This essay is a critical examination of the charge of self-refutation, particularly as leveled by orthodoxy-defending philosophers against those maintaining epistemologically unorthodox, especially relativistic or skeptical, views. Beginning with an analysis of its classic illustration in Plato’s Theaetetus as leveled by Socrates against Protagoras’s “Man is the measure . . ,” the essay considers various aspects of the charge, including its paradigmatic theatrical staging, its frequent pedagogic restaging, its logical and rhetorical structure, its complex emotional and psychological effects, and its apparent cognitive dynamics. After discussion of the comparable structure and dynamics of related self-undoings in myth and drama, the examination of alleged exposures of self-contradiction moves to general observations regarding the recurrent encounter between conviction and skepticism (or orthodox and unorthodox views) and the question of how best to understand the phenomenon of fundamentally clashing and arguably incommensurable beliefs. These encounters and questions are usefully addressed and illuminated, Smith suggests, by constructivist epistemology, contemporary history and sociology of science, and recent work in cognitive theory. In connection with the logically circular question-begging or self-affirmation commonly involved in (alleged) demonstrations of the relativist’s (supposed) self-refutation, Smith gives particular attention to the evidently endemic tendency to cognitive self-stabilization.
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Barbara Herrnstein Smith; Unloading the Self-Refutation Charge. Common Knowledge 1 April 2019; 25 (1-3): 76–91. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0961754X-7299138
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