Thursday, 19 January 2017

Metaepistemology and Relativism

Today's post is by J. Adam Carter, lecturer in Philosophy, University of Glasgow. In this post, he introduces his new book Metaepistemology and Relativism.

The question of whether knowledge and other epistemic standings like justification are (in some interesting way) relative, is one that gets strikingly different kinds of answers, depending on who you ask. In humanities departments outside philosophy, the idea of ‘absolute’ or ‘objective’ knowledge is widely taken to be, as Richard Rorty (e.g., 1980) had thought, a naïve fiction—one that a suitable appreciation of cultural diversity and historical and other contingencies should lead us to disavow. A similar kind of disdain for talk of knowledge as objective has been voiced—albeit for different reasons—by philosophers working in the sociology of scientific knowledge (e.g., Barry Barnes, David Bloor, Steven Shapin).

Adam Carter

And yet, within contemporary mainstream epistemology—roughly, the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of human knowledge—the prevailing consensus is a strikingly different one. The term ‘epistemic relativism’ and views such as Rorty’s that have been associated this title have been, if not dismissed explicitly as fundamentally unworkable (e.g., Boghossian 2006, Ch. 6), simply brushed aside by contemporary epistemologists, who proceed in their first-order projects as if arguments for epistemic relativism can be simply bracketed, and as if the kind of answers to first-order epistemological questions they struggle with have objective answers.

In Metaepistemology and Relativism (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016) I set out to question whether the kind of anti-relativistic background that underlies typical projects in mainstream epistemology can on closer inspection be vindicated.

In the first half of the book—after some initial ground clearing and a critical engagement with global relativism—I evaluate three traditional strategies for motivating epistemic relativism. These are, (i) arguments that appeal in some way to the Pyrrhonian problematic; (ii) arguments that appeal to apparently irreconcilable disagreements (e.g., Galileo versus Bellarmine); and (iii) arguments that appeal to the alleged incommensurability of epistemic systems or frameworks.

I argue over the course of several chapters that a common weakness of these more traditional argument strategies for epistemic relativism is that they fail to decisively motivate relativism over scepticism. Interestingly, though, this style of objection cannot be effectively redeployed against a more contemporary, linguistically motivated form of epistemic relativism, defended most influentially by John MacFarlane (e.g., 2014).

On MacFarlane-style epistemic relativism, whether a given knowledge-ascribing sentence is true depends on the epistemic standards at play in what he calls the context of assessment, viz, the context in which the knowledge ascription is being assessed for truth or falsity. Because the same knowledge ascription can be assessed for truth or falsity from indefinitely many perspectives, knowledge-ascribing sentences do not get their truth values absolutely, but only relatively (for an overview of this idea, see here).

Although new (semantic) epistemic relativism constitutes an entirely different kind of challenge to mainstream epistemology than traditional forms, the new variety itself faces what I argue to be a dilemma. And once the dilemma is appreciated, it will be shown that the threat to mainstream epistemology that epistemic relativism is best understood as posing is in fact an entirely different one than we’d be originally inclined to think. (If you find this closing description a bit mysterious, no worries: you can always buy the book on Amazon to get the full story!)

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