Rebirth of Reason


Objectivism, "Contextual Knowledge" and the Correspondence Theory of Truth: Conclusion
by William Scott Dwyer

One Hundred Percent Disagreement

As a corollary of his view of truth – and perhaps as a way to circumvent its subjectivist implications – Schwartz argues that a seemingly true conclusion arrived at on the basis of false premises is a different conclusion than it would be if arrived on the basis of true premises. As a result, he says that no agreement is possible between an Objectivist who believes in something on the basis of true premises and a non-Objectivist who believes in it on the basis of false premises, because both parties do not in fact hold the same belief. Accordingly, he assails Objectivism’s critics who say that the philosophy is
too concerned with being 100% pure. “Why,” these critics say, “do we want to condemn someone who is 95% pure?” The error here is context dropping. If knowledge were not contextual – if each item of knowledge existed in isolated compartments – then they could be right. Then you could take out a calculator and add up each compartment they agreed with, each compartment they didn’t, and the former might indeed far outnumber the latter. There might be 95 hundred little things we agreed with and 5 hundred we did not. However, knowledge is not like that: it is contextual. It is a unified whole; there is a hierarchical order to that context. The “why” determines the “what.”

Thus, if all those 95 hundred positions were tied to a false fundamental – say, they were all explained on the basis of religion or subjectivism or whatever – then all these positions would have exactly the same status as our example of the person who refrained from murder because the Bible said so. The so-called right conclusion for the wrong reason is the wrong conclusion, which means there would not be 95 percent agreement but rather what? One hundred percent disagreement! That is what makes an examination of the context so critical, and that is why Objectivism insists on “purism”…
To be sure, if a true belief is tied to a false fundamental, then it is not knowledge. But to say that it is not knowledge does not mean that it is not true. Again, what makes a conclusion true or false (which is what Schwartz means by “right” and “wrong” in this context) is whether or not it corresponds to reality, not whether its premises are true or false.

Similarly, if its premises are false, that does not imply that the meaning of the conclusion is any different than if its premises were true. If I conclude that murder is wrong because the Bible says so, that certainly is not a good reason to oppose murder, but it does not make the content of my conclusion any different than if I conclude that murder is wrong because it violates the Objectivist ethics. As I demonstrated in Part I of this article, I am still opposed to murder, and my conclusion is still true, because murder is in fact wrong. Granted, if I also conclude that “Murder is wrong unless God should demand it,” then that conclusion is false, but it is false because it does not correspond to reality, not because bad premises underlie it. There are simply no rational grounds for claiming that if one disagrees with the premises, then one must disagree with the conclusion.


In the Q&A, Schwartz attempts to reconcile his views with his support of Austrian economics:
Q. How do you reconcile your position with your support of Austrian economics, which is based on subjectivism?

A. To the extent that the Austrian school of economics actually derives their views from subjectivism, you can’t validate or justify those views.
Of course, you can’t validate or justify them. The question is, can Schwartz say that the Austrian school’s view of capitalism is true, given that it’s based on false subjectivist premises?
The point is, I don’t think [the Austrians] really are subjectivists – philosophically subjectivists through and through. … [T]here’s an internal inconsistency, and I think that Mises and others are correct in their economic views, despite – in spite of – their subjectivist orientation, not because of it, and they’re not consistently applying their philosophy of subjectivism. It’s to the extent that they’re deviating from the logical implications of subjectivism – it is to that extent that they’re correct, and they have very good things to say, and you therefore can incorporate that into a proper philosophic foundation like Objectivism.
But a follow-up question asks:
Q. Are you not undermining the principle of your context when you say not one premise is right but the conclusion is right…?”

A. Now that’s a good question. I tried to explain that. Someone like Hayek, for example: I do not regard Hayek as a defender of capitalism. …I regard Mises as a defender of capitalism. The reason is that Hayek consistently applies the philosophy that forms the context for his conclusion. Mises does not; Mises is mixed, that is, Mises has an explicitly subjectivist philosophy, but an implicit rational philosophy to a certain extent. It is the implicit philosophy that he relies on, without naming it explicitly, as the basis for his view. So, for example, I don’t think it’s conceivable [!] that somebody could be an arch defender of the individual against government – I don’t see how somebody could be a defender of, or even a definer of, property rights as against state intervention – you could not do that unless you had an implicitly individualistic philosophy which itself requires an implicitly objective approach to reality.
Even though Mises is an explicit subjectivist who makes no explicit statements in support of objectivism, it is Schwartz’s position that Mises is nevertheless an implicit objectivist. Why? Because, according to Schwartz, Mises’ defense of property rights “requires an implicitly objective approach to reality.” But “requires” in what sense? “Requires” in order to be justified, yes! But that is not what Schwartz is saying. He is saying that Mises defense of property rights requires an implicitly objective approach in order to be held. Since, according to Schwartz, one cannot hold a true conclusion based on false premises, if Mises’ conclusions are true, they must be based on true (objectivist) premises. And since those premises are not explicit, they must, therefore, be implicit.

What are we to make of this answer? To begin with, it begs the question. Given his vital principle, what reason does Schwartz have for thinking that Mises’ political views are true, in the first place?! Since Mises is an avowed subjectivist, Schwartz must believe that his views are false, because they are based on false subjectivist premises! And, believing that they are false, Schwartz can then have no good reason for thinking that Mises must have derived them from true (objectivist) premises, however implicit those premises might be.

In his review of Mises' Human Action (in the September 1963 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter), Nathaniel Branden writes as follows: "[T]here are many sections of Human Action with which Objectivists cannot agree. These sections pertain not to the sphere of economics, as such, but to the philosophical framework in which he economic theories are presented. We must take the gravest exception, for example, to the general doctrine of praxeology; to the assertion that all value-judgments are outside the province of reason, that a scientific ethics is impossible; to the disavowal of the concept of inalienable rights; and to many of the psychological views expressed."

The fact that Schwartz believes that Mises' political views are true, despite their being based on false views of epistemology, psychology, ethics and politics suggests that Schwartz doesn’t really believe his “vital principle” after all. If he were consistent, he would have concluded that despite the ”seeming” truth of Mises' ideas of capitalism and freedom, those ideas must actually be false, because they are based on false premises.

Second, Schwartz’s answer commits the fallacy of “special pleading.” By parity of reasoning, one could just as well argue that a devout Christian who defends property rights on the grounds of religious faith is an implicit advocate of reason, because it’s not “conceivable” that such a person could be a defender of property rights, unless he were implicitly rational. Why not? Because a defense of property rights ”requires” an implicitly rational approach to reality! This argument is exactly analogous to Schwartz’s answer that Mises’ defense of property rights ”requires” an implicitly objective approach to reality. But Schwartz would never argue that a Christian who defends property rights on the grounds of religious faith is implicitly rational. Instead, he would say that the Christian’s belief in property rights is false, because it is based on religious premises.

Moreover, as I noted in Part 2, even Rand would disagree with Schwartz's principle, for she states in a Q&A, “I was pleased and astonished to discover that some religious people support Objectivism. If you want to be a full Objectivist, you cannot reconcile that with religion; but that doesn’t mean religious people cannot be individualists and fight for freedom. They can, and this country is the best proof of it.” (Ayn Rand Answers, p. 63) However, if we accept Schwartz’s principle, we’d have to say that, contrary to Rand, religious people cannot be true individualists and fight for freedom, any more than libertarians can, because since their views are based on religious premises, they must mean something different by "individualism" and "freedom" than Objectivists do.

Also, recall Schwartz’s argument, presented in Part 1, that a Christian cannot be a true opponent of murder, because the Christian would be perfectly willing to commit murder if God commanded it. Well, by the same token, couldn’t Schwartz also argue that a Christian cannot be a true advocate of freedom, because the Christian would be perfectly willing to renounce freedom if God commanded it?! In fact, Schwartz would have to make that argument. Would Rand agree with him? I don’t think so.

Earlier in his lecture, Schwartz criticized the libertarians by arguing that “liberty is not compatible with every philosophy and every value; it depends upon a very specific intellectual foundation and a very specific context. Liberty is good only if selfishness is good…” What did Mises have to say about an ethics of selfishness? Well, in Bureaucracy, he writes that “Mankind would never have reached the present state of civilization without heroism and self-sacrifice on the part of an elite,” (p. 78) which, according to Schwartz, disqualifies Mises as a proponent of liberty. Or are we to assume that even though he endorses self-sacrifice explicitly, Mises is really an implicit advocate of selfishness?!

And let’s not forget that libertarians are arch defenders of the individual against the government – defenders or property rights as against state intervention. So, is it also inconceivable that they could take such a position unless they had “an implicitly objective approach to reality”?! If it is, then why doesn’t Schwartz embrace the libertarians along with Mises as worthy allies in the defense of capitalism?! In a vain attempt to rationalize his support for Austrian economics, Schwartz commits himself to supporting his bete noire, the libertarians.


We have seen that, in discussing the nature of contextual knowledge, Peter Schwartz makes a number of philosophical errors. The most significant is his “vital principle” that a seemingly true conclusion derived from false premises is a false conclusion. Whereas a conclusion derived from false premises does not constitute knowledge, it is nevertheless true if it corresponds to reality.

As a corollary of his vital principle, Schwartz argues that a seemingly true conclusion based on false premises has a different meaning than it would if based on true premises. Thus, he maintains that no ideological agreement is possible between an Objectivist who believes in liberty on true premises and someone (like a libertarian) who believes in it on false premises, because whoever believes in liberty on false premises does not in fact believe in liberty at all – which is a non-sequitur, as we have seen. Nor is Schwartz even consistent with his principle, as he makes an exception to it in the case of Mises, who has major philosophical differences with Objectivism.

Despite his professed agreement with a correspondence theory of truth, Schwartz’s vital principle repudiates that theory. So does Rand’s definition of truth as “the recognition of reality,” because, as we have seen, a proposition can correspond to reality without entailing the recognition of reality.

Moreover, Schwartz’s vital principle leads to subjectivism and relativism, by implying that the same conclusion “may be true for you but not for me” depending on the truth or falsity of our respective premises – a view that not only violates common-sense notions of objectivity but also vitiates the Objectivist metaphysics. Schwartz may appear to avoid such an inference when he argues that a conclusion derived from false premises does not have the same meaning as it would if derived from true premises. But, as we have seen, the meaning of the terms in a valid conclusion is determined by their meaning in the premises, not by the truth or falsity of the premises.

In other words, a conclusion is true if and only if it forms a meaningful sentence (namely, a proposition) that corresponds to reality. It need not be based on true premises, and can even be arbitrary -- i.e., asserted without evidence -- for it is not necessary that one know that a proposition corresponds to reality in order for it to do so. Indeed, to claim that a proposition's correspondence depends on knowledge of its correspondence is like claiming that the existence of a fact depends on knowledge of its existence. It implies a primacy-of-consciousness metaphysics.

Thus, knowledge is contextual in a way that truth is not, for a conclusion constitutes knowledge only if it is grounded in adequate evidence and based on true premises, whereas a conclusion can be true despite being based on inadequate evidence or false premises, if it corresponds to reality. In short, knowledge is one thing; truth, quite another. It is important that an Objectivist epistemology recognize the difference.

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