Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Williamson on Dialectic

"Faced with a skeptic about reason, or about everything except reason, many philosophers would be willing to start a conversation, out of politeness, curiosity, competitiveness, or the desire to save a soul. But their inability to achieve a dialectical triumph over such a resourceful opponent does not oblige them to become skeptics about reason, or everything except reason, themselves. There is no bad faith in continuing to claim (and have) knowledge of the contested truths. For the anti-skeptic is not obliged to treat dialectic as the measure of all things. Indeed, the claim that dialectic is the measure of all things faces self-defeat, for it cannot triumph dialectically over its denial; even if it appeared to be getting the better of the argument, would not taking that to establish its truth beg the question?"

-- Timothy Williamson, The Philosophy of Philosophy, p.240.


  1. But on the other hand, it seems rather self-defeating and contradictory for a anti-skeptic or anti-rationalist to "reason" and try to persuade another through dialectics that dialectics is ineffective. Do anti-dialectics not put of with the contradiction of their action in using dialectics as a catalyst to critique itself and in doing so demonstate a self-defeat argument?

  2. That's an interesting suggestion, though it's worth stressing that Williamson isn't arguing that dialectic has no value. Certainly, if you can convince someone of your conclusion using only premises (and inference rules) that they already accept, all the better. The point is simply that failure to achieve this isn't necessarily disqualifying. There may be good reasons/arguments against skepticism that the skeptic himself would consider "question begging".

  3. I think Williamson is targeting something fictitious. Perhaps there are sceptics about reason. And if there are sceptics about reason, I am confident that these sceptics use what we all call reason, but perhaps their use of reason has a different aim. I imagine that they would argue, ad hominem, as follows: 'A fully general understanding of our use of reason cannot be circular, regressive, or presuppose what it aims to explain. But in order to understand reason in a fully general way, we will be either circular, regressive, or pressupose some use for reason. Therefore, a fully general understanding of reason is not possible.'

    Of course, the sceptic here has appealed to reason. But there conclusion does not refute the use of reason; it does not even refute the use of reason as expressed as an argument. It only claims that a general understanding of reason must fail because of it cannot satisfy criteria that, they would argue, would satisfy us. In brief: the aim of achieving a fully general understanding of reason is impossible by it's own lights.

    I confess that I cannot imagine a more general but intelligible sceptic than the one sketched above. In order to make a sceptic intelligible, they have to be clear about their aim with scepticism; if not, it becomes far to easy to refute them.


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