Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Analytic Bullshit, Ben Kotzee

Can analytic philosophers talk bullshit?

The publication as a small book last year of Harry Frankfurt’s (1986) paper “On Bullshit” ignited great popular interest in “bullshit”: what is it “to bullshit someone” and why is there so much bullshit about these days? Prime examples of bullshit mentioned in the many popular contributions to the subject post-Frankfurt (just google for it) are found in “business-speak”, in advertising and in politics. What people enjoy about Frankfurt’s book, it seems, is that having a theory of bullshit available makes it possible now to do with a straight face what you previously had to hide in a cough: say that someone is talking bullshit. (We might say that, after Frankfurt, “bullshit” is a technical term.)

As far as I can tell, the theory of bullshit is in its infancy and I’m afraid that I don’t have much to add. Frankfurt distinguishes between honest assertion, lying and bullshitting as follows: In making an honest assertion (in telling the truth) one aims to say what is true and in lying, one aims to say what is not true… both in honest saying and lying one is guided by the aim of truth. In bullshitting, however, the speaker is unconcerned with the truth of what he says; the bullshitter pretends to make an honest assertion whereas he really is just mouthing off. As such, bullshitting is a faking of assertion: the bullshitter pretends to make an assertion, but actually asserts nothing. To people who know me, it will be quite clear why I’m interested in this: I work on the relation between truth, believing and assertion and think Frankfurt makes a very good point about the nature of assertion: honest saying and lying, as species of asserting, involve a concern with the truth of what one says. This comes into sharper focus when we consider the case of the bullshitter who pretends to assert, but, not caring about the truth of what he says, really ends up saying nothing (ends up not really asserting at all).

Be that as it may, Frankfurt thinks that bullshitting is a kind of dishonesty: whenever one speaks dishonestly in this way, what comes out one’s mouth is bullshit. Jerry Cohen disagrees with this characterisation of the relation between bullshitting intent and the shittiness of what one says. He holds that it is possible to talk bullshit without dishonest intent and mentions as an example the stuff emanating from French departments of philosophy and departments of literature in the English-speaking world overly occupied with French theory. (Holding up an example of bullshit, Cohen refers to Althusserian Marxism; he also mentions the writings on science of French theorists from Latour to Kristeva that Sokal criticises.) Cohen holds that there need not be any dishonesty on the part of these people: the problem is not that they are unconcerned with whether what they are saying is true, it is that there is a deficiency in the concepts and language that is deployed by people who “do theory”. What is wrong with much of French philosophy, Cohen thinks, is that it is unclarifiable nonsense and this he wants to distinghuish as a sort of bullshit in its own right. He provides a test for being unclarifiable nonsense that involves adding a negation-sign: if adding a negation-sign to what one is saying makes no difference to its intuitive plausibility, it is bullshit of the “unclarifiable nonsense” kind.

What Cohen calls bullshit, it is clear, is that kind of philosophy perpetrated by people whose names sound continental, that is obscure, a little bit avant garde and generally down on mathematics, science, logic and technology. Recently, I criticised Cohen’s “unclarifiable nonsense” account of bullshit, but offered the following (qualified) support for his views on French philosophy. I held that “postmodernism” is bullshit for the following reason: Assume that the central tenet of postmodernism is that there is no such thing as truth or that the word “true” is no more than a clever cover for whatever beliefs or attitudes are generally accepted in some culture (and that is accepted due to concealed coercion). The problem is this: If there is really no fact of the matter as to what is true and someone may become conscious of this, then there can be no honest speech and no lying; this is because, as Frankfurt holds, assertion and lying is characterised by aiming to say what is true and aiming to say what is not true, respectively. Being fully aware that there is no truth either way, no-one can honestly assert anything (or lie) at all; without truth, assertion looses its goal. All that can remain of speech, if there is no truth, is bullshit or pretending to assert (although just pretending to assert would require at least the idea of truth and truthful assertion to remain, itself a tension in the postmodernist’s position on truth).

My argument invited the accusation of tu quoque from an editor. Analytic philosophers, he suggested, shouldn’t cast stones. Bullshit is not confined to the continent and, in any case, I wouldn’t take it as alright if a “postmodern philosopher” made a blanket attack on analytic philosophy in the same manner as I did. He had me wrong – I am perfectly willing to consider any reasonable argument that there is something systematically wrong with the presuppositions and method of analytic philosophy, its just that I haven’t heard one, despite listening. (By the way, I’m not complaining about the editor, who liked the rest of the piece and accepted it.)

In the interest of fairness, though, my question to the blog is this: do analytic philosophers ever bullshit? Nothing suggests that an analytic philosohper can’t talk Frankfurt bullshit – that is, pretend to care about the truth of what they say when they do not: of course any analytic philosopher is just as capable of this form of dishonesty, psychologically speaking. What’s less clear is that an analytic philosopher can talk Cohen-bullshit. I would suggest that the true analytic philosopher cannot. This is because analytic philosophy is characterised by its reliance on the method provided by formal logic: by formalising the contentious parts of our work, we make absolutely clear what we mean. At least when we formalise our philosophy, we can of course be wrong, but not “unclarifiably unclear”. Precisely the ideal of analytic philosophy is to be clear.

Bearing in mind these two points, does anyone want to offer examples of analytic philosophers talking bullshit (of the Frankfurt or Cohen variety)? Specifically, I’m interested in the role that formalisation in the language of logic plays in making our work clear or unclear. To some – that is people who’ve never taken a first level course in logic – much analytic philosophy looks absurdly complicated and technical. I’m interested in this. Does the method provided by formal logic ever obscure rather than clarify, or is this just a matter of not being able to read the logic? Even assuming that everyone should be capable of following it (and why should they?), can someone think of an example where formalising a point or argument renders something that is clear obscure? Would people write to me with their nominations for the prize “most gratuitous formalisation in the language of logic of something that’s perfectly clear in English”?


Blogger niall said...

Hi Ben,
Hope you're well.
Does Frankfurt say anything to rule out the kind of pretend assertion that telling a story involves (you know: 'once upon a time there was a beautiful but very stubborn princess...') counting as bullshit? As for Cohen's negation test, does adding a negation sign to 'Alien life exists within 1000 light years of Earth' change its intuitive plausibility? And does adding a negation sign to some textbook examples of bullshit (say Hegel's 'Logic') not increase their intuitive plausibility?
But can I defend postmodernism?
Your thought is that postmodernism counts as bullshit in something like the sense that Frankfurt is trying to capture? Consider a logical positivist P who on reading the Lancet report on conflict-related deaths in Iraq is moved to utter the words: 'Blair is evil'. P will explain her outburst as an expression of her emotions rather than an attempt to affirm a truth. It seems a bit harsh to class P's heartfelt utterance as bullshit. Similarly if a postmodernist is engaged in a genuine attempt to subvert the dominant structuralist narrative (rather than say, an attempt to intimidate or impress her audience), is it not a bit harsh to take her to be merely bullshitting? (in something like Franfurt's sense; even if what she says is unclarifiable nonsense and so perhaps bullshit in that sense)
I guess I'm taking issue with the claim that: 'All that can remain of speech, if there is no truth, is bullshit or pretending to assert...'.

4:47 PM  
Anonymous Janne said...

Good points Niall, I'm also inclined to think that Ben's treatment of postmodernism is attacking a straw-man, because it's too strong:

"Assume that the central tenet of postmodernism is that there is no such thing as truth or that the word “true” is no more than a clever cover for whatever beliefs or attitudes are generally accepted in some culture (and that is accepted due to concealed coercion)."

I don't think that most postmodernists in general deny the existence of a notion of truth, rather they only deny the existence of truth as it is understood/defined by for instance most analytic philosophers, that is, as an absolute and universal notion.

My point is that such an absolute notion isn't necessary to make sense of lying (and, I presume, bullshit). Assume the postmodernist notion of alethic relativism according to which what is true is relative to cultures or societies. For instance, it is true for us that the Earth is billions of years old, but not true for everyone (e.g. for societies that take biblical creationism to be literally true). So there are facts of the matter, even for postmodernists, it's just that these facts are (for instance) culturally constructed, rather than universal. Lying is then easily accommodated, in the normal way. If I said that the Earth was created 6000 years ago, I would be lying because it is not what I believe, nor is it true (for us). If a creationist said that the Earth was billions of years old then he would be lying, for analogous reasons. Postmodernists don't need to throw away the notion of truth or to disassociate it from notions like lying and honesty. They just disagree about some of its (rather fundamental) properties.

6:28 PM  
Anonymous Rob_S said...

Hi Ben

Cohen’s idea of bullshit is quite hard to understand. The “unclarifiable nonsense” formulation on its own seems far too strong – presumably these maligned French philosophers could clarify their claims to a certain extent. They’re not speaking pure gibberish, even if their ideas may be confused, inflated or platitudinous. But the negation-sign thing, on the other hand, looks far too weak. Wouldn't “There are 172 sweets in that jar” come out as bullshit? Since it is equally "intuitively plausible" that there are 172, as that there are not.

As such, it is hard to offer examples of Cohen-style bullshit from the analytic school. But grasping at what Cohen is getting at, here is a speculative attempt.

Charles Hartshorne presents the ontological argument for the existence of god as follows, where g means ”God exists”.

g --> N(g)
N(g) v ~N(g)
~N(g) --> N(~N(g))
N(g) v N(~N(g))
N(~N(g)) --> N(~g)
N(g) v N(~g)
N(g) --> g

Evidently, Hartshorne has formalised the bejesus out of this argument. But the whole thing is a sideshow if the proposition “God exists” is incoherent. And whether this is the case is a question that formalisation seems powerless to address. We would need a lengthy natural language discussion about what it would be for an all-powerful being to exist. And we may discover in the course of that discussion that “God exists” cannot be successfully clarified -- that we’ve been the victims of a big confusion.

If that did turn out to be the case, Hartshorne’s whole argument would be shot through with Cohen-style bullshit despite its very analytical style.

7:22 PM  
Anonymous Mike Campbell said...

If by the 'language of logic' is interpreted broadly, then Chris Peacocke's treatments of concepts would have to count as obscuring something otherwise clear. For example:

SQUARE is the concept C for a thinker to possess which is for him
(S1) to be willing to believe the thought Cm, where m is a perceptual demonstrative, when he is taking his experience at face value, and the object of the demonstrative m is presented in an apparently square region of his environment, and he experiences that region as having eequal sides and as symmetrical about the bisectors of its sides; and
(S2) for an object thought about under some mode of presentation m; to be willing to accept the content Cm when and only when he accepts that the object presented by m has the same shape as perceptual experiences of the kind in (S1) represents objects as having.

This quote is used by Hanjo Glock where he discusses the difference between analytic and continental philosophy (google for his paper 'was wittgenstein an analytic philosopher?' if interested).

11:43 PM  
Anonymous Dan T said...

My first thought is to agree with Niall that the categories of true, false and Frankfurt bullshit do not jointly account for all possible utterances. Two types of speech in particular seem to me to fall outside this schema: things said for rhetorical or humourous effect. We often say things for these reasons that could not be defended in the context of an analytic philosophical discussion - it is (somtimes) missing the point to call someone on their 'bar-room argument' with proper philosophical objections.

A question then is are we to say that these utterences are bullshit. If not, do they fit into the true or the false category? If so, it seems that the category (Frankfurt) "bullshit" is less interesting (and less moralised) than may otherwise be thought.

8:22 AM  
Anonymous Dan T said...

Clarification - by "if so" I mean, if they do fit in the category "bullshit".

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey all,

Ben here.

Apologies for not sticking my hand up yet. To take a few things in turn:

Frankfurt does rule out fiction, acting and so on. In these cases, everyone is aware that no real claim is being communicated by the speaker. What bullshit is for him is pretending to communicate a real claim (and getting the cudos associated with saying something), while no claim is actually being made.

Cohen's negation test is something I don't support, largely for the sort of reason that Niall suggests. Cohen differs from Frankfurt in trying to define bullshit in terms of some feature of the language used by the utterer of bullshit, rather than (as Frankfurt does) in terms of an attitude of the utterer. What I like about Cohen's account, though, is the attempt he makes to explain why some philosophers talk so much bullshit. He gives some hint in a paper called "Deeper into Bullshit" (in Overton, ed. 2002. Contours of Agency) and has an unpublished paper that he distributes by email in which he really lets rip (he blames the pop status of philosophers in France, the ex cathedra teaching style, the centralisation of intellectual life in Paris, etc.)

I'm interested that more than one of you want to defend postmodernism. My claim is this: if you spend most of your philosophical time saying that nothing is really true, how can you explain what it is that people do when they assert anything at all? Asserting is presenting a certain possibility and asserting of it that it actually obtains in the world. Denying that anything is ever really thus and so amounts to a denial that assertion has a point. And if you perfectly self-consciously hold that assertion has no point, you can't lie either and then, on Frankfurt's scheme, only bullshit remains.

Sure, the postmodernist may with a heartfelt feeling utter words like "the space of war has become definitively non-euclidean" (as Baudrillard did about the first gulf war), but this heartfelt feeling doesn't mean he is asserting something (i.e. making a claim). Same with the logical positivist (on whose own scheme describing anything as evil is contentless... of course I don't subscribe to this view).

Janne holds that most postmodernists reject absolute or objective truth, opting for an account of truth that is relativistic. He mentions the possibility of alethic relativism to show how lying can be possible. Problem with this is that of how to account for intercultural lying (even though it does make possible intracultural lying, Janne).

In general, I don't think relativism will help and my "bullshit" account of postmodernism is designed to show why not. If you assert something, you offer an explanation of how the world is not just for you, but for everyone who would care to look. If you DON'T think of assertion like this, assertion wouldn't have any point. I mean, why assert something if you know its only true-for-you? To this, please don't say "I offer something that's true-for-me and you interpret it in a way that's true-for-you". If I can have the awareness that you, too, can take certain things as "true-for-me" (so if I can imagine "true-for-me-for-you" or "true-for-me" from your perspective) I'm assuming that you're much like me, amongst other things as having to treat seeing something is so as a reason for believing it.

More later.

Thanks to all for writing.

9:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben again.

Rob S and Mike Campbell's suggestions are both cool. I'll check up on it.

I think humour and so-on Frankfurt will also treat as he does acting, fiction etc.

But hey, do I have to sign up as a "blogger" or an "other" to not be anonymous?

Howzit to all in London anyway. Cape Town's lovely, although all my latest work is on, well, pure bullshit.

PS, my KCL email is a dead parrot now, so I can't see if there have been any responses on the grad staff and students list to this thing. Feel free to encourage people onto the blog to discuss here.

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Jonny Blamey said...

Hi Ben,
Not sure if you succeed in reposting the defence of relativism. "If you assert something, you offer an explanation of how the world is not just for you, but for everyone who would care to look" The relativist can easily agree with you, but just qualify "everyone who would care to look" as everyone in the relevant culture. Admittedly intercultural assertions will be lost to bullshit, and this is philosophically undesirable. But "cultures" don't have to have fixed members. So "Carnap's project is morribund" may assert something to a relatively small set of people, whereas "Eating meat is permissable" will assert something to a larger set containing some of the members of the smaller set. Whether there are any assertions that are true in all cultures is an interesting question, one that the relativist is equipped to answer, but the anti relativist is not.
Anyway, thanks for your post, much appreciated. If you want to have your name on your post just sign in as "other".

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Janne said...

You're definitely right, Ben, about the impossibility of intercultural lying the way I set things up, but I still think you're just begging the question against the postmodernists. See, the postmodernists would just reject the notion of truth you're insisting on, and so you're arguing at cross purposes. Or, more infuriatingly, they would probably insist that your analysis is likely to be completely correct, but it's only true for you and your cultural kin, and not for them... I think postmodernists would be happy to concede that intercultural lying is impossible, and that's no bad thing because they would also reject the possibility of intercultural agreements and disagreements in general. The reason is clear: the domain of application of all facts doesn't extend beyond the cultural boundaries in which the facts are constructed. It's a bullet they're gonna bite with relish.

I think there must be ways to snare postmodernists in, but I don't think yours will do the trick. They're a slippery bunch, and on the whole seem entirely unconcerned by the postmodernism-bashing that Sokal and cohorts engage in. I would have thought that their weakest points lie in their own definitions of cultures/societies and the ways in which facts are supposedly constructed in them. In other words, their writing needs to be shown to be absurd in their own terms, and not from the outside, because for them the outside just doesn't count. Of course, if your Baudrillard quote is anything to go by, many postmodernists may always remain beyond the pale, wherever they are...

Anyway, good to hear from you mate. And congrats for the publication, why don't you send me a copy?

11:09 AM  
Anonymous rob_s said...

Thinking about this further, I’m not convinced there is a distinct category of bullshit here in anything like Cohen’s sense.

Take the Baudrillard example. The above quote is certainly pretentious and an unnecessary abuse of technical language. But it’s also clear that Baudrillard has something in mind when he says that “the space of war has become non-Euclidean”. I imagine he means something like “this is a war such that it is hard to definitively find the ends of it”. This would fit in with Baudrillard’s view that the first Gulf war was a kind of show war held for symbolic reasons in front of the TV cameras. This may be wrong and the way it is expressed is not conducive to reaching a wide audience. But people express bad ideas badly all the time, without uttering bullshit in the sense that Cohen wants to capture.

Perhaps then the real distinction is in the motives people have for the way they express themselves. E.g. Baudrillard chose the term “non-Euclidean” rather than plainer (and more explanatory) language because he wanted to project a certain image of himself, and to create a certain reaction in his audience. But again this doesn’t give us a real distinction. Analytic philosophers at their clearest may also choose to use the vocabulary they do to project a certain image of themselves -- e.g. as hard-headed types able to laser through confusion.

6:30 PM  
Anonymous Stephen L, said...

I wonder if analytic bullshit is better found in contextualist discussions. When a philosopher is giving an example of something he does not think felicitous, what is he trying to assert? Here's an example from Stanley's new book on knowledge:
" (1) If I have hands, then I know I have hands. But come to think of it, I might be a brain in a vat, in which case I would believe I have hands, but wouldn't. Now that I'm considering such a skeptical possibility seriously, even if I have hands, I don't know that I do. But what I said earlier is true. FOOTNOTE The reason I have placed the initial sentence in conditional form is that, if the initial sentence was just "I know I have hands", the contextualist could explain the infelicity of the final sentence by appeal to the knowledge account of assertion."
My question is what is the author trying to assert here? His point is that the last sentence is infelicitous, so he could be trying to assert that if some uttered "..", then it would be hard to interpret. But the footnote shows that he has deliberately avoiding making his made up speaker assert anything. "If I have hands then I know I have hands" just doesn't assert anything. The best interpretation I can think of is that I don't have hands, which seems absurd. A parody of the whole passage would be: "If someone to utter a sentence that asserts nothing, then deny it, then claim that it was true, the third claim would sound odd."

7:29 AM  
Blogger Ben_K said...

Janne, yes, the infuriating thing about postmodern academia IS the fact that no-one listens to good arguments; more so, even, that they take arguments like mine as a sign of bad faith. (I see something like a conspiracy theory mentality in that – whoever opposes your view is guilty of false consciousness.) Either way,what I saw in the "bullshit" debate is another chance to identify what is wrong with any and all academic work that takes as a starting assumption that "there is no truth". (The view is surprisingly popular in humanities departments outside of philosophy and especially here in Africa, where its least helpful to deny that progress is possible by doing good science… for instance, the South African minister of health still thinks an "African" diet of sweet potatoes, beetroot and lots of garlic is as good in curing AIDS as "western" medicine is. She seems to believe this a priori.)

What I’m trying to do is come up with a new way to provide this criticism. As Janne points out, I’ll need to engage postmodernists on their own turf. I admit to struggling, but here’s a colourful way of doing it.

Janne and Jonny both seem to think the following: “the relativist can live with Ben’s view, even if we grant his account of belief”. Here’s how it may go. The Frenchman presents a possibility to himself as true-for-Frenchmen, the Chinaman presents a possibility to himself as true-for-Chinamen, etc. (Btw. “Chinaman” just means “person from China”.) On this view, believing something is something different in every culture, every culture aiming at some variant of truth-for-them. But there’s a problem with this picture.

Firstly, in this skit, the Frenchman sees the Chinaman as doing something kind of similar as he himself is doing: the Frenchman thinks he and the Chinaman each aim for their own truth as each archer might aim for his own target. In thinking that the Chinaman is doing something similar to what he (the Frenchman) is doing, what the Chinaman aims for has to be at least partly understandable to the Frenchman. I mean, the Frenchman wouldn’t call what the Chinaman is doing “aiming for truth-for-Chinamen” if he didn’t see the Chinaman’s effort as an attempt to hit a target just like he does.

The Frenchman in this story doesn’t expect the Chinaman to hit the “true-for-Frenchmen” target, but he does expect the Chinaman to hit the “true-for-Chinamen” target and he can make sense of what the Chinaman is trying to do when he shoots. Importantly, the Frenchman couldn’t see the Chinaman’s activity as aiming at something at all if he didn’t have a conception of what it would be like for the Chinaman to hit or miss the “true-for-Chinamen” target. The Frenchman needs to understand what it is for the Chinaman to aim and miss – he needs to understand what it is for the Chinaman to end up believing the wrong thing. Seeing it like this is imagining that the Frenchman can step over to the Chinaman’s target and aim to hit or miss the “true-for-Chinamen” target with his own arrows. Translated into talk of belief: the Frenchman can aim to begin to believe like a Chinaman. If he can make sense of the Chinaman’s cognitive effort, why can he not try to believe-like-a-Chinaman? But if all of the archers can in principle take aim on all of the others’ targets there is no reason to suppose that Chinamen can only aim for their own target either. The only reason why they might only shoot at their own target is choosing not to try for any of the other targets. There’s no conceptual problem here about each target only being available to a specific audience – no cultural relativism, then – just people shooting for their own targets.

Just this point helps me somewhat, but not all the way. I need to show that, actually, we all aim for the same target and that all this talk of different targets is hokum. Let me try.

One thing that’s wrong with my archery picture, I think, is that archery requires the targets to be in full view and enables the archer to see when he hits or misses. Believing, unfortunately, is not like that. We aim to believe the truth, but don’t know what the truth is that we’re aiming at independently of forming the belief… I mean, if we did know in advance what the truth was before aiming at it, that would be like already believing something before forming a belief. That would have been nice, but the archer analogy doesn’t do justice to what forming beliefs are like. Believing is not like walking onto a field, placing a target and then hitting it. We don’t decide on what our own truth is going to be before trying to hit it… that would make the effort of deciding whether something is a good thing to believe or not superfluous. (But this is a bit like what the postmodernist is saying, that knowledge production is like deciding the truth that each culture has to hit in advance of the shooting match starting.)

Furthermore, even after we’ve “shot off” our belief, we also don’t ever know for sure that our arrow has really hit… we might be convinced as anything that we shot a pretty good arrow just then, but can’t ever actually walk up to the target to check whether it hit. I mean, we try to believe the truth, but can’t ever walk up to the truth itself to see whether our belief represents the truth right. (I’m talking about beliefs about the world, remember, forget logic or maths.) So to make my analogy work, lets see the Frenchman and Chinaman rather as shooting off arrows at targets blindfolded.

So lets imagine a Frenchman and a Chinaman shooting off arrows next to each other blindfolded. Neither can see his own target and the one can make sense of the other as shooting at a target. How do they know that they are not really aiming for the same target? If each can make sense of the activity of the other as aiming and shooting, hitting and missing, isn’t it the simplest explanation that they’re just aiming for the same target?

Furthermore, does it make a difference to the Frenchman that the person next to him is a Chinaman and not another Frenchman? No. Frenchman # 1 can’t see the target, so he can’t tell whether he and Frenchman # 2 (standing on the other side) are shooting for the same target or different ones. If there is a problem of cultural relativism, that problem pretty quickly expands to become one of individual relativism: how do I know that I don’t just aim at truth-for-me and you, whatever culture you belong to, aims at truth-for-you?

This, I’ve got a stronger argument against. Will post it later.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Colin Caret said...

So, given Cohen's "unclarifiable nonsense" account, it turns out that dialethism might be a case of analytic bullshit. Why?

The dialethist often motivates their case by considerations of semantic paradox, such as the Liar sentence L : "this sentence is false."

The dialethist claims that L is true. If you put a negation in front of that, it turns into the claim that it is not the case that L is true, i.e. L is false. Neither of these claims seems any more 'intuivively' plausible than the other, and what's worse, the dialethist accepts both! Analytic bullshit, by Cohen's account, but good philosophy in my estimate.

So I guess I would also join the throngs who are unnerved by the “unclarifiable nonsense” account of bullshit. It just takes in too much.

2:44 PM  
Anonymous jonny said...

Ben, I like your analogy, let me engage with it. I disagree with you when you say "We aim to believe the truth, but don’t know what the truth is that we’re aiming at independently of forming the belief" Surely one can understand a sentence without believing or disbelieving it. Suppose you say to me "Blair died this morning" If I make up my mind to believe you, my arrow firing is my belief, the target is clearly in view: the truth condition of "Blair died this morning".
The other thing you say I disagree with is
"Furthermore, even after we’ve “shot off” our belief, we also don’t ever know for sure that our arrow has really hit…"
This is a little too skeptical for me. Surely we know some of our beliefs are true? Surely we sometimes find our beliefs confirmed. I form the belief that I left the light on in the kitchen. I go to the kitchen and discover that my belief had hit its target: the light is on in the kitchen.
Zooming out of the archery analogy I'm probably broadly in agreement with your project. I withhold belief from "an "African" diet of sweet potatoes, beetroot and lots of garlic is as good in curing AIDS as "western" medicine is." but I don't think the truth of this statement depends on the culture of the believer, apart from in so far as the norms governing "goodness in curing" and
the extension of "western medicine" are culturally variant.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Ben_K said...

I'm with you, Colin.

I mentioned Cohen's account initially to fill people in on the ideas that are out there and to be able to talk about what he thinks of French philosophy. But his "unclarifiable nonsense" definition doesn't work. For one thing, Cohen explicitly says that he can't provide an account of what unclarifiable nonsense is! Frankfurt, in a reply, then pulls him up on his own account of unclarifiable nonsense being nonsense by its own lights.

Cohen's nonsense view doesn't seem to have a future: you just need to know the history of logical positivism's attempt to define nonsense and some of the Wittgenstein literature to see that its best not to hitch a political wagon (as Cohen's is) to this particular train (nonsense theory)... you just don't know where you're going to end up (if anywhere).

As to Jonny's points:

I didn't mean to say that I can't understand what it will be like for a sentence to be true (can't know what its truth conditions are) independently of actually having the belief. What I should have said to make things clearer is this: *before* I judge that Blair died this morning or not, I might know what it would be like for Blair to have died this morning (so, in *that* sense I can see what I'm aiming at), but I don't know whether it is actually true or not.

And *after* I judged that, no, he didn't die this morning, I can't step outside of my believing to compare the success of my belief directly against reality. Yes, I also think that observation is observation of reality but you can't be in touch with truth in any other way than having a belief about it. For the archer its different. He can put his bow down and walk right up to the target.

Obviously, archery and believing are different, so I'd better keep working on the analogy!

But I want to try, because I'm trying to make an argument against the idea that there can be "true-for-culture_x" and that relativised truth can fit into an account of belief.

Here's a simple one: if believing for Frenchmen is "aiming at truth-for-Frenchmen" and believing for Chinamen is "aiming at belief-for-Chinamen" then they're engaged in two different cognitive activities. And if they're engaged in *different* cognitive activities, there's no conceptual relativity here. They're not believing in different ways, they just have different attitudes!

What tricks relativists into being relativists despite this simple argument is a very outdated Cartesian (or "from analogy") view of what it is to believe: I know what its like for me to believe something, so, for you to believe something must be similar. I know what its like for me to aim at my truth, so for you to aim at your truth must be similar.

Its this "analogy" view that makes possible the move of saying believing for me is aiming at truth-for-me and believing for you is aiming at truth-for-you.

I want my argument against this to be an application of dismissals of arguments from analogy. To make sense of what it is to believe at all requires that we all aim at the same truth. So "true-for-me, true-for-you" is impossible.

My bullshit argument was similar, but it was about assertion: if there is to be anything like assertion (or lying), we have to assume that there is objective truth to what we say. Being a cheap relativist about truth is denying the possibility conditions of assertion. Then you guys cautioned me that it would only make impossible intercultural assertion, but that this is something postmodernists welcome (which is why I had to take this long digression through the understandability of relativism).

7:39 AM  
Anonymous Jonny said...

Thanks Ben. Its getting clearer now. If we take an observation sentence, eg. "That wall is red" I claim that if the sentence was true, then anyone who denied it would not be competent in the use of the terms involved ( a blind person would not deny such a sentence) So no one could claim that the sentence was only "true for x" where x was some culture or group. We could simply say that anyone who believed the sentence was false just had a different belief.
Now contrast "Kurt Vonnegut is the greatest American novelist". There is no doubt that someone could sensibly assert this, and sincerely believe it. It is not "bullshit". However, it is possible to believe that Kurt Vonnegut is the greatest US writer while at the same time conceding that there are perfectly literate and intelligent people who would not agree, that the statement is "not true for them".
Where I don't fully understand you is that you seem to be claiming that in the Kurt Vonnegut case, such people, in aiming to have a belief about Vonnegut, are aiming at a different truth. That if S can believe P is true, but also concede that R can believe that P is false without contradiction, then S and R must have different propositional attitudes. In my view it is clear that they have different attitudes to Kurt Vonnegut and what constitutes good literature, but I would not go so far as to say that this means they are operating on completely different concepts of truth or belief.
This kind of relativism is not confined to literature. In the sciences there can be many explanations for the same event, sometime competing in such a way that cannot be resolved. We would want (at least sometimes) to say that there is no final answer, the competing explanations both have their merits, without having to go so far as to say that those who favour one explanation over the other have a different concept of truth or belief.

11:39 AM  
Anonymous Rob_s said...

Hi Ben – a quick point about the political wagon Cohen (and maybe you) are hitched to.

It is very easy to listen to what people say outside of philosophy and incorrectly infer that they are depending on some background philosophical assumption that they would probably disown. For example, is it necessary to believe the South African minister of health “thinks there is no truth”? Maybe she just has mistaken views on AIDS.

Similarly, just because humanities students might talk about what’s ”true for X”, and a “society’s truths” – even about truths being “socially constructed” and such – needn’t lead us to assume they have faulty philosophical assumptions. Rather they’re talking in a different idiom from the one we’d use as philosophers, and they’re talking about different subjects. You just have to probe to find this out. Moreover, many debates about e.g. literature, propaganda, group consciousness, proceed in exactly the same way if you use an idiom in which e.g. “true for you” appears in place of “that which appears true to you”. Because the idiom does no harm (even gives us access to shortcuts and abbreviations), these things can persist in the language harmlessly.

I’m not saying that bad philosophy cannot infect non-philosophical practice. But I think it’s more unusual than you’re making out, for the reason that we literally cannot behave in a way consonant with believing that there is no such thing as truth. And this is to say that we literally cannot (even despite a very small minority of people's protestations) ever bring ourselves to believe such a thing.

5:34 PM  
Anonymous Rob_s said...

Last sentence was unclear. Should have said: "Which is to say that we literally cannot believe such a thing. Even a very small minority of people who say "I believe there is no truth", don't thereby believe it. They demonstrate by their behaviour that they don't."

5:37 PM  
Anonymous Rob_s said...

Having just tried to clarify it again and failed, it's possible my last paragraph above is a bona fide example of analytic Cohen-style bullshit. I stand with what comes before it though.

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a depressing post because it seems to betray a complete lack of understanding, or even cursory knowledge of so-called post-modern/french/continental philosophy. Actually - that in itself is not depressing. The depressing thing is that this lack of knowledge does not seem to prevent anyone from making absurdly sweeping statements.

"Assume that the central tenet of postmodernism is that there is no such thing as truth or that the word “true” is no more than a clever cover for whatever beliefs or attitudes are generally accepted in some culture (and that is accepted due to concealed coercion)."

Well we can make that assumption, but in terms of empirical accuracy it misses the archer's target and hits an innocent bystander somewhere in paris. The number of important "continental" thinkers who have a 'relativistic' view of truth is incredibly small - in fact I can't think of anyone really. Perhaps you were thinking of Derrida, Foucault, Levinas, Lyotard, Levinas, Heidegger, Baudriallard, Badiou or Deleuze? Unfortunately none of them would dream of holding such a view.

Well, the only way I could further argue that point as if you'd read a bit about one or two of these chaps, but it seems you haven't - and so I'll try a more constructive approach. Let's make your original asumption despite what I've said above. I think the problem is that you have taken one 'proposition' of a relativistic position "there is no such thing as absolute Truth" and then interpreted amongst other ideas that, as it were, should have got thrown out at the same time as Truth with a capital T. Well as some of your peers have pointed out, you can still do all the things you did without [T]ruth by using [t]ruth.

This established, we get back to the old analyic Vs. continental hobby horse. Sokal doesn't help things a bit - his hoax was brilliant but Fashionable Nonsense was patchy at best. I remember specifically what he wrote about Deleuze was ignorant because it failed to realise that Deleuze was (explicitly) taking concepts from mathematics and science and using them as a basis to create philosophical concepts. Sokal had no idea of this, had apparently just skimmed through looking amateurly for dodgy looking prose - a sorry state of affairs.

As an example of ignorance take the quotation given here from baudrillard ""the space of war has become definitively non-euclidean" . This can be explained quite easily, according to his theory old er wars were located very locally and easily at a particular place (Dunkirk lets say) whereas the Gulf War was perceived in a much more complex way including (as I think someone said Television). Not just perceived but fought in that way through the use of complex on the ground propaganda etc. The result being (he argues) that the war took place in dimensions of digital propaganda which, from a conceptual point of view, have a complex relation with the battle field. Now consider non-euclidean geometry and Riemmann's contributions to the solution of topological manifolds and you'll happen to see a nice analogy for what Baudrillard is saying. I think he's got it all sorely wrong, but he's certainly not talking nonsense. I guess we should read whole books rather than single sentences, huh?

12:33 AM  
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11:37 PM  

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