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Relativism about Truth

Edited by Jonny McIntosh (University College London, University College London, Christ Church, Oxford)
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Summary Philosophers have often claimed that truth is in some way relative. However, whether such a claim is coherent, and if so, how exactly it should be understood, is a matter of some controversy. To a first approximation, the idea is that the bearers of truth (e.g. propositions, utterances, sentences-in-context) may be true relative to some parameter and not others. Contemporary debate, informed by work in formal semantics, often focusses on attempts to motivate some form of relativism about truth by appeal to particular linguistic phenomena, like predicates of personal taste, epistemic modals, and future contingents.
Key works Contemporary debate generally focusses on proposals formulated within frameworks arising out of work by David Kaplan (1977) and David Lewis (1980). John MacFarlane's work, arguing for what he calls assessment sensitivity, is central. See his 2003 and 2007, for example. Other key contributions include, on the pro-relativist side, Lasersohn 2005Stephenson 2007, and Egan et al 2005, and, on the anti-relativist side, Cappelen & Hawthorne 2009. One worry that is sometimes raised about relativism is that it makes language somehow impossible. One influential version of the worry is raised in Evans 1985. MacFarlane responds in various places, including his 2003. Arguably, the worry can be traced to Plato, and his discussion of Protagorean relativism in the Theaetetus. For a classic discussion of this, see Burnyeat 1976
Introductions MacFarlane 2012
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  1. Alexander Almér & Dag Westerståhl (2010). Review of Relativism and Monadic Truth. [REVIEW] Linguistics and Philosophy 33 (1):37-50.
    This is a review of Herman Cappelen and John Hawthorne’s book Relativism and Monadic Truth (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009).
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  2. M. Baghramian (2010). 'Relativism: A Brief History. In Michael Kausz (ed.), Relativism: A Contemporary Anthology. Columbia University Press.
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  3. Carl Baker, The Limits of Faultless Disagreement.
    Some have argued that the possibility of faultless disagreement gives relativist semantic theories an important explanatory advantage over their absolutist and contextualist rivals. Here I combat this argument, focusing on the specific case of aesthetic discourse. My argument has two stages. First, I argue that while relativists may be able to account for the possibility of faultless aesthetic disagreement, they nevertheless face difficulty in accounting for the intuitive limits of faultless disagreement. Second, I develop a new non-relativist theory which can (...)
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  4. Carl Baker (2013). The Role of Disagreement in Semantic Theory. Australasian Journal of Philosophy (1):1-18.
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  5. Alexandre Billon (2011). My Own Truth ---Pathologies of Self-Reference and Relative Truth. In Rahman Shahid, Primiero Giuseppe & Marion Mathieu (eds.), Logic, Epistemology, and the Unity of Science, Vol. 23. springer.
    emantic pathologies of self-reference include the Liar (‘this sentence is false’), the Truth-Teller (‘this sentence is true’) and the Open Pair (‘the neighbouring sentence is false’ ‘the neighbouring sentence is false’). Although they seem like perfectly meaningful declarative sentences, truth value assignment to their uses seems either inconsistent (the Liar) or arbitrary (the Truth-Teller and the Open-Pair). These pathologies thus call for a resolution. I propose such a resolution in terms of relative-truth: the truth value of a pathological sentence use (...)
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  6. Gunnar Björnsson & Alexander Almér (2009). Contextualism, Assessor Relativism, and Insensitive Assessments. Logique Et Analyse 52 (208):363-372.
    Recently, contextualism about epistemic modals and predicates of taste have come under fire from advocates of assessment relativistic analyses. Contextualism, they have argued, fails to account for what we call "felicitous insensitive assessments". In this paper, we provide one hitherto overlooked way in which contextualists can embrace the phenomenon by slightly modifying an assumption that has remained in the background in most of the debate over contextualism and relativism. Finally, we briefly argue that the resulting contextualist account is at least (...)
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  7. Berit Brogaard, Perspectival Truth and Color Perception.
    Perspectivalism is a semantic theory according to which the contents of utterances and mental states (perhaps of a particular kind) have a truth-value only relative to a particular perspective (or standard) determined by the context of the speaker or bearer of the mental state. I have defended this view for epistemic terms, moral terms and predicates of personal taste elsewhere (Brogaard 2008a, 2008b, forthcoming). The main aim of this paper is to defend perspectivalism about color perception and color discourse. The (...)
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  8. Berit Brogaard (2010). Perspectival Truth and Color Primitivism. In Cory D. Wright & Nikolaj J. L. L. Pedersen (eds.), New Waves in Truth. Palgrave Macmillan.
    Perspectivalism is a semantic theory according to which the contents of utterances and mental states (perhaps of a particular kind) have a truth-value only relative to a particular perspective (or standard) determined by the context of the speaker, assessor, or bearer of the mental state. I have defended this view for epistemic terms, moral terms and predicates of personal taste elsewhere (Brogaard 2008a, 2008b, forthcoming a). The main aim of this paper is to defend perspectivalism about color perception and color (...)
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  9. Berit Brogaard (2009). Perceptual Content and Monadic Truth: On Cappelen and Hawthorne's Relativism and Monadic Truth. Philosophical Books 50 (4):213-226.
    I will begin with a brief presentation of C & H’s arguments against nonindexical contextualism, temporalism, and relativism. I will then offer a general argument against the monadic truth package. Finally, I will offer arguments in favor of nonindexical contextualism and temporalism.
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  10. Berit Brogaard (2009). Introduction to Relative Truth. Synthese 166 (2):215--229.
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  11. Berit Brogaard (2008). Sea Battle Semantics. Philosophical Quarterly 58 (231):326–335.
    The assumption that the future is open makes well known problems for traditional semantics. According to a commonly held intuition, today's occurrence of the sentence 'There will be a sea battle tomorrow', while truth-valueless today, will have a determinate truth-value by tomorrow night. Yet given traditional semantics, sentences that are truth-valueless now cannot later 'become' true. Relativistic semantics has been claimed to do a better job of accommodating intuitions about future contingents than non-relativistic semantics does. However, intuitions about future contingents (...)
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  12. Berit Brogaard (2008). Moral Contextualism and Moral Relativism. Philosophical Quarterly 58 (232):385 - 409.
    Moral relativism provides a compelling explanation of linguistic data involving ordinary moral expressions like 'right' and 'wrong'. But it is a very radical view. Because relativism relativizes sentence truth to contexts of assessment it forces us to revise standard linguistic theory. If, however, no competing theory explains all of the evidence, perhaps it is time for a paradigm shift. However, I argue that a version of moral contextualism can account for the same data as relativism without relativizing sentence truth to (...)
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  13. Jessica Brown & Herman Cappelen (eds.) (2011). Assertion: New Philosophical Essays. Oxford University Press.
    Assertion is a fundamental feature of language. This volume will be the place to look for anyone interested in current work on the topic.
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  14. Anthony Brueckner (1998). Conceptual Relativism. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 79 (4):295–301.
    What is conceptual relativism? Several formulations of the idea that truth, or existence, is somehow relative to conceptual schemes are considered. All are found lacking.
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  15. M. F. Burnyeat (1976). Protagoras and Self-Refutation in Plato's Theaetetus. Philosophical Review 85 (2):172-195.
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  16. Richard Campbell (1992). Truth and Historicity. Oxford University Press.
    In this scholarly but non-technical book, Campbell elucidates the concept of truth by tracing its history, from the ancient Greek idea that truth is timeless, unchanging, and free from all relativism, through the seventeenth-century crisis which led to the collapse of that idea, and then on through the emergence of historical consciousness to the existentialist, sociological, and linguistic approaches of our own time. He gives a scholarly but vivid and economical exposition of the views of a remarkably wide range of (...)
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  17. Herman Cappelen (2008). Content Relativism and Semantic Blindness. In Manuel Garcia-Carpintero & Max Koelbel (eds.), Relative Truth. Oxford University Press. 265-86.
    For some relativists some of the time the evidence for their view is a puzzling data pattern: On the one hand, there's evidence that the terms in question exhibit some kind of content stability across contexts. On the other hand, there's evidence that their contents vary from one context of use to another. The challenge is to reconcile these two sets of data. Truth relativists claim that their theory can do so better than contextualism and invariantism. Truth relativists, in effect, (...)
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  18. Herman Cappelen & John Hawthorne (2011). Reply to Glanzberg, Soames and Weatherson. [REVIEW] Analysis 71 (1):143-56.
    One of Weatherson's main goals is to drive home a methodological point: We shouldn't be looking for deductive arguments for or against relativism – we should instead be evaluating inductive arguments designed to show that either relativism or some alternative offers the best explanation of some data. Our focus in Chapter Two on diagnostics for shared content allegedly encourages the search for deductive arguments and so does more harm than good. We have no methodological slogan of our own to offer. (...)
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  19. Herman Cappelen & John Hawthorne (2011). Reply to Lasersohn, MacFarlane, and Richard. [REVIEW] Philosophical Studies 156 (3):417-419.
    Reply to Lasersohn, MacFarlane, and Richard.
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  20. Herman Cappelen & John Hawthorne (2009). Relativism and Monadic Truth. Oxford University Press.
    Relativism has dominated many intellectual circles, past and present, but the twentieth century saw it banished to the fringes of mainstream analytic philosophy. Of late, however, it is making something of a comeback within that loosely configured tradition, a comeback that attempts to capitalize on some important ideas in foundational semantics. Relativism and Monadic Truth aims not merely to combat analytic relativism but also to combat the foundational ideas in semantics that led to its revival. Doing so requires a proper (...)
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  21. J. Adam Carter (2013). Disagreement, Relativism and Doxastic Revision. Erkenntnis (1):1-18.
    I investigate the implication of the truth-relativist’s alleged ‘faultless disagreements’ for issues in the epistemology of disagreement. A conclusion I draw is that the type of disagreement the truth-relativist claims (as a key advantage over the contextualist) to preserve fails in principle to be epistemically significant in the way we should expect disagreements to be in social-epistemic practice. In particular, the fact of faultless disagreement fails to ever play the epistemically significant role of making doxastic revision (at least sometimes) rationally (...)
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  22. Ramiro Caso (2014). Assertion and Relative Truth. Synthese 191 (6):1309-1325.
    An account of assertion along truth-relativistic lines is offered. The main lines of relativism about truth are laid out and the problematic features that assertion acquires in the presence of relative truth are identified. These features are the possibility of coherently formulating norms of assertion and the possibility of grounding a rational practice of assertion upon relative truth. A solution to these problems is provided by formulating norms for making and assessing assertions that employ a suitably relativized truth predicate and (...)
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  23. Marian David (1997). Review of F. Schmitt: Truth, A Primer. [REVIEW] Philosophical Review 106 (3):441-443.
  24. Ezio Di Nucci (2012). Knowing Future Contingents. Logos and Episteme 3 (1):43-50.
    This paper argues that we know the future by applying a recent solution of the problem of future contingents to knowledge attributions about the future. MacFarlane has put forward a version of assessment-context relativism that enables us to assign a truth value 'true' (or 'false') to future contingents such as There Will Be A Sea Battle Tomorrow. Here I argue that the same solution can be applied to knowledge attributions about the future by dismissing three disanalogies between the case of (...)
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  25. James Dreier (2009). Relativism (and Expressivism) and the Problem of Disagreement. Philosophical Perspectives 23 (1):79-110.
    Many philosophers, in different areas, are tempted by what variously goes under the name of Contextualism, Speaker Relativism, Indexical Relativism. (I’ll just use Indexical Relativism in this paper.) Thinking of certain problematic expressions as deriving their content from elements of the context of use solves some problems. But it faces some problems of its own, and in this paper I’m interested in one in particular, namely, the problem of disagreement. Two alternative theories, tempting for just the same kinds of expressions (...)
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  26. Rolf A. Eberle (1984). Logic with a Relative Truth Predicate and “That”-Terms. Synthese 59 (2):151 - 185.
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  27. Andy Egan (2007). Epistemic Modals, Relativism and Assertion. Philosophical Studies 133 (1):1--22.
    I think that there are good reasons to adopt a relativist semantics for epistemic modal claims such as ``the treasure might be under the palm tree'', according to which such utterances determine a truth value relative to something finer-grained than just a world (or a <world, time> pair). Anyone who is inclined to relativise truth to more than just worlds and times faces a problem about assertion. It's easy to be puzzled about just what purpose would be served by assertions (...)
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  28. Andy Egan, John Hawthorne & Brian Weatherson (2005). Epistemic Modals in Context. In G. Preyer & G. Peter (eds.), Contextualism in Philosophy. Oxford University Press. 131-170.
    A very simple contextualist treatment of a sentence containing an epistemic modal, e.g. a might be F, is that it is true iff for all the contextually salient community knows, a is F. It is widely agreed that the simple theory will not work in some cases, but the counterexamples produced so far seem amenable to a more complicated contextualist theory. We argue, however, that no contextualist theory can capture the evaluations speakers naturally make of sentences containing epistemic modals. If (...)
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  29. Iris Einheuser (2012). Relativized Propositions and the Fregean Orthodoxy. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 84 (3):590-603.
    This paper answer the question how propositions whose truth is relativized to times, places, asserters or assessers can, despite their relativity, be used to represent the world.
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  30. Iris Einheuser (2008). Three Forms of Truth-Relativism. In Manuel Garcia-Carpintero & Max Kölbel (eds.), Relative Truth. Oxford University Press. 187-203.
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  31. John F. Fox (1994). How Must Relativism Be Construed to Be Coherent? Philosophy of the Social Sciences 24 (1):55-75.
    This essay attempts to clarify certain notions that the author finds useful for the discussion of relativism and then to show what kinds of relativism about values, rationality, and truth are and are not coherent.
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  32. Ragnar Francén (2010). No Deep Disagreement for New Relativists. Philosophical Studies 151 (1):19--37.
    Recently a number of writers have argued that a new form of relativism involves a form of semantic context-dependence which helps it escape the perhaps most common objection to ordinary contextualism; that it cannot accommodate our intuitions about disagreement. I argue: (i) In order to evaluate this claim we have to pay closer attention to the nature of our intuitions about disagreement. (ii) We have different such intuitions concerning different questions: we have more stable disagreement intuitions about moral disputes than (...)
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  33. Ashok K. Gangadean (1980). Comparative Ontology: Relative and Absolute Truth. Philosophy East and West 30 (4):465-480.
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  34. Manuel García-Carpintero & Max Kölbel (eds.) (2008). Relative Truth. Oxford University Press.
    With contributions from some of the key figures in the contemporary debate on relativism this book is about a topic that is the focus of much traditional and ...
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  35. Michael Glanzberg (2009). Semantics and Truth Relative to a World. Synthese 166 (2):281 - 307.
    This paper argues that relativity of truth to a world plays no significant role in empirical semantic theory, even as it is done in the model-theoretic tradition relying on intensional type theory. Some philosophical views of content provide an important notion of truth at a world, but they do not constrain the empirical domain of semantic theory in a way that makes this notion empirically significant. As an application of this conclusion, this paper shows that a potential motivation for relativism (...)
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  36. Michael Glanzberg (2007). Context, Content, and Relativism. Philosophical Studies 136 (1):1--29.
    This paper argues against relativism, focusing on relativism based on the semantics of predicates of personal taste. It presents and defends a contextualist semantics for these predicates, derived from current work on gradable adjectives. It then considers metasemantic questions about the kinds of contextual parameters this semantics requires. It argues they are not metasemantically different from those in other gradable adjectives, and that contextual parameters of this sort are widespread in natural language. Furthermore, this paper shows that if such parameters (...)
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  37. Michael Gorr & Mark Timmons (1989). Subjective Truth, Objective Truth, and Moral Indifference. Philosophical Studies 55 (1):111 - 116.
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  38. Patrick Greenough (2011). Truth-Relativism, Norm-Relativism, and Assertion. In Brown J. & Cappelen H. (eds.), Assertion: New Philosophical Essays. Oxford University Press.
    The main goal in this paper is to outline and defend a form of Relativism, under which truth is absolute but assertibility is not. I dub such a view Norm-Relativism in contrast to the more familiar forms of Truth-Relativism. The key feature of this view is that just what norm of assertion, belief, and action is in play in some context is itself relative to a perspective. In slogan form: there is no fixed, single norm for assertion, belief, and action. (...)
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  39. Patrick Greenough & Michael P. Lynch (eds.) (2006). Truth and Realism. Oxford University Press.
    Is truth objective or relative? What exists independently of our minds? The essays in this book debate these two questions, which are among the oldest of philosophical issues and have vexed almost every major philosopher, from Plato, to Kant, to Wittgenstein. Fifteen eminent contributors bring fresh perspectives, renewed energy, and original answers to debates of great interest both within philosophy and in the culture at large.
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  40. Steven D. Hales (ed.) (2011). A Companion to Relativism. Wiley-Blackwell.
    Machine generated contents note: Editor's Introduction -- Part I: Characterizing Relativism -- Part II: Truth and Language -- Part III: Epistemic Relativism -- Part IV: Moral Relativism -- Part V: Relativism in the Philosophy of Science -- Part VI: Logical, Mathematical, and Ontological Relativism.
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  41. Steven D. Hales (2008). A Relativist's Rejoinder. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 16 (2):271 – 278.
    This article is my author's response in a book symposium on my book Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy. I reply to criticisms raised by Otavio Bueno, Henry Jackman, and Jonathan Weinberg.
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  42. Steven D. Hales (2006). Relativism and the Foundations of Philosophy. MIT Press.
  43. Steven D. Hales (2001). Lynch's Metaphysical Pluralism. [REVIEW] Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63 (3):699–709.
  44. Steven D. Hales (1997). A Consistent Relativism. Mind 106 (421):33-52.
    Relativism is one of the most tenacious theories about truth, with a pedigree as old as philosophy itself. Nearly as ancient is the chief criticism of relativism, namely the charge that the theory is self-refuting. This paper develops a logic of relativism that (1) illuminates the classic self-refutation charge and shows how to escape it; (2) makes rigorous the ideas of truth as relative and truth as absolute, and shows the relations between them; (3) develops an intensional logic for relativism; (...)
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  45. Steven D. Hales (1997). Reply to Shogenji on Relativism. Mind 106 (424):749-750.
    In this note I rebut the criticisms Professor Shogenji makes of the analysis of absolute and relative truth I originally presented in "A Consistent Relativism.".
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  46. Richard Heck (2006). MacFarlane on Relative Truth. Philosophical Issues 16 (1):88–100.
  47. Torfinn Thomesen Huvenes (2012). Varieties of Disagreement and Predicates of Taste. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 90 (1):167 - 181.
    Predicates of taste, such as ?fun? and ?tasty?, have received considerable attention in recent debates between contextualists and relativists, with considerations involving disagreement playing a central role. Considerations involving disagreement have been taken to present a problem for contextualist treatments of predicates of taste. My goal is to argue that considerations involving disagreement do not undermine contextualism. To the extent that relativism was supposed to be motivated by contextualists being unable to deal with disagreement, this motivation is lacking. The argument (...)
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  48. Andrea Iacona (2008). Faultless or Disagreeement. In Manuel Garcia-Carpintero & Max Kolbel (eds.), Relative Truth. Oxford University Press. 287.
    Among the various motivations that may lead to the idea that truth is relative in some non-conventional sense, one is that the idea helps explain how there can be ‘‘faultless disagreements’’, that is, situations in which a person A judges that p, a person B judges that not-p, but neither A nor B is at fault. The line of argument goes as follows. It seems that there are faultless disagreements. For example, A and B may disagree on culinary matters without (...)
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  49. Alexander Jackson (2010). The Inflexibility of Relative Truth. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 110 (3pt3):409-418.
    The ideology of relative truth is inflexible in two ways. Firstly, what's true-for-J is closed under entailment. This is a problem for using truth-relativism to solve the preface puzzle about knowledge. Secondly, it is plausible that vagueness gives rise to some questions having multiple ‘acceptable’ answers, and other questions having no ‘acceptable’ answer. Even if truth-relativism can express the former idea, it can't express the latter. I propose an ideology that is not so rigid. It is preferable to relative truth.
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  50. Harold H. Joachim (1905). 'Absolute' and 'Relative' Truth. Mind 14 (53):1-14.
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