Justification, Realism and the Past - Columia University

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    1 Justification, Realism and the Past

    Christopher Peacocke

    Can we explain our understanding of past-tense statements in terms of what would justify them? It is Michael Dummett‟s contention that we can. In his Dewey Lectures at Columbia in 2002, and in his resulting book Truth and the Past (2004), Dummett

    presents his most mature exposition of a justificationist position, after more than forty

    2years‟ reflection and writing on the issue. A striking aspect of the particular variety of

    justificationist position developed in Truth and the Past is that Dummett conceives of it

    as “repudiating anti-realism about the past the view that statements about the past, if

    true at all, must be true in virtue of the traces past events have left in the present” (ix). Dummett describes his recent investigation of this position as an experiment. My starting point in this paper is the question of whether the experiment succeeds.

    The case of the past is arguably the most unintuitive and recalcitrant for any justificationist, verificationist - and equally for any pragmatist - approach to meaning and content. In my view, there is an immense amount to be learned from examining Dummett‟s detailed proposals in his attempt to face these challenges head-on. In this

    paper I argue that no justificationist treatment of these issues can succeed, for reasons of principle. That is half of my task. The other, more positive, half of the task is to present and argue for the outline of a different account. The positive account gives truth a fundamental role that it does not have in justificationist, verificationist or pragmatist theories. The account also suggests a quite different model of the relations between truth and justification. This alternative model is also applicable to other domains beyond the past.

1. Dummett’s Account

     1 A version of this paper was presented at a conference on my work in National Tsing-Hua University, Taiwan, in 2004. I thank Philip Kitcher, Joseph Raz, Ruey-Yuan Wu and two anonymous referees for Mind

    for discussion and comments, and the National Science Council of Taiwan for support. 2 All page references, unless otherwise specified, are to this volume.


    A justificationist theory of meaning, in Dummett‟s treatment, specifies the meaning of a statement in terms of the grounds for asserting the statement (26). The intuitionistic theory of meaning for arithmetical sentences is one such justificationist theory for that mathematical domain. Under this treatment, the meaning of an arithmetical sentence given by its proof-conditions. These meaning-specifying proof-conditions are determined componentially. The meaning of an individual arithmetical expression is given by its contribution to the proof-conditions of the complete sentences in which it occurs. The meaning of a complete arithmetical sentence is given by the proof-conditions which are determined by the contribution to proof-conditions made by its component expressions, together with their mode of combination in the sentence. The proof-conditions so determined can be described as the canonical proof-conditions of the sentence. A canonical ground, or a canonical justification, for an arithmetical sentence is a proof meeting the specifications in these canonically-determined proof-conditions. Providing such a meaning-determining proof is the most direct way of establishing the sentence, in a technical sense of directness proprietary to a justificationist semantics. A direct method of establishing a sentence is a method of a kind that is mentioned in the canonical specification of the sentence‟s meaning.

    Dummett emphasizes that an arithmetical sentence can also be proved by non-canonical means. A sentence may be a surprising consequence of the axioms of arithmetic, or of some other a priori theory, and there may be a way of establishing the sentence that is not a canonical proof of the sentence in question. His illustration of this possibility is drawn from Euler‟s solution of the problem of whether any path that crosses all the bridges in Königsberg crosses some bridge twice. Euler proved that any such path does cross some bridge twice. Take the existential sentence “Some bridge is crossed

    twice on any path that crosses all the bridges”. This existential sentence is most directly

    verified by first identifying some particular bridge; by then verifying that this particular bridge is crossed twice; and then inferring by existential generalization that some bridge is crossed twice. But Euler‟s proof equally establishes the existential generalization without identifying any particular such bridge, given only the information that every

    2=169 can be bridge was crossed on a particular path. Similarly, the proposition that 13established by all sorts of complicated proofs other than simply a computation that


    involves adding 13 to itself the requisite number of times. All of these proofs are indirect, non-canonical, and genuine. They are not, however, the ground or justification of the sort canonically determined by the meaning of the statement itself. The canonical justification

    2=169 involves a series of successive, cumulative additions of 13: of 13

    13+13+13……=169 (for 13 occurrences of „13‟).

    Dummett holds that the recognition that there are non-canonical, „indirect‟ means of

    establishing sentences should come “as a relief” (44) to the justificationist attempting to give an account of past-tense sentences. Dummett‟s thought is that a non-canonical proof

    is still a proof, and what a non-canonical proof shows is that the proposition in question could have been verified in the direct way that corresponds, on a justificationist theory, to the sense of the sentence as determined by its components and syntactic structure. In applying this idea to the case of the past, Dummett‟s Columbia lectures offer a treatment

    of the meaning of past-tense statements that contains the following five theses.

    (A) The truth of a past-tense sentence “consists of its being the case that someone

    suitably placed could have verified it” (44).

    (B) Thesis (A) amounts to what Dummett regards as a modified justificationist theory. His view is that a purely justificationist theory would involve a stronger anti-realism about the past, one to the effect that the past exists only in what we would call its present traces. Such an anti-realism was formulated and discussed in Dummett‟s earlier

    writings on the past, notably in his paper „The Reality of the Past‟ (1978), and in his

    3Gifford Lectures. In Truth and the Past, at least, Dummett is experimenting with a

    4rejection of this stronger anti-realism. He notes that on the modified justificationist

    theory with which he is experimenting, a central general principle of justificationism is still maintained: “a statement about the past can be true only in virtue of an actual or possible direct verification of it” (70).

    (C) The distinction between direct and indirect means of establishing statements is preserved in this modified justificationist account. Consider the statement “Your sister

     3 See especially the formulation of anti-realism on p.373 of „The Reality of the Past‟. The Gifford Lectures

    are as yet unpublished. 4 Dummett should not be regarded as having changed his view, but rather as trying out different philosophical options at different times. “I do not think anyone should interpret everything that a philosopher writes as if it was just one chapter in a book he is writing throughout his life. On the contrary, for me every article and essay is a separate attempt to arrive at the truth, to be judged on its own” (x).


    must now be sitting down to her breakfast”. According to Dummett, we credit to even a child the consciousness that if he were to go downstairs and, a little later, observe his sister having her breakfast, “this would not be the most direct way of verifying the

    statement” (53). To already be in the place referred to, and to observe the relevant state of

    affairs at the time referred to, “is the only direct way to verify the statement” (54).

    (D) The grasp of a statement about what is happening elsewhere “falls into two parts: one is an understanding of what it is for a state of affairs of the type in question to obtain or an event of the type in question to occur; the other is our knowledge of how to locate it on the grid which serves to particularize the place referred to” (57). Dummett eventually concludes that an analogous account of thought about what obtains, or is happening, at other times is equally correct (65ff.).

    (E) It is a mistake “to argue that a conception of reality as existing independently

    of being observed must be prior to and inform the observational practice that we learn: it is by learning that practice that we acquire such a conception” (71). The idea of observation as revealing something that would have been so even if the observation had not been made “is a sophisticated thought, which ought not to be attributed to a child who had been taught to say how things are by looking, feeling, or listening” (70-1). The

    Dummettian child does not have the conception of reality as existing independently of being observed.

2. Tensions and Objections

    There is a fundamental difference between a proof that establishes an arithmetical statement and a perception that establishes a statement about the observable world. A proof, considered as a sequence of sentences that are themselves expression-types, is something whose existence is entirely mind-independent. The proof exists whether or not anyone has ever given it, or contemplated it, or stood in any other psychological relation to it. A perception is a mental state or event. It is essentially something mind-dependent. Even if the content of the mental state is conceived, as on McDowell‟s account, as some kind of fact involving a state of affairs in the non-mental world, the perception itself involves a psychological relation to that fact. This contrast between the mind-


    independence of proofs and the mind-dependence of perceptions has consequences that ramify throughout the theory of intentional content. In my judgement, the contrast is a symptom of the deep difference between the nature of arithmetical thought and the nature of thought about the spatio-temporal world.

    There are substantial internal tensions that emerge when we try to carry through an application to the spatio-temporal case of the distinction between direct and indirect methods of justification in the way Dummett proposes.

    Take an arithmetical equation built only from canonical numerals, together with vocabulary for addition, multiplication and identity. Whenever such an equation is true, there exists a proof of it. (Realists and arithmetical intuitionists will agree thus far.) The intuitionist holds more generally that in every case in which any arithmetical sentence is true, there exists a proof of it. Both in the case of the equations, and in the case of other arithmetical sentences, an indirect method of proof of an arithmetical sentence quite properly establishes for the justificationist that a canonical proof of that sentence exists, even if no one has written out or encountered such a proof. By the justificationist‟s standards, this means that the indirect method establishes the truth of the arithmetical

    2 is 1580049 (it is) without sentence. Since we can know that there is a proof that 1257

    having seen or worked through a proof of that fact, this use and application in the arithmetical case of the direct/indirect distinction is not intrinsically problematic. In the spatio-temporal case, however, as expounded by Dummett, we confront a crucial disanalogy. A successful use of an indirect method of establishing what is going on at some place-time other than one‟s current location does not establish that there is a perception of what is going on at that other place-time.

    It is no simple matter for the justificationist, as characterized by Dummett, to explain away or discount this disanalogy. Certainly it does not seem plausible from the justificationist standpoint to modify the account of the arithmetical case. It is not as if it were open to the justificationist to say that we have some grasp of what it is for an arithmetical sentence to be true even when there is no proof of it, so that the apparent disanalogy disappears. That would be to abandon justificationism (or at least proof-based justificationism). The very attraction of the direct/indirect distinction, and its applicability in the mathematical case, is wholly dependent upon the idea that a sound indirect method


    establishes the truth of a sentence on a conception of truth that is characterized independently of any mention of indirect methods.

    We can distinguish at least three types of intended justificationist theory. Theories of the first type give as the canonical justification the direct, meaning specifying

    justification - for a predication (of an observational property) of another place-time the perception of something being the case then and there. This is the type we have just rejected as clearly false. One of the other two types, the second type, takes as the direct, canonical justification the condition that the other place-time falls under the same kind as a place-time that is observed to have the observational property in question. This second type takes the indirect method to be given by the counterfactual about what would be observed to be the case at the other place-time. The third conceivable type of intended justificationist theory takes the counterfactual as the direct justification-condition. The three types of theory can be diagrammed thus:

     Meaning-specifying condition Indirect Method

     for a predication of observational

     concept of a place-time


Type One Perception of state of affairs Counterfactual, or maybe

     there same-kind condition

Type Two Same kind as in observational Counterfactual


Type Three Counterfactual ?

    There are also difficulties with theories of Type Two and of Type Three, both in themselves, and in reconciling either one of them with everything Dummett says about the kind of theory he accepts.


    Theories of Type Two aim to take the meaning-specifying, direct justification-condition for a statement about another place-time to be that it has the same property as is observed to be instantiated when the thinker makes a present-tense predication of an observed place or object, on the basis of perception. How are we to conceive of the uniform, single property that can be recognized by observation to be instantiated in some event or object at one‟s current location, and can also be instantiated unperceived

    elsewhere? In order to make sense of this conception, we must think of what is observed to be the case as something that can also hold unobserved. Pre-theoretically, this seems to be entirely intuitive and unproblematic. From the theoretical standpoint of a justificationist theory of Type Two that employs a direct/indirect distinction, it may also seem to be just what is needed. For to say that the property could be instantiated unperceived may seem to be the analogue for the spatio-temporal case of saying, in the mathematical case, that there is a proof that has not in fact been written out. So, it may seem, „could have been established‟ characterizes what Dummett calls the indirect case in both the mathematical and the spatio-temporal case, just as he said. Type Two theories seem to have just the properties that Dummett at some points endorses. Sometimes he insists, rightly in my view, that a counterfactual about what would be observed if one went to the place is not what is actually said in a statement about what is going on elsewhere. “What it [a statement about what obtains elsewhere CP ] says is that at that

    particular location on the spatial map is something of a kind he can recognize when he himself is at the right location” (51). This is just what a Type Two theorist would also

    5 say.

    But are the resources used in theories of Type Two really available to Dummett‟s

    justificationist? The intended position of such a theory holds that what is said in a statement about the instantiation of an observational property at another place is that, in Dummett‟s words, “at that particular location on the spatial map is something of a kind

     5 Someone might read the quoted sentence from Dummett as using merely a „pleonastic‟ notion of

    sameness of kind, of the sort discussed by Stephen Schiffer, in his Remnants of Meaning (1987). For this

    notion of sameness of kind, it would suffice that the same linguistic predicate is used in the thinker‟s accepted sentences about his current location and those about other locations. But this pleonastic reading cannot be relevant to questions about the nature of understanding, because it implies no positive commitments at all about the relations between understanding of the local and understanding of the non-local predications. Our concern is with how Dummett‟s justificationism could address questions about understanding.


he [the thinker CP] can recognize when he himself is at the right location”. If a

    justificationist is to appeal to contents like this, he must give a justificationist account of their nature. The content itself involves an identity of kind: an identity of a kind instantiated by the unperceived thing or event with a kind instantiated by things or events that the thinker can recognize. How is this identity itself to be explained in justificationist terms? In the arithmetical case, we do have a justificationist account of identities formed with complex arithmetical terms on each side of the identity. If the terms are formed from certain canonical arithmetical vocabulary (successor, plus, multiplication), the identities are decidable, and the canonical decision procedure can be appealed to by the justificationist when asked for an account of the sense of the identity, even if it is one that is actually proved by indirect means. But what can the justificationist offer in the case of an identity of kind between observed thing or event, and thing or event unobserved by the thinker?

    Dummett does not address this question. One apparent option would be to appeal to counterfactuals again. That option holds that for the identity of kind to hold between the observed and the unobserved cases is for certain counterfactuals about what would be observed to be true. But this is an answer which implies that the counterfactual is not being treated as an indirect method, but as something independently written into the grasp of the sense of predications about other places the answer is being offered as something

    to put in column one of our table, an answer that addresses the question of meaning-specifying conditions. The defence is, consequently, not a defence of a theory of Type Two. The defence then also incidentally has no account of what an indirect method is, once counterfactuals are included in the direct method. This defence does not fit Dummett‟s description of his theory at all.

    Another option would be to pursue some analogue, for the spatial case, of the intuitionist‟s „can be proved‟ when the latter speaks of indirect proof in the arithmetical

    case. To sustain the identity of kind at stake in this stage of the argument, we must identify some kind which is discovered to be instantiated when the thinker is perceiving the object or event, but which can also be instantiated when no one is perceiving the object or event, and whose instantiation captures the meaning of the predication in question. To this end, another option that may tempt the justificationist is simply that of


    saying that if, for instance, we are concerned with a predication of a particular spatial shape of an object, then the sameness of kind in question is simply sameness of shape; and pari passu for other types of predication.

    It is a deep question, for another paper, whether a primitive use of identity is available to a justificationist position (some of the remarks later in the positive part of this paper bear on that issue). However that may be, this option is not open to Dummett himself. The commitments of theories of Type Two, when interpreted in accordance with this option, are incompatible with Dummett‟s view of observation as stated in his Thesis

    (E) above. Thesis (E) implies that the ability to make observational reports does not involve possession of the conception that what is observed is something that would or could exist even if not observed. Theories of Type Two, as construed under this option, require the child to grasp something that is, by the terms of Dummett‟s conception of

    observation in (E), unintelligible. Dummett says that the child who is capable of making observational judgements is not, simply in virtue of that, to have any conception that what is observed can exist unobserved. But theories of Type Two, under this option, imply that the child, in understanding predications about locations other than his own, appreciates that what is being said is that something is going on, or exists, that is of the same kind as he can observe when such events or objects are at his own location. For this identity to be so much as intelligible, the child must have the conception that what he observes is something of a sort that can exist unperceived, at locations other than his own. If the child does not already have this conception, giving the child the information that things elsewhere are F if they have the same property as the things he observes to be F is not going to make it any more intelligible that the property that can be observed to be instantiated can also be instantiated unperceived. The information involved in such an understanding of predications of other places presupposes some grasp of this as an intelligible possibility. The information by itself cannot make that possibility intelligible if the child does not already find it intelligible.

    It would not help if Dummett‟s view is that the child, in making judgements based on observation, is also to be ascribed the conception of other subjects as also capable of making observations. We have to explain understanding of a predication of, say, a shape property of an object as something that can be true even if the object is unobserved by


    anyone at all. There would still be a problem of unintelligibility on such a more socially-oriented account. The problem would be transferred to the transition from a conception of a property of which the thinker need not have any conception that it can be instantiated unperceived by anyone, to a conception which requires that the thinker have that conception. Such a transition still cannot intelligibly be effected simply by the thinker‟s use of an identity relation.

    The upshot of the discussion to this point seems to be that attempting to give theories of Type Two justificationist credentials via counterfactuals is making the direct/indirect distinction inapplicable in those theories; and that making sense of the identity of kind required in Type Two theories makes them incompatible with Dummett‟s

    conception in Thesis (E) of observation and observational judgements. My own view is that (E) is false anyway, for reasons that I will discuss later.

    We turn to theories of Type Three. Would it be correct to take the meaning-specifying justification condition for a predication of another place-time to be given by the counterfactual (regardless of what we go on to count as an indirect method)? That is the distinctive claim of theories of Type Three. This position would have to say something about the fact that when, for instance, we experience it to be sunny here, and take the experience at face value, we do not, before making the judgement „It‟s sunny here‟, make a transition to a counterfactual „If someone were to be here, he would observe it to be sunny‟. But, the defender may continue, this would be a sound inference.

    The inference from the pair set of premises {A, B} to the counterfactual „If A were to be the case, B would be the case‟ is intuitively valid, and it is rightly treated as valid in both Stalnaker‟s (1968) and Lewis‟s (1973) semantics for counterfactuals. We may not

    explicitly insert the counterfactual step in coming to make an observational judgement about how things are here, this justificationist may say, but our practice is legitimate, and there is uniform account of the sense of sentences about place-times, only because it could be validly inserted.

    The objection to this account is not from its lack of uniformity, but from the fact that the counterfactual condition is incorrect, both for predications of the thinker‟s current

    location, and for predications of other place-times. At least some of these points are familiar from other literature, and I will go through them briefly.


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