Epistemic Idioms

Certain stock words and phrases commonly used by the public carry obvious epistemological implications. They convey a certain sense of the way that truth and falsehood enter into our conversations. This is a list of such words and phrases. To say that it is incomplete is putting it mildly. I will add more as time goes on.

Absolute Truth: We often hear something described as an absolute truth. What’s fascinating about this is the implication that some truths might not be absolute. Presumably, one could draw the distinction by considering the number of contingencies that might affect the truth value of a statement, but that opens the door to relative truth values, and if some truths could be made relative by contingencies, then how do we really preempt all such contingencies once and for all? Maybe that can be done. Most likely though, the inclusion of ‘absolute’ here tells us more about the confidence level of the person asserting the truth than anything about the truth functions of the statement in question.

Agree to Disagree: This is a common thing to hear in the midst of an informal debate. If it means nothing else, it certainly seems to be a suggestion that the parties in question should set aside their disagreement and move on. This could be done so as to focus on some other point of disagreement, or it could be done so as to remove an unpleasant topic from discussion altogether. Either way, the point is clearly to set some point of disagreement aside.

I don’t think it unfair to suggest that the phrase also implies something about doing so without malice, as if to add; ‘no hard feelings.’ This too could be very positive, but in context, it can be a problem. Personally, I have lost track of the number of times, someone said this to me shortly after misrepresenting my own side of the dispute, often outrageously so. I have also heard it said in direct response to very decisive arguments from the other side, effectively calling off the fight while the speaker is on the ropes, so to speak. This is at least a little frustrating. Doing so while keeping a straw man on the table, so to speak, is even more frustrating. In the spirit of agreeing to disagree with no hard feelings, I think it fair to say that the decision to end a dispute this way should not be used as a strategic ploy. It assumes an honest account of each other’s views and an honest chance to air those views with one another. Absent this, it’s tough to see where the ‘agree’ comes into the phrase ‘agree to disagree.’

Everything is Relative: I often describe this as a kind of pop-relativism. The phrase is commonly used to advance some sort of relativism and/or to undermine the possible objectivity of an existing claim or fact. Absolutists often like to suggest that this is a self-contradiction, because this phrase too would be relative in the event that everything is relative, but there is no particular reason to believe the a relativistic interpretation of this statement would be a problem. Perhaps the notion here is that the statement is universal (as opposed to particular), but the difference between universal and particular statements isn’t really the point of relativism. The problem with this phrase is really more that it simply doesn’t tell us enough to make heads or tails of it. The more interesting versions of relativism tell us what is relative to what and provide a more definite sense of what is entailed in the relativity. If this phrase tells us anything it is probably something about the speaker, namely a readiness to qualify apparently objective truths in terms of some as-yet unspecified contingencies.

Heart of the Matter: This can obviously be used in a variety of contexts. When it is used in the context of debate or critical inquiry, it seems to suggest that whatever it describes is more important than other things that have come up in discussion. What makes certain propositions, questions, or inferences more important than others is a different question. It is of course to be expected that the different parties to a dispute may have a different sense of what constitutes the heart of the matter. There must still be some clear point of conflict, but each will have a different sense of what matters most in the dispute. So, which is really the heart of the matter? One or both versions of the core values at stake? Or the specific implication that puts them in conflict with each other?

Misstatement: This term is used to describe an error. It is commonly used to suggest that a speaker has made a poor word choice. In many cases, it carries the implication that the error in question is not significant and/or that the speaker did not mean to misrepresent the facts of the matter. For this reason, the term can provide rather convenient cover for those caught quite deliberately saying something that just isn’t true.

Personal Truth (e.g. Your Truth / My Truth): This is another pop-relativism. It suggests that different people have different truths. There are of course a few different ways that we can take this. One of the more viable interpretations of this phrase is the notion that someone’s personal truth would be something about their personality, personal experiences, or attitudes. In this case, the truth is less a question about the world around the person in question than something about their own psychology. I do think their is a viable interpretation with a bit more objective focus. this would be the notion that different people focus on different things. A dog trainer might know a great deal about the behavior of a given dog, and in particular, about the likely responses a dog will have to certain motivations. A veterinarian looking at the same dog will know more about the health of the dog. Each of these could thus be described as having a different truth in relation to the dog. So, there are at least some reasonable interpretations of the phrase.

All of that said, however, I do think most of the times I have heard it used, it is effectively an effort to side-step questions about the actual truth value of claims made by actual people. Someone making questionable accusations against a group of people might be said to be speaking his truth (thus reserving the option to suggest that they too have a truth). Whether or not any specific accusation actually squares with the facts can thus be set aside in favor of an effort to respect the perspective of each party to the discussion (perhaps with the implication being that the truth of the particulars might get a mixed score). It comes with a vague sense that questions about the actual truth value of specific claims made by any given party are somehow contingent on their mental state, even as it sets aside any effort to settle questions about what is and what is not true.

Said the Quiet Part Out Loud: This phrase is used to describe an utterance which appears to express unwholesome motivations on the part of the speaker. In some cases, the speaker might suggest they had misstated something. In others, those using this description simply find an implication in the words other than the one intended by the speaker. In either case, the implication is that the utterance in question reveals an underlying truth about how things actually work and/or the motivations of the original speaker for their own words and deeds. Whether or not this accusation is reasonable probably varies from case to case.

Tell (Includes ‘Liar’s Tell’): A tell is quirk of behavior that serves to indicate something about the person exhibiting it. In poker, it might be an indication that a player is bluffing or that he has an exceptionally good hand. In rhetoric, the term is more likely to be applied to something that indicates deceit. This is literally an ‘index’ in the sense used by C.S. Peirce (and later the anthropologist, Michael Silverstein); i.e. a sign that indicates something in the immediate context of a speech event. My mother, for example, used to say she could tell when my father was lying because his nose turned inside out (not literally of course; you’d have to have seen his expression to know what she was talking about). In effect she used his expression to read his intent, or rather, to determine that she was misleading her. Of course, once she accused him of this, he couldn’t help but smirk in exactly the way she described, thus giving off the appearance of confirming her initial accusation. It was all very amusing. This illustrates one of the hazards of those trying to read a tell; the behavior in question is always much more complicated than people assume. A quirk that could be a sign of deceit could also be a sign of something else. Also, the accusation itself can be made disingenuously, and maintained disingenuously as a means of refusing to consider what another person has to say.

Truth Hurts: This is a form of meta-argumentation in which the person using the phrase casts objections made by another party to something already spoken or written as proof that the claims of the original are true after all, and that discomfort with that truth is the reason for the objections. This phrase can be applied to objections based on rudeness or cruelty, but it is also used to characterize objections involving complex and substantive arguments against the original. In effect, use of the phrase discounts the possibility that the objections have any merit. In most cases, use the of the phrase thus amounts to a kind of circular argument or begging the question. It is probably fair to say that people sometimes object to a statement because it describes a reality they would prefer not to hear. It is probably also fair to suggest that people sometimes use this idiot to dismiss substantive objections and real questions about the truth value of the initial utterance.

Two Sides to Every Story: This is a common rejoinder to strong opinions. In most cases, the implication is not merely that there is another point of view on the topic, but that that other point of view actually does have merit, perhaps even that it is equally valid. Sometimes, this is a point well taken. I know, I have certainly come to appreciate the other side of a dispute after reluctantly considering it in the wake of hearing this phrase or some comparable message. That said, sometimes, the other side of the story is just dead wrong, either because those taking it are making some mistake, or because they are lying about the matter. The existence of two sides does not ensure that they have equal value.

A lot depends, I suppose, on what means by ‘story.’

That said, if there is nothing else we should take from this rejoinder it would be the notion that we should take the time to consider the other point of view in a given dispute. Maybe, we will accept it as valid in some sense or another, and maybe, we’ll just get even more harsh once we know what kind of bullshit the other guy is trying to pull. Either way, it’s worth knowing what the other side of a given dispute is.

There is another problem with this saying in that it actually doesn’t go far enough. I often find myself wanting to say in response to this; “only two?” As long as we are entertaining different perspectives, it’s worth bearing in mind that disputes can often be looked at through a great variety of different opinions and that the appearance of two major contenders in a controversy is often a function of assumptions coon to both. Take away those assumptions and all sorts of interesting possibilities arise.