Sanna Hirvonen at the philosophy research seminar: "Relativism and the Norms of Assertion"; 14.5., Helsinki

The research seminar at the Department of philosophy will meet on thursday, 14.5 at 16-18 (Siltavuorenpenger 20 A, 2nd floor, room 222):

Sanna Hirvonen(LOGOS research group): Relativism and the Norms of Assertion

The seminar is open for all, including students. Welcome!

John MacFarlane’s (2003, 2005, forthcoming) semantic relativism is an attempt to make sense of the traditional relativist idea that certain claims can be ‘true for one person but false for another’. On that view certain types of discourse (e.g. predicates of taste, claims about future contingents, epistemic modals or knowledge attributions) exhibit assessment sensitivity, i.e. the truth of utterances containing expressions such as ‘tasty’ or ‘knows’ depends not only on to the context of utterance but also on the context of assessment. For instance an utterance of ‘Beer is tasty’ by Peter can be true as assessed by him but – at the same time – false as assessed by Paul, a beer-hater, since truth varies with contexts of assessments.

This feature is notably supposed to account for puzzling cases of disagreements in which both parties seem to be right, such as disputes about taste. However, similar accounts can be given by non-indexical contextualists who reject assessment sensitivity (Kölbel 2002, Lasersohn 2005, and Recanati 2008). Consequently MacFarlane (forthcoming) emphasizes that certain cases where speakers retract their earlier claims are explained by relativism but not by non-indexical contextualism, thus giving relativism an advantage.

In this talk I discuss the norms of assertion that MacFarlane takes to be responsible for retraction. I argue that the consequences of these norms, most importantly the assumption that speakers are sensitive to the effects of the shifting contexts of assessments, make it difficult for the relativist to explain why speakers would ever participate in discussions involving relativistic expressions. I conclude that the relativist should either revise his norms of assertion, thus giving up the explanation for retraction, or accept that the theory cannot account for alleged relativistic disagreements, thereby losing a major motivation for the view.

Max Kölbel. Truth Without Objectivity. Routledge, London, 2002.
Peter Lasersohn. Context Dependence, Disagreement, and Predicates
of Personal Taste. Linguistics and Philosophy, 28:643–686, 2005.
MacFarlane, John. Future Contingents and Relative Truth. Philosophical
Quarterly, 53(212):321–336, 2003.
MacFarlane, John. The Assessment Sensitivity of Knowledge Attributions.
Oxford Studies in Epistemology, 1:197–233, 2005.
MacFarlane, John. Assessment Sensitivity: Relative Truth and Its Applications. Draft, forthcoming.
Recanati, Francois. Perspectival Truth: A Plea for (Moderate) Relativism. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008.