WORKSHOP ON RELATIVISM & DISAGREEMENT
DATE: February 3rd to February 4th 2012
VENUE: Lichtenberg-Kolleg Göttingen
Elke Brendel (University of Bonn, Fellow Lichtenberg-Kolleg Göttingen)
Nikola Kompa (University of Osnabrück)
Markus Steinbach (University of Göttingen)
Philosophy thrives on disagreement. One might even say that the history of philosophy is the history of disagreements. Disagreement is inspiring; but it is challenging, too. Most often if not usually it is by encountering someone who disagrees with us that we feel the need to bolster up our opinion by reason. Disagreement allows us to ask for reasons; yet at the same time it forces us to give reasons ourselves. And since we answer only to those reasons whose rational force we acknowledge, we have to adjust our reasons to the same standard. Disagreement thus motivates our search for truth. Starting from rational disagreement our goal of inquiry is neither peace, nor power, nor persuasion but truth.
At the same time it is, interestingly enough, the experience of pervasive yet also seemingly faultless disagreement that has undermined the very idea of truth in philosophy time and again and has given rise to sceptical, subjectivist or relativist positions. Moral philosophy, being but one example, has to deal with the fact that people from different cultures or different spiritual or ideological backgrounds notoriously disagree about the legitimacy of abortion, eating animals, the death penalty etc. Some moral philosophers, as is well known, have taken these persistent disagreements to indicate that there can be no absolute or objective truth in morality. And these considerations carry over to the epistemological case. While ‘we’ justify our beliefs by reliance on observation, experiment, induction, deduction, inference to the best explanation etc. others perseveringly rely on the scripture or on the word of their spiritual leaders etc. It is in this respect, too, that the fact of disagreement seems to undermine the very idea of truth that the experience of disagreement made us search for. Or rather, it seems to force a notion of relative truth on us.
Yet philosophers also have pointed to the fact that relativists have trouble to make sense of the idea of disagreement that was meant to justify their inquiry in the first place. How can we actually disagree about issues whose truth depends on our respective backgrounds? If your denial of the legitimacy of abortion has to be evaluated in the light of your cultural background and my liberal position in the light of my cultural background, then what exactly is it that we disagree about? You don’t deny what I assert – or so it seems. You claim that abortion is not legitimate given your cultural background. I claim that it is legitimate given my cultural background. But then, aren’t we just talking past each other? And indeed, spelling out the relativist semantics in more detail while at the same time making sense of the idea of disagreement turns out to be harder than one might have thought.
Accordingly, our aim in the workshop is to first discuss what different forms of relativism there are and what kind of disagreement they are motivated by. Secondly, we would like to inquire into what exactly disagreement consist in and how to handle it semantically. To that end, we will try to distinguish disagreement from related phenomena such as conflict of interests, equivocation, conflicts due to misunderstanding, error or ignorance, etc. and try to subject them all to a semantic analysis. Finally, we would like to address the question of what problems the (undeniably) fact of persistent and pervasive disagreement pose. Does it pose a semantic problem: are we forced to reconsider our conception of truth and meaning? Does it pose an epistemic problem: haven’t we just found the truth yet; do we have to work longer hours? Does it pose a social problem: does it jeopardize social peace? Or does it pose a moral problem: does it force us to treat other people differently?
• Elke Brendel (University of Bonn)
• Nikola Kompa (University of Osnabrueck)
• Max Kölbel (University of Barcelona)
• Manfred Harth (University of Munich)
• Gerhard Ernst (University of Stuttgart)
• Thomas Grundmann (University of Cologne)
• Markus Steinbach (University of Goettingen)