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Relativism, realism, and subjective facts

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Relativists make room for the possibility of “faultless disagreement” by positing the existence of subjective propositions, i.e. propositions true from some points of view and not others. We discuss whether the adoption of this position with respect to a certain domain of discourse is compatible with a realist attitude towards the matters arising in that domain. At first glance, the combination of relativism and realism leads to an unattractive metaphysical picture on which reality comprises incoherent facts. We will sketch the contours of a realist-relativist position called “subjectivism”, which avoids this result by giving up the assumption that the points of view of different subjects are all metaphysically “on a par”.

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  1. Recent discussions of the metaphysics of relativism include Beall (2006), Wright (2008), Einheuser (2008), Marconi (2014), Spencer (2014), and Jackson (2016).

  2. Often, some form of anti-realism is implicitly built into the formulation of relativism itself—for instance through the claim that, if a proposition is true relative to some subjects and not others, it is only true in a relative fashion (Richard 2008: p. 9; Egan et al. 2005: p. 158). See also Jackson (2016), who claims that truth-relativism is most naturally paired with an “unworldy metaphysics”.

  3. Here we have in mind the kind of expressivism articulated in the work of Blackburn (1993) and Gibbard (1990), (2003).

  4. Kölbel notes that there is room for a relativist interpretation of Gibbard (Kölbel 2002: pp. 213–214) and Schroeder has recently claimed that “expressivism is relativism done right” (Schroeder 2015: p. 25), meaning that it provides the best interpretation of the relativist formal semantics.

  5. For the distinction between contingentists and necessitarians, see Schaffer (2012). For that between temporalists and eternalists, see Richard (1981).

  6. For discussion of the analogy between worlds, times, and points of view, see Prior and Fine (1977). Our target is the relativity of propositional truth to subjective factors. In light of this, the distinction between “non-indexical contextualism” and “assessment relativism” (MacFarlane 2014), while important for other debates, is orthogonal to our purposes.

  7. For some contextualist replies to the challenge from disagreement, see López de Sa (2008), Sundell (2011), Huvenes (2012), and Silk (2016).

  8. For a discussion of this idea, and its connection to realism, see Wright (1992: pp. 76–82). We say ‘at least in part’ because every realist should acknowledge that the correctness of a certain belief depends on its having the content it has, and not just on reality’s comprising certain facts rather than others.

  9. One option would be to formulate Minimal Realism in terms of sentential grounding. For the notion of grounding and its relationship to debates about realism, see Fine (2001). For the distinction between sentential and predicative grounding, see Correia and Schnieder (2012).

  10. See, also, Beall’s (2006) “Relative Correspondence Truth” model, Einheuser’s (2008) “Factual Relativism”, and Spencer’s (2014) “Variabilism”.

  11. We borrow the term “Egalitarianism” from Hellie (2013). Fine (2005) calls a thesis closely related to Egalitarianism “Neutrality”.

  12. We borrow the term “Specialness” from Merlo (2013).

  13. We are aware that counterfactuals of the form “If I were in X’s place, p” or “If I were X, p” admit of several readings, but we are confident that there is at least one reading on which our suggestion will not sound completely unnatural. Plausibly, our competence with so called “exocentric” uses of, e.g., taste vocabulary (Lasersohn 2005) is closely connected with our competence in evaluating such counterfactuals, on precisely the reading we are interested in.

  14. We’ve said that subjectivists need to replace Minimal Realism with Minimal Realism*. But some subjectivists may want to deny the replacement is even necessary: they may hold that, strictly speaking, other subjects don’t believe anything and, therefore, don’t provide a case where the antecedent of Minimal Realism is true and the consequent false. On this picture, one would not say that you believe the proposition that licorice is not tasty; instead, one would say that otherpersonally you believe that proposition. Accordingly, one would supplement (rather than replace) Minimal Realism with Minimal Realism*. See Hare (2009: pp. 52–55) for discussion of this variant of subjectivism.

  15. One important observation concerns the kind of inegalitarianism implied by the subjectivist account. It is true that, if subjectivism holds, reality is “aligned” with my point of view, but since reality is not objectively the way it is, this does not mean that my point of view is objectively privileged.

  16. Hare (2009) argues that, unless we adopt a particular form of subjectivism called “egocentric presentism”, we cannot make rational sense of our moral inclination to favour conditions in which we (as opposed to anyone else) are better off. Hellie (2013) suggests that an inegalitarian stance towards personal perspectives is a central and ineliminable aspect of our understanding of consciousness. An application of subjectivism to the metaphysics of the mental is defended by one of us in Merlo (2016).


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The authors are listed in alphabetical order and contributed equally to this paper. This research was presented at the philosophy Forschungskolloquium of the University of Hamburg on 31 May 2016—many thanks to the participants for their feedback. We are especially grateful to Steve Finlay, Benj Hellie, Max Kölbel, Martin Lipman, Diego Marconi, Sebastiano Moruzzi, Bryan Pickel, Sven Rosenkranz, Moritz Schultz, Isidora Stojanovic, Crispin Wright, and two anonymous referees for their helpful comments and criticism.

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Correspondence to Giovanni Merlo or Giulia Pravato.

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Merlo, G., Pravato, G. Relativism, realism, and subjective facts. Synthese 198, 8149–8165 (2021).

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