the concept of citizenship, and its application is not of metaphysical necessity but merely of contextual exigency. (I use these examples because I had to suffer the rantings of a conspiracy-theorist fascist appointed by my employer to deliver recent corporate structural changes concerning vacation time to my local office.)

    Fascists and fundamentalist religionists enjoy a primitive realist/ correspondent epistemology: If it is congruent with their beliefs, it must be true – and the true and the real are indistinguishable. If a Texas militia blogger with a Ukrainian wife is trusted, and he has a dream that the Ukraine massacres were conducted by Ukrainians Putin is saving the world from, this must be true, because the dream results from the impression through correspondence of the whole situation completely and accurately on his mind. (I’m not kidding! This is actually what he said!)

    I like the term Pragmatism; “anti-realism” implies that this is merely an opposition to a norm. The norm is that the world is stranger than we imagine, and stranger than we can imagine; and often stranger than we would care to imagine. I know some here would like to pretend that I am overreacting to the margin. But Donald Trump is not on any margin – he is a former President, and he may yet be President again. And nobody and no agency has done anything yet to hold him accountable for his known crimes.

    Pragmatically speaking the answer to this problem is practical politics. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted before, we are in the midst of a ‘cold civil war’ that only one side knows we’re fighting. (And the other side has guns.)

  20. rgressis
    So, the benefit of pragmatism socially is that it includes a healthy dose of skepticism. One reason fascists now knee-jerk discediting “mainstream media,” is because they were raised to believe that the Media brought them the truth realistically. Of course this was nonsense, and fascists hammered it into their brains that this was nonsense, while assuring them that their own sources (Fox News, etc., ) brought them “reality.”

    There’s no reality in the media, and there never was. Pragmatic regard for any media information is necessarily skeptical. I don’t “know,” I only have probabilities to consider, and we all do. If one person says that Ukrainians were massacred by other Ukrainians, and ten say they were murdered by Russians, the probability (contingent on further discovery) is that they were murdered by Russians. But the primitive realism of the fascists assures him that the testimony of the one witness – more congruent with his or her beliefs – must be true.

    That’s your real problem – Realism cannot adquately account for probability and probability based skepticism. There are many matters, both scientific and social, about which we will never “know” – never have certainty. Fascism and religious fundamentalism promise certainty – that is their attraction; that is their damnation.

  21. Jesse Tatum

    Alan —

    I don’t think Robert is “missing” that “concepts are grounded in social practices”.

    I think it’s possible that you may be missing the fact that social practices can occur and be agreed on in the first place because of something like the unity and regularity with which the cosmos, so to speak, presents concepts to us, concepts that we can then turn into practices.

    In other words, you’ve reversed the analysis. Shouldn’t you be thinking your way from how it can be the case that something like the concept, or Idea, of CAT can arise at all, i.e., an Idea that cats themselves are instances of? As opposed to working from, say, the current use of the word “cat” in a proposition?

    If you work in that order instead, then it starts to seem as if Robert’s realism makes a lot of sense (though I don’t wish to put words in his mouth here).

  22. Rob,

    Yes, there are several arguments that I think have convinced me to see truth claims in in a pragmatic (and therefore, ‘antirealist’ in some sense) light. First is the utter unsatisfactoriness and seeming impossibility of the correspsondence theory of truth (of a kind that I really think one needs at some level to be a realist). I just don’t see how we can or should expect correspondence given the physiological and cognitive equipment we have (and our likely evolutionary history). (For instance, I think it implausible that we evolved to sense truth; I think it more likely that we evolved to survive in the word and any attempt at saying what truth is is subordinate to that, meaning that it is truths are beliefs that work in aiding our survival.)

    Second, it is really hard to think what we are doing is sketching accurate views of the real world given the diversity we see see among human sketches of that world. If we think there is a truth ‘out there’ about what the world is like, we’d have to suppose that all or near all of us are thoroughly off the mark where a few (if any) of us are the annointed ones. I think the better explanation is that we create different interpretations of the world – different ways of conceiving of it – and use the imperfect and itself diverse standard of “does it work better than the others?” as our way of checking our work. That latter explalnation seems entirely more compatible with the diversity of worldviews than any realist one.

    Lastly – and this is an argument I picked up onlly after I convinced myself of pragmatism – we do not need to do more than arrive at beliefs that work better and better. There is no value added by then saying “and this belief also describes reality as it really is.” Reality as it works for us to describe it does all that is necessary for us to do.

  23. Gottlob+Frege

    Realism does not entail or require incorrigible knowledge. You can be a realist and agree that justification is largely a matter of degree, and then unpack that in terms of some internalist or externalist theory of justification.

  24. Hi Jesse: Thanks for this reply. It’s the sort of reply that I thought Robert might make (but he didn’t). Here’s my response.

    I’d like to know whether you tacitly implied an “only” in your second sentence? That is, you meant “social practices can occur and be agreed on in the first place *only* because of something like the unity and regularity with which the cosmos, so to speak, presents concepts to us”.

    It’s true that we often track regularities in the concepts we employ. For example, “night” and “day”, the seasons, phases of the moon, right down to basic physics and chemistry. But most concepts don’t track regularities, I think.

    What our concepts track is, in general, our shared human interests. Hence, we distinguish between wars and other similar-but-different phenomena, or between cats and other similar-but-different animals. If we take your view about concepts then it becomes an issue whether these concepts are as fully legitimate as the regularity-tracking concepts. The sort of conceptual pragmatism I am defending takes them to be fully legitimate, and as not awaiting validation from cosmic regularities.

    This view is quite consistent with realism about truth claims, in my view.

  25. Peter

    Can you recommend the book?

  26. I’m talking to Robert right now, and he gives a most enthusiastic “yes.”

  27. Robert Gressis

    What does Oy mean? Is this a reference to my favorite 1980s Australian, Jocko?

  28. Maybe one half of “Oy vey”?

  29. No. The Fascism reference of another contributor. The philosophy is hard enough with partisan politics.

  30. Jesse Tatum

    Hey Alan – thanks, I appreciate the reply. I don’t think I’d put “only”, as I can definitely see what you mean. But maybe it would help to say that I think that the properties of cats must be grasped first before they make their way into the concept CAT. The concept won’t be a perfect match with every single property; it won’t be exactly the same for everyone or for all time; and it will be put to different uses upon entering discourse (“human interests”, as you’ve noted). But I think it must first and fundamentally reflect reality in that it contains the actual properties of the thing being spoken of. Otherwise I don’t know how you would know what you are thinking of. And if you don’t know what you are thinking of, you don’t know what to talk about or how to talk about it accurately.

  31. “First is the utter unsatisfactoriness and seeming impossibility of the correspondence theory of truth (of a kind that I really think one needs at some level to be a realist). I just don’t see how we can or should expect correspondence given the physiological and cognitive equipment we have (and our likely evolutionary history). (For instance, I think it implausible that we evolved to sense truth; I think it more likely that we evolved to survive in the word and any attempt at saying what truth is is subordinate to that, meaning that it is truths are beliefs that work in aiding our survival.)”

    Well, what do you make of the predictive, explanatory, and (for lack of a better word) regulative powers of contemporary science? It’s just a coincidence that Thales predicted the eclipse properly? And what do you make of the substantial agreement we have when it comes to perceiving middle-sized objects? Presumably, having true beliefs helps one survive in the world, though here maybe you’re going to invoke Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism?

    “Second, it is really hard to think what we are doing is sketching accurate views of the real world given the diversity we see see among human sketches of that world.”

    It’s hard to get the world right. We have many different interpretations, sure, but there are some events or objects that seem to figure in every interpretation, no? Even if you go Parmenides and say that there are no events and only one object, or go Heraclitus and say that there is an infinite number of events and no objects, there’s still a subject matter that you try to explain away as illusory.

    “Lastly … we do not need to do more than arrive at beliefs that work better and better. There is no value added by then saying ‘and this belief also describes reality as it really is.’ Reality as it works for us to describe it does all that is necessary for us to do.”

    I have no response to this. I would have to investigate the controversies around pragmatism to see whether there are any alleged test cases that some think pragmatism fails. I did investigate deflationary theories of truth recently, but it was too hard for me to understand the criticisms of them.

  32. While I have read Rorty, I haven’t read _Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature_. And I’ve only read a little bit of Putnam. And I don’t even know about Davidson’s “no-choice-but” realism. Obviously, I need to go back to the drawing board and read the classics of analytic philosophy. At least reading Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine, Carnap, Davidson, Dummett, Kripke, Rorty, and Brandom. (I think all of those guys except maybe Frege and maybe Davidson and definitely Kripke were realists, right? If that’s right, it’s interesting — and perhaps telling — that almost all of the important analytic philosophers were anti-realists.)

    I see what you mean when you say that the force of the word “real” varies from context to context. Take the predicate, “is a mammal.” If I say, “X is a mammal”, this is quite informative, because we have a pretty good of what it takes to be a mammal. It’s descriptive, it’s informative, it rules things in and it rules things out. Contrast that to the predicate “is a game.” If Wittgenstein is right, then there is nothing that all and only games have in common. There is a family resemblance among games, but there’s no essence there. Consequently, “is a mammal” is a substantively thick predicate and “is a game” is a substantively thick one”.

    “is true” is probably much more substantively thin than even “is a game”, and perhaps the same goes for “is real.” So, to say “the table is real” is, possibly, quite different from saying “numbers are real”. And say maybe saying “it’s true that Russia invaded Ukraine” is different from “it’s true that 2+2=4” is different from “it’s true that electrons have a charge” is different from “anti-realism is true”.

  33. I feel the force of your payment analogy. Where it’s taken me is that I’ve pretty much given up on thinking we’re going to be able to establish that one philosophical view (in any philosophical controversy) is the best view, at least via argument. I think we’ve established that slavery is morally wrong, but I don’t think it was arguments that carried, and that continue to carry, the day on that one. That said, I do think arguments can carry the day in mathematics and logic. Maybe those are the only two places.

  34. I was really thrown by the claim that realism doesn’t apply to concepts, but it does apply to truth. I was thrown because I don’t think I committed myself to the claim that concepts are true. I don’t think I committed myself to that claim because I don’t understand what it would mean to assert it.

    I guess the thought is that concepts don’t carve out nature at the joints? In other words, there are no natural kinds?

    The idea then seems to be this: in most cases, what determines the kinds of concepts we come up with are our interests. The reason we have the concept CAT is that there are these little furry things running around and it’s useful to distinguish some of those furry things (i.e., cats) from other furry things (e.g., dogs), because the first set of furry things seems to be importantly different from the second set.

    I am a little stymied, still, by the idea that we have the concepts we have because they are useful to us and that we can nonetheless be realists about truth. A lot of realists about truth are correspondence theorists. The claim “snow is white” is true because it corresponds to the fact that snow is white. But given that concepts usually have the shape they do merely because it fits our interests, what does it mean to say that a sentence like “snow is white is true”? After all, our concepts don’t carve nature out at the joints, so are you saying that “snow is white” isn’t true? Maybe only very precisely defined sentences, say, in mathematics can be true or false, and the rest of our sentences in natural language are just approximations of the truth? I think this is Joe Mendola’s view.

    Anyway, I think Jesse Tatum did a better job with my reply than I would have.

  35. I guess I was thinking about the no-miracles argument for scientific realism.

    1. Our best scientific theories predict with astonishing accuracy.
    2. The best explanation for their predictive success is that they are literally true.
    3. Therefore, we should believe that they are literally true.

    Obviously anti-realists will deny 2, but in denying 2, we have to get deep into the nature of how scientific theories work. I haven’t done this, but I’m guessing that trying to do it would change the way I think about science, no matter what position I came out with.

  36. ” ‘Snow is White’ is true” and “Snow is white” are equivalent.

  37. I’ve been following this discussion. At several points, I thought about commenting, but I held back. But this seems a good place for me to add my two cents.

    Well, what do you make of the predictive, explanatory, and (for lack of a better word) regulative powers of contemporary science? It’s just a coincidence that Thales predicted the eclipse properly?

    You wrote that, after quoting KevinCK on the correspondence theory of truth, so I presume you are trying to connect them. By the way, I mostly agree with KevinCK on this.

    We are good at predicting eclipses, because we have found ways of predicting that work quite well. So I count that as support for pragmatism, while you appear to consider that support for truth.

    Yes, scientists follow rules to make those predictions. But the rules that they follow were selected on pragmatic grounds.

    We do often judge truth in terms of rules. But the rules we use come from us.

    I’m okay with a limited version of correspondence. Once we have accepted rules of correspondence, then we can use those to judge truth. That’s roughly how mathematics works. The axioms give us the rules of correspondence, and we then use those to judge truth within that axiom system.

    The trouble with philosophers, is that they then want to ask whether those rules of correspondence are true. But that makes no sense. The rules of correspondence are prior to there being a notion of truth.

    From my perspective, pragmatism is used to develop acceptable rules of correspondence. And, once we have those rules we can have a limited correspondence theory of truth. For science, a scientific theory gives us the rules of correspondence, so it makes no sense to ask whether the scientific theory is true. Rather, pragmatism is the basis for that scientific theory.

    I guess that makes me an anti-realist. And that’s because philosophical realism demands that scientific theories be seen as true.

    In the recent discussion between you, Dan and KevinCK. Dan gave the explanation “because we are mammals”. And I think that does make an important point. Pragmatism is biological. That is to say, our biology set the conditions by which we judge whether “it works”. Pragmatism is grounded in biology. Our rules of correspondence are grounded in pragmatism and in cultural choices. And truth by correspondence comes only after we have those rules of correspondence.

  38. Robert,
    “After all, our concepts don’t carve nature out at the joints, so are you saying that “snow is white” isn’t true?”

    Actually, that’s exactly what our concepts do, a point well-argued, and successfully, by the late Medieval Nominalists, to the point of forcing Realists to further moderate and refine their own arguments. By the exhaustion of the Middle Ages, the dawn of Modernity, most Scholastics were Realists only concerning theology, Nominalists concerning pretty much everything else. The Nominalist by-word – “only individuals exist” – was eventually inherited by Modernists as a problem that has never been fully resolved; perhaps physics comes close to it, but in biology the problem continues even in traditonal practices of classification. Individual variants may be “accidental” anomalies, but they very well reveal new species or sub-species. Or develop as such in the course of evolution.

    We don’t know what that cold flake against our skin “really” is in the greater context of a universe we don’t (and probably can’t) fully understand, and the exact relationship between it and other such flakes is conceived by us in generalizations, because that’s how we can grasp our experiences and share them with others. Then we give it a name for our uses. “Snow is white” is true in certain languages in certain contexts.

    But I wanted to get back to the problem of the dictator who determines by fiat what defines a “cat,” since my mind on other problems, I wasn’t so clear. In our language, we’ve agreed on a number of uses for the word “cat” and the concepts that usage derives from or implicates. I remember an argument with an Cognitive Science theorist who insisted we didn’t need analysis for common language, because we all understood what “Cat is on the mat” meant, and I reminded him that he had better not place that cat in the zoo on his mat anytime soon. It will be said that the use of the word “cat” referencing, say, Panthera tigris, is imprecise and even rather sloppy. But that is in the nature of the common language, which communicates between people generally quite well. We can’t all be biologists, after all.

    But as for your argument-ad-tyrannicus: It might be called “Winston’s dilemma,” after the character in Orwell’s 1984 who was tortured untill he agreed that if the Party determined any grouping of “four” would be referred to as “5,” then that would be the objective “truth” of the number, since the Party decided what could be known. Winston’s torture and ultimate submission is terrifying and unsettling, and the whole issue has wide implications for our time; Orwell was thinking about the Russian Stalinists, who were dedicated to re-defining not only social reality but the language that could be used to address it, a practice continued by Putin, who has effectively out-lawed use of the word for “war” concerning events in Ukraine. (One of my problems with your use of this example is it ignores the patent fact that we have plenty such dictators and would-be dictators in the world today, even in the United States. You treat the matter as a thought-experiment, when in fact it is a matter we have had to deal with, repeatedly, throughout history, and still wrestle with today.) My counter-point was two-fold: First, there are matters that are by social necessity only determinable socially, preferably through constructive legislative agreement in some form of representative government; but, alas, also by authoritarian fiat as long as the authoritarian party is in power. (Part of my support for Ukraine is precisely that I support Ukraine’s insistence on the use of the word “war,” and my hope that Putin’s authoritarianism can somehow be brought to closure and replaced.)

    But Stalinist effort to fully dominate and control knowledge has pretty much failed everywhere tried (except possibly North Korea), for the simple reason that language develops ‘bottom-up,’ so to speak – that is through common practices. It can only be imposed top-down when people largely and for the most part willingly accept an authoritive (not authoritarian) ‘clarification’ that makes sense and can be readily used in common practices (which is why most of the Academic Left’s efforts to modify language about gender and sex are pretty much doomed to fail; they can be imposed on regulatory systems, but they cannot be imposed on common practices).

    But as scary as Winston’s torture is, the specific example – “4=5” – is actually weak. Numbers only exist as signs within a group of related systems – counting, arithmetic, geometry, etc. – where in each system they have quite specific uses. (4+1=10 in Base 5.) If, within the given system, the value of a number is arbitrarily changed, the system cannot be used. This would play havoc with pretty much any technology dependent on some math. Kim Jong-un may have ordered “4” to equal “5,” but N. Korea’s development of nuclear weapons indicates that his scientists aren’t paying much attention to that, or have found some mathematical way around it.

    Remember here that words are not simply referential signs for what we know, they can also be instructive signs we respond to. Orwell was aware of this, it has importance in his novel, but he didn’t fully grasp its implications or its origins. The crowds shouting out adoration of The Leader – Mussolini, Stalin, Putin, Trump – are not hypnotised or terrorized into accepting the Party’s manipulation of language or knowledge. They live in a world of their minds where strength-of-will has always determined “truth,” and should. This is not Pragmatic or Nominalistic or even Anti-realist. I have suggested it is a very primitive Realism – the Realism of an infant wholly dependent on strong parents for any knowledge at all, and continuing to seek such parental authority in adulthood for want of maturity. At anyrate, the Party is the Real, the Leader thus expounds that reality, and his words are therefore true.

  39. One last thought, concerning the importance of Wittgenstein in these matters. I think the older Wittgenstein recognized that no ‘scientific’ definition of a ‘hammer’ could ever be as meaningful as one carpenter saying to another “hammer” and the other responding by putting a hammer in his hand. Neither has stated “A hammer is [x]” – why should they? But if I say “the one carpenter responded to the other by placing object ‘hammer’ (defined as [x]) in his hand,” is that a “true” sentence? in certain circumstances, perhaps – but surely only trivially so. The important thing is the carpenters using their hammer, which is their whole point, after all.

  40. Robert Gressis

    One thing this whole discussion has convinced me of is that I don’t know squat about philosophy.

    Must go back to the drawing board…

  41. Now, don’t be like that! All of these things are contested. There are plenty of very heavy hitters on your side of this.

  42. This probably won’t help, and no one will agree. But just to stretch the paradigm: I am a realist about everything (correspondence and the whole deal), and a naturalist at the same time. If the naturalism is the right kind, and one is a fallibilist, there is no problem. Lots of options here.

  43. I think yours is the majority view.

  44. Hi Robert: I was trying to derail your neat dichotomy! I’m a realist except about concepts. But concepts are the constituents of propositions, so there is a puzzle here, rather than a choice between the two options that you offered. I’m not presenting a solution to that puzzle.

    You say: “After all, our concepts don’t carve nature out at the joints, so are you saying that “snow is white” isn’t true?” No, your way of putting the question implies an inference from the conceptual to the actual. I’m saying the conceptual is operating on one level, statements about the actual on another level.

    The temptation to think of the concept “cat” as derived from “cat experiences” is the same mistake in the other direction. This can be argued for in the case of cats, though I doubt it. But most concepts are plainly not derived from archetypal experiences. Human interests determine these concepts. “Food” is a good example. “Person” is another. “Murder” is a third.

    Incidentally, I was wrong in using the Putin example the way I did. He is not trying to change the concept of war. He is merely trying to twist its application to a particular case. He isn’t for example implying that Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland was just a “special military operation”.

  45. I’d be surprised. Among analysts, lots of non-reductive physicalists, yes, and assume realism about scientific knowledge, with unsolved problems about scientific change, and in applying realism to non-scientific knowledge. Among continentals and Americanists, I would bet most are anti-naturalist and anti-realist.

  46. Don’t know why you would be surprised. The survey data is quite conclusive. Nearly 80% of professional philosophers hold some version of non-skeptical realism.

  47. EJ Winner: What you say about cats, dictators and hammers is very good, to my mind. It expands nicely on my shorthand contentions above.

    But I’m not sure we fully agree. I favour realism about truth claims, pragmatism about conceptual matters.

  48. Bharath

    What is the force of “literally” in 2?

    2*. The best explanation for their predictive success is that they are true.

    I accept 2*. Am not sure what more is added by 2. I agree the realist and anti-realist are arguing about 2, but for me that seems to be less about truth as in 2*, and more about a loaded interpretation of “literally true” as in 2. If we do away with the loaded interpretation, what is lost?

    One might say, “2* doesn’t explain anything. It makes ‘true’ a mere redundancy and doesn’t tell us why our best scientific theories predict with such accuracy.” I think this is right. But 2 also doesn’t explain anything. All the explanatory work for the predictive success is already being done by “our best scientific theories” in 1.

    Suppose I put a drink in the fridge at night and it’s gone in the morning. I ask my roommates what happened and one says, “I drank it” and the other roommate says “It’s literally true he drank it.” Is the latter statement more explanatory than the former?

  49. How about this. Generally, “true” means “true of” what the assertion is about. Realism claims that what is it about is the ordinary language sense of what it is about: the house, the tree, the planet independent of my assertion. “Correspondence” is an imperfect metaphor for the relation of true statement to its object, entangled with “representation” and “satisfaction” (in Tarski). Antirealism doesn’t deny truth, it generally insists that the assertion is true of something about the maker of the assertion, like sense data, her world view, conceptual appropriation, etc. Coherence and pragmatism, for the realist, are perfectly plausible accounts of verification, not definitions of truth (as in Davidson). “True” doesn’t normally explain, it labels assertions that do what we want them to do, and ought to be accepted by others. The claim that “the best explanation for theory x’s success is that it is literally true,” means, “the best explanation for theory x’s success is that its objects really are or do behave the way it describes and predicts.” “Literally” means “really,” I think.

  50. That survey item was on the existence of the “external world.” Not surprising. “Is human knowledge true of the world independent of human mind?” vs. personal or conceptual scheme or social/pragmatic construction of sense data, would be more to the point.