SOPhiA 2019

Salzburgiense Concilium Omnibus Philosophis Analyticis

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Programme - Talk

Catherine Elgin on "felicitous falsehoods"
(Epistemology, English)

Over the course of several articles and books, including her latest work True Enough (2017), Catherine Elgin has developed a comprehensive epistemological theory that purports to offer an alternative to veritism. Veritism, according to Elgin, amounts to the claim that truth is necessary for epistemic acceptability. She believes that veritism cannot account for many intuitively respectable scientific theories that rely on models and idealizations which are known to deviate from the truth. Such "felicitous falsehoods", as she calls them, should be considered epistemically acceptable as long as their divergence from the truth is negligible.

This raises an obvious question: how do we discriminate between negligible and non-negligible divergences from the truth? Elgin takes this to be a contextual matter: our purposes within a given context of inquiry determine which aspects of a model or idealization are epistemically relevant, and fix their required levels of precision. Still, she also thinks that some ground-level of factual accuracy is needed across the board. Borrowing a concept coined by Nelson Goodman, Elgin maintains that a felicitous falsehood is epistemically acceptable only insofar as it "exemplifies" features of the phenomenon it bears on, in a way that advances our understanding of that phenomenon.

This claim constitutes an important, but questionable link within Elgin's line of reasoning. As I intend to show, it allows for two different interpretations of the relation between exemplification and understanding, both of which have significant repercussions for her theory as a whole. On one interpretation, exemplification is considered to be (partly) constitutive of understanding. On another, exemplification is regarded merely as a cognitive means to acquiring understanding. As I will argue, the former reading gives rise to an undesirably radical form of epistemic relativism, while the latter suggests that Elgin is implicitly committed to veritism after all.

Chair: Guido Tana
Time: 12:00-12:30, 19 September 2019 (Thursday)
Location: HS E.002

Stefan Sleeuw 
(University of Groningen; Faculty of Philosophy, The Netherlands)

After completing the Philosophy Bachelor programme in Groningen with a thesis on accounts of circular reasoning in argumentation theory, I enrolled in the faculty's Research Master programme, specialising primarily in contemporary analytic philosophy. During the Research Master, I developed an interest in the concept of understanding in epistemology. Having recently started a PhD project on this topic, I am currently investigating what role (if any) Nelson Goodman's concept of exemplification could play in an account of understanding.

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