Do rejections of our claims presuppose that we are abnormal?

Discussions about meaning and truth are often taken as merely theoretical issues in semantics. But as soon as you consider them in relation to interactions between interlocutors, it’s clear that they are closely related to our psychology. In what follows, I’d like to suggest that people questioning our claims might in fact be questioning whether we are normal people. Sounds odd? Please hear me out. Let’s begin with a well known issue in semantics:

Imagine you’re a linguist, studying a foreign language of a completely unknown people. You’re with one of the speakers of that language when a white rabbit runs past. The speaker says “gavagai”. Now what does “gavagai” mean?

According to Quine, who introduced the gavagai example, the expression could mean anything. It might mean: “Look, there’s a rabbit” or “Lovely lunch” or “That’s very white” or “Rabbithood instantiated”. The problem is that you cannot determine what “gavagai” means. Our ontology is relative to the target language we’re translating into. And you cannot be sure that the source language carves up the world in the same way ours does. Now it is crucial to see that this is not just an issue of translation. The problem of indeterminacy starts at home: meaning is indeterminate. And this means that the problems of translations also figure in the interaction between speakers and hearers of the same language.

Now Davidson famously turns the issue upside down: we don’t begin with meaning but with truth. We don’t start out by asking what “gavagai” means. If we assume that the speaker is sincere, we’ll just translate the sentence in such a way that it matches what we take to be the truth. So we start by thinking: “Gavagai” means something like “Look, there’s a rabbit”, because that’s the belief we form in the presence of the rabbit. So we start out by ascribing the same belief to the speaker of the foreign language and translate accordingly. That we start out this way is not optional. We’d never get anywhere, if we were to start out by wondering what “gavagai” might or might not mean. Rather we cannot but start out from what we take to be true.

Although Davidson makes an intriguing point, I don’t think he makes a compelling case against relativism. When he claims that we translate the utterances of others into what we take to be true, I think he is stating a psychological fact. If we take someone else to be a fellow human being and think that she or he is sincere, then translating her or his utterances in a way that makes them come out true is what we count as normal behaviour. Conversely, to start from the assumption that our interlocutor is wrong and to translate the other’s utterances as something alien or blatantly false, would amount an abnormal behaviour on our part (unless we have reason to think that our interlocutor is seriously impaired). The point I want to make is that sincerity and confirmation of what we take to be true will correlate with normality.

If this last point is correct, it has a rather problematic consequence: If you tell me that I’m wrong after I have sincerely spoken what I take to be the truth, this will render either me or you as abnormal. Unless we think that something is wrong with ourselves, we will be inclined to think that people who listen to us but reject our claims are abnormal. This is obvious when you imagine someone stating that there is no rabbit while you clearly take yourself to be seeing a rabbit. When the “evidence” for a claim is more abstract, in philosophical debates for instance, we are of course more charitable, at least so long as we can’t be sure that we both have considered the same evidence. Alternatively, we might think the disagreement is only verbal. But what if we think that we both have considered the relevant evidence and still disagree? Would a rejection not amount to a rejection of the normality of our interlocutor?

Who’s afraid of relativism?

In recent years, relativism has had a particularly bad press. Often chided along with what some call postmodernism, relativism is held responsible for certain politicians’ complacent ignorance or bullshitting. While I’m not alone in thinking that this scapegoating is due to a severe misunderstanding of relativism, even those who should know better join the choir of condemnation:

“The advance of relativism – the notion that truth is relative to each individual’s standpoint – reached what might be seen as a new low with the recent claim by Donald Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway that there are such things as “alternative facts”. (She went so far as to cite a non-existent “Bowling Green massacre” to justify Trump’s refugee travel ban, something she later described as a “misspeak”.)” Joe Humphrey’s paraphrasing Timothy Williamson in the Irish Times, 5.7. 2017

If this is what Williamson thinks, he confuses relativism with extreme subjectivism. But I don’t want to dismiss this view too easily. The worry behind this accusation is real. If people do think that truth is relative to each individual’s standpoint, then “anything goes”. You can claim anything and there are no grounds for me to correct you. If this is truth, there is no truth. The word is a meaningless appeal. However, I don’t think that the politicians in question believe in anything as sophisticated as relativism. Following up on some intriguing discussions about the notion of “alternative facts”, I believe that the strategy is (1) to lie by (2) appealing to an (invented) set of states of affairs that supposedly has been ignored. Conway did not assume that she was in the possession of her own subjective truth; quite the contrary. Everyone would have seen what she claimed to be the truth, had they cared to look at the right time in the right way. If I am right, her strategy depends on a shared notion of truth. In other words, I guess that Williamson and Conway roughly start out from the same understanding of truth. To bring in relativism or postmodernism is not helpful when trying to understand the strategy of politicians.

By introducing the term “alternative facts” Conway reminds us of the fact (!) that we pick out truths relative to our interests. I think we are right to be afraid of certain politicians. But why are we afraid of relativism? We have to accept that truth, knowledge or morality are relative to a standard. Relativism is the view that there is more than one such standard.* This makes perfect sense. That 2 plus 2 equals 4 is not true absolutely. Arguably, this truth requires the agreement on a certain arithmetic system. I think that arithmetic and other standards evolve relative to certain interests. Of course, we might disagree about the details of how to spell out such an understanding of relativism. But it is hard to see what makes us so afraid of it.

Perhaps an answer can be given by looking at how relativism evolved historically. If you look at early modern or medieval discussions of truth, knowledge and morality, there is often a distinction between divine and human concepts. Divine knowledge is perfect; human knowledge is partial and fallible. Divine knowledge sets an absolute standard against which human failure is measured. If you look at discussions in and around Locke, for instance, especially his agnosticism about real essences and divine natural law, divine knowledge is still assumed but it loses the status of a standard for us. What we’re left with is human knowledge, in all its mediocrity and fallibility. Hume goes further and no longer even appeals to the divine as a remote standard. Our claims to knowledge are seen as rooted in custom. Now if the divine does no longer serve as an absolute measure, human claims to knowledge, truth and morality are merely one possible standard. There is no absolute standard available. Nominal essences or customs are relative to the human condition: our biological make-up and our interests. The focus on human capacities, irrespective of the divine, is a growing issue, going hand in hand with an idea of relativism.  The “loss” of the absolute is thus owing to a different understanding of theological claims about divine standards. Human knowledge is relative in that it is no longer measured against divine knowledge. If this is correct, relativism emerged (also) as a result of a dissociation of divine and human standards. Why would we be afraid of that?

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* I’m following Martin Kusch’s definition in his proposal for the ERC project on the Emergence of Relativism“It is not easy to give a neutral definition of “relativism”: defenders and critics disagree over the question of what the relativist is committed to. Roughly put, the relativist regarding a given domain (e.g. epistemology) insists that judgments or beliefs in this domain are true or false, justified or unjustified, only relative to  systems of standards. For the relativist there is more than one such system, and there is no neutral way of adjudicating between them. Some relativists go further and claim that all such systems are equally valid.”