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Fear of Knowledge’: An Exchange

In response to:

Why Should You Believe It? from the September 24, 2009 issue

To the Editors:

There was something pleasantly nostalgic about John Searle’s review of Fear of Knowledge by Paul A. Boghossian [NYR, September 24], riding to the defense of Enlightenment values of truth, objectivity, and rationality. I was however rather surprised to find myself (although in good company) representative of the forces of darkness he needed to justify his crusade. Along with the good old-fashioned intellectual virtues he claims to espouse, many of us were taught another one. That is to read someone’s work before making it an object of discussion (or derision as I think we might say in this case).

On the basis of a few lines from my paper in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (Supplementary Vol. 71), lines he urges us to read closely and then perversely misreads, he draws wild conclusions, which even the most cursory reading of the paper would have made impossible. He claims that I reject an independently existing reality, when all that was argued was the widely accepted point of the impossibility of an unmediated access to it. More astonishingly he attributes to me and my fellow barbarians (feminist, postcolonialist, and poststructuralist thinkers) the view that “if we are to be truly free, free to create a multicultural democracy, we must above all liberate ourselves from ‘objectivity,’ ‘rationality,’ and ‘science.’”

In place of such a fantasy my paper was instead addressing how rational assessment of knowledge claims is possible, if we accept the situatedness of knowledge seekers. It points out that feminists cannot be relativists for “feminist criticisms aimed to challenge and discredit the masculine accounts they critiqued, not simply to add a further perspective. This requires the possibility of rational encounters between the positions.”

One of the problems with Searle’s characterization of his supposed opponents is a running together of different positions. Those who argue that historical, social, and material locatedness constrain what we can discover and make sense of are accused of relativism: here the view that knowledge is knowledge-relative-to-a-certain-framework/ time-or-place. But these are quite different claims. Searle also glosses the suggestion that facts are socially constructed as “if we do not like a fact that others have constructed, we can construct another fact that we prefer.” Yet those who argue that we are the source of the frameworks in terms of which we understand the world do not have to claim that we do this in a way unconstrained by an independent reality, even while accepting that such reality does not dictate to us the single best way of making sense of it.

The failure of Searle to engage with the positions he is so eager to dismiss is puzzling. What is he afraid of here? That a willingness to see something valuable in his opponents might make his own position somewhat less heroic?

Kathleen Lennon
Ferens Professor of Philosophy
University of Hull
Hull, England

To the Editors:

In discussing Paul Boghossian’s critique of relativism, John Searle cites with approval the assertion that “the fact that descriptions are socially relative does not imply that the factsdescribed by those descriptions are socially relative.” From a sociological perspective, emphasizing (even claiming) such a distinction may prove inadequate.

In many social situations the “descriptions” (perceptions, definitions, judgments) are infinitely more consequential socially, and for a commonsense understanding of what is going on, than the alleged “facts.” And since there may well be differing and even “competing” descriptions, what the anti-relativist might like to see, in a given situation, as “fact” or “truth” might better be viewed as an outcome of processes of social perception and definition. Apposite examples are myriad.

Is the husband hitting his wife a “mere domestic disturbance” or is it “wife- battering”? The hitting may be objective “fact,” but how it is defined and reacted to will be crucial. Did the man who fell to his death have an “accident” or commit “suicide”? The evidence may be inconclusive, but in any case a social definition will be applied. What is the objective “truth” value of “clinical depression”? If the distinction between it and extreme sadness is a matter of considered yet still subjective judgment, is clinical depression a “fact”?

Should a critic feel that, by focusing in this way on “descriptions,” I am simply by-passing the philosophical debate, I would return to my earlier point about social (and psychological) consequentiality. It may be that a chair, a tree, a human body, and a physical act are “facts.” But in the arena of human interaction we constantly encounter social characterizations of people, acts, and situations. More often than not, and in the absence of a truly “established” body of supporting evidence, there is little or no consensus regarding which particular “description” or “vocabulary” is applicable. As my earlier comments suggest, in their ramifications and effects the ones that do emerge “successful” make all the difference in the world.

Edwin M. Schur
Professor Emeritus Department of Sociology
New York University

John R. Searle replies:

In my review of Boghossian’s book I cited a passage that he quotes from Kathleen Lennon, in which she contrasts “knowledge as a neutral transparent reflection of an independently ordered reality, with truth and falsity established by transcendent procedures of rational assessment” (a conception she rejects) and “all knowledge [as] situated knowledge, reflecting the position of the knowledge producer at a certain historical moment in a given material and cultural context” (a conception that she accepts and that she assumes refutes the transcendent conception she rejects). I pointed out that contrary to her view, these are not inconsistent. It is trivially true that knowledge is always arrived at by historically situated individuals in historical contexts and it is also true that these individuals sometimes produce theories that meet universal standards of rational assessment.

She says, correctly, that I had not read her article. I was reviewing Boghossian’s book, not her article. I have now read the article with some care, and I believe it contains a deep inconsistency. In her letter to me she denies that she is a relativist, and insists that the passages she quotes from her original article support her denial of relativism. But the key sentence in her original article is this: Theories cannot be assessed by reference to universal norms. This is an astounding claim, because it denies that there are universal norms such as truth, evidence, consistency, rationality, and coherence, by which we can assess theories.

Her grounds for this claim are in the passage Boghossian and I quoted where she assumes that the situatedness and contextual dependency of actual research is inconsistent with universal norms. They are not inconsistent. The rejection of universal norms implies relativism. If there are no universal norms, then what sort of norms can we use? And the answer is implicit in what she says: norms are derived from a given material and cultural context. That is relativism. She cannot have it both ways. She cannot insist that she is not a relativist and yet deny that there are universal norms of validity.

Edwin Schur makes an important point that I want to emphasize. Where brute physical reality is concerned, we can typically state facts that are totally independent of any human attitudes: that the earth is round, that hydrogen atoms have one electron, for example. But where human reality is concerned, there are many facts where the descriptions of the fact are partly constitutive of the fact in question. Something is money, property, government, or marriage only insofar as we represent it as such, and that representation requires some use of language.

Furthermore, there are many human attitudes where language is partly constitutive of the attitude. In order to fall in love or resent injustice, you have to have a certain way of conceptualizing your feelings, because the concepts are partly constitutive of the attitudes in question. And the point is not, as he suggests, that the evidence might be inconclusive. Given complete evidence in some cases you cannot separate the facts from the interpretation. I think these are very important points, and indeed I have written two books about them and related issues, The Construction of Social Reality (1995) and Making the Social World (forthcoming). I am glad that Professor Schur enables me to make this point.

A number of other questions were raised in the numerous letters commenting on my article, and I want to answer at least one familiar objection: the fact that science frequently changes is sometimes taken to support relativism. In fact scientific change is an argument against relativism. We would not bother to change our scientific theories if we did not think the new theory was closer to the truth than the old one. For example, we give up the Newtonian conception of space and time and replace it with an Einsteinian conception, because the latter is closer to the truth.

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