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Wednesday, August 5, A.D. 2009
Maverick Retortion

Last week, Maverick Philosopher Bill Vallicella posted three pieces about the retortion argument of Gaston Isaye: “Retortion and the Existence of Truth,” “The Reach of Retortion,” and “Retortion and Performative Inconsistency Once Again.” I believe that my friend Andrew has worked with Isaye’s ideas before. Perhaps, he can offer some insight on the problems that Vallicella mentions.

Vallicella summarizes the retortion argument quite nicely:

Retortion (also spelled ‘retorsion’) is the philosophical procedure whereby one seeks to establish a thesis by uncovering a performative inconsistency in anyone (any actual or possible rational agent) who attempts to deny it. Proofs by retortion have the following form:

Proposition p is such that anyone who denies it falls into performative inconsistency; ergo, p is true.

If we agree that a proposition is ineluctable just in case it cannot be denied by anyone without performative inconsistency, then the retorsive proof-strategy can be summed up in the conditional:

If a proposition is ineluctable, then it is true.

A performative inconsistency is not a logical contradiction but rather an inconsistency for the speaker of the statement. “There are no truths” as a proposition is not logically inconsistent, but no one may utter it without refuting himself. For such a person claims that “There are no truths” is a truth by asserting it, and thus he contradicts himself.

If I understand Vallicella correctly, he holds that the retortion argument only establishes what we as thinkers must think. We must hold that there are truths and that the world is intelligible because that is the nature of human thought. Vallicella calls such insight merely transcendental. He resists, however, allowing the retortion to have any metaphysical utility. Following Kant, Vallicella distinguishes between the rules of reason and the verity of being itself.

The project of understanding cannot proceed except on the presupposition that being is intelligible. And the search for truth cannot proceed except on the presupposition that there are truths to be discovered. But these may be mere transcendental presuppositions without which we cannot think and inquire. How can we be sure that the transcendental conditions of thought and inquiry are also conditions of what is real an sich? I trust everyone will see that one cannot simply assume a coincidence of the transcendental and the metaphysical (ontological). For that would be a piece of dogmatism when dogmatism is precisely what the use of retorsion is supposed to avoid.

My tentative conclusion is that retorsion seems impotent to provide us with the rigorous grounding we seek.  Retorsion presupposes for its validity the coincidence of Thinking and Being, a coincidence which it cannot therefore justify.

I suppose that I am hopelessly retrograde in my Parmenidean paradigm and Platonic dogmatism, but it seems that we must assume a “coincidence” or rather a natural fit between our intellective faculties and the world that is intelligible. All human thought rests on that assumption’s being true, and we have no other recourse. Obviously, we do not have a divine perspective of reality. Any thoughtful person is keenly aware of his limits and ignorance. Yet, the only alternative to Kant’s transcendental transgression is the temptation of nihilism. Given these two choices, I’ll throw my lot with Plato and Aristotle any day.

Perhaps, I misunderstand Vallicella and, with him, all of Kant’s supporters. I just do not get what they hope to salvage of human knowledge unless we grant that being is intelligible. To my limited and naive mind, it seems as fundamental to philosophical principles as that of non-contradiction. Without it, cognition cannot proceed. Without it, we necessarily refute ourselves and incur performative inconsistency. Without it, nothing makes sense, and nothing is—at least, for us. Such seem to be sufficient reasons for our acceptance of old Parmenides’ insight. Naturally, we must remember that we are not God. Yet, was that truly a worry?

Posted by Joseph on Wednesday, August 5, A.D. 2009
Philosophy | EpistemologyMetaphysicsPermalink

C. S. Lewis actually responds to this exact line of thinking in “De Futilitate,” an article which is available in his larger work called “Christian Reflections.”

Lewis points out that this way of thinking is itself retorsive.  Suppose that you try to say that the conditions of human thought are _merely_ human, and that reality, the “ding an sich,” is alien to the way we think about it.  If you do this, then you are attempting to express something about reality itself, namely that it is alien to how we think about it.  And in the very act of thinking this, you are thinking about reality as it is in itself so that you can make a claim about it. 

There is a performative inconsistancy here.  And there will always be a performative inconsistancy any time we try to think that ANY aspect of reality is alien to thought.  Whenever we assert that ANYTHING is alien to thought, we are thinking the thing in that very act.

Lewis concludes from this that it is self-refuting to claim that any of reality is alien to thought.  Therefore, all of reality is thinkable, even as it is in itself.  “...the laws of thought are also the laws of things: of things in the remotest space and the remotest time.”

So, it seems to me that if anyone wants to say that retorsive arguments only map out the conditions of human thought, but not the conditions of reality, which are themselves alien to human thought, then this person is refuting himself.  He is trying to say that reality is alien to thought.  And in that very act, he is asserting that reality conforms to the thought that reality is alien to thought.  The incoherence is baffling.  😊


Posted by Andrew on Monday, November 16, A.D. 2009
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