Reply to Schwartz and Goldstein

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Sun Jan 29 18:53:09 MST 1995

On Sun, 29 Jan 1995, Richard Wolff wrote:

> 	Sorry I was away from the machine for a couple of weeks. On
> foundationalism:
> 	- it comes in many guises and forms because so many find it so
> 		hard to give up on the notion of SOMETHING out there
> 		to anchor our individual thoughts to, something absolutely
> 		objective to warrant the rightness or truth of what we
> 		fear so deeply as "merely" our own subjective notions

Isn't the denial that there is SOMETHING out there, absolutely objective,
 independent of our concepts, thought, or language--material nature to
transform in productive activity, social relations which are independent
of our will--one of things that is meant by idealism? Wolff objects to my
calling his view a form of idealism, or, if one likes the term better,
antirealism. But this looks like an admission that that's what it is.

Anyway, we have been given no reason to think that we should give up on
there being SOMETHING, etc. out there. Wolff seems to think that it
follows from the inescapable "circularity of thought" that there isn't
anything independent of thought. But on a reasonable interpretation of
that "circularity," it doesn't. The reasonable interpretation is that
beliefs are warranted only by other beliefs and none have independent
warrant in virtue of self-evidence or some other such property. (This is
what _I_ mean by antifoundationalism.) But nothing follows from this
about the status of what some of the beliefs are about: beliefs warranted
by others could be about an objective mind-and-language independent
reality. The unreasonable interpretation is that beliefs can only be
_about_ other beliefs (and so not about a mind, etc. independent reality.)
But it doesn't even follow from _that_ that there is no such reality, just
that we can't have beliefs about it.

This part of what I meant in charging Wolff with confusions.

> 	- so when Schwartz writes about the "coherence" theory of truth
> 		or about a theory about truth (an epistemology)

And this is another example of a confusion. Wolff here conflates
semantics--the theory of truth--with epistemology, the theory of
knowledge. A theory of truth is absolutely independent of a theory of
knowledge, except on a set of very special views, one of which Wolff may
hold, which reduces the truth of a proposition to its knowledge
conditions. But even if Wolff holds this view, he should, first, spell it
out and defend it, and second, acknowledge that others see the matter
differently. As the terms are normally used by philosophers, epistemology
concerns the conditions under which beliefs are justified or warranted.
Semantics includes (in part) the conditions under which propositions are
true, in virtue of what about them are they true, regardless of whether
belief in a true proposition is warranted.

> 		announces an equilibrium in which one concept "licenses"
> 		another, they miss the point here. That point is this:
> 		coherence and licensing are like beauty; they differ
> 		according to the eye and mind of the beholder. What one
> 		thinker thinks is "coherent," another does not. NO
> 		of course, one believes in such an absolute foundationalism,
> 		but that contentious issue has been the focal point of
> 		our debate over fondationalism all along.

Of course norms of coherence are up for grabs in reflective equilibrium as
well. As Quine says, any proposition whatsoever can be revised, if we are
willing to make the necessary changes elsewhere in our thinking, and among
the revisable propositions are those which state principles of logic as
well as those which state those of less-than-deductive epistemic warrant.
Of course, anyone proposing a revision has to tell a story about why it is
in order which in some sense satisfies currently accepted norms if she
expects others to take her seriously, so if we are to give up on the law
of noncontradiction (Not [p and not-p]). for instance, we need some fancy
talking about why. But all beliefs are in that sense up for grabs. This
has no implications whatsoever for the existence of objective reality.

In fact, the corollary to the revisability of any belief is the
maintainability of any belief, necessary changes being made elsewhere in
our thinking. And that includes the belief in an objective reality. That
too may be maintained even in reflective equilibrium and even though we
might acknowledge, as I think we should--we all should, not as a matter of
epistemic taste--that as far as thought goes, reflective equilibrium is
all we've got. This is just another way of making the point that the
latter claim, that as far as thought goes reflective equilibrium is what
we have, has no implications whatsoever for metaphysics or semantics. It
is a purely epistemological point.

Wolff resents my characterizing his antifoundationalism as idealist and
the foundationalism he attacks (i.e., the belief in an objective reality)
as materialist. He claims that this is merely rhetorical and sophistic,
designed to win allegiance to my view of those who want to think of
themselves as materialist. As I've explained I don't want to squabble
about the terms, although of course I do want would-be-materialists to be
what I call realists, accepting the existence of an objective reality.

But the reason I mention Wolff's complaint here is that it seems to me
that Wolff's rhetorical strategy is not to argue for his antirealism but
to make fun of realists. "Poor things, can't pry themselves free of this
belief, need the comfort, immature, ought to grow up and face facts," or
whatever the antirealist equivalent of facing facts is. We haven't heard
any argument about why we should pry ourselves free, except the bad one
that we can't get outside (as I would put it) reflective equilibrium or
(as Wolff might put it) the circle of thought. The premise I concede. The
conclusion does not follow.

Something else kicking around in Wolff's concern seems to be this: that if
we think that there is an objective reality, and that some of our beliefs
about it might be true in a nonperspectival way, and that we might be
justified in holding those beliefs--these three propositions--that this
would somehow lend aid and comfort to political totalitarians. After all,
suppose I know the truth and you disagree. Doesn't that justify my
suppressing your views, calling in the secret police, having you shot for
disagreeing with the truth? When the concern is put this way, it is
revealed as silly. _Of course_ it justifies no such thing. At most it
justifies my calling you mistaken. But I may say, indeed insist, that you
have a right to be mistaken. Indeed I may think that it's good that you
persist in your mistaken views because your arguments keep me from holding
the truth in the manner of a prejudice. Mill, an objectivist about truth,
although a phenomenalist about reality, held exactly this view about truth
and error. I commend it to all on the Marxism list.

--Justin Schwartz


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