Philosophy 290-4

Spring 2009

Number Title Instructor Days/time Room
290-4 Graduate Seminar: Assessment Sensitivity MacFarlane Tu 6-8 234 Moses Hall

In this seminar we will investigate how we might make sense of the idea that truth is relative, and how we might use this idea to give satisfying accounts of parts of our thought and talk that have resisted traditional methods of analysis. Although there is a substantial philosophical literature on relativism about truth, this literature (both pro and con) has tended to focus on refutations of the doctrine, or refutations of these refutations, at the expense of saying clearly what the doctrine is. The approach here will be to try to give a clear account of the view, and then to use the view to solve some problems that have concerned philosophers and semanticists. The main aim is to put relativist solutions to these problems on the table, so that they may be compared with non-relativist solutions and accepted or rejected on their merits.

The main text of the seminar will be a book manuscript I am working on, entitled Assessment Sensitivity: Relative Truth and Its Applications. We will tentatively aim to get through about one chapter each week, with the aim of covering much, though not all, of the book. (Some chapters still need to be written!) Each week there will also be quite a bit of supplemental reading by other philosophers.

The book falls into three main parts, and so will the seminar. In the first part, we will consider how a relativist view might be motivated, by reviewing the difficulties faced by various non-relativist views about the meanings of words like “tasty.” We will also survey some of the standard objections to relativism about truth, with a view to clarifying a relativist’s philosophical obligations. In the second part, we will attempt to give a clear statement of the truth relativist position and try to make some philosophical sense of it. In the third part, we will consider how the machinery developed in the second part can be applied to some real problems in semantics and philosophy (involving future contingents, knowledge attributions, epistemic and deontic modals, and indicative conditionals). If time permits, we may also consider how the view I am developing compares with other views in the vicinity.

This seminar is intended primarily for Berkeley graduate students in philosophy and in logic and the methodology of science. Others should seek my permission before enrolling in the course. A background in philosophy of language, with some exposure to truth-conditional semantics, will be helpful, though I will try to make the seminar as accessible as possible to those who need to catch up in this area.