Saturday, October 25, 2008

Simson L. Garfinkel on Wikipedia: Confusing Metaphysics and Epistemology

I don't have time to go through this (via Sullivan) properly right now. But, whatever good points Farfinkel might have, he blows the crucial distinction between (a) the definition of truth and (b) standards and methods for the discovery of truth.

Garfinkel seems to have two main points: first, that Wikipedia can't really be trusted, because the articles are written by amateurs and based on public-domain information; and, second, that this substitutes a consensus view of truth for a more standard conception. The first point may very well be true. I can say that at least two articles in my area of expertise (the psychologism article and the relativism article) are both utter disasters. Though, I should add, most of what's written about those subjects even by philosophers is pretty bad. They're just complicated, weird and difficult subjects. But, anyway: Garfinkel's first point is probably close to the mark--though, of course, he's not the first to make it.

As for the second point, Garfinkel is absolutely wrong. Wikipedia in general takes no position on the definition of truth (or of 'truth' if its a nominal defintion you're after). Wikipedia, like all encyclopedias, employs certain methods for discerning the truth. Presumably they to some extent aim at representing expert opinion on the subjects in question, because expert opinion is usually the best guide we have to the truth of such matters. (Note: this in no way suggests that we hold a consensus-of-experts theory of truth; again, the definition of truth is not even at issue). The difference, I guess, is that at Wikipedia many non-experts are involved in compling the representations of expert opinion.

That may not work very well--the jury seems to still be out--but Garfinkel is wrong to say that Wikipedia has any significant association with a consensus theory of truth. Which is, of course, a good thing, since that theory is false.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, a great many articles have warnings about this or that fact not being supported via citation, or that there a dispute about an article or a subsection thereof.

4:30 PM  
Blogger lovable liberal said...

Yeah, I agree with you, so we must be right. Heh.

5:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Why not edit the relativism and psychologism article?

6:18 PM  
Blogger JWilson76239 said...


Could you suggest a good introductory book(or books) on these subjects? Or at least one which doesn't suck? Would be appreciated. Thanks.

- James

1:03 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Will give that some thought. Russ Shaffer-Landau's book on moral relativism (_Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?_) is pretty good. As for alethic relativism (i.e. relativism about truth) or epistemic relativism...jeez, there's nothing I can recommend off the top of my head. And psychologism is worse. But I'll think of something to recommend.

6:49 PM  

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