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Assess John McFarlanes theory of TruthRelativism

1. Introduction Truth-relativism is the theory that our understanding of what is true is relative to a number of variables (such as the person uttering, or a specific point in time); and rejects that there exists a sort of metaphysical absolute truth, to which anything that differs, is undoubtedly false. McFarlane writes that one might think that being a relativist is just a matter of relativizing truth to some parameter. But it is not that simple1. The question at hand is whether what we commonly hold true to mean, is either Absolute regardless of experience, or Relative because of experience. To merely say that all truths are relative would be self-defeating, because to say so would be acknowledging an Absolute truth. Likewise, to say all truths are absolute will prove troublesome, at least when applied for example, to a matter of taste, or to assessment-sensitive sentences. Naturally, the question becomes difficult to answer because we are torn between two intuitions2. In this essay I plan to outline and explain some of the reasoning behind John MacFarlanes theory of truth-relativity, followed by detailing two critiques of the theory by Paul Horwich and Sebastiano Moruzzi. Finally, I will assess what I have discussed and attempt to form a conclusion based on what I have learned.

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Making Sense of Relative Truth page 306 Future Contingents and Relative Truth page 321

2. Exposition of MacFarlanes theory John McFarlane believes that in order to relitavise utterance-truth, we require both a context of utterance and a context of assessment. He believes a failure to identify these contrasts and their effects has been the cause of previously problematic future contingents.3 To illustrate his point with a real-world case, McFarlane asks us to consider the following example4. Imagine that at point in time m0, Jake asserts that there will be a sea-battle tomorrow. If we take possible worlds to be lines that emerge from the point of m0, at a point m1 tomorrow a sea battle takes place, and at a point m2 tomorrow, no such sea battle takes place. Clearly, only one of these futures will come to pass, but we must retrospectively ascertain whether the assertion made by Jake at m0 was true or false. I think Brogaard provides a good explanation of the problem so far5. McFarlane has asked us to take into account the context at which an utterance is assessed, when attempting to determine the truth value of a proposition. A context of assessment is merely a concrete situation by which we can assess the use of a sentence6. In our example, when we attempt to assess whether the proposition made by Jake is true or false, we must assign a truth-value to Jakes utterance and this itself is the determinacy intuition, whether or not it had already been determined at m0, whether m1 and m2 will happen. In the sea battle scenario, McFarlane progresses to attack the determinacy intuition, and those who have attempted to save it7. According to McFarlane, defenders of the determinacy intuition will try to identify an actual future from amongst all of the possible futures at the moment of utterance, and will mark out the actual future with a thin red line on a diagram. The remaining possible futures would be drawn as simple broken, black lines. The diagram below attempts to illustrate this point.

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Future Contingents and Relative Truth page 322 The entire example can be found in the paper Future Contingents, and will not be replicated here for brevitys sake. I will offer a brief summation, with only the key points. 5 Sea Battle Semantics page 327 6 Making Sense of Relative Truth page 309 7 Future Contingents and Relative Truth page 325

McFarlane now tries to strike at the heart of his opponents, who he claims believe that red lines give determinate truth values8. However it is exactly this claim of hanging onto objective indeterminism that McFarlane uses against those attempting to save the determinist intuition. McFarlane believes that all lines other than the thin red one, were never really possibilities at all, and are in effect, merely a waste of pen and ink(my words, not his). This is because McFarlane believes that if we look at it from some type of Gods eye point of view9, none of the other possible futures could ever have happened, and are thus merely epistemic possibilities. This is evidenced when he writes that the other lines do not seem like real possible futures10. McFarlane believes that anything other than the red line in the diagram could never have been a possible future at all.11

3.1 Horwichs critique In my understanding, Paul Horwichs key point in critically assessing McFarlanes theory of truth-relativism is to attack the entire concept of the context of assessment. It is clear that Horwich favours a theory of Absolute
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Future Contingents and Relative Truth page 325 Future Contingents and Relative Truth page 326 10 Future Contingents and Relative Truth page 325 11 Future Contingents and Relative Truth page 325

truth, but will in any case give a fair examination of Relative truth. This is evidenced by his sentence that whatever notions of relative truth may be recognised (for better or worse), there remains such a thing as good old absolute truth12. Horwich uses a step-by-step format to reach his conclusion, and begins by noting MacFarlanes acceptance of norms of assertion13. With this in mind, Horwich next claims that there is likely a general tendency to assert an utterance to be true or false, in certain narrow circumstances, even though there may be too much epistemological variation in background to reach a general unconditional tendency to assert the utterance as true or false14. Essentially for Horwich, its not enough to suppose that someone will tend to assert rhubarb is delicious if it is true relative to her context of assessment. That wont put us in a position to explain what we want unless we also suppose that an assessment context involving someone who loves the taste of rhubarb is a context relative to which that sentence is true15. In the case of the supposed deliciousness of rhubarb, what is being proposed is that the sentence meaning is partly characterised by its relative truth condition, i.e. that it is true only relative to an assessment context by which the assessor believes rhubarb to be delicious. This fits in with the norm of assertion that someone will assert something only if it is true in his context of assessment and will retract any false assertions that they previously held to be true. Horwich writes that it seems to him that the best hope for a relative-truththeoretic semantics runs along these lines16 and that this is a fairly natural reconstruction of McFarlanes theory. However Horwich now presents his evolved version of the above norm of assertion, that We have a tendency both to assert what is true (and only what is true) relative to our current assessment context and to retract what was previously asserted if (and only if) it is false relative to it17 I believe it is now clear the point to which Horwich has been working towards. Horwich seems to claim that MacFarlanes context of assessment is merely a
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An Undermining Diagnosis of Relativism about Truth page 8 An Undermining Diagnosis of Relativism about Truth page 11 14 An Undermining Diagnosis of Relativism about Truth page 14 15 An Undermining Diagnosis of Relativism about Truth page 15 16 An Undermining Diagnosis of Relativism about Truth page 16 17 An Undermining Diagnosis of Relativism about Truth page 17

semantic construction for the obvious claim that people assert what is true to them, and deny what is not true to them. Confident in having discredited the context of assessment, Horwich writes that the real explanatory work of such a relativistic theory would be done by use-theoretic facts facts about the non-semantic circumstances in which sentences are asserted18, and that it is facts being re-described as relative truth that enables the possibility of viewing truth-theoretic semantics19. Horwich continues that this new semantic term does not relativise our familiar notion of Absolute truth and concludes that its hard to see that anything but the potential for confusion could be achieved by calling relative acceptance relative truth.20

3.2 Moruzzis Critique Sebastiano Moruzzi lays out another example in his paper, an example not dissimilar to that of Horwich. Moruzzi gives us an example of two women disputing whether cappuccino is delicious.21 Moruzzi creates two scenarios, and within both of these scenarios, Ann is asserting that cappuccino is delicious and Mary is denying its deliciousness. In the first scenario from Anns perspective, cappuccino is true and Marys rejection of cappuccino is not accurate22. But the question here Morruzi asks, is what exactly are they disagreeing on? For according to (Relative Assertion 2), In asserting that p and the context C1, one commits oneself to justifying the assertion when the assertion is appropriately challenged. To justify the

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An Undermining Diagnosis of Relativism about Truth page 17 An Undermining Diagnosis of Relativism about Truth page 17 20 An Undermining Diagnosis of Relativism about Truth page 18 21 Assertion, Belief and disagreement: A Problem for Truth-Relativism page 210 22 Assertion, Belief and disagreement: A Problem for Truth-Relativism page 218

assertion in a context C2 is to provide grounds for the truth of p relative to the context of use C1 and context of assessment C223 Mary can challenge Ann to justify her assertion of cappuccino, and how can Ann meet this challenge except by adjusting her standard of taste? If she cannot provide any further justification( and in any case, any reason proposed by her for asserting cappuccino could just as easily be used by Mary for denying cappuccino), it seems as if Mary has won the dispute because Ann cannot justify her position relative to (Relative Assertion 2). Moruzzi claims that MacFarlanes reply is that this is so because it is a brute fact of human psychology, but I find this deeply unsatisfactory24. In Moruzzis second scenario, both Ann and Mary are aware of the truthrelativist doctrine, and Mary knows that Ann is unable to meet the challenge presented unless Ann adjusts her standard of taste. Even if one were to reply that this is a normal situation in a dispute over taste, Moruzzi believes that with the truth-relativist doctrine in mind, silence is the only rational way to act for Ann and Mary. Furthermore, if assertion is understood in the context of such a dispute as an action undertaking a commitment to face challenges from other perspectives, no challenge can make sense if grounded on a different assessment context, thus the only rational thing to do is to remain silent and not even start disputing25. Essentially, Moruzzi is saying here that any two parties who know the truth-relativist doctrine can never have a rational dispute on a matter of taste. Moruzzi concludes that the truth-relativist story does not explain our behaviour in disputes of taste, and indeed we should not behave as we do if we are aware of the correct semantics of our language26.

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Assertion, Belief and disagreement: A Problem for Truth-Relativism page 210 Assertion, Belief and disagreement: A Problem for Truth-Relativism page 221 25 Assertion, Belief and disagreement: A Problem for Truth-Relativism page 222 26 Assertion, Belief and disagreement: A Problem for Truth-Relativism page 223

4.1 Assessing Moruzzis and Horwichs Critiques At both the beginning, and midway through this paper, I had presumed that my conclusion would allow at the very least for relative-truth in matters of taste and aesthetics. Having struggled to reconcile relative-truth with seemingly a priori mathematical proofs, I believed I would have to conclude that some truths were Relative and others Absolute. When I realised that MacFarlanes claims relate only to assessment-sensitive sentences, I was freed from the problem of mathematical proofs, as they are irrelevant to MacFarlanes theory. Despite this, Moruzzis argument and conclusion that truth-relativisms fault was in respecting the putative idea that there is a real disagreement between opposite parties in matters of taste27, I found to be quite convincing. Later on, I was lucky enough to obtain a copy of MacFarlanes new book entitled Assessment Sensitivity, in which the issue is addressed. Moruzzis critique centred around the idea that neither Ann nor Mary(I have adapted MacFarlanes example to Moruzzis for claritys sake) could rationally try to convince the about cappuccino, because one would have to change their beliefs via salient facts in order to resolve the dispute. MacFarlanes response is that these facts are merely like premises in an argument and do not aim to change a belief but only a change in taste28. Therefore for MacFarlane, disputes about matters of taste, do not seem to require that there are disagreements of taste in any sense stronger than practical noncotenability29.At first, this may seem like MacFarlane is only neatly sidestepping the issue; but Moruzzi writes that his conclusion is that the truthrelativist story fails to explain why we behave as we actually behave when we are involved in disputes of matters of taste, and that this story entails that we should not behave as we actually behave if we were aware of the correct semantics of our language30. As I understand it, Moruzzi says that MacFarlanes theory does not provide adequate explanation for the behaviour of the parties involved. MacFarlanes reply is that relativism secures preclusion of joint accuracy, since from any given context of assessment, a single taste, (the taste of the assessor) is relevant to the accuracy of all beliefs
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Assertion, Belief and disagreement: A Problem for Truth-Relativism page 223 Assessment Sensitivity, Relevant Truth and its Applications page 130 29 Assessment Sensitivity, Relevant Truth and its Applications page 131 30 Assertion, Belief and disagreement: A Problem for Truth-Relativism page 223

about what is tasty. As assessed from Anns context, her belief is accurate and Marys is inaccurate, and vice versa31 so I think MacFarlanes response is that because neither Ann nor Mary can be in the context of assessment of the other, they cannot have the joint accuracy of speaking of the same thing, and the dispute is irresolvable until one of them occupies a context of assessment that differs in semantically relevant ways from the one she occupied before32. In effect, what Moruzzi says is not adequately explained, does not need to be explained because for MacFarlane, the two parties are not disputing in the way that Moruzzi claims they are. I find the criticisms made by Horwich more difficult to reconcile, as they centre on a profound difference between the two in that Horwich does not recognise the context of assessment, which is crucial to MacFarlanes truth-relativism. Horwich writes that within assessment contexts on certain topics, there will be nothing in reality to make it simply true or simply false33. I think that Horwich may be misguided in his critique. His assertion that the fundamental question is whether or not there is such a thing as absolute truth....and I think that there is34 results in him approaching the question with the aim of trying to link Relative truth to Absolute truth, which is not MacFarlanes aim and is a different matter entirely. When he concludes that MacFarlanes Relative truth does not stand for a relativisation of Absolute truth35, Horwich is merely answering a question that he himself has asked, and has done nothing to discredit MacFarlanes theory except to say it does not stand for a relativisation of Horwichs notion of Absolute truth.

4.2 Assessment of the general argument The next part of this paper will focus on my critical analysis of MacFarlanes theory, and address some of the issues that I have already raised.

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Assessment Sensitivity, Relevant Truth and its Applications page 132 Assessment Sensitivity, Relevant Truth and its Applications page 133 33 An Undermining Diagnosis of Relativism about Truth page 1 34 An Undermining Diagnosis of Relativism about Truth page 8 35 An Undermining Diagnosis of Relativism about Truth page 18

I believe that the question of pre-determinism is inextricably linked to MacFarlanes theory of truth-relativism. Returning to the diagrams about a sea battle, I think a point that MacFarlane makes36 deserves considerable attention. Imagine for example that I asserted on the 12th of July 2010, that I just KNEW (emphasis) that Spain were going to win the World Cup final, even though I did not believe it to be pre-determined. As MacFarlane points out, this type of talk is what makes the thin red line seem intelligible and even compelling37. Effectively, I would be privileging one possible future over others based on my own arrogance to claim to be able to make a correct prediction. I would be conflating internal and external perspectives between which a clear distinction should be made. I would be envisaging that Spain winning, was going to be the actual future. This, however, is wrong. To do so would involve looking retrospectively at our tree from the point of m1(Spain winning) and MacFarlane says that we should not speak from points on the branching histories tree, but instead take an overarching (Gods eye) viewpoint; and from this external viewpoint, there is no sense to saying that one of the two histories passing through a moment is going to be the actual one38. How does this affect the determinism question? If one accepts determinism, then they could claim that the thin red line is the actual future, and was always going to be the future because it was pre-determined. Accordingly, in our earlier example Jake would have been correct in asserting that there was going to be a sea-battle both at m0 and m1 (and at any conceivable point in time along that particular line). However, I, like many people do not believe that the future is pre-determined and that we are unable to affect it. Due to this, I am inclined to agree with MacFarlane that in an indeterminate world, we require a context of assessment combined with a context of use to determine the truthfulness of an assertion, and thus the future is open only in the sense that we do not (and perhaps cannot) know what it will bring39. At m0, the truth-value of an assertion about a prospective sea-battle is indeterminate. If this is right, then it seems we can persist in thinking that there is an objective fact of the matter as to whose epistemic principles are correct only at the price
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Future Contingents and Relative Truth page 326 Future Contingents and Relative Truth page 326 38 Future Contingents and Relative Truth page 326 39 Future Contingents and Relative Truth page 326

of acknowledging that neither party is in a position (even on further reflection) to come to know this fact.40

5. Final Conclusion To conclude, in my assessment, John MacFarlane has produced a persuasive case for truth-relativism when limited to assessment-sensitive sentences. However, because it is limited to these assessment-sensitive sentences, I believe it to be only a brick in the wall of a Universal Relative Truth theory; in my opinion it holds up to the attacks of both Horwich and Moruzzi at least. To finish, I am in accordance with MacFarlanes own words on being asked is relativism true. MacFarlane concludes that the weakest relativist position we have distinguished is that there is at least one assessment-sensitive sentence in come conceivable language. So the weakest form of relativism about truth would seem to be true.41

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Boghossian, Bellarmine, and Bayes page 393 Making Sense of Relative Truth page 322


Bibliography: John MacFarlane Boghossian, Bellarmine, and Bayes- published online- Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008. Future Contingents and Relative Truth- The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 53, No.212, July 2003. Assessment Sensitivity, Relevant Truth and its Applications- Clarendon Press Oxford, 2014. Making Sense of Relative Truth- presented to the Aristotelian Society, Senate house, University of London, 2005. Berit Brogaard Sea Battle Semantics- The Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 58, No.231, April 2008. Sebastiano Moruzzi Assertion, Belief and disagreement: A Problem for Truth-Relativism- Truth Relativism Manuel Garca-Carpintero (Editor), Max Kolbel (Editor), Oxford University Press ,2008. Prof. Paul Horwich, NYU An Undermining Diagnosis of Relativism about Truthhttp://people.ucsc.edu/~farkas/sclp/papers/HorwichPaper.pdf


Critically Assess John McFarlanes theory of Truth-Relativism

Contextual Quotation sheet

The purpose of this sheet is to list in full, the quotations which I omitted from my paper for the purposes of brevity. It is indented to act as a companion for the marker of the essay, to provide quotes from the readings that I hope will make comprehensible, any points or reasoning that seem unclear.

3.this amounts to recognising a new kind of linguistic context-sensitivity: sentence truth can vary not just with features of the context of utterance (ucontextuality) but with features of the context of assessment (a-contextuality). It is failure to make room for this kind of context sensitivity that has left us with the traditional menu of unsatisfactory solutions to the problem of future contingents

6. given standard semantics, then, (the utterance), as uttered by Jake at m0, is true simpliciter iff the proposition expressed by Jake at his current context of use is true at the index determined by the context. Any potential future speech situation at which Jakes assertion at m0 is evaluated is irrelevant to whether or not the assertion is true. So since Jakes assertion at m0 is neither determinately true not determinately false relative to his context of use at m0, it cannot later turn out to be true. But later, when we are in the midst of a sea battle, it surely seems that Jakes earlier assertion was true at the time of utterance. This is the problem of future contingents

8. by supposing that there are many objectively possible future histories, we hang onto objective indeterminism, and by positing the thin red line, we get the determinate truth-values we need for retrospective assessments of utterances.


We are not forced to say, as the supervaluationist does, that assertions of future contingents are neither true nor false

10. looking down on the branching histories from above, God can see that given the past and the context of utterance, only one continuation remains in play: the one marked with the thin red line. In what sense then, are the others really possibilities? They are possible in an epistemic sense: the utterer does not know which history is marked out with the thin red line. But objectively speaking they are not genuine possibilities at all

11. This is due to the fact that the non-red branches in the tree are supposed to represent objectively possible futures, but their non-redness indicates precisely that they will not be the continuations of the history that includes the utterance in question

21. Consider a dispute over the goodness in taste of cappuccino. It is well known that in accounting for the intuition that the dispute is faultless we are faced with a dilemma: either you go with the hard-core objectivists solution holding that one of the disputants is right and the other is wrong with the drawback that it is a mystery why both disputants think they are right and that you are committed to a dubious rampant realist metaphysics of the property of the goodness of taste of cappuccino; or you go with the contextualist holding that both disputants are right since each of them actually expresses something as cappuccino tastes good(or bad) for me