Some time back we puzzled about John Searle’s review of a recent book by Boghossian which contained an attack on a paper by Kathleen Lennon. Though Searle had not, as it turns out, actually read the Lennon piece, it was a target and springboard for his attack on everything other than a firm belief that one can have completely objective knowledge of a fully independent world. You are a hard core metaphysical realist or (gasp!) a relativist!
Lennon kindly came to our discussion and we suggested she reply to Searle. Her reply and Searle’s rejoiner are in the latest NY Review of Books.
Here are two telling passages from the exchange:
… my paper was instead addressing how rational assessment of knowledge claims is possible, if we accept the situatedness of knowledge seekers. It points out that feminists cannot be relativists for “feminist criticisms aimed to challenge and discredit the masculine accounts they critiqued, not simply to add a further perspective. This requires the possibility of rational encounters between the positions.”
One of the problems with Searle’s characterization of his supposed opponents is a running together of different positions. Those who argue that historical, social, and material locatedness constrain what we can discover and make sense of are accused of relativism … Yet those who argue that we are the source of the frameworks in terms of which we understand the world do not have to claim that we do this in a way unconstrained by an independent reality, even while accepting that such reality does not dictate to us the single best way of making sense of it.
She says, correctly, that I had not read her article. I was reviewing Boghossian’s book, not her article. I have now read the article with some care, and I believe it contains a deep inconsistency. In her letter to me she denies that she is a relativist, and insists that the passages she quotes from her original article support her denial of relativism. But the key sentence in her original article is this: Theories cannot be assessed by reference to universal norms. This is an astounding claim, because it denies that there are universal norms such as truth, evidence, consistency, rationality, and coherence, by which we can assess theories.
In her original Aristotelian Society article (Suppl vol 71) Lennon looks at how the conditions creating one’s perspective may be invisible to one. Relatedly, it takes a particular cultural location to think that gender doesn’t matter, for example. It is interesting in this regard to see Searle as believing something quite similar; namely, that perspective does not matter, since we can hold the view from nowhere.