chapter  1
The absolute conception: Putnam vs Williams
Pages 15

Williams wrote that his “notion of an absolute conception can serve to make effective a distinction between ‘the world as it is independent of our experience’ and ‘the world as it seems to us’”.1 It does this by understanding “the world as it seems to us” as “the world as it seems peculiarly to us”; the absolute conception will, correspondingly, be “a conception of the world that might be arrived at by any investigators, even if they were very different from us”.2 It contrasts with parochial or “perspectival” or what Williams calls “peculiar” conceptions, ones available only to a more or less restricted set of subjects, who share a contingent sensory apparatus, or culture or history. The question that I want to discuss first is whether this gives us a reliable distinction. On the same page, Williams goes on to say that “The substance of the

absolute conception … lies in the idea that it could nonvacuously explain how it itself, and the various perspectival views of the world, are possible.”3

This is a different, and apparently a more ambitious claim.4 One might think, for instance, that any sufficiently advanced investigators of a world like ours, even if they are very different from us, might converge on, say, something like Newton’s laws of motion, or even on subsequent physics and mathematics. But there is no evident reason why that should equip them to explain how our perspectival view of the world is possible, if only

because they may not be equipped to understand our view of the world or to know what it is. Indeed, Williams’ well-known and highly developed sense of history suggests that his view ought to be that often they will not be equipped to understand some of our social, political, and ethical concepts, precisely because these are the contingent growths of our peculiar history, and need to be understood in historical terms. Williams himself says as much.5

There is a tension here in his thought, or even an outright inconsistency, and Hilary Putnam and others are right to notice it.6