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Truth and Relativity: An Exchange

Sean Sayers’ Relativism

Tony Skiffen
For some years Sean Sayers has been urging, against
empiricism and anal ytical philosophy, the virtues of dialecticallogic. Such logic, he believes, is essential to a proper
understanding. I take issue with this view at the level of
‘logic and language’. It seems to me that, far from an
acceptance of dialectical logic being essential to a broadly
‘dialectical’ or systemic-interactionist view of things, the
association of an emphasis on ‘whole systems’ with dialecticallogic of the sort Sayers advocates weakens its validity
and plausibility. So, having long benefited from Sayers
urging that things be examined ‘dialectically’, but having
failed to be persuaded of the need for the sort of logical
revisions he advocates, I offer the following criticisms.

To put my own view in advance: it seems to me that I can
agree with almost all Sayers’ substantive claims about, for
example, the social development of science, but I do not see
how this agreement in any way requires me to embrace
what seem to me to be obscuring conceptions of knowledge,
truth and logic. It seems to me, on the contrary, that an
interactional and systemic view of anything requires a
‘moment’ of rigorous analysis as well as a synthetic perspective. What is wrong with the crude either-or is not
logical but substantial conventionalism, and the struggle in
thought, therefore, is to arrive at views that are, while
respectful of tensions and complexities, consistent.

In ‘F. H. Bradley and the concept of Relative Truth’, I
Sayers asserts his ‘materialism’, his ‘realism’ and ‘the
importance of avoiding scepticism and relativism’, urging
Bradley and Engels’ views as an alternative to these, as well
as to the errors of traditional realism. Although Sayers
recurrently attacks ‘absolute’ conceptions of ‘truth’ he
appeals throughout to an absolute conception of ‘reality’. I
do not see what space there can be for this wedge. Surely
assertions about ‘reality’ just are claims purporting to
‘truth’. ‘Really and truly’ is a repetition. We understand
what it is for it to be true that snow is white just as we
understand what it is for snow to be (really) white. As Quine
says (and I quote him, not to settle this issue, but as a
reminder that to make it an issue requires defence), ‘there is
surely no disputing that “snow is white” is true if and only
if snow is white’. 2
Sayers seems to think that an absolute conception of
truth entails an ‘absolute’ view of our claim at any given
time to truth, to a sort of omniscience or Cartesian infallibility. But the idea that we are biologically and historically

conditioned in our grasp of the world does not support any
alterations in the concept of truth. Indeed, I would argue, it
presupposes, in asserting that we often cannot know that we
have the final truth, precisely the ‘absolute’ conception
Sayers claims to reject.

Sayers says that views that represent a given stage in the
growth of knowledge (we could ask: which views? given
that at any stage there is disagreement) are ‘necessary’,
‘justified’, ‘true’, and ‘correct’ ‘relative to experience and
to thought as it has developed at that stage’ .3 It seems to me
to be almost tautological to say that, assuming good reasoning, a view is justified relative to its supporting thought and
experience. B ut it seems to me a confusing use of language
to describe views as ‘true’ in virtue of their conformity with
such thought and experience (as ‘relative to the Greeks’

beliefs, etc. it was true that Hermes was expressing his
anger’ .) Is this just a way of saying that this was a reasonable
thing to think then? But justified belief need not be true
belief. And anyway, is a belief ‘justified’ ‘absolutely’ or
‘relatively’? In other words, what, in Sayers’ view, is the
status of a claim that some view or theory was justified in
terms ofthe evidence (actually) available at the time? Why,
given that there appears to be no particular problem with
saying of some theory that, although there were good
grounds for holding it, it was false, does Sayers feel a
pressure to equate warranted belief with truth, albeit ‘relative

Sayers also says, differently, that we should not describe
as false (absolutely) views that ‘played an essential part in
the growth of knowledge ‘4 and he makes much of science as
developing (in ‘leaps’ and ‘great strides’) over time as an
argument against absolute truthists. But there is no mystery
in falsehoods playing great parts. Plato’s cosmology, for
example, with its monotheism, theory of forms, and ideological-expressive conception of material things, proved
more fertile in many ways than the diligent observationalism
of people like Democritus. Belief in a false idea can be the
reason for the adopting of any number of true ideas.

Similarly, when Sayers approvingly quotes Bradley (he
could have invoked Engels) to the effect that ideas are
‘really’ justified if they ‘work’, ‘relative to our needs’ ,5 it is
unclear that this advances beyond ‘mere’ relativism. A
‘working hypothesis’ is not thereby established as true even
‘for its time’. Scientists commonly speak of their models

Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993


either as ‘best guesses’ or as ‘useful fictions’, hence showing a recognition of the distinction between predictivepractical success and truth that Sayers appears to deny. Not
that the issue of whether a theory ‘works pragmatically’ is
not itself one of absolute truth. Without a (traditional) realist
view, how can Sayers speak of know ledge and understanding
as growing, as distinct from merely speaking, in a Rortysort-of-way, about one view giving way to a later view,
neither better nor worse than the other – ‘what worked for
them no longer works for us’?

The attack on partial truths
Sayers attacks Ewing’s view that the ‘partial truths’ of
Bradley ought to be resolved into truths and falsehoods. 6 He
claims that Ewing’s view would entail that science is an
un systematic piling up of facts, ‘items of data’. I find no
support for this inference. Indeed Sayers’ own remarks
about phlogiston theory bear Ewing out. Phlogiston theory,
Sayers says, correctly recognised that combustion is to be
understood, not alchemic ally or supernaturally, but chemically, and genuine discoveries assuming phlogiston theory
were made. But its postulate of the extra element is false:

‘Of course, as we now know that (,relative to our current
views’? T. S.) there is not and never has been such a thing
as phlogiston’. 7 So, we could agree with Sayers that
phlogiston theory was not ‘pure error and illusion’. As
Ewing would have it: there were some ideas that the
phlogiston people had right. There is no tendency here to
say that what they had right were merely ‘items of data’.

Scientific criticism often needs to ‘deconstruct’, vertically
as well as horizontally, a system of ideas, and it may hang
on to ideas at very different theoretical levels (e.g. ‘combustion can be understood chemically’). I do not see what
Sayers finds at stake in his attack on Ewing. Indeed, when
he talks about Bradley he finds some things in him true and
others false – he does to Bradley precisely what he says is
‘childish’ when done to others. Sayers absolutely agrees
with Bradley, for example, in the view that all ideas ‘in a
sense’ are true, ‘contain some measure of truth,g about the

Yet it is not clear that the place this proposition has in
Bradley’s Absolute Idealist System (where reality is ‘one’,
‘essentially experience’ and ‘owns a balance of pleasure’)
is anything like the place it has in Sayers’ more Lockeanreflectionist philosophy. Sayers says, for example, that all
ideas ‘reflect reality’, that there are no ‘absolute errors’.9
But what is it for an idea to ‘reflect reality’? The notion of
reflection has dazzled philosophers since Plato. I find it
difficult to discover in Sayers’ thought support for his
claim, beyond the point, for example, that even dreams, a
putative paradigm of ‘mere error’, ‘reflect’ the ‘realities’ of
the subject’s psychic economy. But there is surely a big
difference between the idea that dreams about something
are revealing about that thing (think of Joseph’ s interpretation
of Pharaoh’s Dreams) and the idea that your dreams about,
say, an earthquake, ‘tell us’ about your father or what you
had for dinner – ‘reflecting’ that ‘reality’. That minimal
causal sense of ‘reflection’ is surely miles away either from
Bradley’s, or from great epistemological interest. Deter-

Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993

minism is not equivalent to Relative Realism. However
much it may be true that one’s stomach or one’s psyche, or
one’s material situation is disturbed, it remains ‘absolutely
false’ that, as one’s dream had it, one is trapped in an
earthquake. As we shall see, Sayers contests this criticism,
so I shall discuss his argument below.

Recirculating the currency of Dialectical Materialism,
Sayers rubbishes the ‘laws of logic’ such as the law of the
excluded middle. It is hard for me to see how discussion or
even thought can carry on without this minimal, formal
given: either p or not-po Let us look at one of Sayers’

examples of this benighted law with its ‘rigid either/or’ in
operation. According to the Law, according to Sayers
‘Either we must regard current science as the pure light of
truth, which emerges out of the darkness of pure error, or we
must look upon it … as sheer fallacy and illusion.’ 10 This
reminds me of the evangelists who used to threaten with
‘Either Jesus was the wickedest liar in history or the most
extreme lunatic or he was indeed the Christ.’ The Law of the
Excluded Middle has no tendency to imply that the hyperbolic options Sayers sets up are exhaustive, any more than
it tells us that if we are not at the North Pole we must be at
the South Pole. Quite simply, any absolute realist would
think that current science includes many truths, some
falsehoods, many approximations and huge gaps. Sayers, it
seems to me, erects an unnecessary and obfuscating, and
unsupportive scaffold to affirm the realism and materialism
he rightly espouses. No realist need be embarrassed to
accept that, while we have ‘some grasp of the truth, some
grasp of the natural world’, 11 our knowledge is limited and
subject to distortion.

The criticisms above are not peculiar to me. They
emerged in comments on Sayers’ book Reality and Reason
(Blackwell, 1985). In his Radical Philosophy response to
these criticisms,12 Sayers defends the position that, since
ideas are caused by reality (which follows from determinism), they must ‘reflect’ reality in an epistemologically
relevant sense. (Given that every aspect of an idea will, on
a determinist view, have a cause, this would seem to mean
that any idea will be ‘true’ of all its causes. As Sayers urges,
a realist view of knowledge will tend to be a causal one: for
there to be knowledge, what is known must be causally
connected with the ‘idea’. This seems to me essential, for
example, for solving Gettier’s famous problem of a wellgrounded belief turning out to be true as a result of circumstances which played no part in the belief’s formation. But,
whereas it seems to me that the main problem then is to
analyse the specificity of this relation, Sayers leaves it
unspecified and, moreover, takes the widely-held idea that
‘ideas’ are ’caused’ by material processes to support the
thesis that all ideas contain a ‘measure of truth’ or have
‘relative truth’. As he says: ‘This element of truth (in
“illusory ideas”) becomes evident when the real object of
these ideas is revealed: and this is done by understanding
their genesis, by discovering the circumstance that gives
rise to them.’13 Note again the ‘absolute realist’ standpoint
from which this relative element is to be discovered: Sayers
stands outside the socio-historical process to know its
causal story – a characteristic of all ‘sociology of knowledge’.


‘Causes’ and ‘objects’ of ideas
Responding to other critics, Sayers makes suggestive use of
Marx’s (Feuerbachian) view of religion as a projection of
human ideals and the perceived shortfall in actual conditions onto the heavens: ‘Religious suffering is at one and the
same time the expression of real suffering.’ Here the important idea that Sayers endorses is that religious belief is a
(distorted) form of awareness of the genuine privations
from which it arises: its cause is its (unrecognised) object.

Hence religious belief is true of its’ real object’ . (We could
compare other Marxian passages where ideology is presented as a distorted mode of awareness of class relations,
contrasting with other passages where ideology is presented
as a by-product of conditions knowable only through
science.) Sayers also makes use of the Freudian notion of
manifest and latent content, where the dream is not just
traced to its underlying cause but is seen as being about that
and, properly interpreted, as a true, though disguised, picture
ofthat (the hatred of father, the wish for a penis, etc.). These
cases are analogous to Sayers’ example of the mirage where
the subject is seeing the sky refracted through hot air.

This is a challenging thesis. But erected into a philosophical doctrine it seems in danger of sliding into a largely
verbal insistence: whatever we take to be the cause of an
idea we will call the real ‘object’ and ‘truth’ of that idea.

How would that re-description advance understanding? On
the face of it, what Sayers is advocating is that, where
someone believes falsely that something is the case, we
ought to say that the ‘truth’ in their belief is whatever
actually gave rise to it. What Sayers’ thesis minimally needs
is the substantive idea, found in Marx and Freud, of ‘unconscious awareness’ , of false ideas as needing interpretation
as distorted modes of grasping a felt reality. To dredge up
G. E. M. Anscombe’s phrase in Intention, the false believer
grasps reality all right, but not ‘under the right description’.

(Compare religious claims that in seeking this we are really
seeking that (God)).14
However, this is surely a valid way of thinking about
only some false ideas. In some cases at least, it seems to me
positively misleading. If I start finding people’s behaviour
unbearably gross and inconsiderate and it turns out that this
is only because a tumour is developing in my brain, it seems
to me a big stretch to say that my delusive ideas about my
fellows are thereby shown to have a measure of truth about,
not them, but my brain. I can imagine, perhaps, discoveries
pushing me to accept the latter view, but until then I prefer
to distinguish cases where cause and object (more or less)
coincide and cases where they don’t – as in the dreams


discussed above. This could be expressed as the ‘doctrine’

that not all causes of ideas are objects of ideas.

But suppose Sayers’ thesis were one that was accepted:

yes, religious belief is belief ‘about’ earthly conditions,
phlogiston theory is ‘about’ the experimental and socioeconomic realities that produced it, etc. How would this (to
my mind implausible eventuality) undermine traditional
realism? It seems to me that it would leave it virtually
unshaken. We would, at the end of the day, be left talking
in terms of absolute truth and falsehood, but now with a
changed vocabulary.

For we would still have to say that, although phlogiston
theory is ‘true of’ its socio-economic as well as its chemical
determinants, it is (largely) false in respect of its ‘manifest’

or ‘intended’ content. In the linguistic shake-up consequent
on acceptance of Sayers’ Law, all that would have been
achieved is a re-wording that in effect preserves the old, and
in my view ineradicable, concept of truth intact. For we do
not need Sayers’ Law in the historical investigation of
scientific and other views in respect of a critical or genetic
account of them: what did these people think? What was
correct and incorrect in their views? What shaped their
views? What can we learn from them? No decent history of
ideas regards the past as a pit of ‘mere error’. But any history
of ideas is going, even if it purports to relativism, to employ
a ‘traditional’ concept of truth. How this concept makes the
‘process of growth and development’ in know ledge’ impossible to understand’ when the very notion of ‘growth and
development’ presupposes such a concept, is hard to understand.

Sayers speaks of Engels as ‘now unfashionable’. As an
ironic comment on his removal from the compulsory Stalinist
curriculum from Berlin to Vladivostok thiS passes. What I
have tried to do is to indicate that Sayers’ important insistence over the years on the systemically complex nature of
reality and our practical and theoretical grasp of it does not
require the conjuring tricks inherent in ‘dialectical logic’.

The dialectical thought of the Marxist tradition, it seems to
me, needs to be freed from this husk so that it can grow.


Radical Philosophy 59 (Autumn 1991), pp. 15-20.


The Pursuit o/Truth, 1990.


Radical Philosophy 59, pp. 16-18.


Ibid., p. 16.






Ibid., p. 19.




Ibid., p. 17, where ‘contain some measure of truth’ is identified
with ‘are anchored in reality in some way’.






Seal Sayers, ‘Knowledge as a Social Phenomenon’, Radical
Philosoph,”” 52 (Summer 1989), pp. 34-37.


Ibid., p. 36.


It is important to these psycho-analytic and Feuerbachian accounts that the subject is, acutely but unconsciously, aware of the
unbearable or inadmissible truth. This greatly limits the
generalisability of this model.

Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993

Once more on Relative Truth:

A Reply to Skillen

Sean Sayers
In the articles that Skill en criticises,1 I am concerned with
the problems posed by the social character of knowledge.

To defend realism, I argue, it is necessary to develop a
historical account of knowledge, involving relative concepts of truth and falsehood. Although Skillen shares the
desire to defend realism, he can see no value in this approach, which he variously describes as ‘obfuscating’,
‘obscuring’ , and lacking’ rigour’ and’ consistency’ . Indeed,
he cannot even see the problems I am dealing with. The
whole exercise is ‘unnecessary’, he says: ‘The social development of science’ poses no problems for ‘traditional
realism’ (never further defined) or for the absolute concepts
of truth and error.

This is remarkable. These problems have been central to
discussion in epistemology for the past thirty years or so.

They are posed not only by the ‘social development of
science’, but by the social nature of knowledge and its
justification. Traditional epistemology tries to defend our
claims to knowledge by seeking secure foundations for
knowledge, either in immediate experience or in a priori
reason. The recognition that knowledge is a social phenomenon undermines both approaches. It leads to the conclusion that nothing is given unproblematically in immediate
experience, since all experience must be interpreted; and
the cate gories and concepts in terms of which it is interpreted
are not universal and necessary products of reason a priori,
but social and historical products. In short, all knowledge
involves interpretation, and no interpretation can be guaranteed as absolutely correct.

Skillen does not mention these arguments, nor show that
he has a way of defending ‘traditional realism’ and the
concepts of absolute truth and falsehood against them. For
my own part, I believe they pose insuperable difficulties for
the traditional approach. These are the problems from
which I begin. Drawing on the work of Bradley and other
philosophers in the Hegelian tradition I try to develop a
historical form of realism which recognises the social
character of knowledge. This involves relative concepts of
truth and falsehood.

The Development of Science
These concepts also provide a more satisfactory basis for
understanding the development of knowledge. The traditional approach involves the view that theories must either
be absolutely true or absolutely false (or composed of
elements which are so). This either/or framework, I argue,
makes the development of knowledge incomprehensible.

Skillen is scathing about this claim; but he makes no

Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993

valid criticism of it. Indeed, after mocking my ‘evangelical’

language, he in effect concedes the relative account of truth
when he says, ‘quite simply, any absolute realist would
think that current science includes many truths, some falsehoods, many approximations and huge gaps. ‘ This will not
do. The notion of an ‘approximation’ implies the relative
concept of truth; an absolute realist like Skillen cannot use
it ‘consistently’, ‘rigorously’ and ‘without obfuscation’.2
An approximation is not absolutely true (though something
close to it is); according to the absolute conception it must
therefore be absolutely false. 3 This is not like saying ‘if we
are not at the North Pole we must be at the South Pole’. The
analogy is defective; what is neither true nor false is not a
statement at all. According to the absolute theory, true and
false are contradictories not contraries; these ‘hyperbolic
options’ are not of my making, they are entailed by the
theory that Skillen is supposed to be defending.

In my article on Bradley (p. 17), I criticise Ewing’s
argument that ‘a judgement can only be partially true or
partially false in the sense that it is analysable into several
judgements some of which are absolutely true and others
absolutely false’. According to Skillen, however, I myself
employ the very procedure I am criticising, both in my
discussion of Bradley, and of the phlogiston theory.

Skillen is right to criticise my response to Ewing for its
unclarity. Nevertheless, partial or relative truths cannot be
dissolved into absolutely true and false elements as Ewing
suggests. Of course it is possible to distinguish true and
false aspects of a theory; but this vindicates the absolute
approach only if these aspects are absolutely true or
absolutely false. This is the assumption that Skillen appears
to make about my account of phlogiston theory. This
theory, I argue, correctly recognised that combustion is a
chemical reaction – in that respect it contains an element of
truth. However, it is not tenable to regard this as an absolute
truth. Its conception of chemical reaction was bound up
with eighteenth-century conceptions of matter. These were
rapidly superseded with its overthrow, opening the way to
the development of the atomic theory.

Whenever I claim that something is true or false, Skillen
implies that I am inconsistently presupposing the absolute
position. There is no basis for this. Thus when I say ‘there
is no such thing as phlogiston’ , I am not suggesting this is
an absolute truth. As I make clear, it is a relative judgement
which can be made only on the basis of, and relative to,
current knowledge of chemistry; and this, to repeat, does
not constitute absolute truth, but is social, historical, relative and changing.

Skillen’s argument gives out at this point; but a more


‘consistent’ and ‘rigorous’ adherent of the absolute theory
will press on. If our ‘deconstruction’ of the phlogiston
theory has not yet resulted in absolute truths and absolute
falsehoods, that is only because it has not been pursued far
enough. The analysis must be continued until we reach the
most fundamental level of simple basic observational statements and theoretical categories. These, at least, will be
either absolutely true or absolutely false.

Such programmes have been repeatedly attempted in the
history of modern philosophy. It is their repeated failure
which has led to the present crisis in epistemology. This
failure, as I have already suggested, is due to the social and
historical character of knowledge. Neither observation nor
reason can provide us with absolute truths; both are social
and historical in character. Knowledge is social through and

The Idea of Development
There are thus good reasons for questioning the absolutism
of traditional epistemology. However, this does not mean
that we must adopt a pure relativism which maintains that
different theories are merely equally possible, equally valid
‘ways of seeing things’. The notion of relative truth provides a basis on which to vindicate claims to knowledge and
truth. 5 When we make these claims for current chemistry,
for example, we mean that it is true relatively. We mean that
it represents an advance in knowledge over previous theories. We mean that it constitutes the best account presently
available of its subject matter, and that there are, at present,
no equally valid, equally possible alternative accounts in
this area.

Skillen objects that such relative judgements must necessarily appeal to an absolute standard. ‘How, without a
(traditional) realist view, can Sayers speak of knowledge
and understanding as growing, as distinct from merely
speaking, in a Rorty-sort-of-way, about one view giving
way to a later view, neither better nor worse than the other?’

Rorty style relativism arises from the belief that different
theories are ‘incommensurable’. I do question this. Given
that different theories can be compared with respect to their
truth content, however, it is quite possible to judge that our
knowledge has grown without appealing to an absolute

To put the point in general terms, things can be placed in
rank order if they can be compared with each other quantitatively in the relevant respect; measurement against an
absolute standard in the sense intended by Skillen is not
necessary. For example, things can be put in order of height
without knowing precisely how high any of them is in
absolute terms. In the articles criticised by Skillen, I maintain that this is the sort of judgement we make when we say
that current chemistry is true. We mean that it gives a better
account of its subject matter than other earlier or currently
available alternatives. Assessment against an absolute standard is not involved.

However, problems of commensurability are not the
only ones here. The correspondence theory implies that
truth can be assessed only by reference to the external and
absolute standard of reality. Perhaps Skillen is assuming


this view; but he does not spell out his argument sufficiently
for this to be clear. However, if, as Bradley maintains, the
truth of a theory can be judged by its coherence and
comprehensiveness, then it can be judged purely relatively.

For these are purely formal and internal criteria, which
make no reference to an absolute standard. 6
Even so, the notion of absolute truth may be involved in
a different way. The stages of scientific thought may not
simply be parts of a process of relative growth; that process
may be a teleological one, moving towards absolute truth as
its ultimate end. 7 So far (and in my previous work as well),
I have stressed only the negative point that the notion of the
growth of knowledge need not necessarily have this teleological form; but beyond that I have remained uncommitted. However, I am increasingly persuaded that there are
good reasons for accepting the idea of absolute truth as the
goal of know ledge. 8 It is difficult to see how an account of
the notion of objective truth could avoid positing such a
concept. The coherence and correspondence theories both
do so; and if pragmatic theories of truth do not, that is
because they reject the notion of objective truth.

In the context of Skillen’s criticism, however, what
needs stressing is that, even if it is assumed, the concept of
‘absolute truth’ in this teleological sense plays no role in the
judgements we make about the truth content of particular
beliefs or theories. The notion of absolute truth in this sense
functions purely as an ideal, as a ‘regulative’ idea, which
describes the ultimate end or goal of knowledge, but it plays
no ‘constitutive’ role in our judgements of truth or falsehood. For, as I have been emphasising, we make these
judgements relatively, and not by the standard of absolute
truth in this, or any other, sense. 9

The Nature of Falsehood
The other main target of Skillen’ s criticisms is my account
of falsehood. Just as there is no absolute truth, I argue, there
is no absolute error. All actual beliefs – indeed all ‘ideas’,
all mental contents – reflect reality in some way and have
some content of truth. 10 I do, as Skillen says, put this forward
as a philosophical theory – as a ‘doctrine’, as a ‘law’ – for
reasons that I shall explain in a moment. As such it is a large
and controversial thesis which I do not claim to be able to
justify in all cases. 11 However, I do wish to argue that it
provides an illuminating perspective in a number of cases at
the centre of philosophical discussion in this field, 12 and that
it is not troubled by the objections that Skillen brings against

When I dream that I am in an earthquake and I am not,
there is a perfectly good sense in which the dream is false.

I do not dispute this. The dream is false of the reality it
appears to be about. Its ‘manifest content’, its ‘apparent
object’ , is illusory. Traditional epistemology regards dreams
as mere illusions and stops at this point. However, psychology since Freud (on whose work I rely here) has not
remained content with this. Freud shows that dreams have
a meaning, a ‘latent content’: they can be interpreted. They
arise from and express wishes and desires, provoked usually by events of the previous day (and sometimes also by
present stimuli, like a stomach ache). When understood in

Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993

this way, dreams can be seen to be distorted reflections of
real (though often unconscious) aspects of our psychology
and, in this way, to contain a measure of truth.

Likewise, the phlogiston theory and other false scientific theories, ideologies and religious beliefs, mirages and
illusory experiences are all false about their apparent objects. Yet these beliefs are not the absolute errors they are
portrayed to be by the traditional approach. We can go some
way towards understanding the particular forms they take
by relating them to the specific conditions (physical, psychological and social) which give rise to them. In this way,
understanding their causes leads to the view that false as
well as true ideas reflect reality and contain some measure
of truth – not about their apparent objects but about their real
causes. 13
Skillen accepts the accounts I give of particular examples, like religious beliefs and mirages. However, he objects
to my attempt to generalise them.

This is surely a valid way of thinking about only some
false ideas. In some cases at least, it seems to me
positively misleading. If I start finding people’s
behaviour unbearably gross and inconsiderate and it
turns out that this is only because a tumour is developing in my brain, it seems to me a big stretch to say
that my delusive ideas … are thereby shown to have
a measure of truth about, not them, but my brain.

There is nothing strange in this view, however: a doctor
responds to abnormal irritability injust this way when he or
she interprets it as symptomatic of – informative about,
revealing of – a tumour. In this sense, the irritability, indeed,
reflects the presence of the tumour. 14

Two Senses of ‘Reflection’

As Skillen says, this account takes the fact that ideas are
caused by material processes to support the thesis that they
reflect those processes and contain a measure of truth about
them. He raises an objection which is often made to this way
of talking when he argues that it runs together two different
senses of ‘reflection’. The ‘minimal causal sense’ must be
distinguished from the sense in which to say that a belief
‘reflects’ reality means that it ‘represents’, ‘corresponds
to’, or ‘truly characterises’ reality.IS According to Skillen,
only the latter sense is of ‘epistemological interest’.

I do not deny that there are these two senses of ‘reflection’.16 Indeed, I make a similar distinction myself, by
differentiating the ‘real’ (causal) and ‘apparent’ (represented) objects of a belief. However, I do question the view
that epistemology should be concerned only with the latter
and take no interest in the causes of ideas. This is the
traditional view. As Skillen’s discussion illustrates, it leads
to an approach which begins and ends with the insistence
that false and illusory ideas – such as dreams or the reactions
to brain tumours – are merely false.

The approach reached its apogee with the philosophy of
the Enlightenment, which sought to refute and reject religious and other pre-modern views of the world and establish an outlook based on science and reason in their place.

This Enlightenment approach is not so much mistaken as

Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993

limited. During the last two hundred years a quite new way
oflooking at beliefs and ideas has emerged. Modem thought
in many different areas no longer confines itself to passing
judgement on the truth or falsehood of the beliefs and ideas
it studies. It looks at them naturalistically, as ‘phenomena’ ,17 in social and psychological terms. In doing so it has
shown that there is a great deal more to be learned from false
ideas than the traditional epistemological account allows.

This new approach to false ideas is evident in virtually
every branch of thought: in the study of dreams and madness in psychology, and of magical and ‘primitive’ beliefs
and practices in anthropology and history; in the treatment
of earlier and now discredited theories in the history and
philosophy of science; in the approach to popular and’ low’

culture in literary and cultural studies; in the discussion of
ideologies in social and political thought, etc. In all these
cases, the aim of study is no longer simply to judge these
ideas worthless or false (though they are all so) by the
canons of traditional epistemology. They are now increasingly studied as phenomena significant in their own right
for the light they can shed on the conditions which produced
them and on current modes of thought.

The emergence of this social and historical approach to
ideas, it seems to me, is among the most significant intellectual developments since the Enlightenment. Often it is
mistaken for a form of relativism or subjectivism; but it
cannot adequately be comprehended in those terms. None
of the great pioneers of this new approach – neither Hegel,
Marx, Freud nor the founders of modem social thought can satisfactorily be characterised in those terms. 18 My aim,
in putting forward the view that all ideas reflect reality and
contain some measure of truth, is to explain and spell out the
fundamental philosophical presuppositions’ofthe approach
that these thinkers share and to show how it can be interpreted in realist terms.

This view can, I believe, be defended as a philosophical
thesis of quite general application, as a ‘doctrine’, as a ‘law’,
as Skillen puts it. My reasons here are partly philosophical.

There are good grounds for questioning the opposite view,
the ‘doctrine’ enunciated by Skillen, that ‘not all causes of
ideas are objects of ideas’. According to this, beliefs sometimes reflect their causes and sometimes do not – the
connection between the content of our ideas and their
causes is purely contingent. This is familiar enough as a
philosophical doctrine: it is the view involved in traditional
reflectionist realism (e.g. Descartes, Locke), and it is a form
of epistemological dualism. 19 Briefly, the problems with it
are as follows. (l) By creating a logical and metaphysical
gulf between our beliefs and their supposed objects, such
dualism cannot give a satisfactory account of objective
knowledge, and thus creates insoluble problems in epistemology (as Berkeley argues against Locke); and (2) by
separating mind (beliefs, ideas) from matter, dualism involves an inherently implausible and ultimately unworkable account of mind. The view that there is a necessary
connection between idea and object, between consciousness and its (material) object, I argue, is a necessary part of
a consistent realism and materialism. 20
Moreover, if this view is treated as a philosophical
principle, as a ‘law’, then it provides the basis for a meth-


odological principle which can be brought a priori to the
study of knowledge. According to this principle, the study
of ideas and beliefs should not be limited to judging the truth
or falsehood of their explicit contents, as epistemology has
traditionally held. Ideas and beliefs should be regarded as
phenomena and studied for the light they can shed on the
objects or conditions which give rise to them. As I have just
explained, I believe that this, or something like it, is a
principle of fundamental importance in modem thought.

According to Skillen, however, this whole account is a
purely ‘verbal’ one. ‘Suppose Sayers’ thesis were … accepted .,. How would this … undermine traditional realism?

It seems to me it would leave it virtually un shaken … We
would still have to say that phlogiston theory is … false in
respect of its “manifest” or “intended” content.’ This is
quite correct and as it should be for a philosophical theory.

I am not trying to challenge the view that phlogiston theory
gives a mistaken account of combustion. That can be done
only by scientific investigation in the field of chemistry.

Whereas I am putting forward a philosophical theory, the
aim of which is to show that when a discredited theory, or
a dream, or other false belief or idea is judged to be, indeed,
false, an important part of the work of understanding still
remains to be done. For we can go on to study these beliefs
and ideas as social phenomena. We can investigate why
they are believed or expected, and what this reveals about
the nature of the reality from which they arise.








Engels and Dialectic
I have tried to deal with Skillen’ s main philosophical
criticisms. Apart from these, however, Skillen goes out of
his way to attack dialectic. In particular, my mention of
Engels provokes a series of ad hominem asides from Skillen.

To these I can only reply ab homine that I personally find
Engels a clear and interesting writer on the issues I am
discussing and I expect that others may find him so too.

It is not only Engels who has been branded a ‘Stalinist’

and removed from the curriculum ‘from Berlin to
Vladivostok’; the same applies to Marx and virtually every
other socialist thinker. That is understandable given what
was done there in their names. Nevertheless it is unfortunate
and unjustifiable; and will, I have no doubt, be seen as such
and corrected in time if those societies succeed in evolving
in a rational and democratic direction. Marxism and socialism are, and will remain, hugely influential strands of
modem thought: they cannot simply be denied or suppressed.

The view that socialism is refuted and dead is now the
received orthodoxy – and not only on the right but among
‘postmodemist’ and other sections of the left as well. Cheap
jibes at Engels and dialectic come easy in this climate, but
it is hard to see how they will help the Marxist tradition to
‘grow’. The danger is rather that they will unwittingly
contribute to pressure for socialism to be ‘removed from the
curriculum’ here too. That would not be in any way understandable, but a form of repression pure and simple.








S. Sayers, ‘F. H. Bradley and the Concept of Relative Truth’,
Radical Philosophy 59 (Autumn 1991), pp. 15-20; ‘Knowledge
as a Social Phenomenon’, Radical Philosophy 52 (Summer


1989), pp. 34-37. For a more extended treatment of these issues,
see Reality and Reason. Dialectic and the Theory of Knowledge,
Blackwell, Oxford, 1985.

It should be noted that the concept of an approximation was
introduced by Engels.

John Anderson puts this point very clearly in his criticism of
Engels that I quote in ‘F. H. Bradley’, p. 17.

Engels is inconsistent on these issues. While maintaining that
knowledge is social, he also holds that some basic statements
(e.g., ‘Napoleon died on 5 May 1821 ‘) are absolutely true (AntiDiihring, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1962,
Part I, ch. IX). I follow Hegel and Bradley here.

I am puzzled by the title of Skillen’s piece, which refers to my
‘relativism’. I consistently argue for realism against relativism,
as Skillen otherwise seems to recognise.

The coherence theory is usually associated with idealism, and
poses problems for a realist and materialist approach (see R eali ty
and Reason, ch. 10).

I mention this idea, but do not explore it, in my account of
Bradley, p. 18.

My views on this point have been influenced by J. O. Young’s
arguments in ‘Critical Notice of Reality and Reason’, Canadian
Journal of Philosophy, 17 (2) (June 1987), pp. 491-500.

Skillen raises a related issue when he notes that, although I reject
the absolute conception of truth, I ‘appeal throughout to an
absolute conception of “reality”‘. This is implicit in the views I
have been defending. Although it seems paradoxical, it is not
contradictory provided that the notion of degrees of truth is
allowed. For then ‘really and truly’ is not necessarily a ‘repetition’: truth may reflect reality only partially. This is also implied
by the view that scientific theories are only approximations
which, as they develop, reflect reality more and more closely.

Skillen draws attention to my use of the term ‘ideas’ in this
context by his use of quotation marks. I use this term because I
wish to refer not only to statements and beliefs, but to all mental
contents, including dreams, sensations, emotions, etc.

There are a number of cases that I do not know how to handle in
these terms.

Including superseded theories, mistaken beliefs, religious ideas,
ideologies, illusions, hallucinations, dreams, Bodily sensations,
emotions. See Reality and Reason, chs. 4-6, and ‘Knowledge as
a Social Phenomenon’ .

This point is not confined to cases where ‘unconscious awareness’ is involved, as Skillen suggests, nor is that notion needed
in order to make this point an illuminating one.

Moreover, such irritability is not likely to be caused ‘only’ by the
tumour. The fact that I respond with these particular responses
to particular individuals has psychological causes as well. Psychology may thus contribute to our understanding of such
symptoms; and psychotherapy may help a person cope with their
response to a tumour (although, of course, a brain tumour itself
cannot be treated psychologically). Similarly, one of the causes
of an earthquake dream may be an upset stomach, but its content
cannot be explained in those terms alone. See Freud’s discussion
of ‘The Somatic Sources of Dreams ‘,inbztelpretation ofDreams,
AlIen & Unwin, London, 1954, ch. 5(c) (Standard Edition, vols.


Skillen does not spell this point out very fully; I am grateful to
Danny Goldstick for these formulations.

I do, however, reject the view that there is any absolute or
metaphysical distinction between them. A realist account of
knowledge involves the view that our beliefs and their objects
must be causally connected. These two senses of ‘reflection’ are
thus not entirely distinct. The causal sense is the more general
one; ‘reflection’ in the sense of ‘representation’ is a particular
form, a sub-species, of it. See ‘Knowledge as a Social Phenomenon’.

In G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology ofSpirit, Clarendon, Oxford,
1977, ‘Introduction’.

With the possible exception of Nietzsche, though even his
attitude to relativism is ambiguous.

And therefore incompatible with Skillen’s professed materialism.

Reality and Reason, chs. 1-3, 11.

Radical Philosophy 64, Summer 1993

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