Pinker and Van Norden on Irrationalism and Relativism

Case A: Steven Pinker’s new book on rationality attempts to make a cogito-esque argument for the absolute necessity of believing what ‘reason’ commands. Arguments “against reason”, he believes, end up defeating themselves:

When it comes to arguing against reason, as soon as you show up, you lose. Let’s say you argue that rationality is unnecessary. Is that statement rational? If you concede it isn’t, then there’s no reason for me to believe it — you just said so yourself. But if you insist I must believe it because the statement is rationally compelling, you’ve conceded that rationality is the measure by which we should accept beliefs, in which case that particular one must be false.

The terminology is loose , but Pinker seems to have things perfectly inside out here. Let’s suppose that I have an argument, A, which validly entails the conclusion C, which is: you need not accept the conclusions of valid arguments. If I offer A to Pinker, he triumphantly says: “Aha! By your own conclusion, C, I need not accept the conclusion of your argument, A!”. But that implies that he already accepts my conclusion, C. The fact that he has used it to disarm my argument, A, is no worry to me; I don’t need the argument if he already accepts my conclusion. If, on the other hand, he rejects C, then he holds its negation: you do need to accept the conclusions of valid arguments. This means that he must accept the conclusion of A, which is C. Either way, I win.

So Pinker got it backwards. He thought that somebody with an argument against rationality loses either way — the argument is self-defeating. Perhaps that was projection. If such an argument exists, it is the defender of rationality who is in the self-defeating position.

Case B: Bryan van Norden has a vaguely similar argument attempting to show that a certain sort of relativism is self-defeating. He argues against Brook Ziporyn’s interpretation of the Zhuangzi. Ziporyn reads Zhuangzi as a relativist, holding that things are 是/true/correct only from particular perspectives, and everything is 是/true/correct from at least one perspective. Van Norden writes:

Imagine (if you will permit me the anachronism) Mozi arguing with Ziporyn’s Zhuangzi. Mozi states that there is one correct Way, and it is the Way of Heaven. Ziporyn’s Zhuangzi smiles condescendingly and says, “Yes, the Way of Heaven is the correct Way — relative to your perspective!” Mozi replies, “No, it is not just my Way, it is Heaven’s Way! The whole point of saying that it is Heaven’s Way is to make clear that it does not depend on any one person’s perspective or opinion!” Ziporyn’s Zhuangzi is now caught in a dilemma: if he says that Mozi is wrong, because there is no such thing as the one, correct perspective of heaven, he must admit that not all perspectives are right; on the other hand, if he says that Mozi is right, and that there is such a thing as the one, correct perspective of Heaven, then he is not a relativist anymore. Either way, Zhuangzi would end up contradicting his own supposed relativism.

Like Pinker, van Norden (or van Norden’s Mozi) seems to have confused his opponent’s position with his own. Why is Zhuangzi meant to be caught in a dilemma here? Van Norden has given him the options of saying “that Mozi is wrong” or “that Mozi is right”. But Zhuangzi would ask: “right or wrong from which perspective?” Zhuangzi is not the one claiming that it is possible to speak from some absolute position transcending perspectives. It is perfectly open to him to reply to Mozi’s reply in just the same way as he replied to the first statement: “Yes, it is not just your Way, it is Heaven’s Way — from your perspective!” Nothing compels him to meet Mozi at the level of ‘Heaven’ — of absolute truth. That is precisely what he denies to be possible. Van Norden’s complaint makes as much sense as saying that somebody who denies round squares to be possible must draw a round square in order to say so.

Zhuangzi can happily admit that there is a perspective — Mozi’s, for example — from which things are absolutely true. But this doesn’t violate his claim that things are only true from particular perspectives, since that claim is made from his own perspective. If the problem here is meant to be that what is true from one perspective contradicts what is true from another, calling this a problem merely amounts to rejecting Zhuangzi’s position without argument. Ziporyn’s reply (in his book Ironies of Oneness and Difference) is to point out that, for Zhuangzi, “there is simply no single synordinate cosmos that is under contract to avoid self-contradiction”.

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