What is it?
Meta-Alethic Expressivism is a 3-year research project at the University of Leeds, sponsored by a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded to Will Gamester.
What’s it about?
This project is about expressivism. Philosophers were really excited about this about 80 years ago, and after a bit of a lull lots of us are excited about it again. It’s also about truth. Philosophers have always been pretty into that, but right now we’re really into it. Primarily, though, the project is about the application of the former to the latter: it’s about expressivism about truth. Despite the twin popularity of expressivism and truth as topics in their own rights, hardly anyone seems to be excited by the application of the one to the other. I think that’s an oversight, and a bad one.
The word ‘expressivism’, like other ‘ism’s, is associated with a distinctive cluster of related ideas, located primarily in the philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and metaphysics. It’s most familiar from its application in metaethics. Characteristically, the metaethical expressivist construes moral judgements – judgements about what’s morally right or wrong, good or bad, or what we ought, morally speaking, to do – as conative, motivational states or affective, emotion-like states. For example, when the vegan looks at you eating a delicious steak and thinks that what you’re doing is morally wrong, the expressivist says they’re doing something like disapproving of what you’re doing, or planning not to do it themselves, if they were in your shoes. That is, their judgement is first and foremost one about how to live, rather than what the world is like.
Such views about moral psychology are then associated with a number of views concerning moral metaphysics and moral language. Since the expressivist doesn’t think of moral judgements as being about what the world is like, they don’t need to think of them as representing a peculiar kind of fact or property, like “wrongness”, of a kind that you’d never hear about in a science lecture or study in a lab. So expressivists are often against giving any substantive, “metaphysical” story about what such facts and properties are like, or how we might come to know about them. And that might be a good thing if you think such things look metaphysically or epistemologically spooky: if you think that the idea of an activity like eating meat having an in-built to-be-avoidedness about it is weird, and find it difficult to imagine how we could come to know which things have this weird property. Similarly, expressivists often say that moral language shouldn’t be understood as representing the world as being a certain way, in terms of its “truth conditions”. Instead, we understand the meaning of a sentence like ‘Eating meat is wrong’ in terms of the conative or affective state it is used to express, rather than what the world needs to be like in order for it to be true. (Hence the name: express-ivism.)
Metaethical expressivism in one form or another has been around since at least the early 1920s. And as the view has been developed, philosophers have been tempted to apply it outside the metaethical domain, to other regions of thought and talk. Besides ethics, these days you can find expressivist approaches to: aesthetics, epistemology, or the normative and evaluative in general; conditionals; epistemic modals, or modality in general; the a priori; and even meaning, reference, truth, or semantics in general.
This project takes the expressivist program and explores its application to thought and talk about what is true – what’s called “alethic” thought and talk. As expressivist programs go, meta-alethic expressivism is both distinctively enticing and distinctively underexplored.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of truth – not just for academics and philosophers, but for all of us. What we take to be true determines how we view the world around us, and how we view the world around us determines how we choose to live our lives. When we form beliefs about the world – be it concerning mundane issues like where you put your keys or profound issues like the existence of God or the subtleties of quantum mechanics – we aim to believe the truth (even if we all-too-often fail). Because of this, truth is found at the heart of a remarkable variety of philosophical subdisciplines: as well as metaphysics and the philosophy of mind and language, also in epistemology, metaethics, the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of science, and elsewhere.
Truth is important, but it’s also puzzling. Alethic psychology in particular gives rise to some puzzling phenomena. For instance, there is a peculiarly close connection between our judgements about what is true and our decisions about what to believe. If you think that it is true that the UK economy will greatly suffer as a result of Brexit, then you will believe that this is so, even if you think you’d be much happier believing the opposite. This isn’t normal. If you think that you’d be much happier getting chocolate ice cream than vanilla, then you’ll just get chocolate ice cream. But when it comes to belief, you can’t just do what makes you happy. Judgements about what is true seem to dominate our decisions about what to believe, and it would be nice to know why.
Perhaps even more puzzling, and certainly more worrying, is that truth seems peculiarly liable to give rise to paradoxes. Take the infamous Liar Sentence: ‘This sentence is not true’. Now, if the Liar Sentence is true, then what it says must be so – but what it says is that it itself is not true. So, if the Liar Sentence is true, then it must also not be true. But that’s a contradiction! Nothing can both be true and not be true at the same time. So the Liar Sentence cannot be true. Unfortunately, that’s just what the Liar Sentence itself asserts: that it is not true. So if the Liar Sentence is not true, then it also is true. That too is a contradiction. What a pickle! If the Liar Sentence is true then it’s not true, and if it’s not true then it is true – and either way we’ve got a contradiction. It’s obvious something’s gone wrong here. But it turns out it’s extremely difficult to say what. (That’s what makes it a paradox.) Some have gone so far as to suggest that our very concept of truth is inconsistent.
So truth is important, but it’s also peculiar and perhaps paradoxical. I want to know why. And, crucially, I think extant theories of truth cannot explain all these features at once. Either truth is construed as peculiar and paradoxical, but unimportant (e.g., deflationism, nihilism, fictionalism); or it’s construed as important, leaving it unexplained why it’s peculiar or paradoxical (e.g., cognitivism, monism).
Expressivism about truth
I think expressivism about truth gives us new resources to explain how truth is simultaneously important, peculiar, and paradoxical. Alethic judgements, according to the expressivist, are first and foremost conative, motivational states – judgements about how to live, rather than about what the world is like. In particular, they are judgements about how to believe. For example, the expressivist might say that to think that Fermat’s Last Theorem is true is to form some kind of intention or plan to believe Fermat’s Last Theorem; to think that everything Allan Gibbard says is true is to form an intention or plan to believe everything Allan Gibbard says.
The first part of the project involves arguing that only on this conception of alethic psychology can we explain why truth is simultaneously important, peculiar, and paradoxical. I think we can deploy expressivism to explain the peculiar connection between alethic judgements and decisions about what to believe, and why the concept of truth inevitably gives rise to paradox. Importantly, I think this is consistent with a substantive (and pluralistic) account of the nature of truth, which accounts for truth’s import.
The second part of the project involves developing the view in detail. A bewildering number of quite different and mutually incompatible views march under the banner of “expressivism”, and I am at present quite uncertain about the best way to develop meta-alethic expressivism. For those interested, I list here (without explanation or defence) what I lean towards on several crucial choice-points, with the caveat that this is very much subject-to-change.
I think expressivism is best construed as a theory of concepts (elements of thought), and only derivatively of judgements (thoughts as a whole). Meta-alethic expressivism I take to be a part of a broader meta-epistemological expressivism, itself a part of a broader meta-normative expressivism. I prefer pure expressivism to hybrid expressivism for “thin” normative concepts, including truth. I’m primarily interested in expressivism as a theory concerning normative psychology, and am not particularly enamoured of either the metaphysical quietism or deviant semantics that often marches beneath the same banner. Nonetheless, it seems obvious that the psychological theory will have immediate metasemantic consequences for those of us tempted by the “head-first” strategy of explaining linguistic representation in terms of mental representation. On the metaphysical front, however, I see no good reason for expressivists qua expressivists to be tempted by deflationism about things like properties, facts, or truth. On the contrary, I think expressivists have good reason to endorse substantive, but non-representational, such theories – and I have argued that they might hereby be entitled to truth-conditional (and hence non-deviant) semantics by incorporating such a theory into their head-first metasemantics.
Who am I? What am I doing here?
Before starting this postdoctoral fellowship, I was a Ph.D. student at the University of Leeds as part of the ERC-funded project The Nature of Representation. My primary supervisor was Robbie Williams, and my secondary supervisors Daniel Elstein and Paolo Santorio.
My doctoral thesis, The Diversity of Truth, concerned the metaphysics of truth, and in particular the pluralistic view that the nature of truth is not uniform. I argued that truth consists in correspondence between thought and reality when the mental state in question is a doxastic, representational state. Metaethical expressivists, of course, deny that moral judgements are such states, instead construing them as conative or affective states – meaning moral truth falls outside the scope of this argument. I further argued that metaethical expressivists ought to hold that moral truth consists in a different, epistemically constrained property that I dubbed “weak super-stability”, given otherwise plausible claims about how the expressivist should understand moral fallibility. As a whole, I argued, this is a much more compelling motivation for truth pluralism than the primarily “ontologically-driven” arguments found elsewhere in the literature.
On top of this “content-dependent” truth pluralism, I also defended a “form-dependent” truth pluralism, holding that logically complex truths are themselves true in a different, but metaphysically derivative, way to logically simple truths. One of the things that’s striking about this kind of form-dependent pluralism is that all participants to the debate are already committed to its extensional adequacy. On the one hand, this dissolves a number of purported problems for truth pluralism that are supposed to arise when different kinds of truth are “mixed” together, in logically valid inferences or logical compounds. On the other, I argued that form-dependent pluralism, unlike traditional monism, is immune to the Liar Paradox. The thesis was awarded special commendation for research excellence by the examiners, Jack Woods and Matti Eklund.
If you’re interested, I have a bunch of papers and drafts on my website.