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Foundations Without Certainty

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

R. I. Sikora*
University of British Columbia


There has been a revival of interest in Hegel of late among English-speaking philosophers. Although he is still regarded as maddeningly obscure, a number of important philosophers (including Quine, Sellars, Feyerabend and Rorty) have been attracted by a doctrine prominently associated with Hegel, the coherence theory of truth. In order to hold the coherence theory of truth, it is obvious that you must hold what might be called the coherence theory of truth-testing as well: for if this theory is wrong and we can test some statements (even if only in part) by, for example, introspection as well as in terms of coherence, truth must involve something more than just coherence. My arguments against the coherence theory of truth-testing, since it is implied by the coherence theory proper, are indirectly against the coherence theory as well. I also argue that unless some version of the Private Language Argument is successful, it is virtually impossible to defend the coherence theory of truth-testing (and hence the coherence theory proper) without denying the existence of experiences, thereby committing oneself to materialism.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1978

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1 Rescher, Nicholas The Coherence Theory of Truth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973).Google Scholar

2 My account does not require such judgments to be absolutely certain or even that they could not be made more certain by adding inferential considerations. Nor should it be confused with the view that they are simply judgments that lack inferential justification because such judgments might have no justification at all.

3 Baier, KurtSmart on Sensations,The Australasian Journal of Philosophy 40 (1962),Google Scholar reprinted in Borst, C.V. ed., The Mind/Brain Identity Theory, (Macmillan, 1970).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 Some readers may be bothered by talk about the introspective testing of reports of pain and other sensations. The view would be that if you say you are testing a claim there is a presupposition that there is a reason for doubting it; that the presupposition would be false in regard to most sensation reports; and therefore that it is meaningless to speak of testing in the case of most sensation reports. But Grice has made it clear that this sort of presupposition can be cancelled, so there is no real problem.

5 Although we normally speak of examining physical objects rather than experiences, it makes perfectly good sense to speak of examining experiences. For example, a doctor is asking you to examine your experience when he asks if your pain is sharp or dull, to examine your visual sensation when he asks if your vision is still blurred after you look through your new lenses, and to examine your auditory sensations when he asks if the ringing in your ears is high-pitched or not. Strictly speaking, we don't always “examine” our experiences when we apply the test of introspection. You are said to examine something only when a certain amount of care is required — as in the case of a judgment about an after-image with a considerable number of sides. In other cases (for example, in deciding whether you have a slight pain or that you feel a bit queasy) — though you might need to focus your attention on a certain aspect of your experience no particular care would be necessary so it would be odd to speak of an examination. In other cases, such as being asked if you are in pain when you are in fact suffering acutely, you wouldn't even need to focus your attention on the pain to answer the question. At the other extreme, there are some characteristics of our experience that are so complex that we can't determine what they are even by careful introspective examination, for instance, the speckled hen case. Once one has seen that introspection is fallible and that it is easier to make mistakes in some cases than in others, it becomes obvious that the case of the speckled hen, rather than constituting a dilemma, is simply a case where the characteristic in question is too complicated to examine in a short period of time. In the after-image case, an introspective judgment can be overthrown by an examination of the physical object plus an appeal to the laws of vision. In the speckled hen case, the latter sort of test is the only one that would be at all reliable. Introspection is normally thought of not merely as having an internal rather than an external object but as requiring that you focus your attention on that object. In the interest of simplicity, I shall disregard this last requirement so that I can speak, for example, of the introspection of intense pains as well as of mild ones.

6 This view is attacked in Pastin's, MarkLewis's, C. I. Radical Foundationalism,” Nous 9, (1975), 407-20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

7 Richard Rorty, “Mind-body Identity, Privacy and Categories,” originally in The Review of Metaphysics (1965), reprinted in Borst, C.V. ed., The Mind/Brain Identity Theory Macmillan, 1970).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8 In a work in progress, Rorty uses “contents of an inner arena” to stand for the events from which I would say that one is not epistemically separated. He takes the theory of an inner arena to derive from the Cartesian claim that reports of certain sorts of events are incorrigible. I think that the derivation goes (or ought to go) the other way, and I take the incorrigibility thesis to be a bastard born of the truth that there is an inner arena coupled with the error that you can't conceivably make mistakes in examining its contents — an error which reflects in part the idea that its contents are all terribly simple and obvious.

9 Quine, W.V.On Mental Entities,” from Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 80 (1951),Google Scholar reprinted in O'Connor, John ed., Modern Materialism: Readings on Mind/Body Identity (Harcourt Brace and World Co., 1969) pp. 121-23.Google Scholar

10 Although it is certainly odd to speak of the claim that one is having an experience as an hypothesis, a rationale can be constructed for doing so. Usually when one speaks of an hypothesis, the referent is not claimed to be given for the person making the hypothesis. However, it can make sense to speak of an hypothesis in a case where the referent is claimed to be given. Consider the following case. A synthetic tea meant to taste like camomile tea has been produced. When A is given some, he thinks (though he is not sure) that the taste which is part of his given when he sips some is the same taste as that which he experienced at some time in the past when he drank some real camomile tea, but he isn't sure. With some doubt he says,“l think that this really is the taste of camomile tea.” His judgment is clearly hypothetical despite the fact that the referent is given. A modest foundationalist could admit that though it is odd, it is nevertheless justifiable to say that the statement that one is having an experience is that kind of hypothesis.

11 Rorty offers a principle that might be used to block this claim insofar as it deals with statements about the given. I need to distinguish errors arising from a faulty examination of the given (as in the after-image case) from errors about what I have called inferential baggage. Rorty suggests (op. cit., p. 204) that if we do not have a way of determining whether misexamining or misnaming obtains, we do not have a genuine contrast between them (and he would presumably extend this claim to the other contrasts). His principle can be interpreted in two ways: it can be taken as requiring verification that a given alternative obtains or as requiring no more than confirmation. If it is construed as requiring verification, besides the fact that verification ism has been refuted more than once, his principle implies that it wouldn't even make sense to claim in the after-image case that the person miscounted the sides of his image rather than misspeaking, e.g., saying ‘twelve’ when he meant ‘thirteen’ , because we couldn't make absolutely sure that he was doing one rather than the other. But surely the distinction in question makes perfectly good sense. If on the other hand confirmation is all that he requires, the various distinctions will stand because there are many times when we can confirm the claim that one sort of error rather than another has been made. For example, in the after-image case one could ask the person whether he had misspoken, whether he had really meant that his image had twelve sides. And if he said that he meant it, and you thought that he might have made the more serious error of thinking that ‘twelve’ means ‘thirteen’, you could give him time to count the sides of a twelve-sided object so that an error of inspection was extremely unlikely and see whether he thought that ‘twelve’ was indeed the right name for the number of its sides. In neither case would you have verified your diagnosis of his mistakes but in both cases you would have confirmed it.

12 This paper has benefited from comments and criticism from Jonathan Bennett, Steven Savitt, Jack Stewart and Earl Winkler.