Debates About Realism Transposed to a New Key
Edwards (Jim)
Source: Mind, Vol. 103, No. 409 (Jan., 1994), pp. 59-72
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction1

  1. Review of Truth and Objectivity, by Crispin Wright. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992. Pp. x + 247. $29.95.
  2. This book is concerned with a family of current and recent debates which may be loosely gathered under the title of "realisms versus anti-realisms". Wright's first aim is to establish a set of theses which should be agreed by all parties to the various debates – though they have not been so agreed in fact. Setting aside these "agreed" theses, Wright proceeds to sketch some of the cruces at which, he thinks, realists and anti-realists should properly part company. Some of Wright's cruces are familiar, but some are radical re-workings of familiar cruces. In short, Wright proposes to generate a new agenda for debates about realism. Finally, Wright conjures up a spectre from Wittgenstein's rule following considerations which threatens to produce an outright victory for anti-realism, and Wright tries, tentatively, to contain this threat.
  3. The anti-realisms most discussed include "error" theories of moral discourse (locus classicus "Mackie (J.L.) - Ethics - Inventing Right and Wrong" 1977) and of mathematical discourse (locus classicus "Field (Hartry) - Science Without Numbers" 1980). Error theorists have held that our ordinary moral and mathematical assertions are apt for being true or false, in a sense of "true" which is not merely disquotational but supports the idea that true statements correspond to the moral or modal facts. But they claim that such statements are in fact false, because the world does not contain what would be required to make them true, and hence we are in massive and systematic error in our moral and mathematical beliefs.
  4. Other anti-realist theories in view are expressive, non-cognitive, projective accounts of moral or modal discourses, which claim that moral or modal utterances are not properly regarded as being apt for truth or falsity, if truth is not merely disquotational but supports the idea of correspondence to moral or modal facts.
  5. Also in the picture is the debate between a Dummettian realist, who claims that our grasp of truth conditions is such that truth is not constrained by possible evidence, and his opponent, the Dummettian anti-realist. The list of anti-realisms is left open-ended.
  6. Wright argues that all these various anti-realists should agree, pace expressivists, non-cognitivists, etc., that the target discourse, moral discourse or modal discourse for example, is apt for truth or falsity, where the concept of truth concerned is not merely disquotational but expresses a genuine property will support talk of true moral or modal statements corresponding to moral or modal facts. And, Wright argues, anti-realists should agree, pace error theorists, that a critical mass of those assertions which careful practitioners take to be true are indeed true, with truth so understood. Expressivists and error theorists should abandon their characteristic ways of stating their respective anti-realist perspectives on moral or modal discourse. Instead, Wright thinks, their anti-realist perspectives are better expressed in terms of various cruces at which realists and anti-realists should part company. Realists and anti-realists should investigate whether the discourse in question, moral or modal for example, passes one or more of the following tests. We can frame each test in the form of a question. An affirmative answer counts towards realism, a negative answer towards anti-realism:
    1. Cognitive Command: Roughly – Is it a priori that, if two practitioners of the discourse differ in their judgments, then at least one is in cognitive error? Wright presents this as a radical reworking of David Wiggins' idea that, if a discourse is apt for substantial truth, then opinions ex pressed in that discourse should show a tendency to converge as the practitioners investigate the subject matter in question (Wiggins "What Would Be A Substantial Theory of Truth?", 1980).
    2. The Euthyphro Contrast: Do the practitioners' best judgments track the moral or modal facts, which facts are otherwise determined, rather than their best judgments determining the moral or modal facts? This test recalls Plato's dialogue: Socrates thought that the piety of an act caused the gods to think it so, but something else, not the gods' opinion of it, made the act pious. Euthyphro thought that an act was pious because the gods thought it so; the gods' opinion was what made it pious.
    3. Wide Cosmological Role: Roughly – Do the facts which the discourse records, moral or modal facts for example, feature in more than vindicatory explanations of the judgments of the practitioners; feature, that is, in explanations of other facts besides the practitioners attitudes, and feature in explanations other than as the objects of practitioners' attitudes? Wright presents Wide Cosmological Role as the legitimate successor to Gilbert Harman's view of a best-explanation test for realism (Gilbert Harman, The Nature of Morality 1977), and to David Wiggins' conception of vindicatory explanation ("Wiggins (David) - Moral Cognitivism, Moral Relativism and Motivating Moral Beliefs" 1991).
    4. Semantic Realism: This is the familiar Dummettian crux. Does the practice of the discourse manifest a grasp of truth conditions which are unconstrained by possible evidence?
  7. An affirmative answer to any of these questions counts in favour of a realist interpretation of the discourse, an interpretation in which the correspondence between true sentences and the facts is, in Wright's phrase, "seriously dyadic" (p. 83). …

Author’s Conclusion
  1. The scale of debates discussed, the detailed new arguments Wright here presents to develop his cohesive picture of those debates, the rough cut edges which promise further development, all within a volume of modest length, make this book a milestone in the discussion of realism.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Truncated somewhat arbitrarily.


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