Begging to Differ


Catherine Z. Elgin in The Philosophers' Magazine (image from Wikimedia commons):

Disagreement abounds. People disagree about everything from sports and politics to science and child rearing. When disagreements stem from the manifest ignorance, bias, or stupidity of one of the disputants, they are epistemologically benign. That someone who clearly does not know what he is talking about disagrees with you gives you no reason to rethink your position. But some disagreements are more worrisome. Equally intelligent, knowledgeable, thoughtful and open-minded people often disagree. Let us call such parties intellectual equals. Should disagreements among intellectual equals give us pause?

Epistemologists disagree. Conciliatory thinkers such as Hilary Kornblith hold that it should. If Fred recognises George as his intellectual equal, he has no basis for thinking that his opinion is better than George’s (or that George’s is better than his). So when they disagree, conciliationists maintain, both should suspend judgement. Advocates of resoluteness such as Thomas Kelly recommend holding fast. If intellectual equals who disagree are always required to suspend judgement, scepticism looms. Given the range of topics on which we disagree with our intellectual equals, we know very little. Resoluteness is permissible, they maintain, because everyone makes mistakes. It is open to Fred to think that where they disagree, George must be mistaken. He is then within his rights to dismiss George’s opinion. Unfortunately, George can think the same about Fred. Resoluteness fosters dogmatism; we are always entitled to dismiss the opinions of intellectual equals who disagree with us by assuming they have made a mistake. Neither scepticism nor dogmatism is an attractive option. A third alternative is that disagreement among intellectual equals provides some reason to rethink one’s position but does not require revising or repudiating it. In that case, parties could reasonably agree to disagree. The challenge is to make room for this position.