A Proof for Moral Realism: Part B



In the last chapter we were concerned to argue that if moral facts did not exist, then epistemic facts did not exist. This is the first premise in Cuneo’s Argument for moral realism. Let us recount Cuneo’s Argument:

  1. If moral facts do not exist, epistemic facts do not exist.
  2. Epistemic facts exist.
  3. So, moral facts exist.
  4. Therefore, moral realism is true.

We were concerned to define exactly what Cuneo takes moral realism and epistemic realism to mean, and we argued that there are four important similarities between moral facts and epistemic facts so defined, and that this establishes the first premise of Cuneo’s Argument.

Cuneo also adds an extra premise to his argument in Chapter 3 of The Normative Web. It is called the Parity Premise. It is concerned to argue that if moral facts do not have several kinds of objectionable features that moral antirealists point out that they have, then nothing in nature can have them. Therefore moral facts do not exist, because they are argued to have the features. The consequence of this argument is that because epistemic facts also share these objectionable features with moral facts, as shown in Defending the Parallel, then epistemic facts do not exist either.

Because recounting Cuneo’s argument throughout another chapter would be laborious and a waste of time, considering it has been done in Cuneo’s book already, we will very quickly describe what the various antirealist objections to moral facts are, and assume that Cuneo has successfully established this final argumentation in establishing that if moral facts did not exist, neither would epistemic facts.

The various features of moral facts to which antirealists object are the following:

  1. Moral facts are ‘queer’ entities;
  2. Moral facts are intrinsically motivating;
  3. Moral facts are categorical in nature, or imply categorical reasons;
  4. Moral facts require a magical story about how we gain cognitive access to them;
  5. Moral facts ‘don’t explain anything’, or fail to play a wide range of explanatory roles in nature;
  6. Specific moral facts are the subject and foundation of great disagreement. Only facts that everyone agree about can be objective.

As I said above, I will not rehearse Cuneo’s arguments against these three objections about moral facts. These arguments are not relevant for this thesis. The point of these first two chapters of this thesis is to present the substance of Cuneo’s Argument for moral realism. The first chapter of this thesis, where we recounted Cuneo’s Defending the Parallel, gives us enough reason to reject these arguments. We established that moral facts and epistemic facts are virtually identical entities. Therefore if moral facts supposedly have these features, so do epistemic facts.

As Cuneo shows, these objections are either not troubling, as in the case of categorical reasons, or premised on unsound arguments, such as objection 4, about cognitive access, and objection 5, about explanatory roles. For reference, please see Chapter 3 of The Normative Web for Cuneo’s actual arguments.

In this chapter we will perform an argument by elimination that epistemic facts do irreducibly exist. By examining and rejecting the most popular types of epistemic antirealism, I hope to prove that epistemic realism must be accepted. There are broadly three kinds of epistemic antirealism: epistemic nihilism, epistemic expressivism, and epistemic reductionism. Epistemic antirealism is an unpopular position in analytic philosophy, but the purpose of this chapter is not so much to reject epistemic nihilism but argue from analogy that if one was committed to moral antirealism, they would also have to be committed to epistemic antirealism. Therefore, what we are really discussing are analogues to moral antirealism reflected into epistemic realism.

Epistemic anti-realism is the position that claims or propositions that aim to describe or explain knowledge about the world do not successfully achieve this aim. By contrast, epistemic realism maintains that it is possible to make successful claims—have proper knowledge—about the world. The flow-on commitment to which epistemic anti-realism commits the anti-realist is that one must be sceptical about the external world. Epistemic anti-realism might commit one to a kind of subjectivism about knowledge about the external world. It might also commit one to projectivism, just as some have embraced this position with respect to moral propositions. As we will see below, if one were to adopt a non-traditional expressivist attitude towards epistemic facts, one would say that there are quasi-facts about the external world, but not full-blooded facts.

In this chapter we will consider the most popular form of anti-realism about moral entities in its epistemic analogue—expressivism. There also exists epistemic reductionism as a kind of anti-realism about knowledge, but that is not the chief focus of this thesis. In any case, the most popular moral anti-realist position adopted when analytic philosophers embrace bald naturalism is expressivism about morality. Focusing closely on this position will aid our discussion of John McDowell’s philosophy in the next part of this thesis greatly. This is because McDowell is concerned to address the very popular position of moral expressivism.

The point of this chapter is to show that opponents of moral antirealism don’t have a case: we should reject their position. The overall purpose of this chapter, therefore, is to finish the second part of Cuneo’s Argument, which will prove the conclusion that moral realism is true. By proving the conclusion of Cuneo’s Argument, we will prove the key premise of the Core Argument of first chapter. This will in turn prove the conclusion of the Core Argument. The conclusion is that bald naturalism is false and should be rejected.

Cuneo achieves this aim by showing that epistemic expressivism, be it in the form of traditional, strong expressivism, or weaker, non-traditional expressivism, fails to meet the Expressivist’s Challenge. This is position that starts off by claiming that realism about certain types of proposition are ontologically unparsimonious. They commit one to too much. It is awkward and undesirable to be committed to holding that there are entities and relations in the world that do particular things. Take moral facts for instance. Moral realists take it that certain speech acts or other kinds of behaviour commit scholars to holding that certain kinds of entities exist in the world. If they didn’t exist, the speech acts that people commit would not work properly, and human behaviour would be inexplicable.

The expressivist says we do not need to be commited to entities such as epistemic facts or moral facts, or any other kind of entity, abstract or inexplicable by science or otherwise. They argue that we can give full explanations of everything that people do in epistemic or moral discourse, just as realism tries to do, while not be committed to any of the same ontologies that realism is. The upshot of all of this is that expressivism maintains that the appearance that we may be engaging in a realist form of discourse about knowledge or morality is not massively in error. Expressivists argue that the correct analysis of, say, speech acts about knowledge is not epistemic nihilism, which holds that epistemic facts do not obtain and therefore certain kinds of speech acts are necessarily false. They argue that it is just fine to say that the human discourse has a realist appearance, although it is in fact not realist at all.

The challenge, therefore, is to give an account of how types of human discourse appear realist, but in reality are not. The whole manouver requires the expressivist to carefully avoid nihilism—which claims that there is even something massively false about the realist appearance of human discourse.

We will begin this chapter by outlining and carefully analysing epistemic nihilism. We will show that it is a highly undesirable position to hold with respect to discourse about knowledge. Then, in the rest of this chapter, we will systematically demonstrate how every kind of expressivism does not meet the Expressivist’s Challenge. We will show, following Cuneo, that every kind of epistemic expressivism collapses into nihilism. Expressivism of this kind cannot successfully avoid the conclusion that because certain types of discourse in reality fail to be realist, therefore their surface realist-seeming appearance must therefore be massively in error.

Epistemic Nihilism

The purpose of this part of the chapter is to outline and explain the terrible pitfull of anti-realism that every kind of anti-realist about certain kinds of discourse wants to avoid: nihilism. The anti-realist conclusion of nihilism about a certain kind of human discourse is that that discourse is massively in error in both appearance and reality. The prescriptive implication of nihilism is any discourses it admits of being massively in error should be cut out of human discourse completely. If this was moral discourse, nihilists would say there should be no more discourse about morality. If it was normativity, they would say there should be no more discourse about values.

In this part of the thesis we look at epistemic nihilism. The point of explaining epistemic nihilism is that if one is committed to moral nihilism, one should be commited to epistemic nihilism. This is because of the special effort we put into the first chapter of this thesis. Epistemic and moral discourse are so similar that if one is committed to a certain kind of anti-realism about one, they should be commited to anti-realism of the other.

By analysing nihilism carefully, we will be able to show how expressivism about epistemic discourse can’t avoid collapsing into it. Just as a great many philosophers commit themselves to moral expressivism, we can show that the corresponding epistemic expressivism they should be committed to actually commits them to a kind of global nihilism—and no-one would commit themselves to this position because it would say all of human rationality is massively in error and everything we know is nonsense.

Let’s begin our analysis of epistemic nihilism.

Epistemic nihilism is encompassed by a Speech Act Thesis, an Alethic Thesis, and an Ontic Thesis just like any form of epistemic realism. In fact this is how we will be dealing with every type of epistemic realism and antirealism. Every type of epistemic antirealism can be defined using these three types of theses, and our analysis will proceed by defining each type of epistemic antirealism like this.

Epistemic nihilists adopt the follow three theses:

The Epistemic Realist’s Speech Act Thesis: Some epistemic discourse is assertoric.

The Epistemic Nihilist’s Alethic Thesis: If the content of a predicative epistemic claim is true, then it is true in the realist sense, and no such content is true.

The Nihilist’s Alethic Thesis is explained by the Nihilist’s Ontic Thesis:

The Epistemic Nihilist’s Ontic Thesis: If there are any particular epistemic facts, then they are as the realist says, and there are no such facts (Cuneo, 2007: 116).

As one can observe, epistemic nihilists do not try to offer any sort of expressivist or deflationary account or reinterpretation of epistemic discourse. Epistemic discourse is, according to the nihilist’s account, generally as it seems: robustly assertoric. Further to this, as Cuneo explains, epistemic nihilists agree with epistemic realists insofar as they hold that deflationary and epistemic theories of truth should be rejected in favour of the realist conception of truth.

The First Undesirable Result

Cuneo says that analysing epistemic nihilism is important because the objections to which nihilism is vulnerable also apply to the other species of epistemic antirealism. These other types of epistemic antirealism attempt to avoid the pitfalls of epistemic nihilism, but as we shall see in the chapter, they also apply. Our analysis of every kind of epistemic antirealism is furthered a great deal if we carefully analyse and work out what is wrong with epistemic nihilism. So, being very thorough at looking at epistemic nihilism will help our overall task in this chapter greatly. The point of performing the discussion below is that each of the undesirable results of epistemic nihilism are so unattractive that any minimally adequate philosophical theory would try their best to avoid having such results.

The thesis that Cuneo develops is that epistemic nihilism is deeply unattractive because it implies what he calls ‘the three undesirable results’ (Cuneo, 2007: 117).

The first undesirable result of epistemic nihilism is that it results in a higher-order version of the ‘liars paradox’. If we hold to the epistemic nihilist’s ontic thesis, we have no reason to believe anything. But if this is the case, we have no reason to believe the epistemic nihilist’s ontic thesis either. This circularity results in one holding to a paradoxical belief, if one believes epistemic nihilism. This is a very undesirable result (Cuneo, 2007: 117).

If epistemic nihilists do hold that there are no epistemic reasons to believe their position, then their position is, as Cuneo says, “polemically toothless”: “no one would make a rational mistake in rejecting it and no one would be epistemically praiseworthy in accepting it” (Cuneo, 2007: 117). This leads to the First Undesirable Result:

The First Undesirable Result: Either epistemic nihilism is self-defeating and, hence, we have no (sufficient) reason to believe it, or, it implies that there are no epistemic reasons, and a fortiori, that we have no reason to believe it (Cuneo, 2007: 118).

The Second Undesirable Result

The second undesirable result emerges from looking at the second horn of the dilemma we found in the First Undesirable Result. Cuneo says that if we grasp the second horn of the dilemma above, we may not be committed to consequences as severe as grasping the first. Cuneo says, “at worst, it might seem to imply that epistemic nihilists are only committed to accepting a Moorean paradox of the following sort”:

(1) Epistemic nihilism is true, but there is no reason to believe it (Cuneo, 2007: 118).

Cuneo explains propositions such as (1) are not benign paradoxes but indeed real absurdities. He shows how this is true. He argues that what is happening in this apparent paradox is that the epistemic nihilist is not necessarily committing themselves to accepting both conjuncts of this proposition. They, Cuneo says, merely appear to be committed to a paradox because we ordinarily think we must accept both conjuncts of the proposition. What is actually happening when we assert this proposition is that the acceptance of the proposition expressed in its second conjunct undercuts the justification or warrant we might have for accepting the proposition in its first conjunct. And the type of justification or warrant in question seems to be epistemic in character—justification or warrant from the perspective of gaining truth. So, Cuneo argues, “if epistemic nihilists grasp the second horn of the dilemma, they appear committed to accepting a proposition, the mere acceptance of which guarantees that is is unjustified or unwarranted” (Cuneo, 2007: 118).

Cuneo argues that if this is the correct analysis of why accepting such a claim as (1) is absurd, we should not attribute to nihilists a benign paradoxical position. This is because nihilists who grasp the second horn of the dilemma deny that anything could have the property of being epistemically justified or warranted. If nihilism is true, a claim such as (1) cannot even rise to the level of a paradox. This may seem laborious and slightly absurd, but this is because a person accepting the claim that there is no reason to believe epistemic nihilism in no way serves as a justification for accepting epistemic nihilism (Cuneo, 2007: 119).

Cuneo concludes, however, that even if this analysis is correct,

[it] does not follow from this that (1) is not an instance of a Moorean paradox. Epistemic nihilism may be false, in which case the position would have the unenviable status of both being false and committing those who accept it to accepting Moorean paradoxical propositions (Cuneo, 2007: 119).

Cuneo will examine whether epistemic nihilism is false in virtue of the second horn of the dilemma in the Third Undesirable Result. For the time being, we have done enough analysis to work out the Second Undesirable Result. The second horn of the dilemma at the current stage of discussion implies a sweeping form of epistemological scepticism is true. Cuneo argues that

[for] if there are no epistemic facts or reasons, then none of our propositional attitudes can exhibit epistemic merits or demerits; none of our propositional attitudes can be justified, warranted, entitled, irrational, a case of knowledge, based on reasons, or the like (Cuneo, 2007: 119).

We can state the Second Undesirable Result formally:

The Second Undesirable Result: Either epistemic nihilism is self-defeating or it implies a radical version of epistemological scepticism according to which no entity can display an epistemic merit or demerit (Cuneo, 2007: 119).

The Third Undesirable Result

Cuneo takes it that it would be impossible to prove that epistemic nihilism is false, because any attempt to reject nihilism would lead to question-begging arguments. One would have to assume some facet of reality was true, and this would lead to endless question-begging claims.

This inability to produce non-question-begging arguments in favour of rejecting nihilism leads to its third undesirable result. This is that engaging with epistemic nihilism on its own terms implies that there are no arguments for anything at all. Take for instance the following argument Cuneo produces as an example of the question-begging nature of arguments against epistemic nihilism. Cuneo says that the position captured in the second horn of the dilemma discovered in the First Undesirable Result is that there are no epistemic reasons. He asks us to call this position ‘nihilism’, for short for the time being. Then, consider this argument:

(2) If nihilism is true, then radical scepticism is true. (3) Radical scepticism is false. (4) So, nihilism is false (Cuneo, 2007: 120).

Cuneo says we can consider this a sound argument, but that it fails as a non-question-begging argument. We can ask, quite rightly, how we could argue for these claims, against ‘nihilism’, that there are epistemic reasons, without being question-begging. Cuneo explains that

… suppose we accept the plausible view that, in the paradigmatic case, the premises of an argument are offered in support of its conclusion. … A statement’s being offered as evidential support for a conclusion, however, is just a matter of its being offered as a reason for accepting that conclusion. And, when all goes well, premises are reasons to accept a conclusion. This has two implications.

The first is that there are no non-question-begging arguments that could establish that nihilism is false. Were a person to press such an argument against nihilism, she would endeavour to establish that there are reasons by tacitly assuming that some statements provide evidential support to believe others. But—and this is the second implication—if nihilism were true, it would be impossible that there were premises of an argument that provide evidential support for its conclusion (Cuneo, 2007: 121).

So we have the Third Undesirable Result:

The Third Undesirable Result: Either epistemic nihilism is self-defeating or it implies that there could be no arguments for anything.

Epistemic Nihilism: Rationality Must Be False

The combination of these three undesirable results is that it would be impossible for what Cuneo calls a ‘minimally rational agent’ to exist. A minimally rational agent is what Cuneo refers to as an agent who at least takes themselves to have reasons for believing what they do (Cuneo, 2007: 123). Epistemic nihilism doesn’t just imply that agents cannot be minimally rational, but that agents cannot be rational at all. There is no reason to believe, know, assert, contend, argue, conclude, or justify anything, according to an epistemic nihilist. The undesirable results of epistemic nihilism should be so incredibly unattractive that no philosopher would ever construct a system that caused that system to have these results. If such a system were to exist, it would mean that everything, even the theory putting forward this view, was necessarily utter nonsense. On the assumption that “ordinary agents have strong reason to be at least minimally rational”, Cuneo argues that it follows that such agents have strong reason to reject epistemic nihilism (Cuneo, 2007: 123).

Epistemic Expressivism: Traditional Views

Now we move on to the major part of this chapter. In the rest of the chapter I will demonstrate that epistemic expressivism collapses into epistemic nihilism. Performing this discussion is they keystone in the argument of this part of the thesis that being commited to moral anti-realism commits one to epistemic anti-realism.

Expressivism about moral discourse is the most popular and the most innovative position for so-called naturalists to hold. This part of the thesis should not only show that expressivism with respect to moral discourse collapses into nihilism, but that it also terminates in being commited to epistemic nihilism as well.

Cuneo divides the next type of epistemic antirealism into two categories. These are traditional and nontraditional epistemic expressivism. Expressivism is a difficult position with which to engage because it has been developed in incredibly varied ways, and as a result has become a very resourceful position for antirealists. Cuneo opts to trace the position through a series of permutations divided into two camps, traditional and nontraditional expressivism. He starts with the types of expressivism least accommodating of realist appearances of ordinary epistemic thought, right through to those types which are the most accommodating of realism.

In this section of this chapter we will rehearse Cuneo’s arguments for the former type of expressivism: those most hostile to realism, traditional expressivism.

The next section of the chapter turns to consider nontraditional expressivism, which is divided into minimalism and maximalism. Every permutation of expressivism we consider in the rest of this chapter closer and closer resembles epistemic realism. In order to better complete the Expressivist’s Challenge, expressivism borrows more from moral realism, and comes to closer resemble it. In this way, maximalism is the most realist-seeming form of anti-realism about epistemic discourse.

In any case, let us begin our discussion with the expressivism that is the most hostile to realism: what Cuneo calls traditional expressivism. Cuneo outlines traditional expressivism as being comprised of the following four commitments:

The Expressivist’s Ontic Thesis: There are no epistemic facts.

The Expressivist’s Alethic Thesis: The contents of none of our epistemic claims are true in the realist sense.

The Expressivist’s Speech Act Thesis: When an agent sincerely utters a predicative epistemic sentence, that agent does not thereby assert an epistemic proposition, but rather (at least) performs some other speech act as expressing an attitude of endorsement, approval, condemnation, disapproval, or the like toward a non-epistemic state of affairs.

The Expressivist’s Guiding Rationale: Avoid an error-theoretic account of ordinary epistemic discourse (while also avoiding a commitment to epistemic realism).

It can be observed that the Ontic and Alethic theses of traditional epistemic expressivism are identical to those of epistemic nihilism. On the subject of the expressivist’s ontic thesis, Cuneo says expressivists themselves are divided on what the thesis actually implies. Some expressivists maintain that there are no epistemic facts whatsoever, while others claim that there are epistemic ‘facts’ in some more minimal sense of the term.

While the first two theses are identical with epistemic nihilism, expressivism differs with nihilism with its speech act thesis. To expressivists, ordinary epistemic discourse looks like proper assertoric discourse. The difference between realism and expressivism, however, is that expressivism denies that epistemic discourse is truth-apt. As Cuneo says,

expressivists deny that the surface form of epistemic discourse gives us very good reason to believe that it is genuinely assertoric epistemic discourse. We cannot, say expressivists, read off the linguistic function of some area of discourse simply by gazing at its surface syntax (Cuneo, 2007: 127).

The first three commitments, at this stage, encompass a wide range of epistemic expressivist positions such as emotivism, prescriptivism, norm-expressivism, quasi-realism, and assertoric nondescriptivism. What makes all of these positions expressivist is the fourth commitment of expressivism: their guiding rationale. The fourth commitment of expressivism is central to the position when it says that any view that implies that ordinary folk are massively in error about epistemic matters is unacceptable.

This, therefore, is the strategy of epistemic expressivism: Expressivists concede that epistemic realists are correct to say that, if expressivism were true, then there would be no proposition that there is a reason to believe in the sense that realists think of reasons. There is a second stage to their strategy however. In this second stage, expressivists deny that this conceding has any negative results on the grounds that expressivism captures everything we could plausibly mean when we say that a belief is rational, or that we have a reason to accept a proposition, or that a normative judgment is correct (Cuneo, 2007: 130).

Cuneo says this strategy amounts to what he calls ‘The Expressivist’s Challenge’. Expressivism aims to uproot and replace epistemic realism with a less problematic ontology. Expressivism considers the realist’s commitment to epistemic and moral facts is fantastic and magical, and tries to do away with any commitment to these entities, while trying to keep the every appearance of epistemic discourse intact. They have no problem with the fact epistemic discourse seems assertoric, but they admit that epistemic nihilism is an entirely unattractive and problematic position. So the Expressivist’s Challenge is to

Offer a construal of epistemic discourse consistent with expressivism that captures everything that we could plausibly mean by the standard and sincere use of epistemic locutions, but does not imply that ordinary epistemic discourse is systematically in error (Cuneo, 2007: 131).

Following Cuneo, I will argue that traditional expressivism fails to succeed in fulfilling this challenge. Traditional expressivism cannot offer a construal of epistemic discourse that captures everything a realist construal could mean. Since expressivism fails to succeed in its challenge, Cuneo says “the view implies a version of epistemological scepticism that is no less objectionable than that implies by epistemic nihilism” (Cuneo, 2007: 131). This is the central thesis of this part of the chapter in rejecting traditional epistemic expressivism.

The arguments that Cuneo make are as follows: Cuneo presents a version of traditional expressivism, contending hat this view falls afoul of two very plausible claims about epistemic concept-application (Cuneo, 2007: 131). Then, in particular, Cuneo argues that traditional expressivism has a difficult time handling the phenomenon of second-order epistemic judgments (Cuneo, 2007: 131). If these two arguments are right, we will have to reject traditional expressivism as a successful epistemic antirealist position. If expressivism needs to successfully meet its challenge against realism, we will have to consider a nontraditional form of it to see if it fairs any better.


Traditional epistemic expressivism can be distinguished from other kinds of expressivism by understanding the Expressivist’s Ontic and Alethic Theses in a robust fashion. As Cuneo says, according to the traditional expressivist views, there are no epistemic facts of any sort, and the content of our epistemic discourse neither purports to represent epistemic reality, nor is truth-apt in any sense (Cuneo, 2007: 132).

We can develop Cuneo’s first objection to traditional expressivism by discussing what Cuneo considers to be the most sophisticated version of traditional expressivism, the norm-expressivist view developed by Gibbard in his Wise Choices, Apt Feelings.

Cuneo says Gibbard’s norm-expressivism is a version of traditional expressivism because it accepts a robust interpretation of the expressivist’s ontic and alethic theses, “while also championing the claim that epistemic discourse is not assertoric but expressive in character” (Cuneo, 2007: 132). Cuneo claimed earlier that a central rationale for embracing these positions is that expressivists want to avoid committing themselves to an error-theoretic account of epistemic discourse like epistemic nihilism does. But Gibbard goes further. He also offers an independent rationale in favour of the speech act thesis.

Gibbard argues that to claim that something is ‘rational’ is to endorse it in some way. The problem for Gibbard with epistemic realism, then, is that he views the assertoric nature of speech to be unable to properly fulfil this ability to endorse a claim as ‘rational’:

What, though, is the special element that makes normative thought and language normative? There is such an element, I am claiming, and it involves a kind of endorsement—and endorsement that any descriptivistic analysis treats inadequately. The problem is not merely that every time one loophole in the analysis is closed, others remain. It is that a single loophole remains unpluggable by descriptivistic analysis (Gibbard, 1990, 33).

Gibbard says that endorsing something as that which ‘makes sense’ is to accept a system of norms that permit that we do that thing. Cuneo says that to accept a system of norms of this kind is for an agent to make a rational ‘judgment’. But “what, though, does Gibbard mean by a ‘norm’?” Cuneo asks. Cuneo further asks, “what does he mean when he says that to make a normative judgment is to ‘accept’ a system of norms?” (Cuneo, 2007: 133).

Cuneo explains Gibbard’s answers to these questions. Gibbard doesn’t say much at all about what a norm is, but he does say a great deal about what it is to accept a norm:

For a person to accept a norm, in Gibbard’s view, is for that person to avow that norm and be governed by it. (Gibbard, 1990, 75). When a person accepts a norm, that acceptance plays a psychological role of a certain kind: That person is reliably motivated in certain ways in certain situations, tends to take particular stances in discussions of certain kinds, feels emotions of various sorts in certain kinds of circumstance, and so forth (Cuneo, 133-134).

Gibbard’s account of norms and norm acceptance says a lot about the subjective processes of epistemic discourse, but not a lot about what Cuneo calls the ‘objective pretensions’ of normative discourse. We have already seen that to accept a norm is to be psychologically governed by it, according to Gibbard, so that partially accounts for how normative discourse might seem ‘objective’. Gibbard adds three further qualifications to his theory of norm acceptance to help further account for how normative discourse might seem objective.

First, accepting a norm in epistemic discourse is supposed to be attitude-independent: “Anyone who takes a norm to constitute a requirement of rationality takes a norm to apply independently of his own accepting it” (Gibbard, 1990, 155). Second, norm acceptance is a multi-leveled phenomenon. When one accepts a norm as a requirement of rationality, one is also forced to accept norms of higher orders that require that norm’s acceptance. Third, and finally, accepting a norm is to make conversational demands of others. When someone accepts a norm, they demand that others accept what they are saying, and adopt the same state of mind that that agent espouses.

Further, Gibbard suggests that his argument about ‘rationality’ being the most primitive concept also bolsters his thickening of his expressivist account of the seeming objectivity of normative epistemic discourse. Gibbard says that for an agent to think that a judgment is ‘subjectively rational’ is for her to think its formation or maintenance makes sense in light of her limited information—in light of “what she knows, what she has reason to believe, and the degrees of plausibility she should ascribe to various eventualities given her information (Gibbard, 1990, 89). Cuneo says that

[by] contrast, for an agent to think that a judgment is ‘objectively rational’ is for her to think that it is advisable; it is what makes sense to believe in light of all the facts, whether or not she has any way of knowing them (Gibbard, 1990, 90; Cuneo, 2007: 136).

The Problem of Second-Order Epistemic Judgments

Cuneo argues that, never mind the fact that this theory of traditional epistemic expressivism does away with a realist conception of epistemic facts, and the content of our judgments about such facts, this paradigmatic case of traditional expressivism doesn’t adequately capture everything we could mean within a realist conception of assertoric discourse about epistemic facts. This is because traditional expressivism cannot adequately account for second-order epistemic judgments.

Cuneo argues that our ordinary epistemic discourse contains platitudes about epistemic facts that encourage a distinction between derivative and non-derivative epistemic merits. Something can be a ‘case of knowledge’, or can ‘rationally entitle someone’ to believe a fact even if it is derivative of some other piece of evidence. Cuneo formalises these platitudes in the following way:

The Prime Epistemic Platitude: Epistemic merit concepts properly apply to a mental state non-derivatively only if it expresses representational content.

The Prime Alethic Platitude: Alethic merit concepts properly apply to a mental state non-derivatively only if it is truth apt (Cuneo, 137).

Cuneo defines the concept of derivative and non-derivative epistemic merits in the following way:

x displays an epistemic merit F non-derivatively if an only if x is F, but not simply because x’s being F is evidence that there is some other entity y that displays an epistemic merit (or x’s being F is otherwise conducive to y’s displaying an epistemic merit).

x displays an epistemic merit F derivatively if and only if x if F, but not non-derivatively (Cuneo, 2007: 140).

Now Cuneo develops their point in the following way: suppose we take a judgment concerning a general epistemic norm—for example, a judgment that one ought to form one’s belief on the basis of adequate evidence. Suppose we call any judgment of this type a ‘first-order E-judgment’ (‘E’ for epistemic). Now, Cuneo says, take a second-order judgment of the following form:

S* judges of S’s first-order E-judgment,
that it is a case of knowledge,
that it is warranted,
that it is justified,
that it is rational,
that it is entitled,
that it (epistemically) ought to be accepted,

Call any such judgment a ‘second-order E-judgment’. A first-order E-judgment carries with it non-derivative epistemic merit, because it presumably carries alethic content which is truth apt, and robustly represents some truth-maker in the world. A second-order E-judgment is a type of derivative epistemic merit. That is because it refers and makes judgment derivatively on S’s first-order E-judgment. A second-order judgment applies the non-derivative merit to the first-order judgment with its formation.

There is a fundamental problem with the way traditional expressivism attempts to account for the way second order epistemic judgements. For example, the traditional expressivist says that to make a second-order E-judgment is just to accept higher-order norms which permit the holding of some first-order E-judgment. There is a problem with this construal of the content platitudes of Prime Epistemic Merit, and Prime Alethic Merit. Expressivism does not imply that first-order E-judgments carry alethic merit at all. Expressivism asserts that judgments are not in the business of representing reality. If this is the case, first-order E-judgments cannot be cases of non-derivative epistemic merit. If we follow traditional expressivism in construing the expressivist’s alethic and ontic theses robustly, it seems impossible that we could ever have second-order epistemic judgments. If we were a traditional epistemic expressivist, and we took second-order E-judgments to apply non-derivative alethic merit to first-order judgments, we could be committing a category error (Cuneo, 2007: 141). We would be systematically in error in our ordinary everyday epistemic discourse. The content platitudes we take for granted in our everyday doings and knowings would be systematically wrong, because expressivism explains that second-order E-judgments are wrong to attribute any kind of alethic merit to first-order E-judgments.

But traditional expressivism is not supposed to challenge the surface syntax of our everyday assertoric-seeming discourse. It is simply supposed to redescribe what we are doing without reference to the supposedly problematic ontology of realism. Expressivism says we are not systematically in error when we engage in everyday discourse, we really just don’t represent or refer to facts at all. But if we took second-order E-judgments not to apply non-derivative alethic merit to first-order E-judgments, like expressivism says we should not, then we cannot speak of second-order E-judgments as being epistemic judgments at all (Cuneo, 2007: 142-143). If we follow traditional expressivism’s assumptions to their logical conclusions, we can only speak of first-order E-judgments that have no alethic merit whatsoever.

The consequence of traditional expressivism not being able to accommodate second-order epistemic judgments is that it doesn’t capture everything we can mean when we engage in realist assertoric epistemic discourse. Traditional expressivism concludes we are in systematic error when we talk about second-order epistemic judgments, because they don’t exist according to what its alethic and ontic theses imply.

Cuneo says the problem traditional expressivism has with second-order epistemic judgments generalises to first order epistemic judgments (Cuneo, 2007: 136). Cuneo argues norm-expressivist first-order judgments can depend on second-order judgments. If an agent’s ‘subjective circumstances’ were to include second-order E-judgments of various kinds—such as ‘it is rational to judge that one ought to form one’s belief on the basis of adequate evidence’, that ‘one is rationally entitled to bring one’s knowledge to bear on the formation of judgments’, etc—then it is plausible to believe that norm-expressivist analysis of first-order judgments depends on second-order judgments. Therefore whatever problems attend to second-order E-judgments above applies to the norm-expressivist analysis of first-order judgments.

Therefore traditional expressivism terminates in a strong form of epistemological scepticism. The consequence of traditional scepticism is that there are no reasons for knowing anything in the realist sense, or any other sense acceptable to traditional expressivists. Traditional expressivism thus has a great deal in common with epistemic nihilism, in arguing that normal realist-seeming assertoric discourse is massively in error, which means it fails to meet the Expressivist’s Challenge.

Epistemic Expressivism: Nontraditional Views

While traditional epistemic expressivism is much closer to epistemic nihilism as a kind of epistemic antirealism, nontraditional expressivism is closer to realism. As Cuneo says, nontraditional expressivist views concede large amounts of conceptual territory to realism. Nontraditional forms of expressivism, for instance, concede epistemic thought and discourse are both truth-apt and representative (Cuneo, 2007: 146).

Nontraditional expressivism does this by embracing what Cuneo calls the ‘deflationary package’. Cuneo says that

[the] deflationary package is a set of claims about the character of epistemic discourse, truth, representation, and facthood, which offers a deflationary account of these notions (Cuneo, 2007: 127).

Deflationism with respect to some sorts of entities is a degreed phenomenon, with some positions being more deflationary, and others being less. For this reason Cuneo divides nontraditional expressivism into two types: minimalist and maximalist types of expressivism. Minimalist types of nontraditional expressivism are closer to their traditional expressivist cousins. They are the least realist-like expressivist of the nontraditional types. Maximalist nontraditional expressivism is much closer to realism than any other type of expressivism, and seems much more like a kind of realism than any other. Cuneo says quasi-realist views, such as those defended by Simon Blackburn, can easily fit into either category.

In this part of the chapter we will rehearse Terence Cuneo’s chapter on nontraditional expressivism, and why we should reject it as a kind of epistemic antirealism. We will first outline what the minimalist and maximalist types of nontraditional expressivism are. We will then discuss and argue against minimalist expressivism. The two objections Cuneo performs are the ‘modal’ and ‘perspective’ objections. Both of these objections charge that minimalist expressivism cannot meet the Expressivist’s Challenge. We then turn to maximalist expressivism. While neither of these objections apply to maximalism, we will argue that the position in nevertheless incoherent. At the end of this part of the chapter we will be able to conclude that none of the forms of epistemic expressivism are acceptable as a kind of epistemic antirealism.

Common Commitments of Nontraditional Expressivism

The above four commitments of traditional expressivism apply also nontraditional expressivism, albeit in modified form. Each of the three theses of traditional expressivism are modified for the nontraditional form, and the Guiding Rationale stays the same:

The Expressivist’s Modified Ontic Thesis: There are no epistemic facts, only epistemic quasi-facts.

The Expressivist’s Modified Alethic Thesis: The contents of some epistemic claims are true, but only in a deflationary sense.

The Expressivist’s Modified Speech Act Thesis: When an agent sincerely utters a predicative epistemic sentence, that agent does not thereby assert an epistemic proposition, but rather ‘asserts’ an epistemic quasi-proposition.

The Expressivist’s Guiding Rationale: Avoid an error-theoretic account of ordinary epistemic discourse (while also avoiding a commitment to epistemic realism) (Cuneo, 2007: 147).

Minimalism Stated

Cuneo then discusses what each of these four elements of expressivism amount to in the case of minimalist nontraditional expressivism.

The First Component: Epistemic Discourse

Minimalist nontraditional expressivism holds that epistemic discourse is assertoric only in the sense that it consists in an agent’s performing speech acts that express epistemic quasi-propositions. These entities are the ‘non-descriptive’ content of these speech acts. Cuneo explains what this means. Cuneo writes:

In his Morality without Foundations, Mark Timmons notes that at the heart of the realist polemic against moral expressivism lies a simple but attractive argument that rests on three assumptions. The first assumption—what Timmons calls the ‘semantic assumption’—tells us that moral assertions and beliefs (if any there be) are such that their content aims to represent moral reality. The second assumption—what Timmons dubs the ‘thesis of semantic unity’—tells us that the grammatical and logical trappings that constitute a discourse are indicative of the real semantics of that discourse. The third assumption—call it the ‘empirical thesis’—says that moral discourse does in fact manifest the grammatical and logical trappings of assertoric discourse. Since these three assumptions are jointly incompatible with traditional expressivism, expressivists have been forced to reject at least one of them. And almost without exception, expressivists have opted to reject the second assumption, thereby committing themselves to the view that the grammatical and logical trappings of moral discourse function not to reveal, but to mask its deep expressive structure (Cuneo, 2007: 148-149).

Timmons proposes a different form of expressivism. Timmons suggests we reject the semantic assumption, the first assumption, and retain the second and third assumptions. He therefore argues that expressivists can hold that moral discourse is assertoric, but isn’t actually in the business of representing reality.

This kind of expressivism claims that epistemic expressivism isn’t trying to represent or describe reality at all. Expressivists of this kind argue that there are two different kinds of content that assertions are supposed to express: descriptive and non-descriptive content. As Cuneo says, descriptive content aims to represent reality. For an agent to to assertively express some descriptive content p is for her to purpose to represent the fact that p. In this way, descriptive content is propositional content as it is ordinarily understood.

Cuneo explains, on the other hand, that non-descriptive content resembled descriptive content because it manifests some of the features of descriptive content, like “[embedding] in propositional attitude ascriptions and conditionals, being truth-apt (in a deflationary sense), and being irreducible to what is expressed in non-declarative sentences such as imperatives and questions” (Cuneo, 2007: 149-150).

However, non-descriptive content neither attempts to represent, or successfully represents what the world is like:

To perform a speech act that expresses some non-descriptive content p, then, is not thereby to purport to represent the fact that p; it is rather to do something different such as ‘evaluate’ a state of affairs. Nondescriptive content, as we might put it, is quasi-propositional content—where quasi-propositions are entities whose job description includes mimicking propositions in certain important respects, but which do not purport to represent the world (Cuneo, 2007: 149-150).

The Second Component: Truth

The second component of the deflationary package in the minimalist nontraditional expressivist context is that the contents of some epistemic claims are true, albeit only in a deflationary sense. Cuneo takes this to mean that the contents of some epistemic claims are true, but their being true consists simply in their having a non-robust truth property. Cuneo further explains that to predicate truth of the content of an epistemic claim is not to say that it has some robust truth property, but to do something else such as commend that claim, repeat it, predicate of it a non-robust truth property, or the like (Cuneo, 2007: 155).

Cuneo writes that, according to deflationists, the function of the truth term is is not to pick out some property or relation whose underlying structure will be revealed by philosophical or scientific analysis (Cuneo, 2007: 150-151). We can understand the truth term as the predicate ‘is true’ in the following proposition:

P is true, if and only if p.

Epistemic realists interpret the truth term in propositions such as the above as holding to a robust truth property. This means that realists take the predicate is true to imply some interesting and substantial meaning. The way Cuneo puts it is that a robust truth property is one which is amenable to a certain kind of conceptual analysis, what he calls ‘accounting for analysis’ (Cuneo, 2007: 153).

Cuneo asks us to suppose that a truth property is amenable to accounting for analysis if and only if it can be analysed by the following schema:

For all p, if p is true, then p is true simply in virtue of C.

This is where ‘p’ ranges over the content of either mental states or sentences. Cuneo explains why we would entertain this kind of schema in defining what a robust truth property is. Accounting for analysis is a process of discovering the necessary and sufficient conditions for the presence of the truth property:

So, for example, assuming that ‘p’ stands for the content of an atomic claim, ‘C’ might be something such as its being a fact that p, p’s obtaining in the actual world, p’s being ideally justifiable, p’s being pragmatically useful, and so forth. As such, the ‘in virtue’ locution as it is used in this schema designates the truth-making relation. … The ‘in virtue’ relation is an asymmetrical dependence relation—a supervenience or ‘accounting for’ relation, as I’ve called it—that in this case obtains between the content of claims, on the one hand, and states of affairs, facts, situations, or propositions on the other (Cuneo, 2007: 153).

Expressivists of the kind we are discussing disagree that one can use accounting for analysis to understand truth as a property. They hold that there is no kind of conceptual analysis we can perform that helps us explain the meaning of truth as a property. They resist the idea that one can give any kind of detailed informative explanation for what a truth property or truth term is. Deflationists about truth in this sense hold that there is not one common feature true propositions have in common, because there is nothing informative to say about what it means for something to be true. As such, Cuneo says we can state the minimal core of deflationary views in the following way:

The Minimal Core Regarding Truth: (i) The truth term is not a robust truth predicate, and (ii) there is a property of being true, but it is non-robust (Cuneo, 2007: 154).

The Third Component: Representation

The third component of the deflationary package tells us that epistemic thought and discourse are representational, but this is to be understood only in a deflationary sense. Expressivists of the kind we are discussing hold representation relations to only hold in a non-robust sense.

Much of what we said about the truth term in propositions applies to what expressivists think about the representation relation. Realists hold that both the truth predicate making the truth and the representation relation describing the bearing of the truth hold in a robust way. Cuneo takes this to mean that they are amenable to accounting for analysis. That means we can analyse in an interesting and substantial sense what representation means.

We might hold to a correspondence or identity theory of truth, for instance, and these theories of truth could account for analysis of what the representation relation bearing truth is, and what it means. Expressivists of the nontraditional sort hold that this is not true, and that representation does not amount to anything interesting or substantial. Cuneo therefore describes the minimal core of the deflationary package as being thus:

The Minimal Core Regarding Representation: (i) Representation terms are not robust representation predicates, and (ii) there are representation relations, but they are non-robust (Cuneo, 2007: 156).

The Fourth Component: Facts

The fourth component of minimalist nontraditional epistemic expressivism is that there are not epistemic facts, but epistemic ‘quasi-facts’. Quasi-facts are to be understood as virtual objects. Realists hold that epistemic facts are what make epistemic claims true, and what are represented by such claims. Epistemic quasi-facts, according to expressivists, are also facts of a certain kind. But, they are neither truth-makers nor what is represented by epistemic claims. Cuneo explains

[that] epistemic quasi-facts are not truth-makers is implied by what minimalist expressivists say about epistemic discourse and truth; for according to expressivists, there is nothing that accounts for the fact that a quasi-proposition is true. That epistemic quasi-facts are not represented by epistemic claims is also implied by what minimalist expressivists say about epistemic discourse; for according to what minimalists say, epistemic claims are not in the business of representing epistemic states of affairs (Cuneo, 2007: 158).

However, if quasi-facts aren’t in the business of being truth-makers for claims, or being the content of anything representational, what’s the point of having an ontology that talks about quasi-facts at all? Cuneo explains that expressivists hold that once we admit epistemic claims are true, then epistemic ‘facts’ come ‘for free’ (Cuneo, 2007: 158). Cuneo argues that minimalist expressivists hold to an account of epistemic facts are ‘virtual facts’, or what Cuneo says Bertrand Russell called ‘logical fictions’ (Cuneo, 2007: 159).

These virtual facts are not real facts, and they really have no existence. We can just license such talk about them because, as Cuneo says, if we work backwards and establish quasi-propositions, and quasi-representational relations, we get quasi-facts ‘for free’. These virtual facts which are not the content of any proposition, and are not truth-makers either, necessarily come along with the deflationary package.

Against Minimalism

We have now rehearsed Cuneo’s definition of the ‘deflationary package’, which explains what minimalist expressivists mean by the modified theses of nontraditional expressivism. We can now rehearse Cuneo’s rejection of this type of expressivism. Like we have said above, realists hold that epistemic discourse is assertoric, that some such discourse is true and representative, and that there are epistemic facts—minimalist expressivists agree with all of this, but they construe these claims in a deflationary sense. Speech acts only establish quasi-propositions, which establish mere quasi-representation relations using quasi-truth predicates, which refer to mere quasi-facts, virtual facts.

Cuneo makes two objections against minimalist expressivism: the first is the modal objection, and the second is the perspective objection. The two objections attempt to prove that minimalist expressivism does not succeed in the Expressivist’s Challenge: minimalist expressivism does not capture everything we could plausibly mean when we engage in ordinary epistemic thought and discourse without implying such thought and discourse is massively in error.

The Modal Objection

There are two parts to Cuneo’s modal objection to minimalist expressivism. The first is that we should reject minimalism because it is committed to two incompatible claims: first, that possibly epistemic quasi-facts exist, and second, that necessarily such facts do not exist.

The second is very similar to the rejection from Cuneo that we rehearsed about traditional expressivism. This is that we can’t seem to capture everything we could plausibly mean in our ordinary epistemic discourse about non-derivative epistemic merit.

Let’s consider the first part of the argument of this objection. Cuneo says that if we assume that there are quasi-propositions that establish quasi-representational relations, we must be committed to the existence of quasi-facts (Cuneo, 164). The quasi-representational relation established by the deflationary account of propositions must have some sort of content, and that content has to be quasi-facts. Cuneo says it doesn’t make any sense to be committed to propositions or representationalism in any form, be it realist or deflationary, without being committed to some sort of representational content (Cuneo, 164).

But expressivists are only committed to representational content in virtual terms only. They are not serious about the existence of any form of representational content in their deflationary account of epistemic discourse because they firmly hold that epistemic discourse doesn’t represent anything at all. Cuneo argues, however, that this flatly contradicts the entire system that they have set up. The deflationary quasi-fact that p has to exist in an deflationary account of epistemic representational discourse because otherwise there would be no representational content to represent. It doesn’t make sense to be committed to representationalism without any representational content.

Now let’s consider the second part of Cuneo’s argument. Cuneo writes:

Consider the following plausible claim: Epistemic merit concepts such as being a case of knowledge properly apply non-derivatively to only those (predicative) claims that represent or represent in some deflationary sense some correlative fact. The plausibility of this claim is underscored by connections we assume to hold between knowledge and representation. Assume that there is no other sense of the term ‘represent’ that that captured by substantive or deflationary accounts of representation terms. It would be paradoxical to say that I know some state of affairs that p, but there is no sense in which my judgment that p is about this state of affairs (Cuneo, 165).

If we were correct in the first part of our argument, and there is no sense in which we can talk about epistemic quasi-facts, then we can’t assign epistemic merit to propositions. If this is the case we end up with a flatly contradictory account of epistemic discourse. We can know things, but we flatly deny they have anything to do with the supposed facts about which that knowledge is to be assigned.

Cuneo says there might be two ways of getting out of this contradiction, but they both end up showing that minimalist expressivism cannot meet the Expressivist’s Challenge. Let’s consider the first escape from the contradiction. The first attempt to fix the problem is just to go along assume we normally assign epistemic merit to epistemic claims anyway in our everyday discourse. But if we do this, then we commit ourselves to concluding our normal epistemic discourse is systematically in error. Because there is necessarily no representational content, on the minimalist’s story of epistemic discourse, we have no grounds to assign any kind of merit at all. Our application of norms to discourse is therefore necessarily false and massively in error, because in ordinary discourse we are in no way entitled to assign any epistemic merit to any representation.

The second attempt to fix the problem is to deny that ordinary discourse actually applies epistemic merit concepts to claims at all. We could attempt to be revisionists about what we mean about ordinary epistemic discourse. I follow Cuneo in saying we should reject this supposed solution as well. If we follow this route, we are not actually capturing everything we plausibly mean about ordinary epistemic discourse. Minimalism therefore fails the other horn of the Expressivist’s Challenge.

Let’s turn to the perspective objection.

The Perspective Objection

Cuneo’s perspective objection argues that we cannot talk about the external/internal distinction of epistemic discourse that minimalist expressivists make without being incoherent.

Many philosophers embrace epistemic expressivism because they first accept bald naturalism. Bald naturalism excludes the existence of normative entities in the universe, so philosophers who accept bald naturalism easily find themselves turning to moral and epistemic antirealism. However, as we have seen above, either epistemic nihilism or moral nihilism is an incredibly unattractive position to which to hold, so expressivism has become, correspondingly, a very attractive way to have everything you could want about anti-realism about certain discourses, while avoiding the very dangerous conclusions of nihilism—hence scholars commit themselves to the Expressivist’s Challenge.

Expressivists like Blackburn and Crispin Wright adopt a metaphor that the discourse that people engage in, in their everyday lives, sits in either an internal or external perspective about the world. This is is a convenient metaphor to explain how antirealism can be committed to admitting that epistemic discourse certainly seems realist on the surface of its semantics, even though the truth is that there are no epistemic facts as the realist conceives them. In this way expressivists aim to say everything that nihilism wants to say about realism, without being commited to an error-theoretic analysis of epistemic or moral discourse.

The idea is that discourse we opt to treat in an anti-realist fashion is located in an internal perspective of agents engaged in speech acts, and that true, full-blooded, representational discourse obtains in an external perspective. The trouble, Cuneo says, is that expressivists privilege the external perspective of epistemic discourse over the internal. The expressivist says that the external perspective is the true explanation for the mere appearance of what seems to be going on in the internal perspective. What is really going on, the minimalist expressivist says, is the natural scientific ‘metaphysical speculation’ or ‘theoretical inquiry’ of the external perspective, to use Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons’s words (Timmons, 1999: 152; Horgan, 2001: 90). The nature of natural scientific intelligibility, they say, is that it is not committed to the existence of epistemic reasons or facts. The natural scientific intelligibility of the external perspective is the foundation for the internal perspective.

The idea is that the external perspective that people are supposed to inhabit when they do natural scientific inquiry is completely devoid of normativity. No facts obtain in this area of discourse, no ‘strange entities’ that admit of warrantability or justifiability exist in this connection, and agents are not accountable or open to assessment when they make certain claims or represent anything to be true. In fact agents represent nothing in this space of discourse. This external perspective is governed completely by efficient causation. It is what McDowell calls ‘Givenness’. We shall see that this kind of external persepective about how we relate ourselves to the world generates a ‘Myth’ about how our minds work—the ‘Myth of the Given’.

I agree with Cuneo when he argues that it seems impossible that anyone could ever inhabit such an external perspective. It seems very difficult to accept that anyone could ever engage in any kind of scientific inquiry without first believing that there are epistemic reasons or facts. What the minimalist expressivist seems to be saying is that natural science is committed to epistemic nihilism, even though it appears prima facie to entertain realist epistemic discourse.

Put simply, I agree with Cuneo that the ‘external’ perspective minimalist epistemic expressivists imagine is not a perspective at all. No human could ever inhabit it, and it would never make any sense. Very simply, we would have absolutely no intentionality whatsoever if this external perspective were to exist. Our sayings and doings would not be ‘about’ anything. We would fail to be human at all—we would be the most empty and austere kind of automata, merely following our neurological punch-cards along their path, with no consciousness whatsoever.

Maximalism Stated

Now that we have dealt with minimalist expressivism, let’s turn to maximalism. Maximalist expressivism about epistemic discourse is almost identical to minimalism, except that it concedes more ground to realism than minimalism. What maximalism concedes specifically is that treats of a more realist-seeming conception of quasi-facts. Recall earlier how we outlined how minimalists only admitted of ‘virtual’ epistemic quasi-facts, entities which were not entities at all. Maximalists are prepared to deal with quasi-facts in a more realist way. Let’s see what that means.

Cuneo writes that Crispin Wright transposes the following passage from Michael Dummett:

The states of affairs which (merely) minimally true sentences represent are no more than reflections on those sentences, sentences which behave, by simple formal criteria, in a manner analogous to sentences which are apt to depict real states of affairs, but whose senses cannot be represented as consisting in our capacity to identify states of affairs necessary and sufficient for their truth (Cuneo, 177; Wright, 1992: 181-182).

Wright continues by pointing out that

the concluding part of … [this] thought might naturally be taken as an expression of (or kind of) irrealism. … But, again, that is not the only possible meaning. The thought can be that understanding such a sentence should not be seen as consisting in a capacity appropriately to respond to the relevant type of truth-conferring states of affairs. For, in parallel to the situation with abstract objects, there seems to be no question of such a state of affairs … directly influencing the thought of someone who lacks the conceptual wherewithal to characterise it, or directly producing any other kind of effect on our consciousness, or on our bodies or non-human objects of any kind. … Like pure abstract objects, the states of affairs purportedly depicted by merely minimally true sentences do not seem to do anything except answer to the demands of our minimally true thoughts. The irresistible metaphor is that … the states of affairs to which … merely minimally true sentences correspond, are no more than shadows cast by the syntax of our discourse. And the aptness of the metaphor is merely enhanced by the reflection that shadows are, after their own fashion, real (Cuneo, Ibid; Wright, Ibid).

Cuneo writes that Wright seems to be distinguishing between two different types of representation. The first kind of representation Wright labels ‘serious’ representation (Wright, 1992: 200). Cuneo says this kind of representation obtains only when a claim represents a state of affairs in virtue of its being a ‘response’ to that state of affairs. The second kind of representation is called ‘weak representation’. Weak representation obtains when and only when a claim ‘depicts’ a state of affairs, but not in virtue of its being a response to it (Cuneo, 178).

The idea behind maximalist expressivism is that quasi-facts are the shadows of the syntax of our epistemic discourse. Our quasi-propositions only weakly represent these quasi-facts. Cuneo goes on to explain that there are some further qualifications to this system that we need to be aware about:

Several conditions, in Wright’s view, must be met if an attitude seriously represents a state of affairs, among which is that it exerts what Wright calls ‘cognitive command’. Roughly, the idea here is that if a statement seriously represents a fact, then any dispute about the truth of that statement must involve a cognitive shortcoming on the part of at least one of the participants in that dispute (Wright, 1992: 92-3, 144). Wright emphasises that this idea tries to capture two intuitions.

The first is that there is a link between realist truth, or genuine facts, and objectivity. If we are really dealing with an objective matter of fact, says Wright, then,

the opinions which we form are in no sense optional or variable as a function of permissible idiosyncrasy, but are commanded of us—that there will be a robust sense in which a particular point of view ought to be held, and a failure to hold which can be understood only as a rational/cognitive failure (Wright, 1992: 146).

So, to use Wright’s example, statements about what is funny do not intuitively exert cognitive command. If two persons were to sit down to watch Abbott and Costello, and if one person were to claim that their dialogue is highly amusing, while the other were to assert that it is tiresome and juvenile, neither would (all else being equal) suffer from a cognitive shortcoming. Either claim would be rationally acceptable.

The second intuition that cognitive command tries to capture is one concerning the nature of representation. Wright puts it thus:

For to think of oneself as functioning in purely cognitive mode, as it were, is, when the products of that function are to be beliefs, to think of oneself a functioning in representational mode; and that idea is then subject to a truism connecting representation and convergence—that representationally functioning systems, targeted on the same subject matter, can produce divergent output only if working on divergent input or if they function less than perfectly. The nerve of the Cognitive Command constraint is a specialisation of that idea to the case where the representational system is a thinking subject engaged in the formation of belief (Wright, 1992: Ibid).

It therefore follows that Wright does not consider moral representation as a ‘serious’ mode of representation, because it does not exert ‘cognitive command’ on agents. Moral representation is not in the business of ‘responding’ to states of affairs, but merely weakly represent states of affairs. As such moral claims do not force agents to think alike, at the cost of being branded cognitively deficient. Wright seems to think moral representation categorically cannot give ‘cognitive command’ to agent’s representational systems.

Against Maximalism

Maximalism improves on the deficiencies of minimalism. It holds that quasi-facts actually exist, and are not mere virtual entities. It holds that epistemic discourse weakly represents these quasi-facts, and is not a ‘serious’ manifestation of representation. This is the maximalist’s understanding of the modified ontic, alethic and speech act theses.

Cuneo points out that the doctrine of cognitive command is a normative thesis. It tells us that if there is a fundamental dispute between two agents ‘seriously’ representing some fact about the world, then there must be some sort of rational deficiency or cognitive shortcoming with at least one of the the agents, and at least one of the agents ought to view the matter or represent the matter differently.

Cuneo invites us to distinguish between two different types of epistemic norms: robust and weak epistemic norms (Cuneo, 180). A robust epistemic norm is a norm that stipulates that if one does not conform to it, one thereby suffers from a rational failure. Weak epistemic norms are the opposite. If you don’t conform to a weak epistemic norm: no matter. You do not suffer from a rational or cognitive failure. If maximalist expressivism is true about epistemic discourse, then norms about epistemic claims can only be weak in character. This is because all epistemic discourse to the maximalist expressivist is constituted by weak representation and not serious representation.

If our above discussion is correct, then there are two serious problems for maximalist expressivism. These problems should entitle us to reject it as a kind of epistemic antirealism.

The first problem is that maximalism denies that there are strong epistemic norms. All epistemic discourse is governed by weak epistemic norms. But it is given that we do engage in serious representation. As Cuneo points out, Blackburn clearly thinks serious representation applies to physical facts about objects which are cubic and solid. It follows that maximalism doesn’t capture everything we plausibly mean in our everyday epistemic discourse. Maximalism holds that there is no such thing as serious representation, because all epistemic discourse is weak representation. This is not true, so maximalism must be false (Cuneo, 181).

The second problem is that maximalism collapses into a universal epistemological scepticism. If every particular instance of representation is always weak representation, then it follows that strong epistemic norms can never arise. Therefore cognitive command never arises. If this is true, no-one can ever exhibit a rational deficiency or cognitive shortcoming. No-one can ever be wrong about anything in epistemic discourse. It follows that anything can be true in epistemic discourse. Maximalism should therefore present itself as a very unattractive form of epistemic antirealism. Not only does it not meet the Expressivist’s Challenge, but it fairs no better than epistemic nihilism.


In this chapter we took on a very big task, and this was to analyse and reject the most popular kind of epistemic antirealism, epistemic expressivism. The purpose of doing this was to prove the second key premise in Cuneo’s Argument, that epistemic realism is true. It was my aim to argue that if epistemic expressivism was false or highly unattractive, then epistemic realism must be true. It follows that if we were correct in all of our arguments, then it necessarily follows that moral realism is true, because moral and epistemic discourse are so similar that if one was false, the other one must be false too. If moral realism is true, then bald naturalism must be false. Bald naturalism is false because normativity is a feature that entities of the universe can exhibit.

Since we cannot reject the existence of epistemic facts, construed in the sense of paradigmatic realism as Cuneo defines it, we cannot reject the existence of moral facts. We rejected the validity of epistemic nihilism because it is incredibly unattractive. It is unattractive because it implies that nothing can ever make any sense, or terminates in a very strong form of epistemological scepticism.

We rejected epistemic expressivism of all variants: traditional and nontraditional (of which minimalism and maximalism were species). We rejected these kinds of epistemic antirealism because they could not meet the Expressivist’s Challenge: all kinds of expressivism either implies that ordinary epistemic discourse, despite appearances, was massively and systematically in error, or that epistemic expressivism cannot actually capture everything we could plausibly mean in our ordinary everyday realist-seeming epistemic discourse, and redescribe it in a way what was ‘less ontologically problematic’.