Author Information: Tom Rockmore, Duquesne University, Institute of Foreign Philosophy, Peking University, email@example.com
Rockmore, Tom. 2013. “Further reply to Kasavin: Context, Meaning and Truth.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (3): 22-24.
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In my initial response to Kasavin’s paper, I tried to clarify his position in sketching a different view of the relation between cognition and context. My objective now is to stress and to justify the difference between our two views of the relation of thought to context. According to Kasavin, we are simultaneously wholly free and wholly determined by context. I contend, on the contrary, that we are never wholly free, nor ever wholly determined by context.
In his rejoinder, Kasavin isolates three statements in my response that he maintains subtly misrepresent his position. He further clarifies his view with comments on what he calls underdetermination and the explanatory value of context before concluding with a remark on freedom and determination in reference to our disagreement. Let us leave aside the difficulty about whether I successfully captured his position in my initial response in order to concentrate on the present version of his view. According to Kasavin, “underdetermination” means “the complexity of determination”. To elucidate this claim, he suggests the explanatory value of context, and he points out that different epistemic agents working independently achieve similar results.
I take Kasavin’s central claim to be that we appeal to context to understand meaning. He rightly wishes to avoid an overly simplistic version of this point. I want to make a stronger claim since I think that context functions not only to understand meaning but also to justify truth claims. Kasavin gives examples from literature and from mathematics in which similar backgrounds led in practice to similar results. That is certainly the case, but it does not follow that if results in similar situations are similar that this justifies similar truth claims. I do not know how one could formulate a truth claim about the poems by Rilke, Svetaeva and Pasternak about Maria Magdalena. It is further unclear that the cognitive value of the independent discovery of non-Euclidean geometry by Gauss, Lobachevski and Bolyai depends in some way on their similar contexts. One might prefer, say, one version of non-Euclidean geometry over alternatives. But the correctness of a non-Euclidean approach to geometry depends in turn on prior views about what constitutes an appropriate approach to geometry, including current conceptions of geometrical proof, axioms, postulates, and so on.
“Underdetermination” is often taken to refer to the inability to decide which among several views is correct on rational grounds. Descartes, for instance, appeals to a form of underdetermination in his dream and his demon arguments. In both cases we cannot decide on rational grounds whether we are being deceived. Quine suggests that the available evidence is insufficient to decide which belief we should hold about the facts. In his view of the indeterminacy of translation, He famously insists on the poverty of evidence in his gavagai example. In philosophy of science undetermination is often thought to be problematic for scientific realism.
Kasavin, who uses the term “underdetermination” in a different way, suggests that knowledge claims depend on context for meaning. That seems correct. Yet, since meaning is not truth, they need to be distinguished. There are many theories of meaning. There are also many theories of truth. Here we do not need to decide between different theories of meaning and truth. It will be sufficient to indicate a basic way that meaning and truth differ. A very rough way to put the point is that “meaning” refers to what the author conceivably has in mind, say in formulating a theory, but “truth” refers to the correctness of the cognitive claim. Thus “meaning” might imply a relationship between signs and that they stand for, but “truth” refers to the relation to the facts or reality. Hence, I am suggesting that meaning is more than simply identifying truth conditions since what someone has in mind, hence means to say, and whether that statement is correct, or true, are not merely equivalent.
I agree with Kasavin that context functions to identify meaning. Yet I also believe that context functions to justify or to legitimate claims to know. If that is correct, then the truth of the truth claim could be said to be doubly dependent on context with respect to meaning as well as to the acceptability of one claim over other possible contenders. Kasavin appears to me to be asserting a version of the familiar view that a claim to truth does not depend on but is rather independent of context. I take him to be saying that as concerns cognitive claims we are completely free, and that means we can in all cases and in fact must choose between different alternatives. On the contrary, I contend that we not free in the precise sense that our views of what is true are not independent of but rather dependent on the context in which they are formulated. Continue Reading…