relativism: “If my conceptual scheme says p, then p is
true in my conceptual scheme. If your conceptual scheme says not-p, then
not-p is true in your conceptual scheme.” This is Peter’s view in Who’s
to Say?; Peter calls it “non-dogmatic relativism.” The philosopher Harvey
Siegel calls it “framework relativism.” Most philosophers reject conceptual-scheme
relativism. Some English teachers and social scientists take it seriously.
A conceptual scheme (also
called a frame, or a frame of reference, or even a “boat”) is a way of classifying
things in the world of experience. Typically, languages embody conceptual
schemes. Different conceptual schemes might place phenomena into different classes:
for example, one society may place meteorological phenomena in the class of
“manifestations of God’s emotions,” while another society might classify them
as “manifestations of physical laws.”
is an improvement on individual or social relativism. The latter simply discount
the world, or “how things are.” There is no objective “reality,” according to
individual or social relativism. Conceptual-scheme relativism, by contrast,
says that “how things are” matters for truth. It assumes a version of
the correspondence theory of truth.
The correspondence theory
of truth states that a statement p is true if and only if the states
of affairs claimed by p is so. “Proposition” is what philosophers
call the state of affairs a statement claims to be the case. The statements
“It’s raining,” “Il pleut,” “Es regnet,” and “Llueve” all express the same proposition;
they mean the same thing. I have mentioned all those statements; the
quotation marks indicate that. Take the quotes off (“disquote” or “use”)
a statement and the state of affairs expressed is the proposition.
So the correspondence theory
of truth would say that the claim “snow is white” is true if and only if snow
is white. The actual color of snow matters to the truth of claims about the
color of snow. In the same way, according to conceptual-scheme relativism, “snow
is white” is true if snow belongs in the category of things called “white” in
one’s conceptual scheme. But what one conceptual scheme classifies as “white”
might differ from another.
For example, one’s conceptual
scheme might claim that “white” includes both colors that another conceptual
scheme classifies as separate colors, say, white and blue. In the second conceptual
scheme, anything either white or blue counts as white; it matters, then, if
the object we’re describing is in fact neither white nor blue. The claim “snow
is red” is false in both conceptual schemes.
According to conceptual-scheme
relativism, people can slice up the world in very different ways, so that they
in effect live in different worlds. And so the same proposition can be true
in one conceptual scheme and false in another. For example, “the sky is white”
might be true in the conceptual scheme that puts white and blue in the same
Does conceptual relativism
make sense? Surely it does, to a limited degree. For example, there are words
in some languages that are “untranslatable” into other languages, in the sense
that there is no word in the L2 that “corresponds” to the word or phrase in
L1. The German word “schadenfreude” is an example. The conceptual scheme
of German doesn’t correspond word-for-word with English. So, the conceptual
relativist says, German speakers feel schadenfreude and English-speakers
don’t. The world of a German speaker includes instances of schadenfreude,
while the English speaker’s world doesn’t; German and English speakers thus
live in different worlds, thus conceptual-scheme relativism is true.
But this is going too far,
no? Just because English speakers don’t have a word that corresponds exactly
to schadenfreude doesn’t mean we can’t ever understand the reality that
“schadenfreude” refers to! I can easily explain what schadenfreude
means, and you can understand.
There are different
ways to slice up the world: conceptual-scheme relativism is right so far. But
that doesn’t mean there’s more than one world, or more than one intersubjectively
verifiable reality. Schick and Vaughn use the excellent analogy of maps (conceptual
schemes) and terrain (p. 77).
implies more absurdities: e.g., it implies that languages really can’t be translated.
For example, if reality is just what your conceptual scheme (language) says
it is, and there is no common reality that all languages describe, then the
claims “It’s raining,” “Il pleut,” “Es regnet,” and “Llueve” all mean different
things. And this seems false; so by MT …
is also subject to self-refutation: if it’s true, then it’s only true in conceptual
schemes that say it is. It’s false in conceptual schemes that reject it. Conceptual-scheme
relativism also implicitly denies the law of non-contradiction. The law of non-contradiction
says that the same statement cannot be both true and false in the same sense
at the same time. The law of non-contradiction makes ultimate sense because
the world is a certain way, and if it is a certain way, it’s necessarily not
otherwise. And that’s not just true in our conceptual scheme; it’s true in all
known conceptual schemes. It’s one of the commonalties of all languages; see
As Schick and Vaughn point out, the “most compelling pretext” for conceptual-scheme
relativism is political: conceptual-scheme relativists believe that the concept
of objective truth is dangerous! It turns people into religious dogmatists and
racists; it makes people intolerant; they start disrespecting others, committing
genocide, initiating wars, etc. Think slippery slope.
“We each create our own reality.”
The actress Shirley MacLaine
and many New Age thinkers advocate this view. Philosophers reject it. Scientists
roll on the floor laughing at it.
There are two versions of
- We each create
our own separate reality.
“I alone exist and I create all of reality.”
Position (1) is clearly
false. If a mental patient believes himself to be Napoleon, he’s still not Napoleon.
And he can’t both be and not be Napoleon, because that’s logically impossible.
Solipsism is simply unreasonable
to believe, given our experience. First of all, it’s compatible with all states
of affairs: nothing could prove it either true or false, so it isn’t a genuine
claim at all. Some 20th-century philosophers would classify solipsism
as meaningless. So would pragmatists, since the truth or falsity of solipsism
makes no practical difference in how we live. So solipsists resort to appeal
to ignorance and unfair shifting of the burden of proof: “Prove I’m wrong; prove
there’s a world outside your mind.”
Martin Gardner says “the
hypothesis that there is an world, not dependent on human minds, made of something,
is so obviously useful and so strongly confirmed by experience down through
the ages that we can say without exaggerating that it is better confirmed than
any other empirical hypothesis.” (p. 86) That solipsism is false is simply the
reasonable thing to believe, given our experience.
“We create reality
According to this view, if enough people believe p, then p will become the
case; and it doesn’t matter what p is. If a “critical mass” of believers becomes
convinced that p is true, then p suddenly becomes true for the whole world.
Not only does everyone now believe p (by a process of “instant, mass brainwashing”
(89)), but the state of affairs asserted in P becomes the case. A “paranormal
group consciousness” (88) transforms reality. So not only will someone be elected
President if enough people believe he or she should be President (plausible),
but the laws of physics will change for the entire universe if enough people
believe in new laws of physics (implausible). Philosophers and scientists reject
Supporters of the claim
that reality is created by consensus like to bring forward the famous (and infamous)
“hundredth monkey” case. See text 87ff. As Schick and Vaughn point out:
- The phenomenon
did not occur as reported.
- There are alternative
and more plausible explanations of the phenomenon, if it occurred.
to a claim about spontaneous paranormal transmission of beliefs from a single
phenomenon is hasty generalization.
Yet many New Age believers,
e.g., Bhagwan Rajneesh, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Aquarian conspirators, etc. invoke
the “hundredth monkey” phenomenon as if it were undisputed scientific fact.
Other New Agers say that
even if it’s not a fact, it’s a “good myth” because it empowers us. Whether
or not our beliefs are reasonable now ceases to matter; the very fact
that we believe them now will help make them true in the future if enough
people agree with us.
Of course this justifies
the most blatant intellectual laziness (“It doesn’t matter if I’m wrong now:
I’ll just get swept up in the magic when critical mass is reached”) and dogmatism
(“I’m going to holding on to my beliefs and try to convince others, no matter
how unreasonable they may be, because if I do, they’ll become true!”). I wouldn’t
call this empowering; it’s frightening (see sidebar 90). The psychologist Maureen
O’Hara concludes that it is “a betrayal of the whole idea of human empowerment.”
(90) What do you think of her argument? (Naturally, you have to read it in order to find