My earlier post on the relationship between ethical internalism and the analogue in epistemology was intended partially to raise the issue of noncognitivism in epistemology. It is a bit surprising to find that view so popular in ethics, but quite rare in epistemology. There is at least one exception, of course: Hartry Field’s endorsement of Gibbard’s view (I guess that’s two…).
Probably the explanation for reticence here is because of our scientistic heritage. It is one thing to go noncognitivist about the right and the good, but how could we do this about our illustrious empirical method itself? (I won’t pursue this here, but put this way, the reticence is strikingly bizarre: we sit down and consider what we really have to preserve in our theorizing, what matters most in our conception of things, and we rank what’s right and wrong lower on the scale of importance than what’s scientifically confirmed and disconfirmed.)
Here minimalism about truth rides to the rescue, or as I prefer to characterize it, here comes the giant sucking sound of minimalism about truth. Such a view allows us to say cognitivist-sounding things in ethics while still embracing noncognitivism. Noncognitivists can say, it is claimed, that it is a fact that child abuse is wrong and that the truth of the matter is that totalitarianism is a bad thing. Perhaps our minimalist will go disquotational here: the truth of the matter and the facts of the case are just disquoted sentences. And then what remains after disquotation gets the usual nonfactive treatment of noncognitivism.
Neat package, and if acceptable, would block any scientistic aversion to going noncognitivist in epistemology.
It is obvious that such a maneuver depends on the adequacy of minimalism about truth. There are also analogies between this defense of noncognitivism and the “just more theory” defense of Putnam’s internal realism (which in turn is analogous to Quine’s argument for ontological relativity). So it appears that the giant sucking sound of minimalism at work traces ultimately to the Lowenheim-Skolem results, and the tendency to apply (or misapply) such results about formal systems to nonformal systems of thought and language. In any case, if minimalism about truth is inadequate, noncognitivists are back with Stevenson and Ayer, hoping for a naturalistic account of epistemic talk while rejecting such accounts for ethical language (even though their basis for distinguishing the two is woefully inadequate, amounting to little more than insisting on the difference–Nathan Nobis has a nice paper on this matter here).
The point of all this is to get to a confession that contains a question. I’ve not yet found a reason to be noncognitivist in one area that didn’t strike me as a good reason to be noncognitivist in the other. This entry is long enough already, so I won’t cite the arguments I find unpersuasive. I also think that unless the minimalism-to-the-rescue manuever works, the failure to separate the epistemic from the ethical is a good reductio of noncognitivism.