Monday, May 11, 2009

Williamson interview

Interview with Timothy Williamson, here. The money quote:
[Vagueness] seemed to present the strongest challenge to the classical, realist picture that has always rung true to me, on which the world is largely independent of us, and the principle of bivalence holds ― every proposition is either true or false (and not both), even if we do not and perhaps cannot know which ― and other standard principles of logic hold too. The problem was that, on an unqualified realist picture, there must be a point at which subtracting just one grain from a heap takes it from being true to being false that there is a heap in front of you, which seems to be incompatible with the vagueness of the concept of a heap, which has no precise definition. For a long time I could see no satisfactory way round that objection. Then, as I was finishing my first book, Identity and Discrimination, I started thinking about the way in which ordinary knowledge requires a margin for error. It dawned on me that the need for a margin for error would explain why, even though ordinary concepts have sharp boundaries, we can’t know where those boundaries are located. That explanation solved the main objection to the logical view that I had always wanted to hold. So the hard part was working out the epistemology; the logic was the easy bit. The larger purpose underlying my book Vagueness was to argue for realism like this: if realism is wrong about anything, it is wrong about vagueness (that premise was generally agreed); but realism is not wrong about vagueness; therefore it is not wrong about anything. [my bold]
Well, that's one view of the matter, anyway. Or we could just marvel at how no nettle can be too sharp for the desperate realist to grasp. I had heard this before, actually – that he was trying to defend realism against what seemed to him to be its toughest challenge – but sometimes it's better to learn to crawl before you try to walk.

HT: Butterflies & Wheels


musicalcolin said...

Dare I ask why he thinks that vagueness is realism's toughest challenge? After reading the interview I still don't understand. I like to think of myself as a realist(ish) and that had never occurred to me...

Duck said...

Well, I wondered that too at first. But look at how he describes it. "That's a heap," pointing at, well, anything, is either true or false (bivalence), "independent" of us (realism). There can't be any vagueness: almost-heaps and not-quite-heaps are just as much non-heaps as are any other non-heaps. That means there has to be an exact cut-off point – some non-heap which becomes a heap by the addition of a single grain of, um, whatever it's a heap of (and non-rich people made rich by the gift of a single penny, etc.). This is, of course, just nuts; but it's also just what Williamson takes to be required by realism. His book is the story of how he talked himself into thinking it's okay to say this.

Now of course there are versions of "realism" which are okay (and don't require anything so silly) - but these are the versions which count as "realism" simply by rejecting this or that version of "anti-realism" (e.g. naive relativism or what have you). But our man's realism seems to be of a more industrial-strength version.

musicalcolin said...

So let me see if I understand this correctly. The basic idea is that in order for something to have mind-independent truth it must either be in the world or not in the world (bivalent), and the way in which it is in the world must be definite. It can't be almost in the world, or something like that. Does that sound right?

I think I get the basic idea, and while I would like some form of realism, I don't think that's the one for me.

I found the interview strange because this made absolutely no sense to me. I liked his externalist commitments, and some of the things he said about phenomenology aren't wrong. So who knows...

Duck said...

Who knows indeed. Williamson's work is an odd mixture of 1) traditional error; 2) new and innovative error; and 3) the possibly okay if disentangled from the first two and cleaned up.

I'm not sure what you mean by your formulation here. I think Williamson's view has a semantic doctrine in there too (e.g. atomism), which might be driven by a realism about propositions (or the other way around). On the other hand he says something in his book about subscribing to a use-theory of meaning, such that the cutoff point between rich and non-rich – which no-one knows, remember – is nonetheless determined by our linguistic practice. (Curiouser and curiouser.)

Yes, the externalism is what I mean by the possibly okay; except his examples (Kripke, McDowell) make odd bedfellows. The problem with externalism is that it can go hand in hand, as in Kripke, with the crude kind of realism. Think of it this way: what good is it to get rid of (meaning as determined by) the Cartesian "inner," if all you do is trade it for the Cartesian "outer"? In this sense, internal/external isn't the issue -- just like real/unreal for that matter.