Sunday, June 3, 2007

An Interview with Paul Boghossian

Fear of Terminology
An Interview with Paul Boghossian
By Khatchig Mouradian
Aztag Daily

Paul Boghossian received his PhD in Philosophy from Princeton in 1987. After serving as Associate Professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and as Visiting Associate Professor at Princeton, he went to New York University. He served as Chair of Philosophy in NYU in from 1994 to 2004. Currently a Professor of Philosophy at the same university, his research interests include epistemology, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language. He has published many papers on a variety of topics and his book “Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism” (Oxford University Press) will be released soon. He is also on the editorial board of Philosophical Studies, and Philosophers' Imprint.

In this interview, we mainly speak about issues that pertain to the applicability of the term “genocide” to the mass killings of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.


Khatchig Mouradian - For journalists trying their utmost to be objective and fair, sometimes the boundaries between objectivity and moral equivalence seem to be unclear. In their attempt to presenting “both sides” of the story, some journalists end up taking a middle “golden” position. The issue of the systematic massacres and deportations of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 is a typical example. A well-documented historical fact, it is often presented in the format of “Turks say” and “Armenians say”. What are you thoughts on this issue?

Paul Boghossian - It is right to present “both sides” of a dispute when the evidence available to everyone doesn’t decisively settle the matter one way or the other. Thus, it is right to present both sides of the dispute about whether the Big Bang is a correct model of the origins of the universe. It would not be appropriate to present both sides of the issue about whether the earth is flat or whether the Holocaust occurred or whether smoking causes cancer, although in each of these cases you can find some people on each side of each of those issues.

Many journalists, though, have lost their grip on the notion of objective knowledge. They think: well, who is to decide whether an issue has been settled decisively by the evidence? Don’t I see a lot of people on both sides of the issue of 1915? Doesn’t that indicate that the matter isn’t decisively settled by the available evidence?

That is a confused response. Just because a lot of people treat a proposition as undecided doesn’t make it undecided. The only thing that makes a proposition undecided is the quality of the evidence. As to who gets to decide on the quality of the evidence, the answer is that if it is a technical question that you need special expertise to assess, then it has to be an appropriately trained expert who gets to decide. But if it is the sort of question that journalists are in the business of assessing, then they get to decide, after doing the appropriate research.

The question about the Armenians is probably a little bit of both, since it does have some technical aspects. The matter is made more complicated by the confusion that surrounds the word “genocide.” But if you put the word to one side and ask simply: Was there a centrally planned program to eliminate the Armenians from eastern Turkey in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire? -- Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the evidence could only come to the conclusion that there was.

K.M. - Some journalists working in the west have told me they often refrain from using the term “genocide” when referring to the Armenian massacres not because they doubt that what happened to the Armenians was genocide, but out of concern that using the term might hurt the feelings of many Turks. What do you think about this argument?

P.B. - Every time we say something to someone we take into account not only what we take to be true but also the potential impact on our audience. But, first, there are limits to the extent to which one should be willing to moderate what one says to spare someone's feelings. And it seems to me that mass murder and ethnic cleansing are two of those limits. And, second, this seems like a particularly odd thing for a journalist to emphasize. One would have thought that it is the job of a journalist to openly speak the sometimes unpleasant truth to power.

K.M. - During one of your interventions at the fourth Workshop for Armenian-Turkish scholarship in Salzburg, you argued that it is not possible to say that the mass extermination of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 does not count as “genocide” simply because the term did not exist at the time and was coined in the 1940s. Can you illustrate your argument?

P.B. - Arguments of this sort involve a basic confusion about the relation between language and reality. They assume that, in general, a concept can apply to some event only if, at the time that the event occurred, there were people around who were already prepared to apply that concept to it.

Now, I don’t deny that there are some concepts that are like that. For example, I suppose that nothing can count as a coronation, or an election, unless someone is prepared so to describe it. Of course, the English word “coronation” need not have existed at the time, but some word or other expressing that concept would need to have been around. It is very hard to see how some event could count as the crowning of a king unless at least some people are prepared so to describe it. One can think of several such examples.

However, only a few concepts and facts are like that. For example, I can truly say that 65 million years ago there were dinosaurs on Earth even though 65 million years ago there was no one around who had the concept “dinosaur”. Or, to take another example, I can truly say that in the very earliest stages of the universe all the matter in it was in a very hot gaseous form, even though there was no one around who had any of those ingredient notions.

In general, then, it is simply not true that all concepts are such that, they only apply to some event if there happened to be people around who, at the time of the event, were willing to apply the concept to it. Some concepts are like that and others aren’t. In particular, the UN concept of genocide is clearly not like that. All it requires for an event to count as genocide is that someone should have acted intentionally to exterminate \some members of a particular ethnic group in part because they were members of that group. And that is clearly an intention that someone can have even if no one around them had yet come up with the concept of genocide.

K.M. - At a lecture, you say, “Another bad argument for refusing to apply the word “genocide” to 1915 goes something like this: The UN Convention on Genocide, which defined the word precisely for the first time, was adopted only in 1948. Treaties don’t apply retroactively. So, the Convention, along with the notion that it defines, could not apply to the events of 1915.” And then you go on to argue that, “Whether the concept of genocide applies to events that preceded its introduction with the entirely different question whether the legal convention that codified that concept applies to events that preceded its adoption.”

Can you explain how it is possible to separate a legal concept from the convention where it appears?

P.B. - I can have a law forbidding the use of automobiles in a park. That doesn’t make the concept of an “automobile” or a “park” a legal concept. They are ordinary concepts that appear in a legal context as well as in other contexts. Similarly, the UN Convention defines a certain sort of mass harming and attempts to forbid and punish those who perpetrate it. The concept itself is just that of a mass harming satisfying certain conditions. Those kinds of mass harming could clearly have existed prior to anyone talking about them and attempting to formulate a law governing them.

K.M. - Unlike the words “automobile” or “park”, the term “genocide” was not used before and, coined by Lemkin, it was incorporated in the UN convention as a legal term. Some people might argue that this would make the term and the convention inseparable. Yes, there were mass killings, one might argue, but if the convention cannot be applied retrospectively, how can you apply the term coined for such a convention retrospectively?

P.B. - Just because a concept is introduced in the context of a law doesn't make it a legal concept. The concept "genocide" has a definition: it is a certain kind of killing (or harming, but I shall ignore that) -- killing done with a certain intention. “Killing” is not a legal concept -- it just means “causing to die.” “Intention” is not a legal concept -- it pertains to an actor's state of mind. So, in what sense is “genocide” a legal concept? Yes, it can be put to a legal use, but so can any concept. And, yes, if the law in which it appears was passed after a given event, then, typically, that LAW does not apply to the event in question. But that doesn't mean that the CONCEPT doesn't.

K.M. - Turkish historian Halil Berktay, in an Interview I conducted with him last October, says, “In 1915 such a convention (The UN Convention on Genocide) did not exist, such legality did not exist, and, furthermore, the human experience and thinking that ultimately went into that convention, did not exist. I’m not saying that there were no people at the time who objected to ethnic cleansing, I’m saying that a comprehensive, universal, and global circulation of an anti-genocidal ethos did not exist and it was not part and parcel of the atmosphere in which statesmen, politicians, warlords, including Unionist warlords, functioned at that time.”

What do you think about this methodological problem underlined by Professor Berktay?

P.B. - There is no methodological problem here that I can see. Let’s say that his observation is largely correct. The question is what follows from it. It doesn’t follow that what happened wasn’t genocide, according to the definition later formulated, just like it doesn’t follow that the creatures that lived on Earth 65 million years ago weren’t dinosaurs because that concept hadn’t yet been formulated then. It also doesn’t follow that what happened in 1915 wasn’t evil.

3 comments:

raffi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
raffi said...

excellent discussion!
what frustrates me is that despite my burning desire i am having hard times endorsing boghossian as an advocate for the cause.

true, nowhere in the interview does he claim to be one, but after enjoying the intelligent and sufficiently argumentative discourse, i am afraid the reader understands boghossian's position on the subject (the acquisition of which is, i imagine, the objective of the interview) in terms consistent with his final description of the 1915 events, namely "evil".

this is the only evidence of boghossian's position on the subject available to me thus far, but coming from a rarely bright and sequential mind, such as his, it is a disappointment for a reader like myself to finish the interview with a sizable void in closure on the subject. (i.e. boghossian's position on the genocide, and not the genocide itself)

what triggers this comment of mine is my refusal to accept that an intelligent and sober look at the 1915 events should have a lesser impact, when it comes to restituting the truth (to a wider and possibly uninformed audience), than a passionate, but unnecessarily partial manifestation of otherwise identical holding (the latter describing -you would agree- most of our community's efforts in the face of the current state of things)

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