HOW NOT TO DEFEAT SKEPTICISM: WHY ANTIREALISM WON'T DO THE TRICK

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  • HOW NOT TO DEFEAT SKEPTICISM: WHY ANTIREALISMWONT DO THE TRICKphil_414 127..152

    CHRISTOPHER NORRIS

    INTRODUCTION

    In this essay I examine one particular response to the challenge of epistemo-logical skepticism that has recently enjoyed some success in terms of widespreaduptake and influence though not, I shall argue, by adequately meeting that chal-lenge. It is the position espoused by those who reject the idea of objectivist orrecognition-transcendent truth and instead adopt an antirealist approach accord-ing to which truth is always epistemically constrained, that is, subject to thescope and limits of human knowledge. On their account truth-talk is bestreplaced by talk of warranted assertibility, or that which our statements, con-jectures, and hypotheses are rightfully taken to possess just so long as they areborne out by our best evidence to hand or range of best available proof-procedures. This is thought to provide the only possible non-question-begginganswer to skepticism since the latter most often gets a hold through a kind ofregular rebound effect whereby the inherently frustrated quest for some intelli-gible formulation of the realist/objectivist claim flips over, so to speak, andproduces an outlook of (at any rate purported) wholesale epistemological doubt.That is to say, skepticism achieves the semblance of a knockdown argument bypressing its point that if truth is indeed recognition-transcendent or epistemicallyunconstrained, then ipso facto it must lie beyond the utmost reach of humancognizance. Only by bringing it safely back within range of our perceptual,cognitive, or intellectual powersredefining it in terms of epistemic warrantcan truth be cut down to practicable size and knowledge reestablish its purchaseon reality.

    My essay explains what I take to be wrong with this anti-realist line of argumentwhen marshaled against the threat of wholesale epistemological skepticism andalso, for similar reasons, when advanced as a putative checkmate defense against

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  • relativism in its various (wholesale or other) forms. Here again the proposedtreatment turns out to be not so much a genuine cure or prophylactic but rather aparticularly virulent strain of just the same skeptical malady. This effect comesabout through a basic confusion between ontological and epistemological issues,and alsoI suggestthrough the antirealist habit of conflating metaphysics withepistemology in such a way as to ignore certain crucial lessons imparted by modalrealists like Saul Kripke and the early Hilary Putnam. Indeed the antirealistposition itself very easily leans over into skepticism and relativism once it yieldsvital ground by renouncing the prime objectivist axiom that truth might alwayselude the compass of best judgment or optimized epistemic warrant. For antire-alism then comes down to the assertion, albeit with sundry technical refinements,that we can only mean by truth whatever now passes muster or in future mightenjoy that status as judged by our present-best or future-best-achievable methodsof proof or ascertainment. From here it is no great distance to the whole currentrange of conventionalist, descriptivist, constructivist, framework-internalist,paradigm-relativist, strong-sociological, late-Wittgensteinian, and suchlikevariants on the basic skeptical theme. I conclude that antirealism is both ill-conceived as a matter of positive doctrine and wholly incapable of doing its workas a means of defense against skepticism and relativism.

    I

    With the exception of doughty defenders such as Joseph Margolis, there arerather few philosophers nowadays who would happily sign up to the relativistcause in anything like an overt, programmatic, or doctrinally explicit way.1 Thereason for this reluctance is plain to see since the chronicle of mainstream Westernphilosophy from Plato and Aristotle down is very largely the record of those whodeemed themselves serious, rational, truth-seeking, disciplined, rigorous, or intel-lectually and vocationally qualified thinkers and who took this to require that theyadopt a position at the maximum possible distance from their relativist Others.These latter have gone under various pejorative names from time to timewhether sophists for Plato or postmodernists for his avatars in the present-dayanalytic campbut their trademark signatures have remained pretty much

    1 For modern defenses of a relativist position (however hedged around with qualifying clauses), see forinstance, Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978); Joseph Margolis,The Truth about Relativism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991) and Pragmatism Without Foundations:Reconciling Realism and Relativism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986); Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth andHistory (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981); Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity(Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989) and Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth (Cambridge: CambridgeUP, 1991).

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  • unchanged.2 Thus the history of relativism, at least as told from this antagonisticstandpoint, is the history of so many temporally indexed, technically or idiomati-cally diverse but nonetheless deeply kindred variations on the basic theme thatman is the measure. Just as Plato derived considerable philosophic mileage fromhis set-piece ripostes to the sophists in numerous contexts of debate from logic,metaphysics, and epistemology, to ethics and political theory, so present-dayphilosophers draw a great deal of intellectual and moral sustenance from theirclaim to be carrying on the good fight that Plato took up from Parmenides andwhich has since then figured centrally in philosophys elective self-image as adiscourse specialized in the pursuit of reason and truth.

    Of course this leaves room for much finessing of arguments on both sides.3Antirelativists strengthen their position by striving to close as many loopholes aspossible in the adversary case while relativists strive to shore theirs up byexplaining how the opposition have got them wrong, whether unwittingly or(more often) through deliberate misrepresentation. Such is, for instance,Margoliss claim that the put-downs have typically issued from a travesty orplain distortion of that Protagorean claim about man being the measure.4 If wegive up the straw-man version of that thesis which takes it to say that truth iswhatever this or that individual makes of it, and instead more charitably take itto say that humankind collectively constitutes the relevant tribunal, then (heargues) we shall not be so easily won over by the standard antirelativist case. Towhich of course the opposite party responds with a more-or-less refurbishedstatement of that case which denies that there is a genuine differencea dif-ference worthy of philosophic notebetween the (supposed) point-scoring trav-esty of relativist thought and the version put forward as a corrective to it. Thatis to say, for the realist or the rationalist any move of this sort is sure to leaveits proponents in double jeopardy since they will find themselves exposed firstto co-option by the advocates of unashamed, full-strength relativism andthenin direct consequence of thatto demolition by philosophers who have

    2 For some representative lines of attack, see Simon Blackburn, Truth: A Guide (Oxford: Oxford UP,2005) and Paul Boghossian, Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism (Oxford:Oxford UP, 2006).

    3 Among recent contributions to this debate, see Maria Baghramian, Relativism (London: Routledge,2004); Stuart Brock and Edwin Mares, Realism and Anti-Realism (Chesham: Acumen, 2007); MartinHollis and Steven Lukes (ed.), Rationality and Relativism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982); Robert Kirk,Relativism and Reality: A Contemporary introduction (London: Routledge, 1999); Christopher Kulp(ed.), Realism/Antirealism and Epistemology (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997); LarryLaudan, Science and Relativism: Some Key Controversies in the Philosophy of Science (Chicago: Uof Chicago P, 1990); Robert Nola, Relativism and Realism in Science (Dordrecht: Kluwer AcademicPublishers, 1988); Paul OGrady, Relativism (Chesham: Acumen, 2002).

    4 Op. cit., Margolis, The Truth About Relativism.

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  • not only Plato and his lineal descendants but also (irresistibly) truth and reasonlined up on their side. However, such arguments will not impress the relativistso long as he or she takes strength from the claim that has become somethingof a staple in contemporary reruns of the ancient quarrel. This is the idea thatrealism (or objectivism) about truth is inherently self-refuting since it places astrictly unbridgeable gulf between such truth, conceived as recognition- orverification-transcendent, and whatever counts as knowledge (or justified truebelief) by our own human, all-too-human epistemic lights.5

    Thus, we can either have objectivist truth but with no possible means ofknowing, discovering, or knowing ourselves to have discovered it or an antire-alist conception of truth as epistemically constrainedand hence as lying byvery definition within the scope and limits of human graspbut only at the costof giving up that objectivist idea. For along with it, the realist will be quick toremark, goes the highly intuitive as well as scientifically well-attested notionthat truth might always turn out to elude our present-best powers of perceptualwarrant, cognitive command, or probative reasoning in logic, mathematics, andthe formal sciences. If we endorse the antirealist line and consent to take true,for all practical purposes, as synonymous with true to the best of our capac-ity for discovering, ascertaining, inferring, proving, or deducing the truth-claimin question, then we shall automatically fail to explain how belief has everfallen short of knowledge, or how there could ever be partial, that is, veridical-so-far-as-they-go states of knowledge, or again, how knowledge could everhave made any progress through and beyond such states.6 The only way we canhang onto that idea, so the realist will urge, is by likewise hanging onto thebasic claim that progress comes about through a truth-conducive or truth-approximative movement of thought whereby knowledge replaces an earlierstate of ignorance or manages to close the gap between truth and what pre-viously counted as truth according to the verdict of educated opinion, bestbelief, optimal judgment, or widespread agreement among those presumed best

    5 See especially Michael Dummett, Truth and Other Enigmas (London: Duckworth, 1978) and TheLogical Basis of Metaphysics (London: Duckworth, 1991); also Michael Luntley, Language, Logicand Experience: The Case for Anti-Realism (London: Duckworth, 1988); Gerald Vision, ModernAnti-Realism and Manufactured Truth (London: Routledge, 1988); Neil Tennant, The Taming of theTrue (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002).

    6 For further argument to this effect, see Christopher Norris, Truth Matters: Realism, Anti-Realism andResponse-Dependence (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2002) and On Truth and Meaning: Language,Logic and the Grounds of Belief (London: Continuum, 2006); also William P. Alston, A RealistConception of Truth (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1996); Michael Devitt, Realism and Truth, 2nd ed.(Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1997); Jerrold J. Katz, Realistic Rationalism (Cambridge, MA: MITPress, 1996).

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  • qualified to know.7 These latter kinds of formulation, along with others tosimilar effect, are more typically adopted by thinkers who incline toward anti-realism as an antidote to epistemological skepticism (since, to repeat, it seemsto bring truth safely back within the scope of human attainability) while none-theless acknowledging a certain anxietya sense of normative deficit or alethicshortfallwith regard to the strict antirealist claim that truth just is whatevercounts as truth according to the verdict of present-best knowledge.8 To be sure,antirealism promises an end to the sorts of wholesale epistemological doubtconjured up by Descartes malin genie and sundry later variations on the theme.Still, it is liable to strike anyone with a reasonably robust sense of everyday orscientific realities as failing to allow for that basic distinction between objectivetruth and present-best belief which alone makes room for a convincing, philo-sophically cogent account of how knowledge both accrues and can be known tohave accrued.

    Over the past few decades, a good number of philosophers have devoted a gooddeal of argumentative effort and ingenuity to the task of resolving this dilemmaon terms acceptable to both parties. That is, they have tried to come up with sometheory, proposal, or formula that would meet the realist demand for somethingmore substantive in the way of specifiable truth-content while at the same timeleaning far enough in an antirealist direction as to characterize truth as epistemi-cally constrainedor redefine it (with Dummett) as warranted assertibilityand thereby render knowledge proof against the slings and arrows of skepticalfortune. These efforts have taken various forms and gone under various names,among them internal realism, framework realism, quasi-realism, thenatural ontological attitude, and response-dependence (or response-dispositional) theory.9 What they all have in common, despite certain otherwisesignificant differences of view, is the idea that fully fledged realism is thelast thing needed by anyone who seeks to vindicate the claims of everyday orscientific knowledge since it will always fall prey to a (supposedly) knockdown

    7 See for instance, D. M. Armstrong, Truth and Truthmakers (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004);Devitt, Realism and Truth (op. cit.); Jarrett Leplin (ed.), Scientific Realism (Berkeley & Los Angeles:U of California P, 1984); Peter Lipton, Inference to the Best Explanation, 2nd ed. (London:Routledge, 2004); Christopher Norris, Resources of Realism: Prospects for Post-Analytic Philoso-phy (London: Macmillan, 1997) and New Idols of the Cave: On the Limits of Anti-Realism(Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997); Stathis Psillos, Scientific Realism: How Science Tracks Truth(London: Routledge, 1999).

    8 See for instance, Crispin Wright, Truth and Objectivity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992) andRealism, Meaning, and Truth, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993); also John Haldane and CrispinWright (ed.), Reality, Representation, and Projection (New York: Oxford UP, 1993); Norris, TruthMatters (op. cit.).

    9 See Notes 1, 3, 5, and 8 above.

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  • counterargument, that is, that it places such knowledge forever and intrinsicallybeyond human reach.10 Hence their diverse but similarly motivated efforts topreempt that rejoinder or head off that skeptical threat by devising a middle-ground position that would yield no hostages to fortunestop safely short ofendorsing the existence of objective (recognition-transcendent) truthsbutwould nonetheless disclaim any overt commitment to an antirealist approach.Mo...

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