Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism Paul Boghossian Abstract Relativist and constructivist conceptions of knowledge have become orthodoxy in vast stretches of the academic world in recent times. This book critically examines such views and argues that they are fundamentally flawed. The book focuses on three different ways of reading the claim that knowledge is socially constructed, one about facts and two about justification. All three are rejected. The intuitive, common sense view is that there is a way things are that is independent of human opinion, and that we are capable of arriving at belief about how things are that is objectively reasonable, and
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Reviewed by Harvey Siegel, University of Miami Fear of Knowledge starts out as an engaging, breezy critique of relativism and constructivism. Focusing to a considerable extent on the work of Richard Rorty, Boghossian carefully articulates the target relativist and constructivist views and the arguments for and against them, on the way to equally careful statements of the views and the arguments for them that he favors.
That critique is powerful and on the whole highly effective. The relative neglect of that literature and the occasionally questionable treatment of it when addressed makes the book somewhat less helpful to specialists than it will be to those seeking an effective antidote to Rortian postmodernist relativism. Such social constructivist conceptions of knowledge are addressed in Chapter 2.
Boghossian contrasts them with what he calls "The Classical Picture of Knowledge," according to which 1 "The world which we seek to understand and know about is what it is largely independently of us and our beliefs about it" "Objectivism about Facts" , 2 "Facts of the Form -- information E justifies belief B -- are society-independent facts" "Objectivism about Justification" , and 3 "Under the appropriate circumstances, our exposure to the evidence alone is capable of explaining why we believe what we believe" "Objectivism about Rational Explanation".
They are the subjects of the rest of the chapters. Chapters 3 and 4 address fact-constructivism. Once we adopt a particular scheme for describing the world, there then come to be facts about the world. He distinguishes fact-constructivism from another, weaker thesis with which it is, according to Boghossian, often conflated: Social Relativity of Descriptions: Which scheme we adopt to describe the world will depend on which scheme we find it useful to adopt; and which scheme we find it useful to adopt will depend on our contingent needs and interests as social beings.
The basic criticism is that for description-dependence to work as Goodman and Putnam claim, there must be "some basic facts -- the basic worldly dough -- on which our redescriptive strategies can get to work. But that is precisely what fact-constructivism denies.
According to this untenable view, "Global Relativism about Facts," i There are no absolute facts of the form, p. Boghossian considers "the traditional argument" 52 according to which it is untenable because incoherent, and finds that argument wanting; he offers another argument in its place.
Let us look at these in turn. According to Boghossian, the traditional argument concludes that the kind of relativism here addressed i.
Either way, according to the traditional argument, the case for relativism fails. Boghossian reports that he "agree[s] with this traditional objection -- though I do not agree with the traditional argument by which it is defended. First, we can and should ask of the key claim -- that it is possible that "relativism is true relative to a theory that it pays for us all to accept" -- whether it is true, or asserted by the critic to be true, relatively or absolutely.
Here the dilemma re-arises, seemingly with full force. Second, as already noted, the criticism slides back and forth between relativism about facts and relativism about truth.
This conflation or identification is I think unfortunate; it is in any case more controversial than Boghossian acknowledges. Instead, he would end up expressing the view that the only absolute facts there are, are facts about what theories different communities accept.
This seems to get things exactly the wrong way round. That is, the first reason offers but a variant of the traditional objection to epistemological relativism, while the second and third reasons address worthy but different targets. Boghossian argues that it leads to an infinite regress, according to which the relativist who answers his question in the negative "is committed to the view that the only facts there are, are infinitary facts of the form: According to a theory that we accept, there is a theory that we accept and according to this latter theory, there is a theory that we accept and… there have been dinosaurs.
But it is absurd to propose that, in order for our utterances to have any prospect of being true, what we must mean by them are infinitary propositions that we could neither express nor understand. Boghossian concludes that "The real dilemma facing the global relativist, then, is this: either the formulation that he offers us does not succeed in expressing the view that there are only relative facts; or it consists in the claim that we should so reinterpret our utterances that they express infinitary propositions that we can neither express nor understand.
And it should be noted that Rorty has taken considerable pains to distance himself from the latter sort of relativism -- a fact that Boghossian never mentions. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 turn away from fact-constructivism to address justification-constructivism. Copernicanism is justified absolutely by the available evidence e.
And we should notice that this view of justification gives considerable comfort to advocates of Equal Validity. Boghossian approaches the view, and what "appears to be a seductively powerful argument in its support" 63 , by considering our "post-Galilean" epistemic system.
That system operates according to principles of justified-belief generation and transmission such as Observation "For any observational proposition p, if it visually seems to S that p and circumstantial conditions D obtain, then S is prima facie justified in believing p" 64 ; Deduction "If S is justified in believing p and p fairly obviously entails q, then S is justified in believing q" 66 ; and Induction "If S has often enough observed that an event of type A has been followed by an event of type B, then S is justified in believing that all events of type A will be followed by events of type B" These principles are not meant to be precisely formulated, and they are not claimed to be explicitly embraced; rather, they are "implicit in our practice, rather than explicit in our formulations.
Rorty along with Wittgenstein defends this sort of relativism concerning justification on the basis of "the fact that there is no system-independent fact in virtue of which one epistemic system could be said to be more correct than any other. First, assume that our epistemic system is fundamentally different than the systems of Bellarmine and the Azande, in the sense that "their underived epistemic principles diverge from ours. There are no absolute facts about what belief a particular item of information justifies.
Epistemic non-absolutism B. Epistemic relationism C. There are many fundamentally different, genuinely alternative epistemic systems, but no facts by virtue of which one of these systems is more correct than any of the others. Epistemic pluralism 73, italics in original The "very strong prima facie case" 73 for epistemic relativism so formulated is this: Argument for Epistemic Relativism 1.
If there are absolute epistemic facts about what justifies what, then it ought to be possible to arrive at justified beliefs about them. It is not possible to arrive at justified beliefs about what absolute epistemic facts there are.
Therefore, 3. There are no absolute epistemic facts. Epistemic non-absolutism 4. If there are no absolute epistemic facts, then epistemic relativism is true. Therefore, 5. Epistemic relativism is true. Boghossian briefly defends Premise 1 , but attends mainly to Premise 2.
Showing that this follows from our fundamental epistemic principles will cut no ice, since Bellarmine will reject some sub-set of those principles, advancing one we reject Revelation in its place that we in turn reject. The dispute is ultimately one concerning alternative epistemic systems and their respective fundamental principles. Could it be shown that any such principle is justified?
As Boghossian puts it, "To show… that our system is correct and theirs wrong, we would have to justify the principles of our system over theirs, we would have to offer them some argument that demonstrated the objective superiority of our system over theirs. But any such argument would require using an epistemic system, relying on the cogency of some epistemic principles and not others. While it is not inevitable, it is "very likely" that each system of principles would "decide in favor of themselves and against the other practice.
Will we have shown anything substantive; could we really claim to have demonstrated that our principles are correct, and theirs not? But that cannot yield a justification of the one practice over the other, without begging the question. If the point is to decide which of the two practices is better than the other, self-certification is not going to help.
Each side will be able to provide a norm-circular justification of its own practice; neither side will be able to provide anything more.
With what right, then, could either party claim to have a superior conception of rational or justified belief?
All these presuppositions have been challenged in the literature. Boghossian acknowledges that he is here "deliberately eliding certain important distinctions" 79 that he addresses in subsequent chapters. So I will defer discussion of these several points for the moment, as we follow Boghossian on his Hegelian path. Chapter 6 "Epistemic Relativism Rejected" begins by taking up the matter of norm-circularity.
Boghossian is rather too easy on Rorty here, I think. Here it seems that the standard Platonic objection to relativism applies with full force. Does this argument itself depend upon any such principles? What is wrong with it? In any case, Boghossian zeroes in on two assumptions of the Rortian pro-relativist argument: that "in evaluating an epistemic system there is no alternative but to use some epistemic system or other," and that "there is no interesting notion of justification that will allow us to justify a form of reasoning through the use of that very form of reasoning.
Consider an example of a particular, unrelativized epistemic judgment: 1. If it visually seems to Galileo that there are mountains on the moon, then Galileo is justified in believing that there are mountains on the moon 85 , an epistemic principle will be more general, e. They, too, are propositions stating the conditions under which a belief would be absolutely justified. The relativist says that we should stop making absolute judgments about what justifies what and that we should stick to saying what epistemic judgments follow from the epistemic systems we accept….
But it is hard to see how we might coherently follow this advice. Given that the propositions which make up epistemic systems are just very general propositions about what absolutely justifies what, it makes no sense to insist that we abandon making absolute particular judgments about what justifies what while allowing us to accept absolute general judgments about what justifies what. But that is, in effect, what the epistemic relativist is recommending…. It is also hard to explain why anyone should care about what follows from a set of propositions that are acknowledged to be uniformly false….
Epistemic relativism looks to be an incoherent response to the putative discovery that there are no absolute facts about epistemic justification. On this point I defer to Boghossian and other Rorty scholars.
But as Boghossian has characterized it, it appears that the Rortian epistemic relativist does not allow us "to accept absolute general judgments about what justifies what. The Rortian relativist accepts the deliverances of her own epistemic system, but at the same time fully recognizes that those deliverances enjoy no higher epistemic status than the deliverances of alternative systems.
And if he is consistent, he recognizes that that very recognition is likewise no more justified, absolutely, than those that flow from alternative systems.
And this seems to make him vulnerable to the traditional objection that the relativist is incapable of defending her own view without giving it up. Boghossian further criticizes the Epistemic Pluralism clause of the Rorty-inspired version of epistemic relativism.
Ignored here are the extensive discussions of the notion of relative truth to which relativists sometimes turn in attempts to parry these criticisms. He also effectively highlights difficulties befalling efforts to avoid all these problems facing the relativist by taking epistemic systems to be sets of imperatives.
His challenge to that argument takes the form of criticism of one of its premises, here named Justification: "It is not possible to arrive at justified beliefs about what absolute epistemic facts there are. Consider epistemic principles which give inconsistent advice, e. Supposing that the existence of such constraints is acknowledged by all parties to the debate, how does one get from this point to the possibility of justified belief concerning absolute epistemic facts?
I acknowledge, but cannot address here, the deep issues concerning entitlement that lurk. Our entitlement to rely upon our own, antecedently unjustified epistemic principles in contemplating the justificatory status of putative epistemic facts -- if we are so entitled -- does not entail either that we are justified in relying on them, or that they are themselves justified. But there is a more direct response to the allegedly problematic status of norm-circularity that seems to me more effective in rebutting Justification.
It begins by noticing that norm-circular justifications are not all alike. Now consider another principle, Reason, according to which epistemic principles are justified to the extent that they enjoy adequate support from objectively good reasons.
I immediately grant that Reason needs to be stated far more carefully to be taken seriously as a candidate fundamental epistemic principle. There is a striking difference between Revelation and Reason: while Galileo can challenge the former without presupposing it, it appears that the latter cannot be challenged in that way. Challenging Reason like challenging any other putative principle amounts to claiming that there is no good non-question-begging reason to accept it.
Not only are there none of those fluffy moral facts, but there are no juicy, rock-solid historical facts, and certainly no scientific facts. Sounds like the sort of silliness that can give you an acute headache. 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?
Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism
What Boghossian presents is a well-timed argument against the spectre of constructivism in traditional philosophic studies. Philosophy, as a field of study, has largely avoided the relentless onslaught of relativistic thinking; unlike some other areas in the humanities, philosophy has resisted such passing, cyclical intellectual fads. Yet, there have been attempted breaches by constructivist theories, and it is to the proponents of such theories that this book is directed. In particular, Boghossian directs his attention at analytic philosophers such as Nelson Goodman or Hilary Putnam: both well-respected titans within their fields. Forget your Koertge-style surveys of unintellectual intellectuals like Derrida, Irigaray, or Kristeva
Fear of Knowledge
Reviewed by Harvey Siegel, University of Miami Fear of Knowledge starts out as an engaging, breezy critique of relativism and constructivism. Focusing to a considerable extent on the work of Richard Rorty, Boghossian carefully articulates the target relativist and constructivist views and the arguments for and against them, on the way to equally careful statements of the views and the arguments for them that he favors. That critique is powerful and on the whole highly effective. The relative neglect of that literature and the occasionally questionable treatment of it when addressed makes the book somewhat less helpful to specialists than it will be to those seeking an effective antidote to Rortian postmodernist relativism. Such social constructivist conceptions of knowledge are addressed in Chapter 2. Boghossian contrasts them with what he calls "The Classical Picture of Knowledge," according to which 1 "The world which we seek to understand and know about is what it is largely independently of us and our beliefs about it" "Objectivism about Facts" , 2 "Facts of the Form -- information E justifies belief B -- are society-independent facts" "Objectivism about Justification" , and 3 "Under the appropriate circumstances, our exposure to the evidence alone is capable of explaining why we believe what we believe" "Objectivism about Rational Explanation". They are the subjects of the rest of the chapters.