For some reason some of this stuff popped into my head as I was walking my dog tonight, I figured I’d type it out.

To the degree that (mis?)remember the little Nietzsche I’ve read, I recall it being good on the negative or deflationary moves – opening up space between premisses and conclusions, and helping make clear the role of judgments and people’s starting value systems in their interpretations of the world. (This is the Tortoise move from Carroll’s dialog “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.) On the other hand, I recall it being bad about foregrounding Nietzsche’s own value system and having the same sort of space (or rather, the same underdetermined relationship) between premisses and conclusions.

This criticism of Nietzsche can sound like I’m a sort of relativist. That reminds me – somewhere Richard Rorty said something along the lines of “I’m not a relativist, I’m ethnocentric.” The term is unfortunate, but the point is important. Rorty’s point as I recall is to get away from a common mistake and/or accusation that goes with the term relativist. Some people think that recognizing the contingency and constructedness of one’s own views means that one does not value those views, that one views one’s own values as no more important than any other views, that one does not really have convictions.

The reason I like that Rorty quote is that it says that one can at the same time to do two things. One can hold that one’s views are, in a philosophical sense, just one’s own views, with no important foundation, no self-evident rightness, nothing like the revealed word of god to recommend them. One can at the same time hold that one’s views are right and that others ought to hold them. Put another way, the Rorty quote is good for pointing out that in the actual world there is a difference between having reasons for beliefs in the sense of justifications created after the fact and having firm conviction in one’s beliefs. The relationship between these two, justifications and convictions, is neither one directional nor simple.

One way to frame this within theoretical inquiry is to say that there is not agreement about the degree of metatheoretical consistency that a theoretical position ought to have. There is sometimes confusion on this between prescriptive and descriptive claims. I remember arguments along these lines: You don’t believe in ultimate or foundational good, therefore you can’t argue that US foreign policy is bad. As an empirical claim, this is simply false: I don’t believe in ultimate or foundational good, but I do (and thus can) argue that US foreign policy is bad. What the person meant was not “you can’t” literally, but “you are inconsistence when you….” Perhaps, but consistency is not a requisite for holding beliefs, despite the frequent mistaken (and inconsistent) belief that it is required.

Admitting that the issue is prescriptive rather than descriptive, I’m more sympathetic – I think people should be consistent – but the claim is still difficult. This is clumsy, but… what prescribes the prescription? The argument about being a relativist or not suggests that if one believes A (the war is bad, say) then one should also believe B (good and bad are not relative categories, say). The clause in the sentence immediately preceding this one, starting after the word the “that”, the if-then statement I mean, that’s a third belief, C. I don’t think that C is necessarily unjustifiable or that it has to lead circularity or infinite regress, but I do think that it’s a bit weird for someone to argue about A and B on grounds of consistency and sound bases for views and so on but to not present arguments about C. I think we can presume C has some basis, let’s call it X. At the same time it seems to me that someone who says “I do believe A but do not believe B” is not doing something all that different from someone who says “I believe C but do not yet have X beyond a conviction that X will be formulated clearly at some point in the future.” There is an important difference here between “do not believe” and “believe in an incoherent or absent point”, but for my purposes here it’s not significant – the former does not strike me as particularly worse than the latter, at least according to a fairly high standard of judgment.