Monday, June 9, 2008

No hobbits!

"No hobbits?" by Philip Goff: Comments on the TLS review of Trenton Merricks "TRUTH AND ONTOLOGY" (5-16-2008)

Thomas Riggins

This is a book about the "truthmaker principle" [TP]. The TP holds that if x is true then there must be a fact, entity, or state of affairs that makes x true. Goff defines it this way: "for any truth, there must be some existent thing in virtue of which it is true." Using the word "thing" however may be too restrictive and would lead to unnecessary problems. Goff wants to know what makes it true that there are no Hobbits? What makes it true that there were dinosaurs? I think using "state of affairs" would avoid these problems.

The view that Trenton Merricks adopts in TRUTH AND ONTOLOGY (Oxford), according to Goff, is just the commonsense view, "What makes it true that there are no hobbits? Well, its true because there are no hobbits. End of story." This does not look very convincing.

If, before the discovery of Australia, I would have said "What makes it true that there are no black swans is because there are no black swans," I would have been wrong. But if I had said "there are no black swans because the state of affairs is that we have never seen any, never read about any in the past, and unless one turns up I am standing by my assertion," that would be convincing. Presenting the complex state of affairs around the creation of the concept of hobbits should likewise count as the TP behind, "There are no hobbits."

Goff does not agree with Merricks in throwing out the TP altogether, but wants a moderate version of it. But Goff's moderate version seems to require too many metaphysical maneuvers. Just giving up the formulation of TP in terms of entities alone and using states of affairs seems to me sufficient.

What is the TP with respect to Marxism and diamat? When we say some proposition of Marxist theory is true, such as the labor theory of value, we are not maintaining that there is some "thing", some entity that is the truthmaker for the theory. Instead we give an analysis of the role of labor in the production process-- a complex state of affairs and it is both the coherence of the theory with itself and, we would claim, its correspondence with reality that makes it true.

Merricks rejection of the TP opens the door to anti-realist [the term "realism" is used instead of "materialism" in most academic discourse] positions, according to Goff, and this is a sufficient warrant to make Marxists suspicious of it.

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