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Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism

Fear Of Knowledge by Paul Boghossian

Steve Wood has no fear of Paul Boghossian.

“There are no facts about the world. Not only are there none of those fluffy moral facts, but there are no juicy, rock-solid historical facts, and certainly no scientific facts. What’s more, every way of seeing the world is equally as valid as any other.”

I was describing this point of view to a friend and his response was, “I’m sure glad that has fallen out of favor. Sounds like the sort of silliness that can give you an acute headache.” This acerbic gut response to such extreme relativism is what Paul Boghossian is banking on and playing off of in writing his new book Fear of Knowledge, an invective against the doctrine of equal validity. This way of thinking stipulates that there are many radically different, yet equally valid, ways of seeing the world.

But if all ways of seeing the world are equally valid, what happens when we say something is true? What does it mean when I say for example, “Paul’s dog is alive”? The common-sense response is that there is one truth here, and that either the dog is alive or it isn’t. This way of thinking about knowledge assumes that many facts (but not necessarily all) are true independent of us knowing them – they are mind-independent. Furthermore, it is often our exposure to evidence for these facts which makes us believe them. This is Boghossian’s vantage point, but it is the antithesis of the idea that disparate ways of seeing the world are all equally valid.

Those holding the ‘equal validity’ view argue that a true statement about the world isn’t true because of any mind-independent facts. Rather, propositions are only true because we construct them – and their truth. When we assert “Paul’s dog is alive,” we accept a way of talking in which this statement is true; but the way things are is entirely dependent on the way in which we describe them. The inverse of this may be even more telling: there’s no way that things are that is independent of their description.

Boghossian posits three objections to this kind of relativism. First, if it is the case that all facts are ‘socially constructed’, then there can be no facts – such as the existence of dinosaurs – that antedate social existence. Second, it is part of the thrust of most facts that they are independent of us. Electrons, for instance, are by definition not created by us: they’re what create us. Third, and most damagingly, this relativistic position is contradictory. If a fact is genuinely only socially constructed, then there must at least be a possibility that another society could construct the opposite – ‘Paul’s dog is alive’ and ‘Paul’s dog is not alive’ would both be true simultaneously. But how could Paul’s dog be both alive and not alive depending on social interpretation? It couldn’t be so without violating our sense of non-contradiction.

But we can side-step these hurdles if we argue (as the late Richard Rorty did) that the world and all its elements are causally independent of us but not representationally independent of us.

What does this mean? Rorty argued that although there are major aspects of the world that we can’t bring into existence by our description, there is no way to make sense of this world without adopting some way of speaking about it. But this entails that the world only makes sense relative to some theory about it; and theories are human constructs. When we say “Paul’s dog is alive,” we certainly don’t thereby bring the dog to life in any physical or causal way. But the moment we mention ‘dog’, for example, we are talking according to a theory of the world in which there is presumed to be a category of things known as ‘dogs’. And our theories are ones we have accepted based on our needs and interests. If the world is in fact causally independent but not representationally independent, as Rorty claims, then Boghossian’s first two hurdles to real knowledge are easily cleared. There is a real world out there: but how we choose to think about it is merely socially relative.

Rorty’s nifty reformulation also repudiates the contradiction dilemma, by reinterpreting what we mean when we say something is true. When we state a proposition, such as “Paul’s dog is alive”, we are implicitly saying “It’s true according to my theory that Paul’s dog is alive.” This does not contradict the statement “It’s true according to Paul’s theory that his dog is dead.” These theories are in conflict, true; but they’re not internally conflicting. They’re just different ways of thinking and talking about the world, and we will adopt one or the other based on our needs, Rorty claims.

In the end, Boghossian believes he topples Rorty by pinning him into a corner in which he must say either that there is at least one mind-independent, description-independent fact, or accept that the justification of his position falls into an abyss of infinite regress. Consider this argument: to state that there are no representationally-independent facts is to assert that there is at least one representationally-independent fact: that there are no representationally-independent facts! If you deny that there is this one representationally-independent fact, then you must say that there are no representationally independent facts – which itself confirms the statement.

Furthermore, if I said “Paul’s dog is alive,” I would apparently really mean “according to my theory, Paul’s dog is alive.” However, we can’t say that this is simply true by itself, because there are no facts that are true by themselves – all facts or ideas are true relative to some theory. The next iteration will look something like, “according to my theory, there is another theory of mine, and according to this latter theory, Paul’s dog is alive.” This is also only true according to another theory... and so the iterations will continue ad infinitum. So according to Boghossian, Rorty and his clansmen mean to say either that there are no facts that are true on their own accord, except the fact that there are no facts that are true on their own accord – or else that we must come to understand all our propositions as an infinite iteration of propositions that we can’t fully comprehend or enumerate, because they’re infinite. But the correct conclusion is rather that facts can be true in themselves: facts can be taken at face value as true, or false.

But if there are mind-independent (theory-independent) facts about the existence of dogs, Boghossian believes, then surely there could also be mind-independent facts of other sorts, such as facts about the justification of beliefs. Boghossian has systematically disassembled the notion that there are no facts about the world independent of theories. Now he has the same project for the idea that there are no single correct or incorrect beliefs independent of theories, to show that some ways of justifying beliefs really are better than others.

Boghossian argues that if what validly justifies belief can vary from culture to culture, then no way of acquiring knowledge is better than any other. This means that we can state with equal confidence “I am justified in coming to believe that my walls are white by employing observation” and “I am not justified in coming to believe that my walls are white by employing observation,” and both have equal claim to being true.

How could they both be true? If we go on to say that looking at the walls isn’t enough to tell the color of walls, then we have asserted the falsity of the first proposition. Equally interesting, we have also asserted the truth of the second proposition. Generally, to claim that both propositions are equally valid, we must assert the truth of one and the falsity of the other. How devastatingly contradictory!

Fear of Knowledge is a pithy repudiation of the popular claim that every way of seeing the world is just as good as any other. But to his detriment, Boghossian fails to reflect about what might be so attractive about this doctrine in the first place. What’s so attractive is the ineradicable uncertainty we have about our own knowledge (for instance, how do I ever truly know that world is as it appears?), and the feeling of awe inspired by this inability to grasp the world with full confidence. To harbor uncertainty forces us to come to grips with the possibility that things could be other than they appear, or other than the way we think they are. This doubt enriches truth: the process of coming to grips with the world is crucial to understanding the way the world actually is. So we should be loath to wish away the sheer wonderment that is demonstrated by the doctrine of equal validity.

Boghossian’s hyperbolic fear of an apocalyptic decline of Western reason is well-intentioned but severe. We should try to root out gratuitous misconceptions about truth. Yet we should also remember that the instincts that bring about some of those misconceptions may be worth preserving.

© Steve Wood 2008

Steve Wood is a co-founder of the High School Philosophy Seminar in Washington, DC.

• Paul Boghossian, Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Conmstructivism, Oxford University Press, 2006, 152pp, hb/pb, ISBN10: 0-19-928718-X.


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