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No cake for philosophers

In this blogpost, I ramble a bit about some philosophically unsatisfying approaches for addressing External World skepticism. However, before I do that, let's first consider a popular and more obvious case of a philosophically unsatisfying position: relativism.

Relativists insist that our beliefs can’t meaningfully exclude out alternatives. That’s how, in the name of tolerance, relativists think they can get away with letting you keep your beliefs whilst, simultaneously, letting others keep theirs.

And yet, perhaps surprisingly, relativism ultimately fails in this regard. As a character, named Sarah, pointed out in the philosopher Timothy Williamson’s wonderful book Tetralogue:

If relativism is neutral on value questions, it doesn’t say ‘Tolerance is better than intolerance’, any more than it says ‘Intolerance is better than tolerance’. There is no more inconsistency in being an intolerant relativist than in being a tolerant one (1)

And so, as the philosopher Michael Huemer put it:

relativists want to have their cake and eat it, too (2)

For that reason, relativism is profoundly confused and philosophically unsatisfying.

Furthermore, I’d like to suggest that, at least some, semantic approaches, when used to address important philosophical problems in epistemology, are perhaps as philosophically unsatisfying as relativism.

Why do I think this? Well, for an epistemology class this fall, I’ve been reading about External World skepticism: which asks how we know or are justified to believe that anything exists outside of our minds. Anyway, in addition to the required course readings, I've been using the philosopher Michael Huemer’s excellent (and very affordable) intro to philosophy textbook: Knowledge, Reality, And Value, in which I found some, particularly unsatisfying, semantic responses to the following two External World skepticism arguments:

Argument 1

  1. You can have knowledge of the external world only if you know that you’re not a BIV (brain-in-a-vat).
  2. You can’t know that you’re not a BIV.
  3. Therefore, you cannot have knowledge of the external world.

Argument 2

  1. Your beliefs about the external world are justified only if you have some justification for believing that you’re not a BIV.
  2. You have no justification for believing that you’re not a BIV.
  3. Therefore, your beliefs about the external world are not justified.

As Huemer suggests, the semantic responses to the above arguments (e.g. relevant alternatives, contextualism) evade the intellectual work of showing how the skeptical scenarios (e.g. BIV) are highly improbable and/or unreasonable. Instead, the semantic approaches get stuck in less interesting quibbles about what the properly appropriate usage and meaning of the word “know” is (2). 

In focusing on the meanings of words, the semantic approach risks missing the forest for the trees and failing to directly address the issue at hand. This is unhelpful. After all, knowledge is what's at stake here, and I think such semantic approaches, at least the ones I've encountered thus far, pay little more than lip service in helping to secure our claim to it.

At the end of the day, as Huemer emphasizes, the skeptic arguments don’t say what the world is really like but instead attack our claim to knowledge, and justification for our beliefs, about what the world is like. So, in the context of this philosophical dispute, I'm very dissatisfied with the semantic approaches used to address external world skepticism; dissatisfied ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

As the philosopher Elliott Sober put it:

Philosophy is a subject devoted to evaluating arguments and constructing theories (3)

While semantic responses are not as confused as relativism, it seems like semanticists, at least those (if such exist) who take a purely semantic approach to the External World problem, want to have their cake and eat it, too. When it comes to doing philosophy, so far, I've found purely semantic approaches or solutions unsatisfying; and especially so when they evade the force of an argument. Like this bagel, just give it to me plain, for arguments' sake!

The plain bagel (with cream cheese) that fuelled this blogpost


  1. Williamson, T. (2015). Tetralogue: I’m Right, You’re Wrong. Oxford University Press. 
  2. Huemer, M. (2021). Knowledge, Reality, And Value: A Mostly Common Sense Guide to Philosophy
  3. Sober, E (2021). Core Questions in Philosophy. 8E. Routledge.

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