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two scienti¬c conceptualizations incompatible, even when each world is, in
Williams™ terms, a “real option” for some group of people.36


32 It is as if we were French purists who had nothing against English but wanted to banish
Franglais.
33 Williams (1985), pp. 140 ff. (Note that Williams™ indulgence, unlike Quine™s, is ecumenical.
In suitably favourable circumstances, Williams thinks, we can regard a judgment involving
an alien thick ethical concept as true.)
34 Quine (1986), p. 157. (I see no reason, incidentally, to think that the possibility of shifting
our allegiance in this way detracts from the importance of keeping each system at bay while
trying to maintain our allegiance to the other.)
35 Williams (1985), p. 157.
36 Ibid., pp. 160 ff. See also, in greater detail, Williams (1981).
33
Realism and the Absolute Conception


But the problem remains. “More radical,” “harder to envisage,” “more
demanding”: these all indicate differences of degree. But what is required
is a difference of kind. We need some independent handle on the idea that
social worlds do, and scienti¬c conceptualizations do not, furnish different
points of view.



3. WHAT THE ARGUMENT FOR THE POSSIBILITY OF THE ABSOLUTE
CONCEPTION REQUIRES

It seems to me that the best handle on this is given by the very argument for
the possibility of the absolute conception. That is, I think we best under-
stand the content of Williams™ conclusion, and of the intended contrast
between science and ethics that goes with it, if we look at them in the con-
text of the argument that he gives for that conclusion.37 Understanding the
argument in turn, of course, requires understanding its premise, the under-
lying realism. And I have already indicated that one of my aims in this essay
is to see what we can learn about the premise from the conclusion. Am I
therefore involved in a vicious circle? In a circle, yes; in a vicious circle, I
think not. What Williams is presenting us with, it seems to me, is a package
of ideas that need to be understood together.
This package is roughly as follows. All knowledge answers ultimately
to a uni¬ed, substantial, autonomous reality which can, in principle, be
conceived as such. To conceive it as such is to form a single conception
of it such that, for any item of knowledge, the conception indicates what
makes that item of knowledge true;38 more to the point, for any two items
of knowledge, the conception indicates what makes both those items of
knowledge true, in such a way that it can be used in an account of how they
cohere. This means that the conception cannot be from the same point of
view as any given item of knowledge. For if it were, it would not be able
to indicate, with the detachment necessary to be used in this way, what
makes both that item of knowledge and an item of knowledge from an


37 Cf. Moore (1997a), pp. 82“83.
38 By “indicates” here, I do not mean “makes reference to”; I mean something more like
“expresses.” Thus consider someone who knows that the earth orbits the sun. In order
to indicate the fact that makes this item of knowledge true, the conception must actually
incorporate the claim that the earth orbits the sun “ or else a set of claims that entail that
the earth orbits the sun. It cannot just incorporate some claim about the fact that makes
this item of knowledge true, for instance the claim that the item of knowledge is made true
by the fact which Copernicus famously established. For (part of) the signi¬cance of this
distinction, see further later, esp. n. 56.
34 A. W. Moore


incompatible point of view true. So the conception cannot itself be from
any point of view. Science is able to provide this conception.39
We can now see why social worlds are thought to furnish different points
of view in a way in which scienti¬c conceptualizations do not. The idea is
this. Given two scienti¬c systems of the world, of the sort considered in the
previous section, there is no impediment to using the conceptual resources
of one to indicate (non-reductively) what makes the other true; nor to using
this indication of what makes the other true in giving an account of how the
two systems cohere. By contrast, given two incompatible social worlds, even
if (improbably) it is possible to use the thick ethical concepts associated with
one to indicate what makes an item of knowledge involving the thick ethical
concepts associated with the other true, it is out of the question to use this
indication of what makes the second item of knowledge true in giving an
account of how the two items of knowledge cohere. To give an account of
how the two items of knowledge cohere, and in particular to frame that part
of the account that indicates what makes both the items of knowledge true,
requires at the very least the sort of detachment from either social world that
would be needed to indulge in some suitably re¬‚ective history, psychology,
and/or anthropology. (I am not now trying to defend the position, just to
clarify it.)
This, of course, is highly reminiscent of the idea that initiated this
discussion: the idea that the best re¬‚ective explanation of our having what-
ever ethical knowledge we have, unlike the best re¬‚ective explanation of our
having whatever scienti¬c knowledge we have, cannot directly vindicate it.
But the two ideas are not the same. There was no reference in what I just
said to explanation. Indicating what makes an item of knowledge true is
different from explaining how a given individual or a given group has come
by the knowledge. The former typically falls short of the latter.40 Williams™
focus on explanation introduces something not present in the original argu-
ment for the possibility of the absolute conception, something that, at least


39 For ampli¬cation, see my ibid., esp. ch. 4, §3. (Why think that science can provide the
conception? See n. 11: for me, this is more or less a matter of de¬nition; for Williams, it
may be a more substantial matter.)
40 But as regards that part of the explanation that concerns how the individual or the group
in question has actually acquired the belief “ no matter that it constitutes knowledge “
the latter typically falls short of the former. It would be setting absurdly high standards to
expect a good re¬‚ective explanation of how I have come by my belief that water contains
hydrogen, for instance, to extend any further back than the various reference books and
other authorities that have led me to believe this. (But the best re¬‚ective explanation of how
I have come by my knowledge that water contains hydrogen “ and of how, in particular, it
counts as knowledge “ would have to extend all the way back to the fact that water contains
hydrogen. Some critics of Williams perhaps miss this crucial distinction. See, e.g., Quinn
[1993], §II, esp. p. 140; and Rorty [1991a], §4, esp. pp. 57“58.)
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Realism and the Absolute Conception


as far as this current discussion is concerned, is actually both a complication
and an irrelevance.
But is it perhaps more than that? Does it perhaps stand in some tension
with the original argument? The original argument requires that, for any
item of knowledge, it should be possible to indicate, from no point of view,
what makes that item of knowledge true. The appeal to explanation suggests
that there are some items of knowledge, involving thick ethical concepts,
such that it is impossible to say anything, from no point of view, that directly
vindicates them. Do these not tell against each other?41
I do not think so. The word “directly” is vital. What is precluded, in the
case of an item of knowledge involving thick ethical concepts, is exercise,
from no point of view, of those very concepts. This is enough to prevent any
direct indication, from no point of view, of what is known. But it leaves open
the possibility of telling a story, from no point of view, whose consequences,
in some nontrivial but suitably relaxed sense of “consequences,” include
the fact that things are as they are thereby known to be.42 The original
argument requires nothing, it seems to me, that is threatened by the appeal
to explanation.
Note, incidentally, that in order to give a full account of how two items
of knowledge from incompatible points of view cohere, it is necessary to go
beyond the resources of the absolute conception. The absolute conception
can supply part of this account, certainly. In particular, it can indicate what
makes the items of knowledge both true; that is of its very essence. But
it cannot indicate, on its own, how either of them is made true (how, for
instance, the point of view of either contributes to its having whatever
content it has). To give a full account of that requires exercise of such
concepts as the concept of knowledge and the concept of content, neither of
which can be exercised except from some sort of psychosocial point of view.
A fortiori the absolute conception cannot, on its own, explain how a given
individual or a given group has come by either of the items of knowledge. It
cannot, on its own, explain how a given individual or a given group has come
by any item of knowledge. In particular, it cannot, on its own, explain how we
have come by it. Another common misconstrual of Williams™ position is to
think that he does demand this of the absolute conception; that he takes the
absolute conception “to explain itself.”43 Williams himself is partly to blame

41 This is in effect the criticism that I levelled against Williams in Moore (1991). I have tried
to correct what I say there in Moore (2003): see esp. n. 20.
42 This is an allusion to the notion of “weak entailment,” and to the attendant contrast between
endorsement and indirect endorsement, that I use in Moore (1997a): see pp. 15“16, and cf.
also pp. 35“36.
43 Cf. Moore (1997a), p. 65. Culprits are Putnam, in Putnam (1992), p. 98; and Quinn, in
Quinn (1993), p. 136.
36 A. W. Moore


for this misconstrual, because of some occasional incautious formulations
of a demand that he does make. At one point, for instance, he says that
“the substance of the absolute conception . . . lies in the idea that it could
nonvacuously explain how it itself . . . [is] possible.”44 For the most part,
however, he is careful to insist that all the absolute conception need do is
to include part of a good re¬‚ective explanation of how we have come by
it: it must “help to explain . . . our capacity to grasp [it].”45 The reason for
this more circumspect demand is precisely the fact that a good re¬‚ective
explanation of how we have come by any given knowledge must be from
some sort of psychosocial point of view. Williams is well aware of this,
despite the impression that his critics sometimes give.46 There is of course
the further question, which part of the explanation the absolute conception
must include. The answer, I take it, is that insofar as our grasp of the
absolute conception involves our being sensitive to the fact that things are
a certain way, it must include that part of the explanation which says that
things are indeed that way “ which it will trivially do. As far as the rest of
the explanation is concerned, the most that we can demand of the absolute
conception “ although we can indeed demand this “ is that it should stand
in some intelligible relation, presumably some relation of consequence of
the sort mentioned earlier, to the psychological and sociological elements
in it that explain our actual sensitivity to how things are.47
However that may be, I repeat that the best handle on Williams™ notion
of the absolute conception is given by the very argument for its possibility.
What the absolute conception is is that which the argument for the pos-
sibility of the absolute conception is an argument for the possibility of. It
is a conception, in other words, that can indicate what makes any given
items of knowledge true, in such a way as to form part of an account of how
they are made true, even when they are from incompatible points of view; a
conception ¬t to sustain our sense of what is known as what is there anyway.
And our sense of what is known as what is there anyway is that which the
absolute conception is a conception ¬t to sustain.
I do not pretend that such interdependencies are to be regarded with
complete nonchalance. Close scrutiny of Williams™ argument, and of every-
thing he says in connection with it, is required to ensure that these particular
interdependencies constitute a useful and robust structure. But I am certain
they do. My point here is simply that the structure has no right way up.

44 Williams (1985), p. 139.
45 Ibid., p. 140, my emphasis.
46 See, e.g., Williams (1978), pp. 301“303, and Williams (1985), p. 140. One critic who
suggests that he is not aware of this is Putnam: see Putnam (1992), p. 100.
47 See further Williams (1978), pp. 245“246.
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Realism and the Absolute Conception


4. REALISM AND ITS VARIANTS

The structure is a conceptual structure. To make use of it is to operate
with certain concepts, most notably a certain concept of knowledge and a
certain concept of reality. Someone might elect not to operate with these
concepts. This would involve, among other things, rejecting the funda-
mental propositions that hold the structure together. In particular, it would
mean rejecting the realism. That is certainly something that someone might
do. However, although the realism can be rejected in this way, there is an
important sense in which it cannot be denied. To deny it would be, not to
repudiate the concepts in whose terms it is couched, but rather (on the con-
trary) to appropriate those concepts and to repudiate the realism itself “ to
count the realism as false. And that is not something that anyone who fully
understands the realism can do. To appropriate those concepts is, among
other things, to acknowledge the truth of the realism. If someone appears to
deny that knowledge is of a reality that exists independently of being known,
then this only goes to show that he or she is not really “ not properly “ oper-
ating with the concepts of knowledge and reality with which Williams is
operating. We can compare this with the case of someone who appears to
deny a principle of Euclidean geometry, say the principle that between any
two points there is at most one straight line. This only goes to show that
he or she is not really “ not properly “ operating with Euclidean concepts.
To be sure, there may be good reason for not doing so. There may be good
reason for operating with variant concepts instead. Thus, as is well known,
there are non-Euclidean geometries that entitle us to say, “There can be
two points between which there is more than one straight line.” Moreover,
it is to these variants of Euclidean geometry that we should turn, rather than
to Euclidean geometry itself, in order to ¬nd the best tools for describing
physical space. I am not ruling out the possibility that there is some similar
variant of Williams™ conceptual structure that provides the best tools for
undertaking some metaphysical task. But if this variant entitles us to say,
“Knowledge is of a reality that depends on being known,” then it cannot
involve exactly the same concepts of knowledge and reality as those which
Williams is using.48

48 This is related to what I mean in Moore (1997a) by my repeated insistence that Williams™
realism, encapsulated in what I there call the Basic Assumption, cannot be justi¬ed (e.g.,
pp. 107, 109, and 188“189). It cannot be justi¬ed because there is no issue about whether it
is true. See further Moore (1999). (Note: when I suggested in n. 4 that Williams™ realism is
no more than the intuitive deliverance of re¬‚ective common sense, I did not mean that such
variants are impossible. My point was rather that the concepts that Williams is using are
concepts that we habitually and naturally use; and that, granted these concepts, Williams™
realism emerges as a basic conceptual truth.)
38 A. W. Moore


What alternatives are there? (There are alternatives that involve repu-
diating any concepts that so much as resemble these of course. Some par-
ticularly radical philosophers do advocate such alternatives. But I mean:
what alternatives are there that are suf¬ciently close to Williams™ structure
to count as variants of it, in the way in which non-Euclidean geometries
count as variants of Euclidean geometry?)
The most familiar, perhaps, are various species of idealism, in which the
term “reality” stands for something that does depend for its existence, or
for some of its essential characteristics, on being known. But there are also
non-idealistic variants in which what is overturned is not the knowledge-
independence of that which is termed “reality” but its unity. To see the sort
of thing that these latter variants involve, we need to look more closely at
the role that unity plays in Williams™ realism. And it is here especially that
the conclusion of his argument “ that the absolute conception is possible “
can help us.
What the conclusion reveals is the following fundamental principle at
the heart of Williams™ realism. Given any two items of knowledge, or more
generally, given any two true representations of reality, it is possible to

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