The Difficulty of Remaining Coherent

There are many positions that people seem to think go naturally together that I think are natural enemies (or, alternately, people think are naturally opposed to each other that I think actually go together). By this I mean: while they can perhaps be coherently jointly maintained, it is difficult to do so, and the more natural interpretation of these positions is that holding one commits you to denying the other. (Or in the alternate case, that while they may seem opposed, in fact if you hold one it is hard to coherently avoid holding the other.) Examples will make it clearer what I have in mind. I write this just because I frequently have to have individual versions of this discussion, and it would be useful for me to have somewhere I can point to which sets down my thoughts alongside brief explanations/clarifications. I have colour coded it such that pairs of things I think are natural enemies (but which are mistakenly taken for friends) are red, and pairs of things I think are natural allies (but which are mistakenly taken for enemies) are in cyan.

Empiricism - Materialism/Physicalism: the same kind of down-to-earth attitude and respect for science that leads a person to think that one only gains knowledge through the senses tends to also lead people to think that only physical or material objects exist. But in fact it is notoriously difficult to give an empiricist-acceptable justificatory story for how one could know that material or physical objects (and only such objects) exist. The much more natural accompaniments are empiricism-idealism (as in Berkeley) or empiricism-scepticism (as in Hume... maybe). Either one constructs a metaphysics out of the stuff empiricists can more readily grant we have epistemic access to (sense impressions, observations, some such) or one simply admits that one cannot know what metaphysical claims ought be endorsed, or maybe commits to remaining quietest about the metaphysical or has some verificationisty story about how the issue of metaphysical commitment can't really arise. 

Empiricism - Standpoint Epistemology: owing to the present arrangement of culture war fights, people take these to be enemies. Empiricist folk follow the evidence of science, standpoint epistemologists give priority to Lived Experience of marginalised folks - not the same thing, right? But see previous blog here.

Relativism - Scepticism: the same sort of attitude of distaste for the hegemony of officially sanctioned knowledge producing institutions tends to lead people to both want to validate the claims of rival groups or institutions, and cast doubt upon the pretensions to knowledge of the dominant class. But there's a basic tension here: most versions of relativism tend to make it easier to gain knowledge, one simply has to participate in a given group's knowledge gathering rituals or procedures and one comes to know the claims thus validated. As long as some group the relativist lets into the fold of acceptable options is such that their procedures produce knowledge by their own lights, there is a sense in which one can come to know things. Whereas scepticism involves denying (if academic), or refusing assent to (if Pyrrhonian) claims to knowledge. So what the relativist says one can get once properly relativised, the sceptic will not grant has yet been achieved under any circumstances.

Empiricism/Naturalism - Relativism: yeah yeah, astute reader, I know, I'm getting to it. But ok again due to culture war configurations these are typically taken to be enemies. But. It's hard for an empiricist to tell a story about how we could come to know normative claims about how we ought to behave or inquire that is not, in the end, a story about social conventions or psychological habits or the like. It is hard, in short, for an empiricist to admit any culture- or individual-transcendent source of normative knowledge. They are hence often pushed back into either some sort of error theory (which I suppose is not relativistic, but the upshot of us all being wrong alike has many of the features folk do not like about relativism) or into a kind of conventionalism about normativity. But then one typically lacks resources to say why it is more than a raw or mere preference that one group's moral conventions are to be preferred over others. More or less the same goes for folk who would found their epistemology on only recognising those sources of information and modes of reasoning that are validated in scientific practice. (Attempts at this, such as Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape, typically have to resort to simply positing some norms that are not to be questioned - in his case basically utilitarian intuitions.) People might be willing to grant that in the case of moral or aesthetic norms, many have grown accustomed to relativism there, but when it is pointed out that the same goes for epistemic norms (why ought we prefer claims with more evidence for them rather than less? why ought we seek more accurate beliefs rather than more erroneous ones?) they balk.

None of this, let me stress, is anything like a logical proof that the positions are contradictory, or (in the friendly case) that they mutually entail one another. In fact I wish to simultaneously hold some of the position pairs that are in red above, and accept only one item in a cyan pair. So I would never l claim that. Rather this is meant to be something much vaguer.

The initial urge to respect the sciences that gives one both empiricism and materialism was not itself a well formulated position. Once one takes seriously the project of explaining what it means to say that there are no non-physical things one ends up with a given theory. Then one explicates the idea that the only sources of knowledge are the senses and computations we can do upon the information gained from them, and gains another theory. But, I claim, one then often finds that the most tempting version of the first theory contradicts the most tempting version of the second. And so it goes for the other ideas here. I haven't demonstrated these claims, I am just trying to point this phenomena out, and gesture towards the rough reasons as to why that is. It is hard philosophical work to resolve the difficulties thus created.

Now you might have noticed that I have rather put the empiricist in a pickle here. I have said: if one is an empiricist there is some pressure to be both a relativist and a sceptic, and also that relativism and scepticism don't get along very well. It is not a bind (one could always be an idealist!) but since most people independently want to be idealists this may thus seem like part of an argument against empiricism. But this blog has Empiric in the title! What's up?

The short answer is just: I think it is hard to be coherent. The slightly longer answer is two fold: it is indeed hard to be coherent and I doubt one would do much better by dropping the empiricism. I have just concentrated on what I have spent the most time thinking about. But it should also be borne in mind that culture war alliances were never really the sort of things designed to track or foster philosophical coherence in any case. A lot of the initial impulses that put a person in these situations are responses to the specific cultural, political, and social pressures of our present era. No-one is immune to these, and I am sure they have shaped what I believe. But there was never any reason to think that being thus blown about logical space one would land in the safe harbour of a coherent theory. One must think these things through for oneself.


  1. Excellent post. I've always been puzzled and more often than not frustrated by the failure to distinguish between relativism - and more broadly anti-realism - and skepticism. Curious what you think of the link/tension between relativism and open-mindedness? It's always seemed to be that a coherent relativist position is to dig in one's heals and commit to the values one has & the need to defeat those who don't agree (I think there's a strand in conservatism that works exactly like this).

    On the empiricism - materialism/physicalism point, couldn't you do something with the the thought that objects perceived play some sort of constitutive role in the content of perception?

    1. Ah cheers for the reply! I'll have to think more about the empiricism/materialism point. But on the first I think I have an older post on it :)

  2. What do you have in mind when you talk about "empiricism" as a position? I wonder if the empiricism that fights with materialism is the same empiricism that fits with relativism.

    1. I tend to think of empiricism as an instinct or a drive or something (maybe one of Van Frassen's stances) - I actually suspect that one can articulate this in a way that renders all these things coherent. It's more just that a lot of natural ways of spelling the idea out will end up contradicting natural ways of spelling these other things out. So I mean something far too vague to answer your question!

  3. Sorry it took me a while to get to your post following our twitter interaction! For whatever reason, your blog is blocked by my work internet. Not sure if the more worrying conclusions to draw from this should be about your blog, or how I spend my time at work..

    "Natural enemies/friends" is great terminology! I haven't encountered it before, but it seems a very useful phrase. I'll have to put it in my conceptual tool bag. Did you come up with this term?

    In regards to the "Relativism - Scepticism" section, I can't help but wonder if the relativist and the skeptic are really using the word "knowledge" in the same sense. It seems to me that the relativist conceptualizes "knowledge" in a wider perspective as a word used in many different contexts (language games). In different contexts, the proper usage of the word has different criteria. They see this and say, "Since different cultures have different criteria for achieving knowledge, and there is no way to determine which culture has it 'correct', all we can say is that there are different, valid ways of achieving knowledge."

    On the skeptic's use of the word, however, they are looking at the word already embedded in a particular context (perhaps one where criteria for correct use is justified true belief, and "justified" can never be achieved). If the skeptic and the relativist are in fact looking at "knowledge" in these different senses, there won't be any inconsistency in the same person being both a skeptic and a relativist. What do you think about this? Of course, this isn't a rejection of anything you said, just a possible take on how they may be compatible, and perhaps less antagonistic than it seems.

    1. Thanks and sorry for my year late reply lol :)

      Yeah I came up with the terminology! I think I agree with your proposal. Ultimately I have sympathies for both scepticism and relativism after all, so I want to be able to say both may be held coherently. But I think doing so requires addressing just the sort of ambiguities and potentials for misunderstanding you are here identifying.


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