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August 04, 2008


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I fear this is why I'm not a thinker friendly to the hermeneutic tradition. The idea that difficulties expressing P (e.g., across languages) implies that "and therefore that the notion of [P] totally independent of subjective values and impressions is itself incoherent" just strikes me as lunacy. This is so for several reasons, two of them chief:

1. There are Moorean facts. That is, there are some facts that we know (intuit) a lot stronger than we know (intuit) all these claims about languages. I am sitting down as I type this. Even were I to try and type this in a language that didn't have a concept of sitting down, I'd be sitting down as I typed this -- if only because sitting down is engangled with a lot of other concepts and observations, some of which surely must be in any well-functioning language (my legs are crossed, my torso is close to my feet, light is reflecting from my body in a certain fashion, the soles of my feet do not touch the ground). Indeed, we can recognize facts that aren't translatable into any non-mathematical language, like the facts of quantum physics.

2. The position is self-defeating: the argument for the incoherence of facts is premised on fact claims about language and human cognition.

Hey Paul,

Do you think that we can draw brightlines between facts and values? That is -- what precisely do you find to be lunacy about the hermeneutic critique?

Note that a healthy portion of the argument sketched here has absolutely nothing to do with hermeneutic-style thinkers. Much of it comes from heavy philosophy of language/philosophy of science itself.

The indeterminacy of translation argument comes from Quine, not from Gadamer or his ilk.

Re your specific points:

(1) I think you know my general feeling about Moorean epistemology (it's borderline absurd and totally unconvincing to me). That said, it is not at all clear to me how the existence of many totally uncontroversial facts establishes a brightline criterion or set of criteria we could use to effectively distinguish between facts and values. Nothing about the criticisms sketched above seem to me to deny the possibility of a great many uncontroversial facts that the vast majority of epistemic agents are justified in relying on.

What does the issue of justified belief have to do with the metaphysical issue of whether brute facts unencumbered by normative commitments exist?

2. Which position is self-defeating? The argument is not that facts per se is incoherent; the argument is that a metaphysical notion of facts as maintaining an essence that suffices to distinguish it from values is incoherent. It's not at all clear to me why that is incoherent or self-defeating.

You seem to be suggesting that an argument concluding that facts are incoherent cannot thereby rely on a factual premise. But you've got the conclusion wrong; it is not that facts are incoherent. It is, rather, that an idea of facts existing in any essential sense apart from values is incoherent.

For purposes of this post, I have no trouble assuming that there are facts, and that these facts are subject to varying degrees of justificatory force. None of these premises imply, however, that facts are discrete metaphysical entities existing apart from the values of the interpretations we use to apprehend these facts.

Really briefly (running out the door), I think the chief problem is that we're dancing back and forth between metaphysics and epistemology here. That is, I'm not sure how any premises about language, regardless of the philosophical credentials of its source, can establish any claims about the metaphysics of facts. At most, such premises can establish claims about what can be known and expressed about facts -- that is, about epistemology. So I don't particularly feel obligated to defend anything, against a linguistic challenge, stronger than that agents can have well-justified beliefs about facts.

That, I think, answers the question in 1). As for 2), I think that one implication of this alleged value-entanglement is that the strength of arguments relying on factual premises is undermined. That's so because if anything at all follows from the supposed value-entanglement, it's that arguments for factual claims necessarily have normative premises, and that seriously threatens factual claims, because normative claims are necessarily more subject to dispute, less amenable to final resolution, etc., than factual claims.

Anyway, yes, I think there are brute facts apart from values. That doesn't necessarily mean we can communicate them without some interpretive work, and bits of that interpretive work may be normative (a la Davidsonian charity), but none of that even touches the metaphysical question.

Ah, that clarifies things. And you can chalk up another proposition we happen to agree about: "agents can have well-justified beliefs about facts." There is nothing about the fact-value problem that commits me to the belief that well-justified beliefs about facts are impossible.

Of course, since beliefs posit the existence of some subject, a believer, as it were, this proposition is entirely friendly to those, like myself, who remain exceedingly dubious about an essential difference between facts and values.

As for #2, I tend to agree with you -- the value-laden nature of all facts tends to undermine a positivist hope in the compelling force of those facts. But so what? This does not mean that we cannot have better or worse justifications for belief regarding certain facts; nor does it imply the nonexistence of facts.

Rather, it describes some features about how we come to know facts, and whether those facts are knowable without interpretation, construction, and bias. And there are, IMO, very good reasons for doubting that we can know as such.

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