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conception,” or “the absolute conception of reality,” where what this is is,
precisely, a conception of reality that both constitutes scienti¬c knowledge
and is not from any point of view.10
I have tried to defend Williams™ argument elsewhere.11 In this essay, I
am more interested in understanding Williams™ position than in motivating
it. In particular, I want to see what the conclusion of his argument can teach
us about its premise, the underlying realism.


If the conclusion of Williams™ argument is to teach us anything, we need to
be clear about what that conclusion is. When I defended Williams™ argu-
ment, I prefaced my defence with, in effect, a list of twenty-two things that
it is not.12 My list was meant as a safeguard against various possible miscon-
struals of Williams™ position, many of which I take to be actual. I shall not
rehearse that list in full now. But I do want to draw attention to one item
on the list that is especially pertinent to this discussion.
Williams™ conclusion is not that there are some uniquely privileged
God-given concepts waiting to be discovered “ as it were, the “one true
eternal” stock of concepts that equip us to represent things from no point
of view.13
Talk of “the” absolute conception encourages this idea. But there is
nothing in Williams to preclude the thought that, if we are to represent
things from no point of view, then we shall be involved in continual decisions
between various incompatible but equally legitimate conceptualizations;
that these decisions may be highly parochial, in that they may be tailored to
certain context-speci¬c needs and interests of ours; that they may be hard-
earned, in that they may involve us in intensive conceptual and empirical

10 See esp. Williams (1978), pp. 64“65. For further discussion see ibid., pp. 65“68, 211“
212, 239, 245“249, and 300“303; Williams (1985), pp. 138“140; Blackburn (1994); Dancy
(1993), ch. 9, §2; Heal (1989), §7.2; Hookway (1995); Jardine (1980); Jardine (1995); Putnam
(1992), ch. 5; and Strawson (1989), Appendix B.
11 Moore (1997a), Ch. 4, §3. I may, however, attach less substance than Williams does to the
relation between a conception of reality that is not from any point of view and science. I
take it to be more or less a de¬ning characteristic of science that, if a conception of reality
that is not from any point of view can be couched at all, then it can be couched in scienti¬c
terms: see ibid., pp. 75“76.
12 Ibid., ch. 4, §1. I say “in effect” because I was arguing for a conclusion that is a slight
variation on Williams™ conclusion; but I think the differences are inessential. (I was not
concerned with completeness. Contrast Williams™ de¬nition of the absolute conception in
Williams [1978], p. 65 with what I say in my ibid., p. 64.)
13 See Moore (1997a), p. 64. Cf. also ibid., pp. 95“96. (There is a hint that this is Williams™
conclusion in Korsgaard [1996], p. 68. But it is only a hint. What Korsgaard goes on to say
seems to me to show great exegetical sensitivity.)
28 A. W. Moore

endeavour; and that it may take long-term active participation and com-
mitment on our part both to sustain these decisions vis-` -vis their rivals
and to implement them in the joint process of representing how things are
and justifying our representations. McDowell, writing about the absolute
conception, caricatures it as involving a picture of “science as a mode of
inquiry in which the facts can directly imprint themselves on our minds,
without need of mediation by anything as historically conditioned and open
to dispute as canons of good and bad scienti¬c argument.”14 That is sim-
ply unfair. (It is unfair even apart from the point I am making about rival
conceptualizations. Williams nowhere denies the need for mediation of the
sort McDowell describes in discovering what the facts are, that is in apply-
ing whatever conceptual apparatus is in play. It is not clear, in fact, that
even if Williams had been committed to there being uniquely privileged
God-given concepts, he would have had to deny the need for mediation of
the sort McDowell describes in discovering what they are.)
Even more unfair, it seems to me, is the related but further idea, all
but embraced by McDowell, that the possibility of the absolute conception
entails what Davidson calls “a dualism of scheme and content”15 “ a dual-
ism that Davidson, McDowell, and others have done so much to discredit.16
Scheme, according to this dualism, is constituted by concepts; content is that
extraconceptual element in reality which we seek to capture, by an impo-
sition of our concepts on it, whenever we represent things to be a certain
way. Content is something that we passively receive. Concepts, by contrast,
are things that we actively exercise.17 The reason why the possibility of the
absolute conception is thought to entail this dualism is, precisely, that it is
thought to require uniquely privileged God-given concepts, where part of
what uniquely privileges these concepts is in turn thought to be that they
constitute a scheme which is, in McDowell™s words, “peculiarly transpar-
ent, so that content comes through undistorted.”18 But we need not accept
that the possibility of the absolute conception requires uniquely privileged
God-given concepts. And even if we did accept this, we need not accept
that what uniquely privileges the concepts has to be characterized in terms
of scheme and content “ still less, in terms of “transparent” scheme and
“undistorted” content.19

14 McDowell (1986), p. 380.
15 Davidson (1984). See esp. pp. 187 and 189.
16 See, e.g., ibid., passim; McDowell (1994), passim; and Rorty (1980), esp. ch. VI, §5. See also
Rorty (1991b), pp. 138“139.
17 See again McDowell (1994), passim. See also Child (1994).
18 McDowell (1986), p. 381.
19 Cf. Williams (1995b), p. 209.
Realism and the Absolute Conception

I see no reason, then, to think that Williams™ conclusion entails any
scheme/content dualism. A different worry, which is worth pausing to
address, is that his premise entails such a dualism. Does not the idea that
knowledge is of a reality that exists independently of that knowledge entail
that it is of something extraconceptual, something on which we impose our
concepts whenever we know anything to be the case?
No. Williams™ premise is that knowledge is of a reality that exists inde-
pendently of being known, not independently of being knowable.20 It does
nothing to foreclose the possibility that what is known is essentially con-
ceptual. In fact, it is really nothing but a kind of schematic summary of such
commonplaces as this: even if no-one had known that e = mc 2 , it would still
have been the case that e = mc 2 .21 This commonplace certainly allows for
the fact that e = mc 2 to be, in McDowell™s words again, “essentially capable
of being embraced in thought in exercises of spontaneity [that is, in exer-
cises of conceptual capacities].”22 (Indeed “ although this is not really to the
point as far as Williams™ premise is concerned “ it allows for this without
in any way prejudicing the thought that our knowledge that e = mc 2 may
be part of the absolute conception.23 )
I have suggested that representing things from no point of view can
still leave room for decisions between rival conceptualizations. What sort
of thing do I have in mind? I have in mind the sort of thing that Quine
has in mind when he suggests that a pair of scienti¬c theories might be
“empirically equivalent,” in the sense that “whatever observation would be
counted for or against the one theory counts equally for or against the
other,” yet such that each involves “theoretical terms not reducible to” the
other™s.24 He later has a splendid analogy to illustrate this. He writes:

[Irresolubly rival systems of the world] describe one and the same world.
Limited to our human terms and devices, we grasp the world variously. I
think of the disparate ways of getting at the diameter of an impenetrable
sphere: we may pinion the sphere in calipers or we may girdle it with a tape
measure and divide by pi, but there is no getting inside.25

20 For the importance of this distinction, cf. McDowell (1994), p. 28.
21 “Commonplace,” as I suggested in note 4, does not preclude opposition. For an especially
stark example of opposition to just this sort of idea (that even if no one had known that p,
it would still have been the case that p), see Heidegger (1962), §44(c).
22 McDowell (1994), p. 28.
23 Cf. Child (1994), pp. 61“62.
24 Quine (1990), §§41“42. The quoted material occurs on pp. 96“97.
25 Quine (1990), p. 101. (This analogy, incidentally, is curiously equivocal as far as the dualism
of scheme and content is concerned. It can be construed in such a way as to provide further
ammunition against the dualism. But it can also be construed in such a way as to provide
support for it. Quine himself, as it happens, is not hostile to the dualism: see Quine [1981c].
For criticisms of Quine on this matter see McDowell [1994], Afterword, Pt. I.)
30 A. W. Moore

Suppose now that we have our own system of the world but are also aware
of such a rival. (This may be because our choices between conceptualizations
have been quite conscious.) Quine raises the question of what we are to say
about the rival. He distinguishes two attitudes that we can take. The sectarian
attitude, as he calls it, is to repudiate the alien concepts and to regard the
rival system as empirically warranted nonsense. (For Quine, this is not the
oxymoron it sounds. “Empirically warranted nonsense” is, very roughly,
nonsense which, if it did count as sense, would also have the right sort of
connection with experience to count as true.) The ecumenical attitude is to
acknowledge the alien concepts and to regard the rival system as simply
Two very powerful forces in Quine™s philosophy have made him vacillate
over the years between these alternatives. His naturalism has inclined him
toward sectarianism. His empiricism has inclined him toward ecumenism.
By his naturalism, I mean his conviction that there is no higher authority,
when it comes to deciding what is true, than whatever has in fact led us to
adopt our own system of the world. By his empiricism, I mean his conviction
that there is no other evidence for the truth of a system than its empirical
warrant: systems answer to nothing but experience.27
He has eventually settled for sectarianism.28 This is surely the right
alternative for Quine. After all, in the case in which we are aware of an empir-
ically equivalent rival system to our own, whose concepts are not incom-
mensurable with ours, he is committed to regarding the rival as, however
warranted, false.29 His sectarianism nevertheless leaves him uncomfortable.

26 Quine (1990), §42; and Quine (1986), pp. 156“157. (Note: on p. 156 of the latter he
characterizes sectarianism as the view that the rival system is false rather than nonsense. But
this is an aberration. It is subverted on the very next page.) Taking the ecumenical attitude
would not commit us ever to exercising the alien concepts. If we chose not to, this would
be a little like regarding empirically warranted French sentences as true but choosing only
to speak in English. Taking the sectarian attitude would be a little like regarding English
as the only real language.
27 For an example of a swing to sectarianism, see Quine (1981a), pp. 21“22. For an example
of a swing to ecumenism, see the ¬rst edition of Quine (1981b), p. 29. (This is corrected
in later editions. The earlier version is quoted in Gibson [1986], p. 153, n. 2.)
28 Quine (1990), p. 100; and Quine (1986), p. 157. (This explains the correction referred to
in n. 27.) Cf. Rorty (1991a), §2.
29 The possibility of empirically warranted false systems is an immediate corollary of his thesis
that truth is underdetermined by evidence. See Quine (1969), pp. 302“303, in which he
also distinguishes between mere underdetermined truth and indeterminacy. For further
discussion, see Moore (1997b). (Note: Davidson is surely wrong to claim, as he does in
Davidson [2001], p. 76, n. 4, that “Quine has changed his mind on the issue [whether
there can be empirically equivalent, but incompatible, theories] more than once.” The
issue on which he has changed his mind is not that, but what the best construal of such
theories is.)
Realism and the Absolute Conception

He recognizes the invidiousness of regarding one system as true and another
as nonsense, even though there is no cosmically telling between them and
even though it is nothing but a kind of historical accident that one of these
systems has our allegiance rather than the other. So he is keen to remind us
that we can change our allegiance. The sectarian, he tells us,

is as free as the ecumenist to oscillate between the two [systems]. . . . In his
sectarian way he does deem the one [system] true and the alien terms of the
other meaningless, but only so long as he is entertaining the one [system]
rather than the other. He can readily shift the shoe to the other foot.30

This is not to concede, along with the ecumenist, that both systems should
be regarded as true. It is not even to concede that both systems can be
regarded as true. But it is to concede that each system can be regarded as
true. And, as Quine himself admits, to concede this is but one terminological
step away from conceding ecumenism. After all, ecumenists and sectarians
alike are agreed that, whichever system has our allegiance, we must pay the
rival system every compliment we can, short of giving it too our allegiance.
Does anything of substance hang on whether this includes calling the rival
system “true”?
But then, come to that, does anything of substance hang on which system
has our allegiance? It now looks melodramatic to suggest, as I did earlier,
that, when we have decided between two rival conceptualizations, long-
term active participation and commitment on our part may be required to
sustain our decision vis-` -vis its alternative. It even looks melodramatic to
describe the two conceptualizations as “incompatible.” In what sense are
they incompatible?
Well, they are incompatible in the sense that the concepts involved must
lead their own separate and independent lives. Or, a little more prosaically,
they are incompatible in the sense that it is impossible to exercise concepts
in accord with one conceptualization except at the expense of doing so in
accord with the other.31 What may require long-term active participation
and commitment is, not upholding the selected conceptualization in a way
that downplays the other, which is something we have no reason to do, but
upholding the selected conceptualization in a way that prevents interference

30 Quine (1990), p. 100.
31 This does not rule out the possibility of combining the concepts by brute aggregation “
that is, by ¬rst producing a representation in accord with one conceptualization, then
conjoining a representation in accord with the other “ although sectarians, of course, will
deny even that possibility.
32 A. W. Moore

from the other.32 To select, maintain, and implement a conceptualization
requires keeping any rivals clearly in focus as rivals. This can take hard work.
And it is this that constitutes giving allegiance to the conceptualization, or
to any system that uses it. So yes; much of substance hangs on which system
has our allegiance; and we had better be clear about which does.
The problem now is that operating with one conceptualization rather
than another, in the scienti¬c case that we have been considering, is begin-
ning to look very much like operating with one set of thick ethical concepts
rather than another. Does not the indulgence that Quine says we should
show to an empirically warranted rival system of the world, and that I have
agreed we should show, smack very much of the indulgence that Williams
says we can show to judgments involving thick ethical concepts that we do
not ourselves share?33 How then can we say that neither of the two rival
scienti¬c systems is from a point of view?
Admittedly, there is one obvious and important difference between the
scienti¬c case and the ethical case, re¬‚ected in Quine™s lax sectarianism. On
Quine™s view, as we have seen, we are free to shift our allegiance back and
forth between the two scienti¬c systems. Indeed he cites a possible bene¬t
in our doing so (although, disconcertingly for my purposes, he describes
the bene¬t as “an enriched perspective on nature”34 ). The ethical analogue
is much harder to envisage. Oscillations between social worlds may be pos-
sible, either for individuals or, very differently, for groups. They may occur
as a result of a kind of restlessness, or a kind of uncon¬dence, or even a
kind of “ethical experimentation.”35 But this sort of thing is necessarily
more awkward, more disorderly, and altogether more demanding than its
scienti¬c counterpart, as well as having much less clearly de¬ned criteria
of success. I agree with Williams when he calls it a “wild exaggeration” to
assimilate adopting a scienti¬c system with living in a social world. What
makes two social worlds incompatible is far more radical than what makes


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