The Logocentric Predicament and the Relativist Worry/Acquaintance and an Epistemic Barrier

By Evan Jack and Erik Schulz

With Erik and I’s solution to the logocentric predicament comes a worry of relativism. This worry causes great anxiety in me for what would the product of all my efforts be other than everyone being right, which is to say, other than a total trivialism, practically indistinguishable from illogic? What our intuitionist foundation seems to bring us is the ability for a subject to possibly intuit logic to not be the case or at least claim that they had such an intuition. In other words, our intuitionist foundation could lead to contradiction… This is our worry and such a worry will need to be properly dispelled.

Let us turn to Edmund Husserl (or at least an interpretation of him) to explain our worry further here. With relativism comes an admission that “even if there were universally valid principles, knowledge of them would not be possible for us, and thus an absolute conception of truth must be rejected” (Soffer, Husserl and the Question of Relativism, p. xi). Husserl “make[s] clear the magnitude of what … is at stake [with such an admission]: not merely the resolution of a narrowly technical philosophical issue, but the intellectual, ethical and spiritual well-being of human civilization as a whole” (Soffer, Husserl and the Question of Relativism, p. xii). Furthermore, a worry is that no solution to the logocentric predicament is ever practically reached either, for what if one intuits logic to not be the case or at the very least claims to have had such an intuition? This is the final hurdle we must get over before skepticism and (practical) illogic are left in the dust.

Husserl characterizes relativism in the following fashion: “The measure of all truth is the individual person. What is true for a person is what appears to him to be true; one thing to one person, the opposite to another, if it so appears to him” or “All truth (and knowledge) is relative — relative to the contingently judging subject” (qtd. in Soffer, Husserl and the Question of Relativism, p. 2). The first thing Husserl keys in on in regards to relativism is that “relativism takes the form of an assertion: it is a thesis … [and it is] primarily … a thesis concerning the nature of truth” (Soffer, Husserl and the Question of Relativism, p. 2). But is this true? Not at all. We are practically foundationalists. The practical character of our anti-skeptical and epistemically private foundation is foundationalist. We do not defend foundationalism in the sense we take it up as a thesis, we simply know it to be a reality. Never did we first take up foundationalism, we looked to the structure of our epistemology as it is displayed in its most naked state and recognized its nature. I’d say that this is an indisputable fact, for to dispute it would be to say that we don’t have non-inferential reasons at the very basis of our beliefs, and if that is the case then we could question the beliefs at hand. Therefore, relativism here has been defeated, in that, if one were to say they intuited that they did not practically have a foundationalist epistemology, then they would be giving up on escaping skeptical regress and would have to admit no knowledge, for they would have no stopping point. Now, just because one cannot explicate justification does not mean they aren’t justified in their belief, however, if the premises upon which your inferences stand are yet to be justified then the status of your conclusion is also yet to be justified. Let us represent this simply with a truth table:

Simply, it does not follow that p is false and q is false and then p˄q is true, but this supposes logic being the case, and it seems we are in some pre-logical state with nothing being established. So, we arrive at this disagreement over logic that comes by way of intuition or could be claimed to come up, assuming, of course, that someone claims to intuit that logic was not the case.

So, how do we resolve the pre-logical dispute? We could argue that it is not (logically) possible for them to intuit that logic is not the case. I think the clear way to go here is toward self-defeat. So, if we can intuit the truth of something and to deny such a thing would lead to self-defeat then we have positive and negative justification here. But, would it be self-defeating to intuit illogic?

That logic provides itself with some “inherent defense” against skepticism has been assumed for quite a while. For example, Aristotle held that one could not disagree with the law of non-contradiction. But, such an argument assumed there was no pre-logical point in which logic and illogic were on the same level. [See my other paper on my epistemology that will hopefully be released soon, for I provide the solution to this problem]

[eventually, bring this all back to the point that denying foundationalism or not admitting foundationalism simply means that you don’t admit non-inferentiality when it comes to your intuition and can’t, therefore, have claim to anti-skeptical intuition and if you don’t have a claim to non-inferential intuitions then a regress begins and if that begins then you don’t have justification because of the whole YTB thing]

There are no eternal facts, nor are there any absolute truths.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

As you can see above, an acquaintance relation contains two separate relata (or things being related) which are being related through perception, intuition, immediate experience, etc. An acquaintance is a type of appearance that must fulfill the two following conditions in conjunction with each other:

  1. O seems to be instantiated to S (a quality contained within all appearances).
  2. O actually is instantiated.

I’m taking these criteria from Russel, since he states that an acquaintance is a “direct cognitive relation to the object, i.e. when [the subject is] directly aware of the object itself” (Russell 1910, p. 108). Direct acquaintance theory states that a subject can receive doxastic justification iff they are a part of such a relation, with respect to their belief about the properties of the thing that they were/are acquainted with.

When it comes to acquaintance theory, the challenging part- and the part that is a worry for our position, since we hold to a form of acquaintance theory- is showing the second criterion to be present. Since “O is actually instantiated” is an ontological claim and, from the subject’s perspective, there is no apparent difference between appearances that do and do not have a connection to reality, it follows that the only way for us to distinguish between ‘empty’ appearances and acquaintances is on an ontological basis. Correspondingly, we cannot independently confirm whether or not an appearance of an object is truly indicative of that object’s instantiation, since we are perspectivally bound. This is what I will call the “Epistemic Barrier.” As a result, it becomes difficult to find a method by which we can resolve epistemic disagreements. For instance, let us suppose that I genuinely, wholeheartedly, and authentically think that I’m perceiving a unicorn in front of me, with no defeater. As a result, I have a non-inferential, non-propositional, and epistemically autonomous justification for my belief. Also suppose that Evan comes along and genuinely, wholeheartedly, and authentically thinks he’s perceiving the exact opposite, namely the absence of a unicorn, with the conditions for private justification present; we both have a claim to private justification for our beliefs, and there is no non-question-begging dialectical move available to establish the validity of Evan’s appearance over mine.

Some may say, in response to the Epistemic Barrier Problem, that we can help resolve the disagreement by appealing to conditions that allegedly raise the probability of a certain appearance to be ontologically substantive[2] (such as general consensus). For example, let us suppose that there were 10 people in a room, where 9 of them said they didn’t see a mouse in it and 1 of them said that they did. Wouldn’t the more plausible proposition be “there wasn’t a mouse”, ceteris paribus, since that’s what a majority of people would affirm/have an appearance towards? This seems like a genuine challenge at its face, but it falls apart rather quickly. To maintain the belief that the proposition “there wasn’t a mouse” is more plausible in virtue of the fact that it had more subjects who have private justification towards it, we must establish that our appearances are more likely to represent accurate information about reality than not- otherwise, there is no real basis for claiming that general consensus is probability-raising. However, to determine that our senses do contain this property, we must be able to step outside of our own stance(s) (in this case meaning our epistemic situation) and show that our appearances a) have any connection towards reality or b) that our appearances are prima facie trustworthy. So, what is the problem? The notion of stepping outside of our stance(s) is a contradiction in terms no matter how many different stances there are; that is, putting more people behind the epistemic barrier doesn’t get rid of it. The very presupposition that makes consensus purported to be probability-raising in the first place cannot be established without already presupposing there is no epistemic barrier, making an appeal to consensus question-begging. My response to this specific objection applies to other, similar types of objections. For instance, if someone were to say that perceiving an object for long, extended periods of time raises the probability that it’s actually there, they would also be presupposing sense-validity (which itself presupposes that there can be faculty-independent confirmation of the validity of our faculties). As a result, the issue would still remain- the subject is an observer, and as such, he cannot transcend his confinement to observation and determine the ontological substantiveness of his appearances without foregoing his status as a subject. In sum, temporarily extended perception only matters if sense-validity has been warranted, which it can’t be without question-begging.

To elucidate the difficulty this problem poses further, here’s another diagram from Microsoft Paint:

[To clarify, the subject is unaware of the label on the square that indicates its ontological status]

Whether or not the squares that the subjects have given to them, which are supposed to represent appearances, indicate an object or an “object” is something that they are entirely unaware of. In addition, the experiences that the subjects are having in both cases are indistinguishable. Considering that Evan and I are subjects, it is very difficult for us to determine how we are capable of claiming we are having acquaintances instead of ontologically nonsubstantive appearances since they are, once again, experientially indistinguishable.

I’m sure that at this point the content of the argument is understood, but I nevertheless find it necessary to clarify its weight. Beyond trivial perceptual disagreements, we will have a threat posed to our justification of logic itself. To illustrate this, we can think back to the unicorn example’s structure and instead make the disagreement about logic, where I intuit illogic and Evan does not; there would still be no perspective-independent method of confirmation, no way to determine whether or not the seeming that inference rules are necessary is epistemically impotent, and ultimately no way to determine who is correct. In sum, if this criticism is true, it could easily lead us into a relativistic trap (or at the very least an epistemic stand-still).

Let us take a step back, and think through the premises and conclusion(s) of the argument I have just levied. As I was writing this, I was thinking of Huemer’s response to people who point towards disagreement as a response to intuitionism. His move, in his article “An Ethical Intuitionist Case for Libertarianism”, was to put the skeptical worry into an informal argument so as to bring it into the light. Huemer wrote:

1. Intuitionism fails to provide a way of resolving all ethical disagreements.

2. If a metaethical theory fails to provide a way of resolving all ethical disagreements, then the theory is false.

3. So intuitionism is false.

[Note that Huemer denies premise 2, but for our parity argument we will need to adopt a different strategy against the skeptic who utilizes disagreement].

I will do something similar, except I will relate it to acquaintance theory (specifically, rational foundationalism):

  1. Rational Foundationalism fails to provide a way of resolving all epistemic disagreements from the perspective of subjects
  2. If a theory of epistemology fails to provide a way to resolve all epistemic disagreements from the perspective of subjects, then that theory is false.
  3. Therefore, rational foundationalism is false.

Despite the fact that this is an informal argument, there doesn’t seem to be any implicit premises (or at the very least ones that would be substantive or disagreeable), so we must deny (1) or (2). First, let us examine the entailments of denying (1). We would have to take on the burden to resolve at least one epistemic disagreement, like in the unicorn example, and get around the principled issues illustrated in the two diagrams. The difficulty of solving it is high, but so is the payoff. Not only do we finally close out our epistemology, but we also have a branch into metaphysics to latch onto. Second, let us examine the entailments of denying (2) whilst accepting (1). We would reach an incredibly unsatisfying conclusion- either we would collapse into relativism or still be in our current position, without a clear idea as to where privately justified beliefs should be placed on an epistemic hierarchy (if there even is an epistemic hierarchy between different privately justified beliefs at all). In addition, there’s no good reason to deny both (1) and (2), since if we deny (1) denying (2) becomes unnecessary, because we would no longer have to deal with the consequent of (2).

We will also have to respond to my formally valid defense of (1):

P1) If acquaintances and appearances are experientially indistinguishable and subjects are confined to experience, then a subject has no way to independently prove that they are having an acquaintance instead of an appearance.

P2) Acquaintances and appearances are experientially indistinguishable.

P3) Subjects are confined to experience [a conceptual truth].

C1) Therefore, a subject has no way to independently prove that they are having an acquaintance instead of an appearance.

P4) If a subject has no way to independently prove that they are having an acquaintance instead of an appearance, then rational foundationalism fails to provide a way of resolving all epistemic disagreements from the perspective of subjects.

C2) Therefore, rational foundationalism fails to provide a way of resolving all epistemic disagreements from the perspective of subjects [since in rational foundationalism, appearances and acquaintances are still experientially indistinguishable and it is a form of acquaintance theory].

The core of this is what I will hereafter call the Experiential Indistinguishability Thesis (EIT), which states that acquaintances and appearances are experientially indistinguishable. From the EIT, everything else- including the conclusion of the above argument- follows. So, we must find a way to refute it in order to preserve our project.

To respond to (1) and make a modus tollens argument against the EIT (without question-begging and saying that there is experiential distinguishability), we will likely break down appearances into different categories such as intellectual, perceptual, logical etc. From there, we will determine which categories we can allow an opening for relativity in. As an example, Evan and I are open to being relativists concerning the justification perceptual appearances grant, and closed off to being relativists about the justification logical appearances grant (as our current goal is to solve the logocentric predicament). In addition, as I said earlier, a refutation of the first premise of the parity argument only requires us to show that some disagreements and/or types of disagreements can be resolved.


[1]: “YTB” means yet to be decided, the decision here being in regards to its truth value.

[2]: An ontologically substantive appearance is one that has an object behind it.



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Evan Jack

How sweet terror is, not a single line, or a ray of morning sunlight fails to contain the sweetness of anguish. - Georges Bataille