Mistakes and objectivity. Myths in the history of philosophy (Part II)

“It’s raining.” While reading or writing this sentence now, I think many things. I think that the sentence is a rather common example in certain textbooks. I also think that it has a slightly sentimental ring. Etc. But there is one thing I can’t bring myself to think now: that it is true. Worse still, if someone sincerely uttered this sentence now in my vicinity, I would think that there is something severely wrong. A charitable view would be that I misheard or that he or she made a linguistic mistake. But I can’t bring myself to disagree with what I take to be the facts. The same is true when reading philosophy. If someone disagrees with what I take to be the facts, then … what?  – Since I am a historian of philosophy, people often seem to assume that I am able to suspend judgment in such cases. That is, I am taken to report what someone thought without judging whether the ideas in question are true or false. “Historians are interested in what people thought, not in the truth”, it is said. This idea of neutrality or objectivity is a rather pervasive myth. In what follows, I’d like to explain what I think is wrong with it.

Let’s begin by asking why this myth might be so pervasive. So why do we – wrongly – assume that we can think about the thoughts of others without judging them to be true or false? One reason might be the simple fact that we can use quotations. Accordingly, I’d like to trace this myth back to what I call the quotation illusion. Even if I believe that your claims are false or unintelligible, I can quote you – without adding my own view. I can say that you said “it’s raining”. Ha! Of course I can also use an indirect quote or a paraphrase, a translation and so on. Based on this convenient feature of language, historians of philosophy (often including myself) fall prey to the illusion that they can present past ideas without imparting judgment. What’s more, at least in the wake of Skinner, this neutral style is often taken as a virtue, and transgression is chided as anachronism (see my earlier post on this).

But the question is not whether you can quote without believing what you quote. Of course you can. The question is whether you can understand a sentence or passage without judging its truth. I think you can’t. (Yes, reading Davidson convinced me that the principle of charity is not optional.) However, some people will argue that you can. “Just like you can figure out the meaning of a sentence without judging its truth”, they will say, “you can understand and report sentences without judgment.” I beg to differ. You could not understand the sentence “It’s raining” without acknowledging that it is false, here and now at least. And this means that you can’t grasp the meaning without knowing what would have to be the case for it to be true. – The same goes for reading historical texts. Given certain convictions about, say, abstract objects, you cannot read, say, Frege without thinking that he must be wrong.

Did I just say that Frege was wrong? – I take that back. Of course, if a view does not agree with your beliefs, it seems a natural response to think that the author is wrong. But whenever people are quick to draw that conclusion, I start to feel uneasy. And this kind of hesitation might be another reason for why the myth of neutrality is so pervasive. On closer inspection, however, the feeling of uneasiness might not be owing to the supposed neutrality. Rather there is always the possibility that not the author but something else might be wrong. I might be wrong about the facts or I might just misunderstand the text. Even the text might be corrupt (a negation particle might be missing) or a pervasive canonical reading might prevent me from developing a different understanding.

The intriguing task is to figure out what exactly might be wrong. This is neither achieved by pretending to suspend judgment nor by calling every opponent wrong, but rather by exposing one’s own take to an open discussion. It is the multitude of different perspectives that affords objectivity, not their elimination.

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