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Paul Boghossian, Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 152 pp., $24.95.
Harry G. Frankfurt, On Truth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 112 pp., $12.50.
The fundamental nature of truth was explained by Aristotle in Book IV of his Metaphysics, decisively and unforgettably, in words that are at once obvious and eloquent: “To say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.”
Today, few accept Aristotle’s commonsense formulation, but not because of any flaw that has been found in it. The reason, rather, is that two hundred and fifty years of philosophical rationalizations have led people to doubt their common sense and to embrace instead a relativist conception of truth, which says that we create our own reality as surely as a dreamer creates his own dream world. In contemporary philosophy, this dreamy notion of truth has been shaped by an obsession with groups and an obsession with group perspectives, so that the prevailing view regarding truth now exactly reverses Aristotle’s: what is, is whatever my gang says.
And therein lies the importance of these two small books. Paul Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge rebuts three philosophical attempts to dismiss the ideas of truth, reality, and objective knowledge, while Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Truth issues a rallying cry to objectivity’s defenders.
The particular form of relativism that Boghossian sets out to challenge is what he calls “social constructivism,” which comes in three varieties. The first says that a person’s social group literally constructs his reality. The second says that a person’s social group determines what counts as a good justification for his beliefs about reality. The third says that a person’s beliefs about reality are never fully determined by rational evidence, but depend at least in part upon what his group happens to value.
Just who qualifies as a member of one’s group may differ widely, according to these theories. But postmodernists customarily invoke their favorite categories of race, sex, and class—with various subdivisions arising from combinations of those.
The most radical form of social constructivism, clearly, is the one that says facts—reality itself—depend upon the interests and values of our social group. This is taking “true for you but not for me” to its limit. Boghossian quotes a French sociologist who wrote in 1998 that Ramses II could not have died of tuberculosis in the second millennium B.C. because the bacillus was not discovered until 1882. To say he died of tuberculosis, this relativist maintained, was like saying he died from machine-gun fire. Such “fact-constructivism,” as Boghossian calls this theory, is clearly the most radical form of social constructivism, though he believes it is the most influential.
What argument could anyone possibly give for the theory? Well, one version asks us to think of our group’s concepts as cookie cutters. Depending upon our group’s values and interests, these cookie cutters will have different shapes, and thus different groups of people will divide up the world into different entities. Consider an analogy. Meat-eating tribes form the concept “giraffe,” and so they say that giraffes exist. But if people were the size of ants—living sometimes on the ground, sometimes on the bottom of animal limbs—their concepts would chop up the world very differently. The things in their world would not separate at the same places that the things in the meat-eaters’ world do. The little people would probably not say that giraffes exist. But neither their way of drawing the lines around things nor the meat-eaters’ way would be preferable to the other.
Boghossian responds to this argument by acknowledging that there are many ways of describing the world. And which description we choose may indeed depend upon our interests. But that is not a problem. Those different descriptions are not descriptions of alternative realities. Think of the childish discussion as to whether the tomato is a fruit or vegetable (the example is mine). The first way of categorizing the tomato results from biological considerations, the second from culinary considerations. They differ, but both are true.
At this point, Richard Rorty—one of America’s leading philosophers and principal exponents of relativism—steps in to say: Exactly. According to Rorty, relativists do not (or should not) claim that our nineteenth-century concept “dinosaur” brought the dinosaurs into existence 250 million years ago. All relativists should say is: Nothing in reality compelled nineteenth-century scientists to accept the concept “dinosaur,” which is what makes it true to say, “Dinosaurs existed.” Nineteenth-century scientists could have formed a variety of other concepts, and under that different conceptual scheme it would not have been true to say, “Dinosaurs existed.”
Boghossian is not prepared to let the relativist off the hook. What they are saying, he points out, is the following: We should never utter a straightforward sentence like “Dinosaurs existed.” We should only utter sentences like: “‘According to my conceptual scheme, dinosaurs existed.’ And: ‘According to your conceptual scheme, dinosaurs did not exist.’” But this, Boghossian observes, traps the relativist in an infinite regress. After all, he means to make a true statement when he says: “According to my conceptual scheme, dinosaurs existed.” But he began by saying that all statements must be made relative to some conceptual scheme. So, properly, he should say: “According to my conceptual scheme, it is the case that according to my conceptual scheme, dinosaurs existed.” And so on ad infinitum. As Boghossian concludes: “It is absurd to propose that, in order for our utterances to have any prospect of being true, what we mean by them are infinitary propositions that we could neither express nor understand.”
Boghossian is not prepared to let the relativist off the hook.
The second form is often discussed in terms of the debate between Galileo and his religious persecutors. To simplify: Observations and reasoning had convinced Galileo that Copernicus was right in saying the earth went around the sun. His religious persecutors assumed that the Bible, read literally, was infallible on matters of science, and therefore they insisted that Ptolemy was right in saying the sun went around the earth. This conflict, according to relativists, involved two opposing methodologies: one said observation can justify our beliefs; the other said scriptural passages can justify our beliefs. And we cannot say one method was right and one wrong. Lest this dispute seem too academic to be of interest to laymen, consider that creationists in North Carolina, when petitioning their local school board for “equal time,” were surprised and pleased to find postmodernist professors supporting their demand. And that makes sense—if all methodologies are equal.
Boghossian has several lengthy rebuttals to this position, but here is one of the simplest. Rorty says that no bit of evidence (call it e) intrinsically justifies a belief (call it b). All we are entitled to say is: “According to Method A, e justifies b,” and “According to Method B, e does not justify b.” But neither method is superior to the other. Wait a minute, Boghossian cries. You began by saying that the evidence e does not justify the belief b. Now you tell us that Method B says exactly the same thing, while Method A denies it. On your own terms, then, what Method B says is true and what Method A says is false. To that extent, Method B is correct and Method A is not.
The third form of social constructivism admits that evidence does tend to support certain beliefs, but it goes on to say that “it is never possible to explain fully why we believe what we believe solely on the basis of our exposure to the relevant evidence.” Support for this idea comes largely from the work of Thomas Kuhn and his now-famous concept of “a paradigm shift,” such as the transition from Ptolemaic to Copernican astronomy. Again and again, Boghossian tries to interpret Kuhn’s legitimate work in the history of science in order to see how it is supposed to uphold the third form of social constructivism. After examining several possible interpretations and finding they do not support relativism, Boghossian concludes simply that “Kuhn is maddeningly inexplicit” about the matter.
Given how much anti-postmodern argument Boghossian has packed into his short book, it seems ungrateful to complain about what he has not done. But one omission is glaring. Boghossian points out that postmoderns are constantly involving themselves in self-contradiction. Yet he never tries to explain why this should be. The answer, put forward by Ayn Rand , is that the basic principles of realism—the givenness of existence, the identity of existents, and the fundamental passivity of awareness—are axioms that underlie every assertion we make. Thus, any attempt to deny them requires that we assume them, and we thereby trap ourselves in a self-contradiction. Boghossian calls his philosophical view of facts and truth “objectivism.” He could improve it by examining Objectivism .
Though Boghossian defends the fact of truth, he falls down badly when defending its value. The title of his work, Fear of Knowledge, sounds promising, and in his epilogue Boghossian asks why social constructivism has tempted so many. His answer: Because it allows a person to dismiss assertions he does not like. But that, he adds, “only postpones the real question: Why this fear of knowledge?” Well, he notes, social constructivism is closely linked to leftist (he says “progressive”) movements. And that is because it can defend “oppressed cultures” against the charge of holding false views.
Boghossian seems to think this is, at least prima facie, a good reason for holding the postmodern position. But there is a problem, he points out. Relativism also means that “the oppressed can’t criticize the powerful.” Is there a way out of this dilemma? Only one: “Allow a questionable idea to be criticized if it is held by those in a position of power—Christian creationism, for example—but not if it is held by those whom the powerful oppress—Zuni creationism, for example.” So, is Boghossian saying that this is the value of objective truth: It allows leftists to criticize conservatives without invoking the dubious technique of the double standard? What an uninspiring end to an admirable attack on postmodern philosophy. With gratitude, the reader turns to Harry G. Frankfurt’s passionate paean to truth.
In 2005, Frankfurt published a sixty-seven-page book that journalistic convention describes as having the title On Bull——. The essence of the phenomenon, he decided, lies in an indifference to truth. The speaker or writer who is producing the substance in question is trying to achieve some result with his audience, as speakers and writers generally are, but he does not care whether he uses truth or falsity to accomplish it, and he disguises that indifference from his audience.
After publishing his work, Frankfurt realized that he had “entirely omitted to provide anything like a careful and convincing explanation—indeed, I had omitted any explanation at all—of exactly why truth actually is so important to us, or why we should especially care about it.” In his present book, he offers several explanations, and the first is that truth is useful. Frankfurt says: “When I try to put my finger on just why truth is important to us, what comes most readily to mind is . . . the thought that truth often possesses very considerable practical utility.” But Frankfurt then goes deeper, by asking why it is that truth should be so useful. “The question is not very difficult to answer. . . . When we are engaged in active life, or when we attempt to plan and to manage our various practical affairs, we are undertaking to cope with reality. . . . Insofar as truths possess instrumental value, they do so because they capture and convey the nature of these realities.”
Following this utilitarian praise of truth, Frankfurt rises to a lyrical level, drawing on the philosophy of Benedict Spinoza to establish a link between truth and man’s fundamental nature. In Frankfurt’s reconstruction, and putting the matter very simply, every person strives to live and to realize his individual nature. Insofar as he succeeds in achieving such self-preservation and self-realization, the individual will experience an enhanced vitality and a sense of exhilaration—which Spinoza calls “joy.” Now, any external cause that leads one to self-preservation and self-realization, to exhilaration and to joy, becomes a thing that the person loves. And that which we love, we will strive to preserve and to have always present to ourselves. But nothing so well fits this description as truth. For “truth is indispensable in enabling [men] to stay alive, to understand themselves, and to live fully in accord with their own natures.” Thus, men cannot help loving truth. Q.E.D. It is all very neat.
When it comes to battling for the reality of truth, Boghossian and Frankfurt are on the right side.
Lastly, Frankfurt tries to explain the value of truth on a basic metaphysical level. We know our own identities, he says, only in contrast to that which we are not. In the givenness of existence, and our need to accept reality, there is a hardness of fact that defines us. “To the extent that we learn in greater detail how we are limited, and what the limits of our limitation are, we come thereby to delineate our own boundaries and thus to discern our own shape.” The psychological truth Frankfurt is reaching for here is, I think, a truth that the psychologist Nathaniel Branden expressed in his book Taking Responsibility: “The grasping of separateness, the ability to distinguish self and not-self, is the base of all subsequent development.”
Frankfurt concludes his work: “Our recognition and understanding of our own identity arises out of, and depends integrally on, our appreciation of a reality that is definitely independent of ourselves. . . . How then can we fail to take the importance of factuality and of reality seriously? How can we fail to care about truth? We cannot.”
We cannot? In his professional life, Frankfurt has developed a complicated theory of free will and morality, of the relationship between what we can do and what we ought to do. Without getting into all of that, I shall here note only that the thrust of his book On Bull—— was that some people, at some times, are indifferent to truth. So, is he now saying, “We can be indifferent to the truth, but we should not be indifferent”? And, if so, will he defend the truth of that statement? Near the beginning of his book, Frankfurt notes that “some people” believe moral judgments are, “strictly speaking, neither true nor false.” His response? “Okay. Suppose we concede this.” For a work that advocates truth’s importance, that concession leaves a hollowness at the heart of things.
When it comes to battling for the reality of truth, Boghossian and Frankfurt (though they have their faults) are on the right side. And occasionally, they render distinguished service. Now and then, in the course of their campaigns against postmodernism, they reach conclusions that many of their confederates might shun as troublesome. But they do not flinch.
In Boghossian’s case, the moment comes in the discussion about Galileo’s dispute with his religious persecutors. The philosopher Richard Rorty, remember, claims that each side in the dispute had its own, equally valid intellectual method: observation and induction on the one hand, blind faith on the other. The obvious thing for Boghossian to say would be: “Yes, each side had its own method. One was right and one was wrong.”
But he does not say that. Rather, after careful analysis, he concludes that Galileo’s enemies actually shared his fundamental method. They, too, believed in observation, induction, and deduction. That they carried out the method atrociously is undeniable. But it was, at bottom, the same method. They believed, in Boghossian’s words, “that there is evidence, of a perfectly ordinary sort, that the holy Scripture is the revealed word of the Creator of the Universe. And it is only natural for someone with that belief to place a great deal of stock in what it has to say about the heavens—enough perhaps to override the evidence provided by observation.… Pace Rorty, then, it is hard to understand the dispute between Galileo and [his opponents] as a dispute between epistemic systems which disagree on fundamental epistemic principles. It is rather a dispute, within a common epistemic system, as to the origins and nature of the Bible.” To grasp that truth is rare; to acknowledge it, rarer.
Frankfurt’s unexpected acceptance of an inconvenient reality comes when he takes up Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138. In the poem, the Bard portrays two lovers who reach happiness through their mutual deceptions, and one naturally expects Frankfurt to tear apart the sonnet’s reasoning. But that is not what happens. Despite all Frankfurt has said about the destructiveness of deceit, he contrives to make a case for Shakespeare’s lying lovers. Evidently, Frankfurt recognizes the power of the imaginative mind to grasp truths that are paradoxical when measured against one’s principles. And evidently he knows that, in such cases, it is well for the theoretical mind to listen carefully.
In sum, Professors Boghossian and Frankfurt have their fortes and their foibles, but this above all must be said on their behalf: When they find realities that do not fit neatly into their theories, they stand by the realities and not the theories. And that is the mark of a philosopher who is a true friend of truth. “It is one thing to wish to have truth on our side,” said Richard Whately, archbishop of Dublin, “and another to wish sincerely to be on the side of truth.”