Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Understanding Objectivist Jargon Pt 7: "Contextual Absolute"

"Contextual absolute" = Oxymoron. Not in fact an 'absolute' at all. If you consider this sort of thing an epochal contribution to philosophy, you might also be interested in this large bridge in Brooklyn that I have for sale at an excellent price.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yes, and when Rand talks about knowledge or certainty being ‘contextual’, she means relative to the context, or more succinctly, relative. Sadly, some very clever people twist their minds into knots justifying such contradictions.

Brendan

Jay Cross said...

Absolutes are contextual in fields beyond philosophy. For example, gravity is an absolute, but under certain conditions. An airplane in mid flight doesn't render the law of gravity a non-absolute.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
"...gravity is an absolute, but under certain conditions."

Hi Jay,

Re-read what you've just written.

An "absolute" law of physics is something that is true under all conditions - anywhere and anytime in the universe. This is what physicists aim at finding.

The minute you add "under certain conditions" you destroy the intent of the word.

Look at an "absolute" monarch. Does he, in principle, have power only "under certain conditions"? Of course not.

Recall that "absolutes" are considered to be things that are invariant in any context.

Adding "contextual" to it merely creates an oxymoron; that is, a self-contradictory statement.

I invite you to consider that Rand's use of the words "absolute" and "contextual" together is in fact just a word-game, like "definitely maybe.". While it might not be evident at first, on examination you'll find it's one of several key oxymorons she uses that can mislead the reader (and, I think, herself). Think it through and let us know if this is a possibility.

Jay said...

This was an example Peikoff gave that made contextual absolutes clear to me.

An Objectivist would say that honesty is an absolute, but only insofar as it promotes a person's objective well-being. So for instance, honesty being an absolute doesn't compel you to tell an armed burglar where your children are hiding. It IS an absolute, but in an all things considered relationship to one's life.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>An Objectivist would say that honesty is an absolute, but only insofar as it promotes a person's objective well-being.

Once again, this is no different from saying "honesty is an absolute, except when it isn't."

Rand's word-games with terms like "absolute" and "contextual" cause even experienced Objectivists to trip up. I was recently debating a highly intelligent and venerable fellow who, in the service of Rand's "contextual" theory of truth, claimed that you are justified in claim something to be true "in the context of your knowledge", even if it turns out to be false!!

That's right: you can claim something as being true - even absolutely true - even when it turns out to be false. How much lower can one set the standard for truth, one wonders?...;-)

Neil Parille said...

I'm 100% certain that 7+5=12. I'm 98% certain that OJ killed Ron and Nicole.

If I'm wrong about these, no amount of 'context' will save me.

Jay said...

Rand would also point out the standard of value for all of morality: a man's life. Honesty isn't intrinsically important or valuable. It's value comes from its ability to enhance our lives, because an honest appraisal of reality is conducive to human success. Without human beings, honesty has no value and in fact would not even exist. That's why it's a contextual absolute. It's an absolute in the context of our need to survive.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>That's why it's a contextual absolute.

Hi Jay

You're welcome to fly the flag for "contextual absolutes." You are under no compulsion to listen to my criticism.

However, I simply invite you to consider the possibility that some verbal sleight of hand is being performed here. To most people, saying "definitely maybe" is nothing like an absolute. Yet this is the logical equivalent of saying, say "contextually certain". It's just dressed up in philosophic-sounding language. Further, the more you drill down into Rand's thinking, the more you find she relies on verbal fudges like this.

Of course you are welcome to entirely reject any such suggestion. But I think you should at least keep this possibility in mind. And next time you encounter this sort of thing in her work, ask yourself whether you'd rely in the quotation of a tradesmen who told you the price was "contextually absolute."...;-)

Jay said...

Can you give me an example of a freestanding absolute that does not rely on a context?

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>Can you give me an example of a freestanding absolute that does not rely on a context?

Certainly. We might, using my former example, discover an absolute law of physics; something that is invariant everywhere in the universe (and even all possible universes!) at any time.

In fact, this is the very thing that science aims to discover, even if we probably never will.

Now before we can get much further in this issue, which has a few wrinkes, there is a key confusion in the Randian doctrine to outline that, if I tell you, you probably will have a hard time believing: that is, that the theory of "contextual certainty" is the logical equivalent of a standard skeptical view of knowledge.

I know, I know! What about all those terrible things she said about skeptics and skepticism? Are you ARCHN types on crack?!...;-) What gives?!

But bear with me. As with so many thinkers it turns out there's a difference between what Rand thought the consequences of her theory were, and where they actually lead.

For under Objectivism, you say you know something "true" today (even "absolutely true") in the context of your knowledge, that you may then know is "false" tomorrow when new information comes to light.

Thus we can formulate the Objectivist theory of knowledge simply as:
We can know P, but P may be false.

(In fact, controversial Rand scholar Fred Seddon did just this recently*)

But hang on. This exact formulation applies equally to the skeptical and fallibilist philosophy of Karl Popper, which says that all knowledge is provisional and hypothetical, and may turn out to be false tomorrow.

In practice therefore Rand's "contextual theory" is indistinguishable from skepticism. The difference is in superficial rhetoric - basically, packaging and brand differentiation. It is what philosophic types call the ol' distinction without a difference.

Now, I do not doubt that you will find this a rather reckless assertion on my part. But I assure you that when you really drill down past the initial verbalist layers, this is in fact the case.

I'm happy to explore this further, but I'm outta here for the weekend, so maybe next week if you are so inclined. As I say, I doubt I will convince you, but merely offer this counter-intuitive result for your further mulling.

*I make this point towards the end of my otherwise unflattering examination of an essay of Seddon's below. For even in work as bad as this can have an important grain of truth, just like the proverbial broken clock etc.

http://aynrandcontrahumannature.blogspot.com/2006/09/absent-minded-professor.html

Bart Lawless said...

I don't know enough about Rand to be on any side and maybe this will misrepresent what she means but

No man is faster than Jake.
No man here is faster than Jake.

Could the first be an absolute and the second maybe what is meant by a "contextual absolute" or absolutely true within a defined context/situation/condition.

What it seemed like Jay was saying was the difference between

Some men must be honest some of the time.
(and)
Some men must be honest some of the time in order for the human species to continue its survial.

Maybe I'm completely wrong and I've just written some confused babble, if so, sorry.

Adam Fitchett said...

Let us forget the words for a moment and focus on what is trying to be achieved here. Every concept comes about because it has an intended use.

In this case, the purpose of 'contextual absolute' is to highlight the fact that, while facts are contextual, this does not mean knowledge is 'fuzzy' or 'indefinite'.

For example, honesty is not intrinsically good; we must not bow down to traditional moral absolutism. Honesty is good in the right context. However, the injunction to be 'absolute', in the context of Objectivism, warns against the tendency of some to believe that contextualism implies subjectivism. "Honesty is contextual, therefore it's not absolute, therefore I can lie whenever I feel like it". Objectivists believe in contextualism, but not in pragmatism.

This goes back to the objectivist understanding of principles. A principle is an integration, an integration that applies in certain contexts, but that ALWAYS applies in said contexts. Thus, we can say principles are both absolute and contextual.

Do not look at the words, look at what facts we are trying to highlight with the words.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Adam,
"Absolute" usually means regardless of context, i.e. a rule that holds in all circumstances. For example, an absolute law of physics would be one that holds in all places and times in the universe - that is, in every context.
To modify this with "contextual" is to create an oxymoron.
Why don't you give us some examples to illustrate what you're getting at?

J. Goard said...

Daniel:

Well, the meanings of "absolute" and "contextual" are, after all, contextual. ;^D

We have to be careful to notice when an "absolute" claim is distinguished from a similar "contextual" claim only by a buried tautology. If someone thinks that (i) "murder is wrong absolutely" because they understand 'murder' to include wrongness, then it doesn't really differ from saying (ii) "killing another person is wrong contextually" -- other than being considerably less transparent.

I'm reminded of the anthropologists who, interested in food taboos) asked newly discovered tribes whether there were any foods that none of them ate. "Nope," they said, "we'll eat absolutely and food we can find". (Of course, neither the disgusting crawfish nor the sacred yam plant were "foods".)

Daniel Barnes said...

@J Goard,
Yes, the whole point is something is either absolute - - something without exception, true in all contexts - or it isn't.

Calling something a "contextual absolute" either adds nothing, or modifies it to mean non-absolute. Which the writer of Atlas Shrugged would find problematic, so she has to conceal this with a verbal fudge.

Adam Fitchett said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graded_absolutism

I thought you might find this interesting. It's not the same as what Rand is trying to say, but it is another instance of someone trying to find a legitimate use for the phrase 'contextual absolute'. It seems Objectivists are not alone in our use of 'verbal fudges'.

I am all in favour of throwing out the term contextual absolute if you can think of a better one. How do we highlight the fact that all moral principles are contextual, but that they ALWAYS apply in their relevant context?

Also, you argue that the law of gravity is an absolute if it applies throughout the whole universe (and therefore it is not contextual). Could one not argue then that the universe itself is the context? The idea of a law without a context seems non-sensical to me. I understand context to mean the ulterior conditions necessary for a fact to be true. In which case, if something is true of everything, then 'everything' would be its context.

As I said before, words often prove inadequate in these sorts of discussions

Daniel Barnes said...

Adam:
>How do we highlight the fact that all moral principles are contextual, but that they ALWAYS apply in their relevant context?

Hi Adam,
Can you give an example of this?

>Also, you argue that the law of gravity is an absolute if it applies throughout the whole universe (and therefore it is not contextual). Could one not argue then that the universe itself is the context? The idea of a law without a context seems non-sensical to me.

That's because I believe you've missed a step in your reasoning.
Something is an absolute if it is invariant in all contexts - not "without" a context, which I agree would be absurd. The universe is the sum of all possible contexts in time and space, so an absolute law of physics would be one that holds at every time and location.

In contrast, something that is "contextual" simply means that might vary, depending on the context.

>I am all in favour of throwing out the term contextual absolute if you can think of a better one.

Yes, I would simply propose using "contextual"!

BTW it is important to distinguish between what Rand's rhetoric claimed she achieved, and what she actually achieved.

Daniel Barnes said...

See also "definitely maybe"...;-)

Adam Fitchett said...

Something has occured to me Mr Barnes. Would you mind quoting to me a passage where Rand actually uses the phrase 'contextual absolute'?. I cannot find one. This is the closest thing I can find; in ITOE she writes:

"a definition is false and worthless if it is not contextually absolute—if it does not specify the known relationships among existents"

But here, all Rand is saying is that a definition must be tied to the context it was formed in, and not just invented rationalistically. The term is being used epistemologically rather than metaphysically. She says nothing about things being 'absolute within a context', as I have been using the term.

I can find no passages where Rand refers to moral principles as 'contextual absolutes', nor political nor aesthetic principles. I am beginning to suspect that this term 'contextual absolute' was invented by Rand's followers, and not by her.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Adam,
A quick google gives me "contextually absolute".

Rand: Since man is not omniscient, a definition cannot be changelessly absolute, because it cannot establish the relationship of a given group of existents to everything else in the universe, including the undiscovered and unknown. And for the very same reasons, a definition is false and worthless if it is not contextually absolute—if it does not specify the known relationships among existents (in terms of the known essential characteristics) or if it contradicts the known (by omission or evasion).

Seems pretty close.

Adam Fitchett said...

If you had read beyond the first line of my previous comment, you would have seen that I myself quoted the same paragraph as you just did, and pointed out that the term Rand uses there is merely intended to highlight the existence of context, and is not in fact any sort of 'verbal fudge' alike to that about which we have been arguing.

I apologise for the length of that sentence. Read the paragraph yourself, and tell me that there is anything wrong with what Rand is saying there, or how she is saying it.

I want to end the conversation here, because I believe that your criticism is not really one of Rand, but of her followers' misappropriation of her terms. I think you have no claim against Rand on this issue.

Daniel Barnes said...

Ha! Post in haste, regret at your leisure…;-)
Sorry, there'd been a bit of a gap between when I read your post and when I finally got around to googling it, and then I just quickly whacked in the quote and moved on.

But my haste does not, I think, make your point.

Consider this:
Murder is morally wrong.
Murder is a moral wrong.

This is just two ways of stating the same position, no? Well then:

A definition is contextually absolute.
A definition is a contextual absolute.

It seems to me this is what is commonly called a distinction without a difference.