Monthly Archives: September 2017

The Seven Sexes: A Study in the Sociology of a Phenomenon, or the Replication of Experiments in Physics


To introduce the epistemological stance that The Seven Sexes is based off of, Collins quotes McHugh’s On the Failure of Positivism, claiming “Truth is conceivable only as a socially organized upshot of contingent courses of linguistic, conceptual and social behavior” (McHugh 329). This statement nicely sets up Collins’s argument on the transfer of scientific knowledge and the concept of scientific success, particularly in attempts to replicate experiments and circumstances that yielded results. He introduces the ‘ship in a bottle’ metaphor, in which ships (knowledge) are within bottles (validity) and perceptions are built on the ships already formed out of many sticks and inside bottles, after which it’s nearly impossible to get them out. “Ships” are being built slowly in the scientific community all the time, though Collins takes a more relativistic approach to these scientific developments than most.

The two plausible models Collins presents for the transfer of scientific knowledge are the algorithmical model and the enculturational model. The algorithmical model takes the approach that any scientific experiment can be reduced to a distinct and precise series of instructions that, when followed scrupulously, can produce the exact results of another’s experiment. Or, in other words, when presented with an ‘algorithm,’ any scientific results can be reproduced once the algorithm is nailed down and airtight. Collins also makes the point that the use of this approach strongly encourages competitiveness in the scientific community which, as a whole, retards scientific discovery, since the factors of the ‘algorithm’ regarding high-profile experiments is highly coveted.

The second model Collins presents is the enculturational model. Under this model, the concept of producing an exact copy of an experiment is not plausible. He states that there’s a cultural limitation on the variables that can be accounted for per experiment, and therefore two copies of an experiment can never be exactly the same (and hence cannot follow the same algorithm). It is here that he introduces the concept of the seven sexes, which is taken from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 in which protagonist Billy Pilgrim is abducted by Tralfamadorians. The alien race states matter-of-factly to Billy that there are, in fact, seven sexes necessary for human reproduction, which directly contradicts our belief that the only relevant sexes in this circumstance are male and female. From Vonnegut’s concept, Collins asserts that this actually follows the enculturational model of scientific knowledge. There’s no way for us to know whether or not we know the exact algorithm for sexual reproduction at all, but rather that there is an infinity of possible algorithms and there’s no way of knowing the correct one.

Collins concludes that the enculturational model seems much more sensible than the algorithmical after considering that the transfer of scientific knowledge necessitates the transfer of a culture in order to legitimate the parameters of experimental control. The key to this concept is that the scientists involved don’t even necessarily know or comprehend that they’re fulfilling certain parameters necessary for successful replicated scientific experimentation, but they naturally fulfill the role only through the transfer of culture. It has been proven that in scientific replication it’s much more common for predecessors to have success in yielding valid results when they have spent direct time in the original lab and with the original scientists, while they will find fewer valid results if reading about an experiment or obtaining information through a middle-man. Neither party, scientist nor observer, is aware of this transfer of knowledge.

Gravitational radiation is an excellent example of this phenomena. This is a particularly interesting study because there is so little solid information (very few ships in bottles) surrounding this research. This is one of the circumstances in which there’s a lot of competition among scientists to yield valid results the fastest, and because of it there’s very little exact reproduction of any experiment (since it has simply already been done). Instead, scientists choose to replicate an experiment with minor modifications in their field of expertise, such as minor improvements in electronics where everything else remains ‘the same.’ Now relating this to the enculturational model, Collins argues that the only way for a guarantee of transfer of scientific knowledge to take place is through production of results that are acceptable to the scientific community. This is difficult to apply to the concept of gravity waves because there is no established criteria for what constitutes a good gravity wave detector. This can follow in more established fields as well because scientists who fail to detect gravity waves can simply deny their existence.

Similarly, it’s difficult to establish a “good experiment” using purely scientific terms and procedures, since there is an infinite number of criteria that may or may not feed into the results. To be accepted in the scientific community as yielding truthful or legitimate results, there’s a major list non-scientific points of judgement. Beyond following the scientific method and publishing honest results, Collins found that scientists judged others based on many factors. These included personal intelligence, reputation, style, academic standing, size and prestige of the university at hand and nationality. For example, one scientist denied the results of the original gravity waves experiment because he couldn’t pick apart the procedure as carefully as he would have liked. This shows that there’s not a defined set of scientific criteria that can guarantee experimental validity.

Here Collins introduces his fifth point, which includes a series of interviews from scientists to prove a lack of consensus on scientific criteria. This shows that science cannot be intentionally learned or agreed upon without the transfer of scientific knowledge discussed earlier in the text. He goes on to discuss what constitutes a scientific phenomenon, defining it as a supposed set of circumstances, locations, times, events and conceptual categories that culminate in a specific manifestation of the phenomena. Because there are so many factors, it is the specific pattern of inclusion and exclusion of the variables that constitutes a successful or pertinent replication or continuation of the experiment. Collins then includes the very helpful example of measuring heat. There are multiple ways to do this, which implies some of the characteristics of heat, though when measuring with a thermometer it’s crucial to leave it in the substance for more than half a second to allow the heat to transfer. This information is extremely important for a valid replication of the measurement of heat, though it is not implicitly in the definition of a measurement of heat and isn’t always included as criteria. If an experiment in which the thermometer was only exposed to the heat for a millisecond was considered valid, the very properties of heat as we conceptualize it would change. This introduces the ‘inexplicably bad’ category of experiments where unexpected results are produced due to a lack of limits on this type of factor. Because of this, the concept of gravity waves is completely contingent on the determination of experimental competency in measuring them. From a relativistic perspective, there’s no true determination of the qualities of gravity waves as many experiments that yield many different results will include different factors (without a known algorithm). In this way, it is the linguistic, conceptual and social behavior that “settles the design of the ship in the bottle” (Collins 220).

The “Attainability Argument” for Relativism about Truth

Relativists about truth[1] are often motivated by an argument concerning the attainability of knowledge. Very roughly, the idea is this: objectivism about truth makes knowledge unattainable. Call the constructivist/relativist arguments that rely on this contention attainability arguments. It goes something like this:

  1. If we have knowledge that something is the case, then it is true.
  2. If truth is mind-independent, then things are true independently of how they appear to us.
  3. We cannot have perceptual knowledge of how things are independently of how they appear to us.
  4. So, If truth is mind-independent, then we cannot have perceptual knowledge of anything. (From 1-3)
  5. We have some perceptual knowledge.
  6. So, truth is mind-dependent. (From 4-5)

Different relativists will vary this argument in different ways. In particular, they will swap out the words “mind” and “appearance” for words such as “society,” “description,” “theory,” and so on. The emphasis is not always on perceptual knowledge either.

The argument is valid, so if it goes wrong, it is because one of its premises is false. Note that Statement 4 is what we call an “intermediate conclusion:” it is a conclusion of one argument, and a premise in another. Suppose that you think that Statement 4 is wrong. Then because it follows immediately from a valid inference that has Statements 1-3 as its premises, you must dig deeper and find out which of these three premises is/are wrong. The general lesson is that it is never adequate to criticize an intermediate conclusion without ascertaining which of the premises supporting it are incorrect.

Hence, in this argument, we can tentatively assume that the only “ultimate” premises are 1, 2, 3, and 5. Note that 1, 2, and 5 are agreed upon by virtually all objectivists. To deny 5 is to lapse into skepticism (which many—but not all!—objectivists find undesirable). To deny 1 and 2 is to concede precisely the kinds of things that are at stake in the debate with relativists. So, our tentative assumption that these three premises are ultimate is on solid ground.

However, Statement 3 is not quite as obvious a candidate for an ultimate premise. Would objectivists accept this without argument? Probably not. So, at this point, I like to think especially hard about whether 3 really is an “ultimate” premise, or whether there are further reasons offered on its behalf. In many relativist texts, we find just such an argument:

  1. If we can have perceptual knowledge of how things are independently of how they appear to us, then our perceptual experience is not only of how things appear to us.
  2. Our perceptual experience is only of how things appear to us.

3.   So, we cannot have perceptual knowledge of how things are independently of how they                appear to us. (From 7-8)

Note that while Statement 3 was initially an ultimate premise, it is now an intermediate conclusion. So, we’ve had to revise our tentative assumption. Here’s the big upshot of this: if we thought that Statement 3 was where the attainability argument went wrong, we now need to shift our focus to whether the premises for it (7 and 8) go wrong. Once again, the objectivist isn’t likely to reject Premise 7, since that leads to skepticism or concedes too much to relativists. So, the culprit appears to be Premise 8. I think we will be hard pressed to turn this from an ultimate premise to an intermediate conclusion. Hence, we have found the true sticking point between relativists and objectivists: about whether our perceptual experiences ever go beyond how things appear to us. At this point, try to think of how objectivists might argue against this claim.

The larger lesson is that we can use argument reconstructions to isolate the deep sticking points between the parties in a debate.

[1] I will talk about relativism and objectivism about truth. These positions could just as easily be considered positions about facts. At least some people who describe themselves as “constructivists” also appear to endorse the attainability argument.

Chapter 4 Summary: Relativizing the Facts

In chapter 4 of Boghossian’s, Fear of Knowledge, the author unpacks the applications and underlying meaning of the philosophical theory, relativism. Boghossian begins by referring to Rorty’s case against a “description-dependent reality.” Rorty argues that this “cookie-cutter model” of reality leads to the fallacious reasoning that nothing in the world came into existence until humans were able to conceptualize and label any given physical phenomenon. In turn, Rorty expels the notion that there are absolute truths. In other words, the exact nature of how things are in the world is entirely separate from the description-dependent ways in which we characterize them. By abandoning the description-dependence model of facts, the relativist’s view of reality and truth is opened as an alternative view of the world.

Boghossian characterizes the relativist view of the world as a way of thinking about tangible objects and intangible ideas without venturing down a path of absolute certainty and dogmatism. Likewise, relativism is based off of the concept that we as humans do not have the ability to understand a mind-independent reality due to the fact that the human experience permits us only one lens to view reality. There may be a “true” mind-independent reality, but we have no way of knowing what that may consist of. The relativist recognizes and accepts this idea as a centerpiece of his philosophy: because we cannot confidently and precisely say what is “real,” the most we as humans can do is describe ideas or objects by certain theories belonging to different groups of people in the world.

Likewise, building off of the definition of social relativism which Boghossian laid out in chapter 3 of his book, not all forms of description are going to be practical or useful to humans simply because any theory may be implemented to describe something. Rather, the author refers to Rorty’s point that there are pragmatic reasons which the general populous may choose to employ in our daily lives for purposes of utility.

Despite the varying degrees usefulness of any given theory and its associated factual claim, Rorty’s definition of relativism also allows for clear discrepancy over what facts are true without settling for a set of absolute truths. Boghossian breaks this idea down into a formula stating that “‘It’s true according to C1’s theory T1, that there are X’s’ in no way contradicts ‘It’s true according to C2’s theory T2, that there are no X’s'” (Boghossian 46). This format of viewing and defining reality seems to incorporate the concept of ‘equal validity’ into the definition of relativism as there is not one particular community’s theory which is “correct.”

I personally struggle to find the purpose of this theory in our daily lives. I agree with the logic that because we only can view the world through our human minds we are not able to grasp what reality in itself may truly be. However, by committing oneself to that principle entails that we as humans will also never understand another form of reality unless some unexpected change were to occur, altering our view of reality. Thus, in my mind, it seems superfluous to adhere to a philosophical theory which allows for the acceptance of multiple theories and views about what defines reality as there is only one reality which we directly experience. It may not be harmful to anyone to recognize our lack of understanding of what reality is in and of itself, but I also do not see what progress is made for humanity by disregarding our common view of reality to prohibit disagreement between arguments which are seen as equally valid.

Nevertheless, Boghossian develops upon Rorty’s arguments, displaying the distinction between ‘global’ relativism and ‘local’ relativism. Likewise, the concept of local relativism seems to address some of the issues which I have within the relativist theory. Local relativism subdivides global relativism into individual concepts rather than referring to each aspect of the world as a whole. Boghossian gives the example of a moral relativist, who believes that there are no concrete facts about reality which would make any moral argument a sole truth. Rather, the moral relativist accepts that there are different moral philosophies which allow for different conclusions on the morality of different events or actions. The local relativist view also incorporates the idea of truth vs. opinion as it recognizes that to have a particular view on any given domain within reality is to be, by definition, opined.

Local relativism addresses the issue that there are facts about our view of reality which there is little justification for questioning (the presence of mountains, for example). Local relativism accepts the constructivist viewpoint that there are “some absolute truths” (Boghossian 53). Furthermore, a local relativist believes that a claim within a local area of thought must be relativized to some constricting factor in order for it to become an absolute truth. Boghossian also presents an argument against global relativism for the qualities it holds which local relativism intentionally does away with. In short, the argument states that to accept global relativism is to assert the absolute truth that relativism is the only way of viewing the world without making an unjustifiable statement about the true nature of reality. Thus, global relativism must directly contradict itself in order to be valid or it must also hold that denial of relativism according to a theory, T, is just as valid as to accept relativism.

Boghossian also displays an alternative argument against global relativism which states that to accept facts that are prefaced with a theory that one person or a group accepts is to accept that the underlying belief is a fact. In other words, the relativist may indicate where the factual part of his statement comes from but doesn’t specify where the theory or belief is from. In turn, this either leads to acceptance of the idea that our theories and beliefs are all factual or, in Boghossian’s words, “the only facts there are, are infinitary facts of the form: According to a theory we accept, there is a theory that we accept and according to this latter theory…” (Boghossian 56).

Given the flaws exposed by both counterarguments presented, I personally find it reasonable to only accept local relativism. By either counterargument, the global relativist is forced to either discredit his own philosophy on reality or adhere to a philosophical argument which is simply unintelligible. Boghossian’s reference to Rorty’s work makes a case for why we can’t truly understand what reality is, but nevertheless, this doesn’t change our experience in the world. The local relativist can accept that we may not be able to understand the true nature of the world. At the same time, however, he or she may believe in constructed truths which are universal to all humans, all the while acknowledging the varied viewpoints in arguments which may not easily be settled by concrete phenomena in our world.

Summary: The Concept of Truth in the Akan Language & Truth as Opinion

  1. Introduction

In The Concept of Truth in the Akan Language, Wiredu argues that the longstanding philosophical question, namely, what is the relation between truth and fact, has occurred not merely because of its philosophical importance, but partly because of some linguistic features of English, and that the question which examines the notion of “to be so”, being necessarily related to every thinker, is more fundamental. That is, a person can think and not use the notion of truth or fact, (an Akan thinker will be an excellent example, because his/her language, we would learn, doesn’t have that notion) but that person can’t think and not explicitly or implicitly express that “something is so”. Then, in Truth as Opinion, Wiredu explores the essence of the notion; he first explains how people’s common experience, by contributing to the idea that there is a distinction between reality and appearance, has affected our understanding of “to be so” (because saying “something is real” equals saying “it is so”), identifies the logical problem with drawing that distinction, and provides an alternative way to define truth, or “what is so” (in this summary, I will consider “truth“, “reality“, and “what is so” in the original text interchangeable; so are “opinion” and “appearance“). To conclude, Wiredu contends that truths can’t possibly exist in isolation from opinions, and “to be true is to be opined”.

  1. The Concept of Truth in the Akan Language

Unfolding the discussion, Wiredu compares English and Akan and states that if we “ask any ordinary Akan who speaks English what the Akan word for truth is … the chances are that the answer will be: nokware” (Wiredu, 1998). This word, however, is not a proper translation because nokware, literally “one mouth”, actually refers to being consistent with a person’s genuine opinions; that is not what being true means. The Akan word thus corresponds to “truthfulness”, a moral concept, but not “truth”, which is a cognitive concept. How, then, would an Akan express “something is true”? The answer is that if he/she wishes to say that, the expression will be “it is so”. The language simply doesn’t have a word that corresponds to “truth” or “fact”. Having concluded this, Wiredu looks at its influences. While English has three expressions: “truth”, “fact”, and “it is so”, Akan only has “it is so”, but that doesn’t make an Akan unable to philosophize; quite oppositely, the absence of “truth” and “fact” helps an Akan avoid having to consider the relation between truth and fact. Then, it proves that the question which concerns the relation between truth and fact is less fundamental than that which concerns the notion of “to be so”. In Truth as Opinion, Wiredu evaluates the new question.

  1. Truth as Opinion

3.1 Truths and Opinions Being Inseparable & Wiredu’s Version of “Equal Validity”

“The problematic arises, and can only arise, from the unproblematic” (Wiredu, 1980).

To evaluate the new question, Wiredu first calls attention to a rather common experience, which is that of incorrectly relating a thing to some properties it doesn’t, in fact, possess. From such experience, according to Wiredu, has come an intuitive motivation for drawing a distinction between reality and appearance: the former refers to “things as they are in themselves”, and the latter “things as they appear to us in our individual transitory, ‘subjective’ states” (Wiredu, 1980). This is the seemingly “unproblematic” part of the picture. However, as one puts this judgment to the test, it will immediately be seen that thinking of appearance as something categorically different from reality is logically self-destructive. To embrace the distinction between them is essentially to refute the presupposition that has initially made us draw the distinction. To show the logical incompatibility, I will try to reconstruct two arguments that Wiredu makes.

Argument I:

  • We say that the reality and the appearance of an object are different if and only if we know them and see that they are, in fact, different.
  • We are saying that the reality and the appearance of an object are different.
  • Therefore, we have known the reality and the appearance of an object and seen that they are, in fact, different. (From (1) & (2))

Argument II:

  • Appearance, which we have considered categorically different from reality, means “things as they appear to us in our … ‘subjective’ states”.
  • The knowledge that we possess is necessarily formed subjectively.
  • Therefore, we can only know the appearance of an object. (That is, we can’t know the reality of it). (From (1) & (2))

Apparently, the arguments can’t be true at the same time; we simply can’t imagine that. Having presented the logical problem with separating reality and appearance (or truth and opinion), Wiredu suggests an alternative, which is “to restore the cognitive relation to reality” and acknowledge that “to be true is to be opined”; “there are as many truths as there are points of view” (Wiredu, 1980). By asserting this, Wiredu is clearly supporting Equal Validity, which we have encountered in Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge. While the view is not exactly novel, the logical approach that Wiredu introduces should indeed receive some attention.

  • What are some moral consequences of embracing Wiredu’s proposition that “to be true is to be opined”? What do they tell us about the relation between epistemology and ethics?
  • If truths are merely opinions, which are susceptible to changes, is it possible for us to be certain of anything? Or do we really need to be fully certain of anything? If your answer is “yes”, try to elaborate how we can find certainty; if “no”, consider: what are some standards that can guide us in an uncertain world.

3.2 Dismissing Possible Misunderstandings and Objections

Wiredu indicates a reason why accepting the view that truths are essentially opinions can be difficult and responds to a potential objection to the proposition; they are:

  1. “The word ‘opinion’ is often used … to suggest uncertainty” (Wiredu, 1980), which is not usually related to truth.
  2. If the view is correct, “anybody would be at liberty to believe whatever nonsense he pleases” (Wiredu, 1980).
  3. Also, if the view is correct, it means that two opposite and mutually exclusive statements can be true at the same time, and that is unimaginable.

To resolve the first problem, Wiredu clarifies that by equalizing truths and opinions, he is referring to considered opinions, but not to uncertain or arbitrary opinions. His clarification would help us dismiss the second problem, too, because if only considered opinions can constitute truths, we can’t see how a person, being totally honest and aware of this condition, should say that P is true when he hasn’t justified the belief. Also, Wiredu urges that we realize a “nonsense” is merely an opinion rejected from a particular point of view. This relates, then, to a distinction that he draws between “saying that P” and “saying that the statement, whose content is P, is true”. The former is to evaluate the situation and form an opinion, but the latter is to evaluate the statement of an opinion that has already been made. They have different targets and often involve different points of view. That means, if I counter the statement of a considered opinion whose content is P, and I examine it and say that it is false, the conclusion reflects only my point of view and doesn’t have to make P false.

Responding to the third problem, Wiredu explained that a contradiction is created only when opposite statements are made from one point of view. This objection, however, has misunderstood it and considered the circumstance under which different points of view exist, and therefore doesn’t really refute his view.

  • What can be some other logical or utilitarian objections to Wiredu’s version of Equal Validity? Can they convince you?

Chapter 3 Summary

Fear Of Knowledge Chapter 3: Description-Dependence and Social Relativity

September 16th, 2017

Madison Lord

In this chapter Boghossian lays out the philosophy behind description-dependence facts and social relativism building on his previous chapter about what social constructivism about knowledge is and arguments against them. Then he takes apart the arguments of Nelson Goodman, Hilary Putnam, and Richard Rorty by showing three main problems (really four which you will read about below) with description-dependence facts and social relativity. He also notes that social relativity does nothing to support description-dependence facts.

A key point that Boghossian makes is that fact-constructivists are not arguing which facts there are, but a philosophical perspective of where facts come from in the first place.

Description-dependence facts suggest that, “there cannot be a fact of the matter as to how things are with the world independently of our propensity to describe the world as being a certain way. Once we adopt a particular scheme for describing the world, there then come to be facts about the world.” (Goodman/Rorty/Boghossian 28) To put it in simple terms this argument suggests that facts depend on our descriptions.

I do not agree with this philosophy. I find many contradictions to this premise, particularly in nature. There are so many things in the natural world that exist independent of humans being here. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that oceans or mountains exist simply because we have described them. They would still be there if we were not on earth. Everything we know about ourselves and the planet has been based off of discoveries that were already here.  For example, scientists are still discovering new species (18,000 in the past year alone; check out this link to look at researcher’s top ten picks that existed and are currently existing without our descriptions of them. This fact constructivist idea leaves me feeling like humans are under this hubristic consciousness that we’re superior or have control over the course of life.

On the other hand, part of me agrees with this description-dependent idea solely on the perspective that we experience the entire world through descriptions. Everything I “know” about the world fits into the category of a description, so in my mind facts are technically just descriptions of things that humanity created. If I were to close my eyes and listen to someone describe a landscape or an imaginary animal, that thought/image exists in my head now solely because of that person’s description of something. This thought reminds me of solipsism, which is this theory that the self is all that can be known to exist. You can only prove that you are existing because you don’t have access to other people’s minds/feelings. Many solipsists believe it’s possible that everything around you is just a figment of your imagination.

Social relativism relates the idea of description-dependent facts to humanity/society by arguing that, “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.” (29) There are two parts to this idea. The first is that descriptions depend on what we find useful. The second part to this is that what we find useful depends on our own needs and interests.

I see this idea as an additional layer of complexity to the description-dependent facts argument. It’s kind of like a stipulation. I see the argument like this:


  1. All facts depend on descriptions.
  2. All descriptions depend on needs.
  3. \ All facts depend on needs.


However, the argument made in the text is as follows (Professor Khalifa’s argument construction):


  1. All descriptions depend on our interests and needs (social relativity)
  2. If all descriptions depend on our interests and needs, then no fact obtains independently of our descriptions.
  3. \ No fact obtains independently of our descriptions. (description-dependent facts)

He proceeds to argue that the social relativity doesn’t do anything to support description-dependent facts (and that either idea is contradictory to invest belief in) as follows,

“The social relativity of descriptions is one thing and fact-constructivism is another. Fact-constructivism depends on the claim, which social relativity does nothing to support, that we can only make sense of there being a fact of the matter about the world after we have agreed to employ some descriptions of it as opposed to others, that prior to the use of those descriptions, there can be no sense to the idea that there is a fact of the matter ‘out there’ constraining which of our descriptions are true and which false,” (p32). He’s arguing that description-based facts are based on this fundamental idea that you can’t be sure of a fact without a description – and social relativity is saying that our needs/interests are what determines our descriptions of things.

You can see that social relativity doesn’t support description-dependent facts because even though our descriptions depend on our interests/needs, it doesn’t mean that all facts are dependent on those. Honestly, I kind of need help unpacking exactly why social-relativity doesn’t support description-dependent facts because I’m having a hard time disentangling from my initial perception that it was an additional layer of complexity.

The problems Boghossian identifies with fact-constructivism are as follows:

  1. Causation: you can’t have effect come before the cause (dinosaurs don’t exist because we described them millions of years later; things existed before humans and their descriptions of things)
  2. Conceptual competence: if you falsely described something, it still is that thing; an electron would still act like an electron regardless of our description of it
  3. The problem of disagreement: when we have two communities believing in two separate facts we run into the law of non-contradiction. Boghossian’s example: “How could it be the case both that the world is flat (the fact constructed by pre-Aristotelian Greeks) and that it is round (the fact constructed by us)?”

There is also a fourth, hidden argument in Boghossian’s writings about the “dough” of the world. We can call it the cookie cutter argument (thanks Professor Khalifa)! Boghossian points out that while fact-constructivists argue that facts come from our descriptions of things (our cookie cutters) there is no explanation for where the dough came from in the first place.

A thought to consider here is what your definition of the “worldy dough” Boghossian writes about is.

Boghossian then explains that this problem of running into non-contradiction is a universal one for constructivism. Of course this is going to be an issue for any thought put forward because everyone thinks different things. This non-contradiction law really got me thinking about what is true and what isn’t because how can two contradictory ‘truths’ exist at the same time? Perhaps truth is just about the individual, and universally it will always be ambiguous. There are so many different beliefs swirling around the world from different cultures and who am I to tell someone else what their truth is? Boghossian concludes by introducing Richard Rorty who claims to have a different perspective that overcomes these three problems. What are your possible ideas that would overcome the arguments/critiques against social relativity and fact constructivism?

Boghossian, Chapters 1 and 2

In these chapters, Boghossian motivates the task of his book, Fear of Knowledge: to critique social constructivist accounts of knowledge that have become widespread in the academy. These chapters explain what social constructivism about knowledge is, some reasons for its ascendancy, and to what it is opposed.


Boghossian calls the guiding idea behind the social constructivist conception of knowledge “Equal Validity,” which he defines as follows:

There are many radically different, yet ‘equally valid’ ways of knowing the world, with science being just one of them. (p.2)

Using an example in which members of the Zuni (a Native American tribe) disagreed with the leading archaeological theories about their ancestral origins, he illustrates how Equal Validity plays out in public discussions. He goes on to cite many prominent 20th-century intellectuals who appear congenial to Equal Validity.

Boghossian also traces out some of the political motivations that Equal Validity has attracted many prominent intellectuals. This includes a desire to rectify past inequities owing to racism, sexism, and colonialism. He also notes that Western philosophers have mostly opposed Equal Validity. As just such a philosopher, Boghossian uses the rest of the book to “clarify what is at issue between constructivism and its critics, and to map the terrain in which these issues are embedded” (9) and to raise objections to three of the most plausible constructivist theses.

  • What are your initial thoughts of Equal Validity?
  • Do you think Equal Validity applies to the debate between the Zuni and the archaeologists? Why or why not?
  • Could someone opposed to racism, sexism, and colonialism be reasonable in rejecting Equal Validity? Could racists, sexists, or colonialists be reasonable in endorsing Equal Validity? If you answered either of these questions affirmatively, what does this say about the reasons one should endorse Equal Validity?

Basic Epistemological Concepts

Let S be a person and p be a declarative sentence. Then, on the standard account of knowledge, S knows that p if and only if:

  1. S believes that p,
  2. p is true, and
  3. S is justified in believing that p.

A belief is a particular kind of mental state that: (a) has propositional content (=p), (b) can be assessed as true or false, and (c) can be assessed as justified/unjustified. Propositional content, in turn, is composed of conceptual content. A belief that p is true just in case p. S’s belief that p is justified just in case S’s considerations or observations for believing p that increases the likelihood of the belief’s truth.

  • Think of something that you know that appears to satisfy Conditions 1-3. Can you also think of any examples that satisfy Conditions 1-3 but don’t seem to count as cases of knowledge? What about any cases of knowledge that don’t satisfy Conditions 1-3?
  • Do Boghossian accounts of belief, truth, and justification seem right? How are they unclear?

Classical Conception of Knowledge

Constructivism about knowledge stands opposed to the classical conception of knowledge, which most major Western philosophers have adopted. Boghossian characterizes the classical conception in terms of three core commitments:

  1. Objectivism about facts: many facts are independent of our minds and social arrangements. Even if thinking beings had never existed, the world would still have had many of the properties that it currently has.
  2. Objectivism about justification: facts of the form—information E justifies belief B—are society-independent facts. In particular, whether or not some item of information justifies a given belief does not depend on the contingent needs and interests of any community.
  3. Objectivism about rational explanations: Under the appropriate circumstances, our exposure to evidence alone is capable of explaining why we believe what we believe.

Boghossian also highlights some uncontroversial ways in which social factors can influence knowledge without undermining the classical conception. These include the role of collaboration in knowledge production and how social interests affect the questions that we ask.

  • Do you agree with all three kinds of objectivism? Why or why not?
  • Can you think of other social factors that can influence knowledge without undermining the classical conception?

Constructivist Conception of Knowledge

Social constructivists challenge one or more of the classical conception’s three objectivist theses, i.e.

  1. Constructivism about facts: the world which we seek to understand and know is not what it is independently of us and our social context; rather, all facts are socially constructed in a way that reflects our contingent needs and interests.
  2. Constructivism about justification: facts of the form—information E justifies belief B—are not what they are independently of us and our social context; rather all such facts are constructed in a way that reflects our contingent needs and interests.
  3. Constructivism about rational explanations: it is never possible to explain why we believe what we believe solely on the basis of our exposure to the relevant evidence; our contingent needs must also be invoked.

He also spells out more generally what it means for something to be socially constructed. In a nutshell: a fact is socially constructed if and only if it is necessarily true that it could only have obtained through the contingent actions of a social group.

  • Do you agree with all three kinds of constructivism? Why or why not?
  • Boghossian contrast the constructivism that figures in epistemology with an ‘ordinary’ notion of social construction (pp.16-17). What sorts of things end up socially constructed in the ordinary sense? What would happen if knowledge were socially constructed in this ordinary sense? Would it be compatible with the classical conception? Would it be an interesting/defensible position?