Tetralogue: I’m Right, You’re Wrong
Oxford University Press
“The fruit bowl is to the left of the vase,” I say. “The fruit bowl is to the right of the vase,” you say. Need we disagree? Not if we are sitting at opposite ends of the table, observing the scene from different points of view. “This ice cream tastes like muck,” I say, to which you reply that “this ice cream tastes wonderful.” Once again it seems we need not disagree—we are simply making our judgements from different points of view, with the notion of a point of view expanding so as to include our respective gustatory preferences in addition to our location. The strategy is a familiar one—a dispute is resolved into a “faultless disagreement” by recognition that the judgements are compatible if they are relative to different points of view. There is no conflict, only differing perspectives.
But how far does this strategy go? If you claim not that the ice cream tastes good but that the ice cream is a kind of hummingbird, I am less likely to be conciliatory than in the original case—here you are simply wrong, relative to whatever point of view you care to take. There are, after all, some facts about the way the world is, and the way you have just described the world does not represent the world as it is, was, or will be. We might be similarly wary about a relativism in the moral realm. Even granted a large measure of openness and tolerance, I am unlikely to accept that contradictory claims about the rightness of killing innocents can ever be resolved into a faultless disagreement, regardless of perspective. Relativism then, can be obvious, absurd and ambiguous. What seems clear is that whilst some things are relative, and some disputes can be helpfully resolved by revealing a supressed relativisation, other things are not relative, and some disputes cannot be resolved in this way.
It might seem somewhat surprising that Timothy Williamson should write a work of “popular philosophy”. The Wykeham Professor of Logic tends to work on those topics which are amongst the furthest from the public gaze, on technical problems in formal logic, metaphysics and epistemology. His previous book, Modal Logic as Metaphysics, is one of the most formidably difficult works of contemporary philosophy, full of page after page of formal notation incomprehensible to all but the most proficient logicians. In it, he put forward the radical and provocative ontological thesis of “neccesitism”, the idea that everything is necessarily something. This thesis is supplied with the qualifier, itself not entirely lucid to non-philosophers, that “the modal operators are meant to be read as expressing metaphysical modality and the quantifiers are meant to be read unrestrictedly.” It might seem all the more surprising from someone who recently said that he disliked “selling philosophy to people fundamentally uninterested in it, by disguising it as something it isn’t”, which is precisely what many philosophers feel that the popularisation of their field amounts to.
The motivation behind Williamson’s foray into publicly accessible writing seems to be a conviction that philosophical thinking, properly conducted, has something important to say to the wider public. In particular, Williamson thinks that philosophy can offer an antidote, or at least a tonic, to a relativistic tendency in modern culture that he argues denigrates truth and rationality, and lies at the thin end of a wedge that includes “alternative facts”, distrust of experts, and a “post-truth” society.
Any worries that Williamson’s characteristic acuity and thoroughness would suffer in his shift from the abstract to the accessible are alleviated early on, and he displays considerable skill in introducing philosophical problems in a way that is at once utterly accessible, unsparingly rigorous and unexpectedly funny. The book is filled with all sorts of insightful observations and criticisms of the way we tend to think and argue, and one of the major merits of this excellent piece of popular philosophy is to show that no sooner have we begun to ask seemingly innocent questions than we are sucked terrifyingly deep into the philosophical rabbit-hole.
The short work is set in a train carriage, and follows a conversation between four people with very different ways of viewing the world. We begin with travellers Sarah and Bob arguing over the explanation of a recent accident suffered by Bob. Bob complains that his garden wall collapsed on his leg as a result of the machinations of an elderly neighbour, whom he accuses of witchcraft. Sarah tries to convince Bob of the irrationality of this explanation of witchcraft (which one suspects Williamson uses as a foil for religious “superstition”) and of the superior rationality of scientific explanation, but Bob sticks firmly to his guns, and the two meet a frustrating impasse of “I’m right, you’re wrong.” How to proceed when we encounter such impasses is the major question motivating the ensuing conversation.
Enter Zac, our arch-relativist, who sets himself up as arbiter in the debate between Sarah and Bob. His (self-proclaimed) radical idea, which he promises will resolve all difficulties and neutralise all disputes, is relativism: the idea, as he puts it, that each is “quite right from [their] own point of view” and that nothing is absolutely right or absolutely wrong.
For the relativist, there is no such thing as truth, beauty or justification outside the framework to which these notions are relative, and consequently there is no conflict between two opposed judgements made from within different frameworks, or “from different points of view.” This accounts for Zac’s way out of the argumentative impasse: “witchcraft is true from Bob’s point of view, and science is true from Sarah’s point of view.” This sort of answer seems to offer a very attractive solution: we need not go hoarse shouting “I’m right, you’re wrong”, because we can instead agree to disagree.
Sarah, Bob and Zac continue their discussion as the train rolls on through the landscape, each trying and failing to convince the other of their views on topics ranging from psychoanalysis to hippy communes and the scientific method, until the train pulls up at a station. Here our fourth character alights the train, sitting quietly as the trio continue their exasperated debate.
The new arrival, Roxana, is a logician with a razor-sharp mind and a tongue that is sharper still. She introduces herself with the polite interjection of “you appear not to know much about logic,” a pleasantry she follows up by declaring that the “lack of intellectual discipline [of the overheard conversation] was only slightly irritating.” Her flippant put-downs and sarcastic remarks do little to endear her to her fellow passengers. Roxana’s voice seems closest to Williamson’s own, although the similarity lies in the rigour, wit and sharpness of the views expressed, rather than the belligerent and dismissive attitude displayed by the fictional logician.
Despite its appeal (perhaps because of its appeal), Williamson sees Zac’s “anything goes” relativism as importantly misguided, and a good deal of Tetralogue is concerned with exposing its flaws and internal inconsistencies. Sarah, Bob and Roxana momentarily put their differences to one side in order to tease out the contradiction and evasiveness of Zac’s attitude, a feat which is hard to achieve, owing to his strategy of appending “according to my point of view” to every claim, which allows him to avoid committing himself to any position that might be proven wrong (or, indeed, right!).
Williamson takes relativism to be a facile and lazy way of avoiding the hard problems at hand. Zac doesn’t really say anything at all about witchcraft by saying that “witchcraft is right from Bob’s point of view but not from Sarah’s”; he merely summarises their beliefs in a way that safeguards himself from falsity at the expense of his not contributing anything interesting to the discussion. There is, according to Williamson, a fact of the matter about whether science or witchcraft is correct and the stand-offishness of relativism doesn’t help us get any closer to precisely what that might be.
Zac is portrayed as a well-meaning, but painfully complacent and naïve intellectual lightweight, basking in the self-perceived glory of having transcended such passé notions as truth and falsity, right and wrong, rational and irrational. Whenever he is backed into a corner by an interlocutor who wants to know where he stands on a given issue, he retreats to his constant refrain of “according to your point of view”, which becomes a hilariously repetitive bore. Relativism is not so much refuted as laughed out of court, a reductio ad absurdum heavy on the slapstick.
This tactic permits Williamson to entertainingly lampoon the silliest elements of an “anything goes”, anti-scientific relativism, but this does feel like rather low-lying fruit. One feels that Tetralogue could have been more compelling as conversation and more convincing as philosophy if Zac had been a somewhat less ridiculous character—although this would probably have been less amusing. Many characteristically strong and incisive, if familiar, arguments against a radical and generalised relativism appear rehearsed (for example the view that relativism must be self-defeating if the claim that “all things are relative” is itself to be understood as relative), but the arguments thus adduced would not trouble any of the philosophers often accused of relativism such as Wittgenstein, Putnam, Rorty and Field, not to mention the “continental” philosophers Williamson likely has in mind.
This might lead some readers to wonder whether Williamson’s crusade against relativism isn’t a Quixotic charge against philosophical windmills. Refutations of relativism by analytic philosophers were all the rage in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, when post-structuralism and Rortian pragmatism were still major influences in Anglo-American humanities departments, although one wonders how prevalent this relativism is today. Certainly, one would not find many who subscribe to such wildly implausible positions in any philosophy faculty, and it is hard to see at whom this polemic is directed.
Ultimately, these concerns rather miss the point. Williamson’s target is a wider relativistic tendency in modern culture, one that he thinks has assumed political significance in recent years, having migrated from the ivory tower to the agora, and shedding any of its subtlety along the way.
The best (worst) example of this trend is Kelly-Anne Conway’s recent invocation of “alternative” facts in her discussion of the fictitious “Bowling Green Massacre”. There are, evidently, no such things as alternative facts. Facts concern how the world is, and the world is only one way. There are multiple descriptions and multiple opinions, of course, but there is only one set of facts. Facts do not permit alternatives. But, as Williamson seems to think, the “anything goes” mindset makes it all too easy for facts to be seen to shade insensibly into opinion and fabrication, and leads to the pernicious idea that there are not only alternative points of view and alternative opinions, but alternative facts we can pick and choose to suit our interests.
In a world where the very notions of truth and reason are systematically undermined, it becomes difficult to criticise their opposites where we find them, and even more challenging to call out those who skilfully manipulate public uncertainty about these issues for their own gain. One cannot expose someone for lying if there is no notion of truth, nor criticise a policy as irrational or unjust if the notions of rationality and justice have lost all currency.
This is indeed a lamentable part of our political discourse, one might think. But can we really blame this on philosophy? In a roundabout way, Williamson argues, we can:
When you discourage respect for rational standards, Zac, the confusion you create is a smokescreen for politicians to hide behind, to avoid proper scrutiny, even though I’m sure you don’t intend it that way. If I accuse a politician of falsehood and he replies that ‘false’ is a dangerous word, people should laugh. We’d be in trouble if instead their reaction was to nod with respect.
It is not that relativist philosophers have been plotting the downfall of liberal democracy. Williamson is hardly claiming that Trump and Conway spend their evenings and cabinet meetings poring over Grammatology and the Philosophical Investigations. There is no direct link between the philosophy and the politics that Williamson excoriates, but such links are always fairly tenuous, and a tenuous connection is a connection nonetheless. He gave a good summary of his concerns in a recent interview:
(W)hen politicians need to be called out for speaking plain falsehoods, it doesn’t exactly help that many academics in the humanities and elsewhere have been doing their best for years to ‘deconstruct’ the distinction between truth and falsity. They’re hardly in the strongest position to accuse a politician of disrespect for truth… The road to such relativism is paved with good intentions, at least in part. People wrongly took the plain distinction between truth and falsity to imply intolerance of other points of view, other religious or political faiths, perhaps a willingness to suppress them by force.
As Williamson acknowledges, the argument here owes something to the insight of another Oxford philosopher, Bernard Williams, himself more open to recognising a “truth in relativism”, who observed decades ago that relativism no more implies tolerance than intolerance, it being equally possible for “my point of view” to be that of a Nazi and that of a Quaker. In fact, taken seriously, relativism seems to deny us any ground for considering tolerance better than intolerance, or for seeing the Quaker as better than the Nazi, both tolerance and intolerance rooted as they are in their respective points of view.
Politics aside, a great merit of this clever little book is that it shows how much philosophy is implicit in ordinary conversation and discussion, how truisms and throwaway comments we make conceal deep and highly debatable presuppositions. By showing how philosophy is so often already implicit in our arguments, values and opinions, Williamson’s book works as a surprisingly natural route into philosophy, and a bridge to more theoretical discussions. If you ever needed to get a hard-nosed, practical friend interested in philosophy, this would be the way to do it. Rather than attempting to show that philosophy is not really, at its core, pretentious, obscure or irrelevant, Williamson wants to show that philosophy, done well, can be clear, unpretentious and relevant, and more than that, that we are in fact doing philosophy in some form all the time. A great deal of philosophy lies just beneath the surface whenever we get into chatting with one another about our beliefs and our justifications for holding them.
At its core, Tetralogue serves as a defence of the importance of clear thinking and rationality, of that which Williamson takes philosophy, at its best, to be the paradigm. Good philosophy is essential because bad philosophy is omnipresent.
Jonathan Egid  is studying for a BPhil in Philosophy at Wadham College.