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Wednesday, 18 November 2020 - 3.00pm

Having been suspended since late March as a result of the COVID-19 catastrophe, the monthly seminar run by the Cambridge Forum for Legal & Political Philosophy will resume on Wednesday, November 18th, at 3:00pm, through Zoom.  The seminar will be chaired by Adam Stewart-Wallace, a former Cantabrigian philosopher who is now a barrister practicing in London.  For his talk with which he will open the seminar, he will be presenting a short paper of his on "Legal Truth as Assessment-Sensitive."  For the reading, he is assigning an article by John MacFarlane on "Future Contingents and Relative Truth."  Below is a message from Adam in which he explains his choice of the article as the assigned reading.  The article is freely available on the Web from the Philosophical Quarterly.

The seminar will take place through Zoom.  Here is the Zoom invitation:

Law Zoom 1 is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic: CFLPP Monthly Seminar - November 2020

Time: Nov 18, 2020 03:00 PM London

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Meeting ID: 983 1577 4594

Passcode: 885343



The paper I am suggesting for the reading is John MacFarlane’s seminal presentation of the view he likes to call ‘assessment-sensitivity’ or ‘relativism’:

‘Future Contingents and Relative Truth’, The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 53 No. 212.

Given that this is a forum for legal and political philosophy I should explain why I have suggested we read a paper about a philosophical puzzle regarding time. I’ve chosen it because I think it neatly illustrates MacF’s approach to relative truth/assessment sensitive truth. In my own paper I try to apply that general template to legal truth, which is something neither MacF nor to the best of my knowledge anyone else has done.

Those of you familiar with MacF’s work will know that he has a basic semantic idea which he then applies to different areas. There is a lot of logical gubbins in the paper that may or may not be familiar to readers, and if you are coming to the topic for the first time these may be a bit of a distraction from the main point. What MacF is doing is showing how various other attempts at logical chicanery don’t work to solve the problem he is interested in, before offering his own solution, which is really what is distinctive.

MacF’s underlying idea about semantics is fairly simple: it’s that whether or not a given proposition is true is relative not only to a ‘context of use’ but also a ‘context of assessment’. It’s the introduction of the second context – the context of assessment – that is the innovative bit of MacF’s thinking. Ordinary semantic theories only posit the first kind of context.

In the suggested reading MacF attempts to apply this template to future contingents, i.e. statements like ‘There will be a sea battle tomorrow’. His view is that only if we accept there are these two types of context can we explain the conditions under which statements like this are true. At slightly more length, his view is that if the future is genuinely open, i.e. it is not yet determined whether there is going to be a sea battle, then we should think of time/reality as having different branches, some on which the battle occurs and some on which it does not. Thus, from your initial position in time, when you make the statement (the context of use), it can’t (yet) be determinately true, as all these branches are open ahead of you.  Now, however, consider that utterance from the point of view of the future branches. On some of these branches the battle will have happened and on some it won’t. From the perspective of the branches on which it did, it will be right to look back at (assess) your earlier utterance as true, and from the perspective of the branches on which it did not, it will be right to look back at (assess) the earlier utterance as false. On this model, it is vital that we have these two types of context in play. Only by so doing, thinks MacF, can we accurately account for the conditions under which future contingents are true.

My paper applies MacF’s idea that we need to distinguish between two types of context (use and assessment) to legal truth as opposed to future contingents. Very roughly, the contextual parameters when it comes to legal propositions aren’t branches in time; they are court rulings or occasions for rulings. In a nutshell, I suggest that in order to explain what it takes for a legal proposition to be true, one has to factor in both the context in which a particular ruling or assertion is made and also (sometimes) a further context of assessment by some further court on a different occasion. At least, this, I say, is necessary when considering a system that works at all like the English and Welsh system works, with its approach to binding precedent.

Other reference works that might be helpful:

The SEP entry by Maria Baghramian on relativism has a good section on ‘New Relativism’ that may be helpful to give an overview of MacF’s theory.

Another useful resource is MacF’s book, which is online at

The first chapter gives an overview of assessment sensitivity/relativism.