Clearing the Decks

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Here’s a reasonable rule for critical discussion: all views for consideration should receive the same degree of scrutiny.  Subjecting one account to a low level of critical evaluation, but another to a higher level, is not only unfair, but it clearly risks incorrect outcomes. In retrospect, it is easy to see how such a shift can occur, especially when the claims on offer are controversial and when one sees some in the conversation as adversaries or allies. When a person we despise says something, we might even positively want them to be wrong. So, when they say something anodyne, like the sky is blue, we may be motivated to reply in the following fashion:

Oh yeah?  Well, sometimes, it’s red, purple, and yellow. That’s called sunset. And sometimes, it’s grey.  That’s called overcast. Oh, and sometimes, it’s just black.  That’s called night. Nice job overgeneralizing from sunny and cloudless days, you jerk.

You get the picture. Yet when a friendly interlocutor offers up the sky is blue, we tend to treat it with the modest degree of scrutiny that it calls for – as a general statement, with many exceptions. No problem.

One reason why the shift in critical scrutiny is hard to detect in situ is that it happens over time and with a background assumption about the exchange established in the process. This overall pattern we call the clearing the decks fallacy. Here’s how it unfolds. Step 1: Subject your opponents to the highest degree of scrutiny. Step 2: Once it is clear that the opponent’s views cannot satisfy that degree of scrutiny, conclude that they are nonviable and unsalvageable. Step 3: Pronounce your own view, but in a way that assumes that the appropriate degree of scrutiny has greatly diminished (after all, the opposition has been refuted). Step 4: If objections do appear, reply with a reminder of Step 2 – that the alternatives have been eliminated, so objections that must be based on their assumptions are undercut. It’s a neat dialectical strategy: one clears the decks of one’s opposition by adopting an unforgiving critical stance, but then one proceeds as if those same standards are inappropriate when it comes time to articulate one’s own view. In short, one applies demanding standards to clear the decks of one’s opposition, but then retracts those standards when presenting one’s own position once the opposition has been eliminated. Two features of the clearing the decks fallacy deserve emphasis. Read more »

Pragmatism as philosophical tool design

by Dave Maier

One problem plaguing contemporary anti-Cartesians (pragmatists, Wittgensteinians, hermeneutic philosophers, etc.) is that it can seem that we are competing against each other, trying to do better than everyone else what we all want to do: get past the dualisms and other infelicities of the modern picture while at the same time absorbing its lessons and retaining its good aspects. We waste our time fighting each other instead of our common enemy. Why is it so hard to see ourselves as all on the same team?

One reason is that when push comes to shove, or even before that, we simply follow traditional philosophical practice by providing arguments to show that we are right and they are wrong, thus construing the differences among our views as constituting differences in belief rather than, for example, the practical differences between different tools or perspectives. It is as if we have internalized the traditional criticisms: that we have abandoned objective truth and the objective world it represents in favor of our own subjective purposes. No, we say, watch us talk among ourselves! We care about truth just as much as you! Phenomenology is false and pragmatism is true, as my fully rigorous and entirely professional argument shows! Assent is required, on pain of irrationality!

Even when we’re not fighting among ourselves in this way, that same metaphilosophical ideal can still cause trouble. For instance, I have chosen to present my particular brand of anti-Cartesianism as a characteristically pragmatist philosophy. Naturally I draw inspiration and/or ideas from philosophers who do not identify as pragmatists (after all, we all reject the Cartesian mirror of nature). But in practice this can lead to some discomfort. If while pushing a pragmatist line I help myself to a Wittgensteinian (or Davidsonian or Nietzschean) insight, the question will naturally arise: what entitles me to enlist these people in my cause? Am I saying Wittgenstein or Davidson was a pragmatist? What should I make of the differences between these very different philosophers? Read more »

Truth, Lies and Pragmatism

by Chris Horner

I won that election —Donald J Trump

The truth is out there —X files

There is a story that Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France, was in conversation with some German representatives during the Paris peace negations in 1919 that led to the Treaty of Versailles. One of the Germans said something to the effect that in a hundred years time historians would wonder what had really been the cause of the Great War and who had been really responsible. Clemenceau, so the story goes, retorted that one thing was certain: ‘the historians will not say that Belgium invaded Germany’.

The anecdote repays some reflection. On the one hand, its main point seems clear: the brute fact that it was Germany that invaded Belgium and not the other way around cannot be wished away by later historians, whatever else they may say. Clemenceau, of course, is pointing to this as the evidence for the German responsibility for starting the war. On the other hand, the German representative also seems to be right: historians have been discussing the causes and the responsibility for World War One ever since 1914, and show no signs of concluding. The assessment of an event like that depends on interpretation and the sifting of evidence. It isn’t just a matter of pointing what happened on an August day in 1914. Yet some things remain stubbornly the case, we think: German troops violated Belgian neutrality in 1914.

In a hundred years time will historians wonder who won the US Presidential Election of 2020? Perhaps not, but the world we live in seems to be one in which the most ‘stubborn’ facts are in question. Much of the confusion can be wrought by bad faith actors, people who know they are lying when they claim certain things to be true. These bad faith actors aren’t just figures from the margins of the political spectrum, or among the deluded ‘QAnon’ conspiracy enthusiasts. In our time we have seen the US and UK governments, supported by the bulk of the established media outlets repeat falsehoods about the possession of WMDs in Iraq, to give just one example. No wonder there is a lot of ‘fake news’ when so much of it is generated by government itself.  Read more »

Interpretation and truth, part 1: History

by Dave Maier

The word “interpretivism” suggests to most people a particularly crazy sort of postmodern relativism cum skepticism. If our relations to reality are merely interpretive and perspectival (I will use these terms interchangeably as needed, the idea being that each interpreter has her own distinct perspective on a world not reducible to any single view), our very access to objective facts seems threatened. Nietzsche, for example, famously says that “there are no facts, only interpretations” (a careless misreading, but let’s not get into it here). Fast-forward to Jacques Derrida and the whole lit-crit crew, who claim that everything is a text; and with the triumphantly dismissive reference to that notorious postmodern imp, the game is over. Interpretation is for sissies; let’s get back to doing hard-nosed empirical science (or objective metaphysics).

On this account, the opposite of “interpretive” is something like “representational”: our successful beliefs simply get the world right, with no (subjective, open-ended, wishy-washy) interpretation required. This makes sense up to a point. Our beliefs portray the world as being a certain way, not as (primarily) meaningful or enlightening or useful, or whatever is characteristic of our favored interpretations. On the other hand, to distinguish belief from meaning in this way makes it seem as if interpretation does not concern itself with belief or inquiry at all. Yet even if interpretation is not the same as inquiry, or meaning the same as belief, they are – or so we post-Davidsonian pragmatists claim – more closely intertwined than this dichotomous account would indicate.

One way to sort this out is to jump right into it with a close analysis of the notions of meaning and belief in the manner of the later Davidson and Richard Rorty’s frustratingly dodgy use of same. We’ll do more of that later on (he warned); but today I wanted to try another tack. It is generally accepted that history in particular is an interpretive discipline (a “humanity,” not a “science”), yet it is commonly accepted as well that historians deal in facts. If we can see how this conceptual accommodation works in the narrower context, we may be able to transpose it, or something like it, into our larger one. In this post I will set the problem up, leaving you in suspense until next time when I reveal a possible solution. Read more »

The US and North Korea: Posturing v pragmatism

by Emrys Westacott

On September 19, Donald Trump spoke before the UN general assembly. Addressing the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, he said that the US "if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, . . . will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea." And of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he said, "Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime." Download

There is nothing new about the US president affirming a commitment to defend itself and its allies. What is noteworthy about Trump's remarks is his cavalier talk of totally destroying another country, which implicitly suggests the use of nuclear weapons, and his deliberately insulting–as opposed to just criticizing–Kim Jong-un. He seems to enjoy getting down in the gutter with the North Korean leader, who responded in kind by calling Trump a "frightened dog," and a "mentally deranged dotard." Critics have noted that Trump's language is closer to what one expects of a strutting schoolyard bully than a national leader addressing an august assembly. And one could ask interesting questions about the psychological make-up of both men that leads them to speak the way they do. From a moral and political point of view, though, the only really important question regarding Trump's behavior is whether or not it is sensible. Is it a good idea to threaten and insult Kim Jong-un.

As a general rule, the best way to evaluate any action, including a speech act, is pragmatically: that is, by its likely effects. This is not always easy. Our predictions about the effects of an action are rarely certain, and they are often wrong. Moreover, even if we agree that one should think pragmatically, most of us find it hard to stick to this resolve. How many parents have nagged their teenage kids even though they know that such nagging will probably be counterproductive? How many of us have gone ahead and made an unnecessary critical comment to a partner that we know is likely to spark an unpleasant and unproductive row? And if one happens to be an ignorant, impulsive, narcissist, the self-restraint required in acting pragmatically is probably out of reach. Which is worrying when one considers how high the stakes are in the verbal cock fight between Trump and Jong-un.

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Fallibilism and its Discontents

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

JTxEnx5BcFallibilism is a philosophical halo term, a preferred rhetorical mantle that one attaches to the views one favors. Accordingly, fallibilists identify their view with the things that cognitively modest people tend to say about themselves: I believe this, but I may be wrong; We know things but only on the basis of incomplete evidence; In the real world, inconclusive reasons are good enough; I'm open to opposing views and ready to change my mind. But there are different kinds of epistemic modesty, and so different kinds of fallibilism. Let's distinguish two main kinds of fallibilism, each with two degrees of strength:

Belief-fallibilism

Weak: It is possible that at least one of my beliefs is false.

Strong: Any one of my beliefs may be false.

Knowledge-fallibilism

Weak: It is possible that I know something on the basis of inconclusive evidence

Strong: All I know is on the basis of inconclusive evidence

Belief-fallibilism is a commitment to anti-dogmatism. It holds that one (or any!) of your beliefs may be false, so you should root it out and correct it. The upshot is that one should hold beliefs in the appropriately tentative fashion, and face disagreement and doubts with seriousness.

Knowledge-fallibilism is a form of anti-skepticism. It holds, against the skeptic, that one does not need to eliminate all possible defeaters for a belief in order to have knowledge; one needs only to address the relevant defeaters. The knowledge-fallibilist contends that the skeptic proposes only the silliest and least relevant of possible defeaters of knowledge. We rebuke the skeptic by rejecting the idea that all possible defeaters are equally in need of response. Again, the knowledge-fallibilist holds that knowing that p is consistent with being unable to defuse distant skeptical defeaters; knowing that p rather requires only that the relevant defeaters have been ruled out.

Although these two varieties of fallibilism are propositionally consistent, they prescribe conflicting intellectual policies. Belief-falliblism yields the attitude that, as any of one's beliefs could be false, one must follow challenges wherever they lead. But knowledge-fallibilism holds that one needn't bother considering certain kinds of objections; it thereby condones the attitude that a certain range of challenges to one's beliefs may be simply dismissed.

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