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Augustine’s Cup: Boundary Conditions and Relocating Science in a Post-postmodern World
Unformatted Document Text:  value-based criteria appear very attractive, whatever their logical shortcomings. Lyotard’s fundamental argument is intended to make the idea of an objectively determinable “Truth” absurd. Taken in a way Lyotard no doubt did not intend, that same argument buttresses the pragmatists’ preference for utility criteria instead of claims of inherent truth. Pragmatists, after all, reject the notion of certainty as vigorously as does Lyotard. Unlike Lyotard, they do not consider certainty necessary in order to make assessments, valuations, and judgments. In under-appreciated respects, James anticipated some of what is best about postmodernism. The utility criterion had several corollaries, though they may have been in some cases more implicit than explicit. One corollary is that several ideas or systems leading to the same satisfactory result (an empirical prediction or morally desirable behavior) had equal claim on truth. Moreover, one could extend that logic to argue that since, in the moral and aesthetic arenas one may identify a variety of satisfactory outcomes, that a variety of belief or idea systems may have equivalent claims on truth-value, even if they were in their propositions contradictory or even mutually exclusive. The pragmatists’ position is incompatible only with those postmodernists who embrace a radical relativism such as Lyotard’s, which discards the notion of admissible criteria for accepting or rejecting a system of belief or “narrative,” or, perhaps more accurately, substitutes an implicit utility criterion. Any narrative, from that radical relativist perspective, that provides personal meaning or rationalizes action has equivalent claim, from satyagraha to fascism, from quantum mechanics to the Flat Earth Society. This is fundamentally a utilitarian argument, though one that has surrendered any notion of criteria, whether based on values or empirical evidence. Indeed, Lyotard’s radical relativism appears, at bottom, to be purely utilitarian: this reader at least senses that Lyotard may not entirely believe his own claims or endorse their

Authors: Slater, Michael.
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value-based criteria appear very attractive, whatever their logical shortcomings. Lyotard’s
fundamental argument is intended to make the idea of an objectively determinable “Truth”
absurd. Taken in a way Lyotard no doubt did not intend, that same argument buttresses the
pragmatists’ preference for utility criteria instead of claims of inherent truth. Pragmatists,
after all, reject the notion of certainty as vigorously as does Lyotard. Unlike Lyotard, they do
not consider certainty necessary in order to make assessments, valuations, and judgments.
In under-appreciated respects, James anticipated some of what is best about
postmodernism. The utility criterion had several corollaries, though they may have been in
some cases more implicit than explicit. One corollary is that several ideas or systems leading
to the same satisfactory result (an empirical prediction or morally desirable behavior) had
equal claim on truth. Moreover, one could extend that logic to argue that since, in the moral
and aesthetic arenas one may identify a variety of satisfactory outcomes, that a variety of
belief or idea systems may have equivalent claims on truth-value, even if they were in their
propositions contradictory or even mutually exclusive. The pragmatists’ position is
incompatible only with those postmodernists who embrace a radical relativism such as
Lyotard’s, which discards the notion of admissible criteria for accepting or rejecting a system
of belief or “narrative,” or, perhaps more accurately, substitutes an implicit utility criterion.
Any narrative, from that radical relativist perspective, that provides personal meaning or
rationalizes action has equivalent claim, from satyagraha to fascism, from quantum
mechanics to the Flat Earth Society. This is fundamentally a utilitarian argument, though
one that has surrendered any notion of criteria, whether based on values or empirical
evidence. Indeed, Lyotard’s radical relativism appears, at bottom, to be purely utilitarian: this
reader at least senses that Lyotard may not entirely believe his own claims or endorse their


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