What do you study?
My work focuses upon the nature and value of truth, facts, and action: what they are, how we understand them, and why we value them. And it has become my imperative to show how philosophical approaches toward theories of truth, facts, and action have been too disengaged from what the concept is and how it behaves in the wild to be practically useful or informative. If we truly seek to better understand the world around us and the concepts employed by individuals, then we have to make a better effort to appreciate what concepts people use and how they use these concepts in natural language. Therefore, in my work, I attempt to provide reasons for thinking that philosophers can learn more about what truth is, what facts are, and what action is by seeing how such concepts are understood by non-philosophers and by how these concepts are used in ordinary language.
Let's begin with facts. Facts form the very core of all our intellectual pursuits and are the bedrock upon which we build scholarly academic and practical pursuits, so we better make room for them if our endeavour is to engage with worldly matters. This view makes up the heart of my forthcoming book, Why Facts Matter: Facts and Pluralism in the Age of Fake News and is continuous with my work on the non-philosophers or ordinary concept of truth in Commonsense Pluralism about Truth: An Empirical Defence (Palgrave Macmillan 2017).
What is Truth? What are Facts?
My research has focused on notional variants of the truth-concept, and I have used empirical studies to uncover that there is likely more than one folk truth concept. Jeremy Wyatt has called this conceptual pluralism about truth (see his "Truth in English and Elsewhere: An Empirically-Informed Functionalism"), which Nikolaj Pedersen and Cory Wright have categorised amongst platitude-based strategies of alethic pluralism (cf. "Pluralist Theories of Truth," Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy). I have defended this view in my book Commonsense Pluralism about Truth: An Empirical Defence (Palgrave Macmillan 2017).
My recently completed project, Why Facts Matter: Pluralism in the Age of Face News, explores how the abundance of information in different domains of linguistic discourse forces us to reconceive what a fact is. Cropping up from an appreciation of facts at the level of discourse—one that relies upon facts being multiply realisable—is a pluralistic theory of facts. This theory of facts may be compared with a form of pluralism about truth (cf. Lynch 1998, 2009; Pedersen and C.D. Wright 2016; Ulatowski 2017), but one that looks very different than an orthodox philosophical theory of facts. Whilst extant arguments for theoretical accounts of facts have been suitable for logical and philosophical purposes, there is little appreciation of how these bear on the non-philosopher’s conception of facts. For pluralists, truth consists in one property in certain domains (e.g., correspondence to fact in ornithography and acoustics), but other properties in other domains (e.g., constructive proof in mathematics, coherence in jurisprudence or politics). Such a view might therefore seems to offer a natural way to understand alternative facts. In the book, I consider whether a commitment to alternative facts licences the concept of pluralism about truth. After discussing the nature of alternative facts, I argue that there is no entailment in either direction: advocates of the broadly coherentist picture of alternative facts will find no academic quarter among pluralists. Facts matter not so much as being vehicles of accurate information than as being evident to a general audience, and the wider that audience the greater the impact facts have upon enriching our daily lives.
Truth and Virtue in Everyday Communication
In my newest project, War of the Words: Truth and Virtue in Everyday Communication, a prevailing belief about the freedom of expression has been that in the open and free marketplace of ideas truth wins out over falsehood (cf. Milton 1644/1953, Mill 1859/2005, Holmes 1919). Some patrons, however, have defended deeply-held convictions, even if such convictions have tended to polarise them from others and made them impervious to others’ ideas (cf. Lynch 2019; O’Connor and Weatherall 2019; Talisse 2019). The idyllic marketplace of ideas has been exchanged for an insufferable no man’s land of intolerance.
Deeply-held convictions would not present a substantive challenge to truthfulness if they did not dispose vicious social bandits to annihilate truths through a barrage of spurious unsubstantiated claims. In highly charged social and political circumstances, such people claim to be acting virtuously because they have said exactly what they believe; however, something else is afoot because people with deeply-held convictions are not receptive to the truth and have not cultivated an honest character.
Surprisingly, honesty is not a well-trodden path of philosophical research; recent work has begun to correct this (e.g., Baier 1990; Carson 2010; Smith 2003; Wilson 2018). Christian Miller has defined the virtue of honesty as:
centrally, a character trait concerned with reliably not intentionally distorting the facts as the agent sees them, and primarily for good or virtuous motivating reasons of one or more kinds […] of sufficient motivating strength, along with the absence of significant conflicting motivation to distort the facts as the agent sees them (Miller 2020, 366 [cf. Miller 2017, 2021; Miller and West 2020, xxii—xxvi]).
Honesty involves a reliable disposition to act in certain ways and to do so for good or virtuous reasons. Miller presents a compelling case for honesty as a moral virtue, and his definition allows for an extension of honesty to contain a discursive and epistemic element. The virtue of honesty should include the adoption of sincere discursive strategies and the exercise of epistemic responsibility.
To be honest is to adopt sincere discourse strategies and to exercise epistemic responsibility. Sincerity is congruence between what a speaker believes and what she conversationally contributes. Thus, sincere discourse strategies facilitate truth in word and act through probity in intention and in communication, exercising earnestness, and being free from pretence. Epistemically responsible individuals reveal what they actually know and harbour a strong inclination or concern for the truth. The exercise of epistemic responsibility is a matter of not only being true to who you are but also to try to figure out what is true about the world and other people.
To be honest is to exercise epistemic responsibility, which entails that speakers reveal what they actually know and shows a strong inclination or concern for the truth. Its opposite, epistemic irresponsibility, has been studied thoroughly under the banner of “bullshit,” which occurs when a speaker shows a “lack of connection or a concern with truth” (Frankfurt 2005, 33) and the listener falsely assumes that the speaker knows what she is talking about (cf. Black 1983; Carson 2010; Fallis 2015; Stokke 2018, 2019a; Stokke and Fallis 2017). On my view, the exercise of epistemic responsibility is a matter of not only being true to who you are but also to try to figure out what is true about the world and other people; it is an investment in efforts to distinguish reality from wishes (cf. Williams 2002).
Borderline cases, such as bald-faced lies and epistemic neglect, present a unique challenge for accounts that seek to be faithful to truth. For example, bald-faced lies are cases where a speaker goes on the record with something even though everybody knows it is false. If everyone knows the speaker’s claim is false and if the speaker has not been moved to lie, then the speaker has not distorted the facts or been moved to deceive others. Speaking so freely and fearlessly may be labelled by some as “being honest” because the speaker says exactly what they think. The bald-faced liar is not surprised when people object because speaking one's mind may be offensive and upset listeners. The speaker is clearly pretending to please himself or others and not acting earnestly, so, on the view I wish to defend, it would not be acting from a virtue of honesty.
Another borderline case is that of epistemic neglect. If Smith says to Jones sincerely and confidently, “The movie begins at 12:25,” and Jones misses the movie because it starts at 11:25, then Smith is not intending to deceive and cannot have acted dishonestly. Yet, Smith is not honest since he neglected to check the movie’s starting time. Our intuition suggests that the cases involve a distortion of the truth. If honesty requires both discursive sincerity and epistemic responsibility, then it would become clear that the presence of one is not sufficient for honesty.
There are even more unusual cases. Consider the following case of epistemic misinformation.
Suppose that the CEO of an energy corporation has informed himself of “climate change” through websites that propagate misinformation about the causal role humans play in deleterious effects on the environment. The CEO has a very distorted view of the world but he now sincerely passes on the information to his employees and their families, as well as to the surrounding community.
Our intuition would suggest that the absence of deliberate and motivated deception by the CEO in what he said points to making a careless mistake. That would mean we should excuse him from wrongdoing. Also, the CEO is not epistemically ignorant or epistemically insouciant (Cassam 2019, 79) because he has a concern for and is fully informed by what he has collected. In fact, the CEO may even believe that others have been duped because they do not have the information he has! Still, the CEO is not honest since we can hold the CEO epistemically responsible for the way he forms, maintains, and conveys his beliefs (Code 2020). Misinformed individuals may be fittingly called dishonest if honesty includes epistemic responsibility.
Thus, the virtue of honesty must exemplify discursive sincerity and epistemic responsibility. Borderline cases, however, present problems for my account. A substantive portion of my manuscript will be devoted to exploring these cases from an a priori and empirically-informed perspective.
This book project is designed to break new ground in debates about honesty by showing that the character necessary to be an honest person, as well as to be reliably honest, is importantly related to norms that govern everyday communication. Our entry point for such a study was the freedom of expression, which should be tempered by the requirement to be honest, a virtue that includes a disposition to follow norms of just interaction. In this way, my work complements and expands upon recent work in linguistics (Heffer 2020) and the history and philosophy of science (Bardon 2020; Pennock 2019).