The Ockham Society (Week 8, HT18)

Ockham Society

Can there be genuinely alternative ways of thinking about and understanding our common world? The answer, when observing the diversity of beliefs, morals and customs, seems to be an obvious "yes", but such observations have at many points been radicalised into claims of cultural or linguistic relativism and incommensurability. One strategy for opposing these claims is to deny that there is any coherent notion of alternative conceptual schemes or frameworks of thought to which truth, morality, justification or whatever could be relative. This is the anti-relativist strategy of Jonathan Lear and Donald Davidson, who have argued against the existence and possibility of alternative ways of 'being minded'. Lear claims that they are mere 'illusions of possibility', whilst Davidson famously said about the doctrine of their incommensurability that it was "a heady and exotic doctrine, or would be if we could make good sense of it. The trouble is, as so often in philosophy, it is hard to improve intelligibility while retaining the excitement".

In part 1 I aim to improve the intelligibility of this idea whilst retaining its excitement. To this end I criticise some arguments owing to Lear and Davidson, concluding that genuinely alternative ways of 'being-minded' are possible, or at least that we have not been provided strong enough reasons to reject this possibility. In part 2, I consider what this commits me to metaphysically, arguing that the view need not imply, as it has sometimes been taken to, a perspectivism or relativistic anti-realism. Rather, the existence of alternative perspectives is perfectly compatible with a robust realism, and I demonstrate how Bernard Williams' notion of 'the absolute conception' can help us get a grip on this. I then outline in part 3 a Quinean dilemma that besets this absolutist rehabilitation of alternative schemes, and consider whether to accept that my position is closer to Davidson's than it originally seemed, or whether an element of perspective has snuck into the absolute conception.

Chair: Chiara Martini

Ockham Society Convenor: Charlotte Figueroa | Ockham Society Webpage