Seminar Series in Analytic Philosophy 2021-22, Session 23

Relativism and Retraction
Dan Zeman (University of Warsaw)

08 April 2022, 16:00 (Lisbon Time – GMT+1) | Sala Mattos Romão (Departamento de Filosofia)


Abstract: The argument from retraction (the speech act of “taking back” a previous speech act) has been one of the favorite arguments used by relativists about a variety of natural language expressions (predicates of taste, epistemic modals, moral and aesthetic claims etc.) in support of their view. The main consideration offered is that relativism can, while rival views cannot, account for this phenomenon. For some of the relativists leading the charge, retraction is, in fact, mandatory: a norm of retraction makes it obligatory for an agent to retract a previously unretracted assertion whenever what has been asserted is shown to be currently false. This norm, it is contended, is part and parcel of our behavior as rational agents and distinguishes relativism from other views on the market.
Recently, several considerations – both from the armchair and based on empirical studies – have been offered to undercut the support retraction has been taken to provide relativism. In this paper, I engage with both types of considerations. In relation to the former, I urge relativists to give up the claim that retraction is mandatory, but show that even if they do so there is still a phenomenon to be explained and that the view remains better situated in accounting for it that its rivals. I also show how what seem like problematic cases of retraction can be handled if one embraces a (principled) flexible form of relativism. In relation to the latter, I survey some of the current experimental literature supporting the idea that the folk don’t retract claims involving the target expressions (or that they don’t do in the way envisaged by the relativist) and argue that the experimenters have not paid attention to all the possible perspectives the participants in the experiments could take when responding to the queries. This leads to a way to interpret these results that makes them compatible with flexible relativism, and hence inconclusive when it comes to a more sophisticated version of the view.


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