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Volume 34 Issue 4 (July 2003), Pages 387-538

The Perceiver's Share: Realism, Scepticism, and Response Dependence (pages 387-424)

Abstract: Response‐dispositional (RD) properties are standardly defined as those that involve an object's appearing thus or thus to some perceptually well‐equipped observer under specified epistemic conditions. The paradigm instance is that of colour or other such Lockean “secondary qualities”, as distinct from those—like shape and size—that pertain to the object itself, quite apart from anyone's perception. This idea has lately been thought to offer a promising alternative to the deadlocked dispute between hard‐line ‘metaphysical’ realists and subjectivists, projectivists, social constructivists, or hard‐line anti‐realists. A chief source text is Plato's Euthyphro, where the issue is posed in ethical terms: do the gods infallibly approve virtuous acts on account of their divine moral omniscience or are virtuous acts just those the gods approve? Among the areas proposed as amenable to an RD approach are epistemology, ethics, political theory, and philosophy of mathematics. It is claimed that by making due allowance for the involvement of normalised or optimised human responses one can steer a course between the twin poles of an objectivist realism that places truth beyond our cognitive grasp and an epistemic conception that confines truth within the limits of humanly attainable proof, knowledge, or verification. Here I argue—on the contrary—that RD approaches can be shown to offer nothing more than a variant of the same old realist versus anti‐realist dilemma. That is, they work out either as a trivial (tautologous) claim that ‘truth’ simply equates with ‘best judgement’ in the ideal (quasi‐objective) limit or as the claim—advanced by anti‐realists like Michael Dummett—that we cannot form any adequate conception of objective (recognition‐transcendent) truths. After looking at this issue in various contexts of debate, I conclude that one useful (if pyrrhic) outcome is to demonstrate the non‐availability of any middle‐ground stance. We are left with the strictly unavoidable choice between a realist or objectivist approach and one that assimilates truth to the consensus of accredited best opinion. This latter amounts to a roundabout, elaborately qualified version of the anti‐realist case.

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