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October 09, 2003

I Say Potato

I was pointed over to an interesting article by Richard Rorty in the Boston Globe. Here he discusses the significance of a cat named Donald Davidson in the never ending battle against the epistomological nightmare:

In a 1983 paper titled "A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge," Davidson startled the philosophical world by pointing out that this Wittgensteinian way of thinking entails that most of anybody's beliefs about anything must be true. His point was that you have to have a lot of true beliefs about something before you can have any false ones.

Take beavers, for example. If you believe that beavers live in deserts, are pure white in color, and weigh 300 pounds when adult, then you do not have any beliefs, true or false, about beavers. For you are using the word "beaver" in a way that has no connection with its ordinary use. What the rest of us mean by the word "beaver" is a function of our commonly held beliefs about beavers. If the beliefs you express by sentences using the word "beaver" are too different from ours, then we are not talking about the same things.

Even if they grant this point, philosophers who remain loyal to Descartes will fall back on asking: What if there are no beavers? Maybe beavers are illusions. You cannot have true beliefs about illusions, can you? If you do not know what is really real and what merely seems to be real (and how could you, since you might be a brain in a vat or a character in "The Matrix") then you are not in a position to say that you have any true beliefs.

Davidson would reply that Cartesian skeptics are misusing the expression "really real." It makes sense to say that the people I encounter in my dreams, or the things I see after taking hallucinogens, are not really real. For denying them reality is just a way of saying that we cannot make beliefs about these people or things cohere with the rest of our beliefs -- specifically, with our beliefs about other people and things. The expression "not really real" is, in such contexts, given its meaning by contrasting cases in which we are prepared to say that those other people or things are really real.

Davidson's point is that retail skepticism makes sense, but wholesale skepticism does not. We have to know a great deal about what is real before we can call something an illusion, just as we have to have a great many true beliefs before we can have any false ones. The proper reply to the suggestion that beavers might be illusory is this: Illusory by comparison to what?

As soon as I got to the words 'you do not have any beliefs, true or false, about beavers' this solution flashed to me as why it is whitefolks are often so clueless in discussions about racism. They don't have enough experience with it.

As you may or may not know, I played a 'race man' for several years in cyberspace. As the Boohab, I've discussed race with more whitefolks over more subjects than any sane person who doesn't get paid to do so. What can I say, I needed some clarity on the whole matter. After about 3 years, I had all the answers, and I still do. But the above paragraphs give me some interesting theory behind my observations about dialog.

I'll sum it up in the form of a problem statement. The reason 'racism' seems to be such a squishy term is because of racism. That is to say, blacks and whites and others are not engaged on a permanent basis in discussions about race and racism. They are separate. So if you grow up white talking about racism with whitefolks, then you will have a separate idea about what it is from that of blackfolks. What's also implied is that you will have fewer ways to talk about it in practice because it is a theory to you. So being provocative about it, theoretical discussions about racism within in a single race group only exacerbates the problem of racism itself because it reinforces words with meanings that are not shared outside of the group. Without firsthand experience this dissonance may be irrevocable.

Posted by mbowen at October 9, 2003 04:22 PM

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Just because I grew up white does not mean I have no point of reference for discussing racism. I grew up in an integrated neighborhood (Chicago's Hyde Park - Kenwood), and was one of thirteen whites in a high school graduating class of 600. One of my strongest memories from my childhood is my reaction, when passing thru the Jackson, MS airport in 1963, to the white-only water cooler with a warm water fountain next to it for the "colored".

We now live in another integrated neighborhood, on Milwaukee's north side. My wife is known as "the Caucasian lady" at work (altho I am the one with ancestors from the Caucus Mountains). We don't discuss racism that all often, but when we do, it is more likely to be with blackfolk.

Posted by: triticale at October 9, 2003 06:51 PM

Obviously there are going to be whitefolks with more than the average amount of contact with blackfolks. I think you underscore my point that such people are much more likely to have a common understanding about what racism is across color lines.

The larger implication however is that because blacks experience (generally speaking) racism in terms of being hassled by cops and whites (generally speaking) experience racism in terms of not being admitted to college what racism is is not a shared experience. Which is more real? It literally depends on who you talk to, blacks or whites.

I think I see whitefolks who had very charged and life-changing experiences as young adults during the Civil Rights and other movements of that decade have very fixed ideas about what racism is, as do blackfolks of my parents' generation. The problem of race itself mutates as do the political priorities of fighting it. So there are generational issues as well. Again, the ability to come to some consensus definition shifts depending on the amount of cross-boundary dialog.

Posted by: Cobb at October 10, 2003 12:23 AM