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Continuing with Simon on his book On Truth (2018).
We move to part two of the book, where we get down to the procedures used to obtain truth in art, ethics, and science. Simon is well known for his meta-ethics, which is descended from C.L. Stevenson's emotivism. Just as he said in part one that he agreed largely with Strawson's view that to say a sentence is true is to advocate for it, the same goes for saying that ethical claims are true: You're not looking for correspondence of the claim with some ethical fact out in the world, but expressing your advocacy of the claim. And this doesn't make the claim simply a matter of your whim: Per Hume and Smith, ethics is a social enterprise, so when you advocate an ethical claim, you're making a pitch to the rest of humanity that what you're advocating jibes somehow with our human nature, our moral intuitions, our traditions. We might not be able to articulate exactly what all those things amount to, and in fact they're open to ongoing negotiation, but neither is ethics a matter of individual subjective whim or thoroughly relative to a particular culture. We still want out ethical claims to be true, to be not what society actually thinks, but what it should think, which is related to what we actually think in a complicated way (e.g., the "spirit" of our intuitions, so you could argue that slavery is immoral given intuitions a society has about freedom, even if that society doesn't currently extend that freedom to all people).
This provides a good model of truth-seeking in general, and we talk about art (not a social enterprise in the way that ethics is, but also not just a matter of "to each his own taste"), and then about scientific normativity: A claim is regarded as true if it has the proper pedigree, i.e., if we've used the right kind of procedures (like those of physics or biology or math) to justify it.
So Simon is a pragmatist, but not like Richard Rorty, who (sometimes) denied that there really is truth, or like William James, who explicitly defined truth in terms of these concrete procedures. Simon is not trying to define truth, but to show us how truth claims actually work in ordinary use. He's in effect throwing away the traditional question and answering one that's more interesting.
Listen to part one first, or get the unbroken, ad-free Citizen Edition, and also Wes's bonus conversation on Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Please support PEL!
End song: "with you/for you" from the new cold/mess EP by Prateek Kuhad, interviewed on Nakedly Examined Music #79.
couple of academic philosophers puzzling the question of whether philosophical questions have answers in the way that say scientific questions do:
Rory Torrens says
A great discussion, but I still feel like I’m missing the main point of Blackburn’s approach to truth, or just not understanding it.
My question relates to the puzzle Mark hit on: truth is related to domain-specific practices of inquiry, but is not defined by those practices, on pain of circularity. So what is this ‘relation’? Truth seems like it is both internally related to our practices, and what those practices aim at – i.e., an external ‘target’. This seems right in some sense, even if we, qua ‘practitioners’, rather than philosophers, don’t necessarily talk in those terms (in the first instance, we want to know whether Saturn’s orbit is elliptical or not, not whether some statement to that effect is true).
Let me see if saying more makes the question clearer… What the experts in a given practice say is the case, may be the case, but not because they say it. That would obviously entail a trivial sort of relativism. So what makes their judgments true? Well, we are *inclined to say* they are true (i.e., have more trust that they are true) if they conform to the best procedures and epistemological standards of the practice. But how do we know that those are good procedures and standards? Can we answer with the following: “because they are truth-conducive”? What does that mean? We have just said that truth is a matter of conformity to procedures! So we have a boot-strapping problem. We want to relate truth in some way with the procedures of a practice, but those practices themselves (typically) behave as if truth were something else; they point out of themselves toward those mythical ‘facts in the world’.
Before anyone reads: It turns out that Mark Linsenmayer actively reads and responds to comments, so this post is correspondingly high-effort 😀 Also, I understand that this episode was about more than establishing why there might be objective/interpersonal/non-relative/absolute aesthetic truth, and I really appreciated the ways that everyone in the pod described the appreciation of art, and the role of a good critic or “guide.”
However, with regards to those portions that did seem to make that argument, I wanted to make the following counter-argument, which will assume that we humans can glean *some* degree of objective data from experience, and that the argument proposed in the podcast attempts in some way to subsume some portion or aspect of aesthetic judgements of good and bad into that objective category, one way or another. First, the primary points made in this episode in support of there being objective truth in aesthetics (as I understood them) over and above “I like/don’t like this” (which would count as personal, and subjective truths):
1. Aesthetic opinions, that is, one’s claim as to the goodness or badness of a piece of art, can change when one can discern more detail in that piece of art, or when learns things about that piece of art, or its medium, or its artist and their intentions, or its context. Thus, aesthetic opinion is a function of inquiry and analysis.
2. After one’s opinion on art changes based on that inquiry or analysis, one often considers one’s opinion as having “‘improved,” and one will believe that it takes detailed inquiry to determine what art is worth consuming, and one will consider certain tastes to be coarse, or improvable.
3. Based on #1 and #2, one will consider certain critics or artistic guides as being better or more justified guides.
4. Appreciating art consists of more than like/don’t-like, hence the wealth of words we have to describe art (wonderful, sublime, beautiful, droll, gouache, subversive, etc).
Regarding #1 & #2:
If one is able to discern more details of an art piece, that means one’s experience of it is different. That is, one sees more hues, or hears more notes, or more instruments, or hears how they follow or join one another in the piece, whereas one didn’t before. The fact that this new experience of the art piece will come with a new opinion of the goodness or badness of that piece (or sublimity, or beauty, or drollness, etc), and the fact that one might consider this new opinion “better,” no more illustrates that there exists objective, interpersonal aesthetic good or bad (and every dichotomy in between) than the fact that one has opinions on the goodness or badness of the piece in the first place does!
That is, if your opinion on the goodness or badness of sensory data isn’t already considered “partially” objective and absolute and non-relative, your opinion on the more nuanced version of that sensory data (the art piece) can’t be said to be *more* objective than it was before, any more than 10 times 0 is “more” than 100 times 0. Thus, your opinion changing with a more nuanced consumption of art cannot support the notion that aesthetic truth isn’t purely relative or personal without arguing circularly.
Similarly, it is circular to argue that aesthetic truth is objective based on the fact that one’s aesthetic opinion of one’s own aesthetic opinion improves after that “base” aesthetic opinion is informed by a more nuanced experience of art. That would be to argue that aesthetic judgements are objective by using another aesthetic judgement (or those of one’s friends).
Learning more about the art:
Of course, learning about art doesn’t just comprise hearing or seeing more detail, it comprises cognitive aspects as well: an ability to parse themes, an understanding of the artist’s context and intentions, or the ability to build a deeper narrative around or within a piece of art. That being said, this kind of learning, and its tendency to change one’s opinions of art, is equally incapable of supporting the objectivity or interpersonal validity of aesthetic truth as was the tendency of a more detailed hearing/reading/viewing in the first case.
That is, when one is more informed of the thinking behind an art piece, or its medium, or style, or context (all of which, for the sake of this argument, count as objective facts), one’s opinion of its aesthetic quality might change because the experience as a whole must change. That doesn’t make that aesthetic judgement more objective than it was before, unless we were already assuming that our aesthetic judgements of sensory experience, which always contained some objective data, were interpersonal and objective aesthetic judgements to one degree or another in the first place.
To summarize: our aesthetic opinions were always functions of cognitive understanding, analysis, and inquiry, and the fact that more understanding or inquiry changes aesthetic opinions (and our opinions of those opinions) doesn’t make them more objective, unless you began with the premise that they are.
#3 doesn’t support the argument for basically the same reasons.
Regarding #4: Of course this is 100% correct, and I was always disturbed by ethics based on “happiness” for this reason – they seem to miss out on all the ways that things can be good or bad, humans have other emotions than happy/not-happy, and opinions other than like/no-like. That being said, the incredible depth of style, and mood and performance hiding behind words like “good” and “bad” or “aesthetically positive” and “aesthetically negative” doesn’t make those predicates objectively valid.
#5: One more argument that was mentioned in passing was Humean, that “since humans have common cognitive constitutions we can make objective aesthetic judgements.”
I don’t think that one learns anything more from the fact that humans have similar brains, and thus artistic opinions than one does from the fact that subjects are (in their mysterious way) instantiated in objects. In this sense, subjectivity, and subjective opinions, were always objective. But that doesn’t make a person’s subjective opinion in some moment “objective” in the way that it (I think) being argued in this episode. It means that a person’s aesthetic judgements are functions of the objects and physical processes that make up their brain/nervous system, not that those judgements have bearing on the world outside of that brain/nervous system and the process that it undergoes to create consciousness.
P.S: I may be missing out on the reasoning of Dr. Blackburn and the rest of the pod given that I haven’t read D.r Blackburn’s book, and having listened to the other truth episodes I am still not clear on how procedural, context-based, or pragmatic definitions of truth are genuinely different than correspondence theory. It seems that in those pragmatic definitions, the “context” is just another word for “the relevant section of the world,” or “the things (which might be fictional or counter-factual) which our pragmatic goals are about,” which in correspondence theory are just “the facts” (God only knows why things in the world are called facts). Similarly, pragmatically “justified procedures” or “justified epistemic machinery” seem to just be the methods that produce beliefs about the context which are useful, that is, which correspond to how the context (or some aspect of it) actually is in relation to what one wants to do in that context. Which is to say, it all sounds like a tortured way of restating the correspondence theory to me.
Simon Blackburn has a good sense of humor,
I wanted to drop by to note I liked the wistful song at the end. Nice juxtaposition with the episode.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Yes, Prateek is great; check out my interview with him! http://nakedlyexaminedmusic.com/nem79-prateek-kuhad/