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Fear of Knowledge starts out as an engaging, breezy critique of relativism and constructivism. Initial appearances prove deceptive; while Boghossian's discussion remains engaging, it quickly moves to a very high level of careful and rigorous argumentation, and stays at that level throughout.
Focusing to a considerable extent on the work of Richard Rorty, Boghossian carefully articulates the target relativist and constructivist views and the arguments for and against them, on the way to equally careful statements of the views and the arguments for them that he favors.
That critique is powerful and on the whole highly effective. But the focus on Rorty, and Boghossian's intention to write a short, uncluttered and accessible book -- both of which are sensible and well-motivated -- lead the discussion away from consideration of highly relevant literature. The relative neglect of that literature and the occasionally questionable treatment of it when addressed makes the book somewhat less helpful to specialists than it will be to those seeking an effective antidote to Rortian postmodernist relativism.
Moreover, the sophistication and complexity of Boghossian's discussion threatens to make it less accessible to the non-specialist than one might hope. In Chapter 1 Boghossian begins laying out the target views, lamenting their wide embrace in the contemporary postmodern intellectual climate: "In vast stretches of the humanities and social sciences, this sort of 'postmodernist relativism' about knowledge has achieved the status of orthodoxy.
Equal Validity : There are many radically different, yet "equally valid" ways of knowing the world, with science being just one of them.
Equal Validity seems "radical and counterintuitive" because it denies fact-objectivity : the idea that with respect to factual questions, "there is a way things are that is independent of us and our beliefs about it.
Why do so many scholars subscribe to Equal Validity? Boghossian's explanation involves both ideological the post-colonial rejection of colonialism, in general but especially in the name of spreading knowledge and intellectual elements.
The latter involve the rejection of objectivist conceptions of truth and rationality, and the embrace of a " social dependence conception of knowledge," according to which "the truth of a belief is not a matter of how things stand with an 'independently existing reality;' and its rationality is not a matter of its approval by 'transcendent procedures of rational assessment'.
Such s ocial constructivist conceptions of knowledge are addressed in Chapter 2. Boghossian contrasts them with what he calls " The Classical Picture of Knowledge ," according to which 1 "The world which we seek to understand and know about is what it is largely independently of us and our beliefs about it" " Objectivism about Facts " , 2 "Facts of the Form -- information E justifies belief B -- are society-independent facts" " Objectivism about Justification " , and 3 "Under the appropriate circumstances, our exposure to the evidence alone is capable of explaining why we believe what we believe" " Objectivism about Rational Explanation ".
They are the subjects of the rest of the chapters. Chapters 3 and 4 address fact-constructivism. After pointing out the radical counter-intuitiveness of the doctrine exemplified by Bruno Latour's denial that anyone could have died of tuberculosis before Koch discovered the bacillus in 26 , Boghossian turns in Chapter 3 to the accounts of fact-constructivism developed by Rorty, Nelson Goodman and Hilary Putnam, according to which "we construct a fact by accepting a way of talking or thinking which describes that fact.
Description Dependence of Facts : Necessarily, all facts are description-dependent: there cannot be a fact of the matter as to how things are with the world independently of our propensity to describe the world as being a certain way. Once we adopt a particular scheme for describing the world, there then come to be facts about the world. While granting that some facts e. He distinguishes fact-constructivism from another, weaker thesis with which it is, according to Boghossian, often conflated:.
Social Relativity of Descriptions : Which scheme we adopt to describe the world will depend on which scheme we find it useful to adopt; and which scheme we find it useful to adopt will depend on our contingent needs and interests as social beings. Boghossian neatly demonstrates Rorty's conflation of these two, and argues compellingly that the latter, contrary to Rorty, offers no support either to description-dependence in particular or fact-constructivism more generally.
Goodman's argument, Boghossian argues, illicitly generalizes from the description-dependence of particular, genuinely description-dependent facts, e. More devastatingly, he argues that Goodman's characterization of description-dependence requires that "some facts not be description-dependent.
The basic criticism is that for description-dependence to work as Goodman and Putnam claim, there must be "some basic facts -- the basic worldly dough -- on which our redescriptive strategies can get to work. But that is precisely what fact-constructivism denies. But it should be noted that they have been familiar in the literature for some time; it is unfortunate that he discusses neither the highly similar arguments penned by others nor Goodman's and Putnam's responses to them.
Chapter 4 is devoted to Rorty's particular version of fact-constructivism which, according to Boghossian, "is tailor-made to get around the three problems we have just raised for constructivism" 41 : the problem of causation how can our descriptions cause the existence of things like mountains, whose existence seems to antedate ours?
This view helps resolve the three problems just mentioned, Boghossian claims, because it doesn't rely on there being any 'basic worldly dough' -- i. According to this untenable view, " Global Relativism about Facts ,". Why is this view untenable? Boghossian considers "the traditional argument" 52 according to which it is untenable because incoherent, and finds that argument wanting; he offers another argument in its place.
Let us look at these in turn. According to Boghossian, the traditional argument concludes that the kind of relativism here addressed i. Boghossian quotes a version of the argument given by Thomas Nagel which is actually an argument attempting to show that subjectivism is incoherent , according to which making the substitutions of 'absolute' for 'objective' and 'relative' for 'subjective' the relativist's assertions that 'there are no absolute facts of the form, p' for the Global Relativist about Facts , or 'there are no absolute truths or absolute standards of justification' for the traditional epistemological relativist are caught on the horns of a dilemma: either they are offered as absolute truths, in which case the relativist, in offering them, contravenes her relativism; or they are offered as relative truths, in which case they fail to challenge the absolutism they are meant to deny.
Either way, according to the traditional argument, the case for relativism fails. Boghossian reports that he "agree[s] with this traditional objection -- though I do not agree with the traditional argument by which it is defended. This criticism of the traditional argument fails, I think, for two reasons.
First, we can and should ask of the key claim -- that it is possible that "relativism is true relative to a theory that it pays for us all to accept" -- whether it is true, or asserted by the critic to be true, relatively or absolutely.
Here the dilemma re-arises, seemingly with full force. Either the critic is asserting as an absolute truth that this is possible, in which case her relativism is contravened; or she is asserting it as a relative truth 'According to theory T, that I accept, it is possible that relativism is true relative to a theory that it pays for us all to accept' , in which case it fails to seriously challenge the absolutism it is meant to contest, and the absolutist remains free to ignore it.
Second, as already noted, the criticism slides back and forth between relativism about facts and relativism about truth. This conflation or identification is I think unfortunate; it is in any case more controversial than Boghossian acknowledges. It is worth pointing out that Nagel's argument concerns the alleged relativity of reason and of judgment , not facts The Last Word , In this respect, it might with some justice be said that Boghossian's treatment of the traditional argument is out of place here, since the view under consideration concerns the relativity of facts rather than the more usual epistemological targets.
Boghossian's new argument for relativism's incoherence goes as follows: The relativist denies that there are facts of the form 'There have been dinosaurs,' but accepts that there could be facts of the form 'According to a theory that we accept, there have been dinosaurs.
If the relativist answers 'yes,' he faces three problems: "First, and most decisively, he would be abandoning any hope of expressing the view he wanted to express, namely that there are no absolute facts of any kind, but only relative facts. Instead, he would end up expressing the view that the only absolute facts there are, are facts about what theories different communities accept.
This seems to get things exactly the wrong way round. That is, the first reason offers but a variant of the traditional objection to epistemological relativism, while the second and third reasons address worthy but different targets.
If the 'yes' answer is untenable, what of the 'no' answer? Boghossian argues that it leads to an infinite regress, according to which the relativist who answers his question in the negative "is committed to the view that the only facts there are, are infinitary facts of the form:.
According to a theory that we accept, there is a theory that we accept and according to this latter theory, there is a theory that we accept and… there have been dinosaurs.
But it is absurd to propose that, in order for our utterances to have any prospect of being true, what we must mean by them are infinitary propositions that we could neither express nor understand. Boghossian concludes that "The real dilemma facing the global relativist, then, is this: either the formulation that he offers us does not succeed in expressing the view that there are only relative facts; or it consists in the claim that we should so reinterpret our utterances that they express infinitary propositions that we can neither express nor understand.
Boghossian's new argument against the coherence of relativism succeeds, I am happy to grant, as an argument against the Rorty-inspired " Global Relativism about Facts " which itself "harks back to Protagoras," according to Boghossian 47 that Boghossian formulates and is in this chapter most concerned to address.
It is clearly a different argument than the traditional one, and is aimed at a different sort of relativism concerning facts than the sort of epistemological relativism captured by Protagoras' ' homo mensura ' 'man is the measure' and challenged by philosophers from Plato to Nagel. And it should be noted that Rorty has taken considerable pains to distance himself from the latter sort of relativism -- a fact that Boghossian never mentions.
Chapters 5, 6 and 7 turn away from fact-constructivism to address justification-constructivism. In Hegelian fashion, Boghossian offers a putatively strong argument for epistemic relativism in chapter 5, a putatively strong argument against it in chapter 6, and a resolution of this 'paradox' in chapter 7.
Copernicanism is justified absolutely by the available evidence e. Galileo's observations , but only that it is justified relative to the particular epistemic system that we have come to accept. And we should notice that this view of justification gives considerable comfort to advocates of Equal Validity.
Boghossian approaches the view, and what "appears to be a seductively powerful argument in its support" 63 , by considering our "post-Galilean" epistemic system. That system operates according to principles of justified-belief generation and transmission such as Observation "For any observational proposition p, if it visually seems to S that p and circumstantial conditions D obtain, then S is prima facie justified in believing p" 64 ; Deduction "If S is justified in believing p and p fairly obviously entails q, then S is justified in believing q" 66 ; and Induction "If S has often enough observed that an event of type A has been followed by an event of type B, then S is justified in believing that all events of type A will be followed by events of type B" These principles are not meant to be precisely formulated, and they are not claimed to be explicitly embraced; rather, they are " implicit in our practice, rather than explicit in our formulations.
The way of fixing beliefs that we call 'science' is in large part a rigorous application of these ordinary, familiar principles. By a 'fundamental' principle, I mean a principle whose correctness cannot be derived from the correctness of other epistemic principles.
This is enough "to engage the relativist's claim that there are no absolute facts about what justifies what, but only relational facts about what is allowed or forbidden by particular epistemic systems. Rorty along with Wittgenstein defends this sort of relativism concerning justification on the basis of "the fact that there is no system-independent fact in virtue of which one epistemic system could be said to be more correct than any other.
The apparently "seductively powerful argument" in support of epistemic relativism can now be stated. First, assume that our epistemic system is fundamentally different than the systems of Bellarmine and the Azande, in the sense that "their underived epistemic principles diverge from ours. There are no absolute facts about what belief a particular item of information justifies.
Epistemic non-absolutism. If a person, S's, epistemic judgments are to have any prospect of being true, we must not construe his utterances of the form "E justifies belief B" as expressing the claim E justifies belief B but rather as expressing the claim: According to the epistemic system C, that I, S, accept, information E justifies belief B. Epistemic relationism.
There are many fundamentally different, genuinely alternative epistemic systems, but no facts by virtue of which one of these systems is more correct than any of the others. Epistemic pluralism 73, italics in original. The "very strong prima facie case" 73 for epistemic relativism so formulated is this:. If there are absolute epistemic facts about what justifies what, then it ought to be possible to arrive at justified beliefs about them. It is not possible to arrive at justified beliefs about what absolute epistemic facts there are.
There are no absolute epistemic facts. If there are no absolute epistemic facts, then epistemic relativism is true. Epistemic relativism is true. Boghossian grants for the sake of discussion premise 4, thus resting the case for epistemic relativism on the case for epistemic non-absolutism A. Boghossian briefly defends Premise 1 , but attends mainly to Premise 2.
How, for example, might we show that Bellarmine is incorrect when he denies that Galileo's observations justify Copernicanism? Showing that this follows from our fundamental epistemic principles will cut no ice, since Bellarmine will reject some sub-set of those principles, advancing one we reject Revelation in its place that we in turn reject. The dispute is ultimately one concerning alternative epistemic systems and their respective fundamental principles. Could it be shown that any such principle is justified?
As Boghossian puts it, "To show… that our system is correct and theirs wrong, we would have to justify the principles of our system over theirs, we would have to offer them some argument that demonstrated the objective superiority of our system over theirs.
But any such argument would require using an epistemic system, relying on the cogency of some epistemic principles and not others. While it is not inevitable, it is "very likely" that each system of principles would "decide in favor of themselves and against the other practice.
Will we have shown anything substantive; could we really claim to have demonstrated that our principles are correct, and theirs not? Is either one of us in a position to call the other 'wrong'? The most that any epistemic practice will be able to say, when confronted by a fundamentally different, genuine alternative, self-supporting epistemic practice, is that it is correct by its own lights, whereas the alternative isn't.
But that cannot yield a justification of the one practice over the other, without begging the question.
Fear of Knowledge
Fear of Knowledge starts out as an engaging, breezy critique of relativism and constructivism. Initial appearances prove deceptive; while Boghossian's discussion remains engaging, it quickly moves to a very high level of careful and rigorous argumentation, and stays at that level throughout. Focusing to a considerable extent on the work of Richard Rorty, Boghossian carefully articulates the target relativist and constructivist views and the arguments for and against them, on the way to equally careful statements of the views and the arguments for them that he favors. That critique is powerful and on the whole highly effective.
Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism
Now in paperback--"One of the most readable works in philosophy in recent years" Wall Street Journal --a compact, devastating attack on relativism and constructivism. The idea that science is just one more way of knowing the world and that there are other, radically different, yet equally valid ways, has taken deep root in academia. In Fear of Knowledge, Paul Boghossian tears these relativist theories of knowledge to shreds. He argues forcefully for the intuitive, common-sense view--that the world exists independent of human opinion and that there is a way to arrive at beliefs about the world that are objectively reasonable to anyone capable of appreciating the relevant evidence, regardless of their social or cultural perspective. This short, lucid, witty book shows that philosophy provides rock-solid support for common sense against the relativists; it is provocative reading throughout the discipline and beyond. His analysis is something of a tour de force: subtle and original enough to attract the attention of professional philosophers but accessible enough to be read by anyone with an interest in the subject.
Relativist and constructivist conceptions of knowledge have become orthodoxy in vast stretches of the academic world in recent times. This book critically examines such views and argues that they are fundamentally flawed. The book focuses on three different ways of reading the claim that knowledge is socially constructed, one about facts and two about justification. All three are rejected.