Lacking Definition

The working title for my first book was Tangled Terms because I was interested in showing how our most common words, the ones we barely notice as they leave our lips or fall on our ears, have meanings that we simply cannot define any more. I finally used three of those terms in my title and as the title of this website simply because these are the words all of our declarative sentences claim to be about. But as their meanings now depend entirely on the mode of warrant we use to validate them, we enter into a thicket of incomprehensibility almost as soon as we make our declarations. Allow me to illustrate using these three terms so central to our understanding of our world.

Truth is the sine qua non of all of our declarations.  Exactly what is it that gives them the quality we call truth? I won’t get all epistemological here. But even at the broadest level, it should be clear that the “maker” of truth in a truth claim lies not in the claim itself or in the passion of the speaker but in some relation between the claim and …what? Let us call that relationship the declaration’s warrant, validation, or justification. In form, the sentence explaining that relationship goes something like this: my declarative sentence is true if and only if it is warranted. But warranted how?… by what?

Until the seventeenth century, the answer to that question was pretty unambiguous. My truth claim was true if it described what exists and not true if it claimed something other than what exists. The relation was to external reality. This position is called correspondence. And after centuries of refinement, we can find five good justifications that argue for a true relation between what I claim to know and the external world that allows me to claim it as true. Four of these trace the application of reason to experience. Their reliability increases as the variability of the experience is narrowed and its availability to analysis increases. The reason this is true is because experience is unknowable until it has been examined and its contingencies limited by what must be an entirely rational effort (see “The Tyranny of Rationality”).. One may think of these four proofs of judgment as markers on a continuum of thinking about experience. They are empirical (based on very close observation of a very limited experience), expertise (based on repeated and thoughtful exposure to similar experiences), competence (based on thoughtful exposure applied to a wider scope of experience) and undistilled experience (based on singular experiences). A fifth form of correspondentist justification operates from an entirely different principle. It is authority, truth based on the trust of the beneficiary. What these five truth tests share is a correspondence between what I claim and the reality I claim it about. The ideal is a one-to-one correspondence, indicating certain truth. That is so rare as to be an impossible quest for knowledge (see What Makes It True?)  I argue that knowledge, at least publicly defensible knowledge, must jump a much lower bar: truth by a preponderance of the evidence. In itself that is a pedestrian definition, but it gets much spicier when “preponderance” is more clearly specified. That difficulty has proved both tenacious and contentious.

The crises that resulted over sufficient evidence have produced an axiomatic epistemological crisis, which is a technical term for an argument so basic that it rarely comes to consciousness. It concerns the relationship persons have with experience. The means by which that experience can be investigated is unavoidably tied to the assumptions one brings to the investigation, which skews even the most thoughtful conclusions (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). The debate over how to conduct the debate is so fundamental that it begged for a new way to approach what had become an irreconcilable dispute.  Over the course of the twentieth century, an entirely different mode of justification came to maturity, though its evolution was so slow as to be beneath the threshold of public awareness until it was fully articulated in the 1970’s (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?). The coherence virtual circle explicitly rejects the five correspondence truth tests, resting all of its claims on a single one: the harmonious integration of any new truth claim into a web of already accepted truths. It too relies on rationality: the principle of non-contradiction. 

Its reliance on reason might allow the virtual circle’s means of justification to be complementary to correspondentist ones, but the two kinds of verification are difficult to reconcile in part because event the reasoning that reconciles them is a source of dispute. A correspondentist sees one reality we all discover and participate in. That participation allows an intersubjectivity, a common perspective, whereby we might find consensus. The source of that possible agreement is universal reasoning.  A coherentist sees reality as created by personal experience and therefore unique. Part of what is privately invented must be the mode of reasoning itself, so coherentists see no means of sharing the reality we take part in. A correspondentist sees disagreement as evidence that someone must be wrong. A coherentist might be expected to embrace difference as the inevitable workings of reasoning on experience. The correspondentist can appeal to the five truth tests of correspondence to discover who is right and who is wrong and can therefore correct error. The coherentist, must practice toleration as a condition of her warrant and therefore might be expected to regard disagreement as irrelevant to her own value system (a coherence term if ever there was one). Indeed, she can expect that the reasoning that tests truth claims for inclusion into her schema has been as molded by her deeply personal experiences as the meaning she derives from them. She also might be forgiven for regarding any challenge to her views as an affront to her personhood, for the virtual circle she has constructed comprises her identity, and as the reality she interprets is a private one, she well might consider disagreement  coercive or abusive to her own schema, especially if it invokes the use of power in public settings (see “Correlation, Causation, Motivation”). Such is the origin of so much outrage and stridency in our culture.

These resentments are guaranteed by two consequences of applying justification.

The first is that we must impose value on our declarations because their truth is merely the means to their actual use: we must know what is true so that we can choose the good (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance”). The relationship between truth and goodness is so fundamental to our preferential freedom that we are tempted to overlook it, but it indicates the real value of knowledge. As Bacon said, “Knowledge is power,” the power to choose goods. We all use “goodness” in three different senses: utility, quality, and morality (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”).  Utility often structures the coherentist value system, though we should temper that generality by the observation that the rules of the virtual circle are idiosyncractic. Still, coherentism is certainly congruent with the classical utilitarian arguments of recent centuries, one that was polished by the pragmatist American philosophers of the early twentieth century. What is useful is good, and only the individual can contextualize utility in each unique situation. Some interesting challenges to that warrant arise when the correspondentist challenges the personalized notion of utility. The doctor who recommends the medicine the patient distrusts or the jury member who disregards the judge’s instructions in favor of a gut feeling might exemplify this conflict. The issue of quality is easier. If you think the quality of a thing is a matter of personal opinion, you are a coherentist, particularly if in the next breath you proclaim your own opinion the equal of anyone else’s. But so steeped are we in postmodernism that you might now be asking, “If quality isn’t a matter of opinion, what else can it be?” That is an excellent challenge to the correspondentist, who must face what is called the problem of specification in all matters of quality. For where in the thing does its “goodness” reside? What makes a good novel, a good movie, a good speech? Correspondence requires something in reality for a judgment of quality to correspond to, and what could that be? If an answer can’t be found, correspondentists must cede the field of quality to those who find the “facts” of their own taste sufficient warrant for their opinions of quality. And of morality too, for the problem of specification is, if anything, more apparent in issues of moral goodness than in any other judgment we make (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?“). Exactly what makes something good in the reality we all share? If correspondentists cannot answer that question, all judgments of goodness must be taken to be matters of taste or culture. It is not helpful that the strongest truth test of correspondence, empiricism, is helpless in questions of moral judgment (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). Can one be an expert in the subject (see “Expertise”)? What about authority (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority)? Can experience be our best teacher in such matters and, more importantly, would experience teach the same lesson to all? If none of these warrants provide a satisfactory answer, moral goodness becomes a matter of personal taste or cultural influence. And that is what the coherence virtual circle is all about (see “Is Goodness Real?“).

That leaves questions of beauty, and here correspondence faces the stiffest of headwinds. Does it really make any sense at all that aesthetics, art, and beauty correspond to anything in the world, that our appreciation for such things is somehow objective, or maybe that it should be (see “Three Portraits“)? Doesn’t it seem much more likely that the only thing our sense of aesthetics corresponds to is our own experience, our own tastes, or perhaps our culture’s? Does it make any sense at all to claim, as correspondentists must, that some works of art are simply more beautiful than others, that some production of human craft is art and another is not and that your own opinions on such matters must give way to someone else’s judgment? Doesn’t it make more sense—or perhaps I should say, doesn’t it feel more natural—to say that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, that art is good if I like it and not good if I don’t? Coherentists may confidently hold up their virtual circle, regardless of what binds it together, and proclaim that they know what they like, and they like to call that “art.”

Can you already see the wooly mammoth in the room? If our truth, goodness, and beauty claims were innocuous; if toleration were an unlimited good; or if laws, religion, or cultural disputes never produced unpleasant discord, then we might all applaud a world of six billion virtual circles. But stop and listen for a moment. Do you hear that cacophony? That is dispute and it is everywhere: among individuals, economic classes, nations, religions, political parties, races, and genders. And every angry tone, every shouted word, every clenched fist lays down some claim to truth, goodness, or beauty. What do correspondentists and coherentists have to say to each other when their understandings of what makes these terms true are so very different? The virtual circle is a core truth claim of our zeitgeist, yet its premises are splintered by the simple and painful truth that we disagree.

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