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Perspectival Thoughts and Facts

Final Report Summary - PETAF (Perspectival Thoughts and Facts)

PETAF ( served as a European research and training platform for collaborative philosophical research on perspectival thought and language and its implications for our conception of objective, mind-independent reality. Its work programme, articulated into 6 workpackages, addressed both foundational issues in metaphysics and in logic and semantics and local issues in more specialised areas in which perspective-bound cognition plays a pivotal role: the philosophy of space and time, the philosophy of alethic and epistemic modalities, the philosophy of subjectivity and experience, and the philosophy of norms, taste and value. PETAF had 3 principal research objectives:
• to provide a systematic and, to the extent to which this is feasible, unified account of perspectival thought and language, applicable to the aforementioned areas – an account that furthers our understanding of why in some of these areas it is the privileging of one perspective over others that is standardly perceived to militate against realism (e.g.egocentricity or the privileging of the present), while in others, it is rather the admission of a plurality of equally valid perspectives which is taken to violate realist intuitions (e.g. the equal status of actualised and non-actualised possibilities, or of different moral outlooks).
• to devise an account of, and explore the area-relative prospects of, a realist stance towards the truth of thoughts or statements that purport to register perspectival differences or to privilege one perspective over others – a form of perspectival realism that perceives truth to be grounded in facts that are themselves perspectival in that they may obtain from one perspective but not others, so that a complete description of reality would make perspectival thought and language indispensable.
• to provide a thorough account of relativism and its ramifications and to assess whether relativism’s rejection of an absolute conception of truth for statements in one of the aforementioned areas, rather than implying a recoil from realism or a denial of representational success or purport, can instead be conceived as an expression of perspectival realism about that area.
Given the nature of philosophical reflection that allows even the most fundamental principles to be questioned, and given the vast array of topics addressed during the project’s 4-year run, it was not to be expected that its 60 researchers would converge on a single set of views. Even so, the beginnings of a unified framework in which to discuss questions of perspective-bound cognition, and of its relation to the world, have clearly emerged. It is a common enough thought that in purporting to be accurate, our conceptually articulated representations are answerable to how things are, and this thought is best cast in terms of the idea that truths be grounded in reality. Following Aristotle, we may put this by saying that, at least in the most basic cases where no more informative explanation is to be had, a proposition, if true, is true because matters stand in the way the proposition itself can be used to articulate. Schematically: p is true, if it is true, because p. This intuitive explication of the idea needs careful reassessment if truth-relativism proves correct and there turn out to be propositions whose truth is not a simple affair but depends on further parameters, in such a way that the truth-values of those propositions might vary in accordance with the values supplied for them. For then, until the values of those parameters are fixed, the suggested truth-attribution is at best incomplete. After careful analysis, the truth-predicate may either prove explicitly relational, so that its further argument-place(s) must be filled before completeness is achieved, or else context-sensitive where, by some semantic mechanism such as tense, context supplies the relevant parameter value(s). Either way, such dependence on further factors will immediately affect the accuracy of the suggested explanation: if the target proposition is true only relative to something else, then its deployment in stating the grounds of its own truth will likewise result in an explanans that is either context-sensitive or incomplete unless further qualified. If the question of what types of propositions there are, and of what their truth respectively requires, falls within the province of philosophical semantics, then the question of the grounds of truth belongs with metaphysical enquiry. Even if grounds may be partial, metaphysical explanations aim at completeness in the sense that they seek to leave no aspect of the grounds they mention unspecified. But they are also neither parochial nor pluralist: they do not aim to be accurate solely in one context among many available others, about which they have either nothing to say or which they recognise as equally good starting points for accounts of how matters really stand. It would thus seem that if there are propositions whose truth is dependent on further parameters, the Aristotelian schema for metaphysical explanations, detailing the grounds of truths, must eventually be abandoned. But this suggestive thought unduly neglects another way of conceiving the alleged relativity. For it might well be that there is no single reality which would allow contextual variation to supply different values for the truth-parameters, but rather that what facts there are itself changes along the dimension these parameters help to define. The latter conception – a kind of perspectival realism – has been explored in detail in the context of dynamic theories of time that take reality to change along the temporal dimension, but it is general enough to permit a whole range of further applications. Winning through to this conceptualisation of the issues on which PETAF’s principal research objectives turn, allowed network members to formulate a useful set of interlocking strategies for testing the viability or hopelessness of perspectival realism about a given subject area. First it has to be checked whether a case can be made that propositions in the targeted area do indeed enjoy only suitably relativized truth-values. Here truth-relativists must engage with contextualists, who locate all relativity in the context-sensitive vehicles for the expression or grasp of propositions which latter are conceived to possess their truth-values absolutely, but also with those absolutists who deny that there is any relativity to be found in that subject area at all. A considerable number of the tasks pursued in the context of the workpackage on general issues in semantics were devoted to this range of issues, and the results obtained provided the starting point for much of the work on the metaphysics of time, modality, subjectivity, taste and value, respectively undertaken in the other more specialised workpackages. For, once a case for the dependence of truth on further parameters has successfully been made, it must next be determined whether metaphysical explanations specifying the grounds of truths in that area can ultimately take the Aristotelian form. This question can only usefully be addressed against the backdrop of a philosophical enquiry into the nature of grounding, truth-making and facts. A large part of the research undertaken in the context of the workpackage on general issues in metaphysics was devoted to these issues, and did inform and was informed by the research done in the more specialised workpackages. By exploiting these interactions between its 6 workpackages in pursuit of its objectives, PETAF has led to some surprising results. Thus contrary to expectations, the area of taste may after all not be afflicted with the kind of subject-relativity commonly attributed to it, for arguably there are truths about flavours that our subjective appreciations are only better or worse at getting right; and while it would initially seem that first-person thoughts about one’s phenomenal experience have no hope of being ultimately grounded in facts whose articulation is essentially first-personal in turn, the opposite view that construes such facts as inherently subjective has much more to go for it than standard perception allows. This brief summary might convey some of the synergies effected and exploited by the collaborative research undertaken in the last 4 years.
The PETAF research group has published 107 peer-reviewed journal articles, 96 bookchapters and 14 books or edited volumes in internationally renowned venues on the various topics within its remit. Throughout its 4-year run, PETAF has organised 6 2-day workshops and 2 3-day conferences, the final conference counting 3 and workshops counting on average1 expert from outside the network among the scheduled speakers. 7 Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) were recruited for a period of 3 years each and were given excellent research training opportunities of different kinds. Besides regular tutorials with their assigned supervisors, ESRs could draw on the expertise of researchers working in various areas, both during their secondments with other institutions in the network and on occasion of network events. ESRs have given a total of 21 research presentations on these occasions, in addition to those given at conferences and workshops outside the network. ESRs have published a total of 6 research papers, with several submissions being currently under review. 1 of the 7 ESRs has already been awarded his PhD before end of project, with the remaining 6 being expected to submit their theses in 2014, in accordance with the provisions made in PETAF’s work programme. Throughout its 4-year run, PETAF has maintained close links to its 3 industrial partners that provided ESRs with valuable work experience outside academia and complementary skills training during secondments of up to 1 month each. PETAF has carried out activities of outreach to the wider public, including public lectures and publication of textbooks for secondary schools and higher education.