Truth About Truth

Pontius Pilate supposedly asked “Quid est veritas?” What is truth? Daniel Detmer teaches philosophy in Indiana. He was asked about postmodernism and ended up talking about objective truth. Below is a fairly long selection from a longer interview conducted by Richard Marshall at 3:16:

DD: As you know, “postmodernism” is a very loose, imprecise term, which means different things in different contexts. The only aspect of it that I have written about at length concerns a certain stance with regard to truth—more specifically either the denial that there is such a thing as objective truth or else the slightly milder thesis that there might as well be no such thing since, in any case, we (allegedly) have no access to it. It is a stance that is reflected well in Richard Rorty’s complaint that we “can still find philosophy professors who will solemnly tell you that they are seeking  the truth , not just a story or a consensus but an accurate representation of the way the world is.” Rorty goes on to call such professors “lovably old-fashioned . . .”

. . . Some of those who thought postmodern truth denial was politically liberatory explained that they thought it enabled one to show that the claims that prop up oppressive political structures are not (simply) true, but rather are to be understood as merely comprising one narrative among others, with no special status. One problem with that, from a political point of view, is that it also entails that the critique of such structures as oppressive is itself also not (simply) true, but rather one narrative among others. . . .

3:16: What do you think postmoderns get wrong and what do they get right . . . ?

DD: Often what they have gotten right is the specifics as to how some specific claim is untrue, or misleading because it is only partially true, because some important thing has been left out. What do they get wrong? Well, consider [Richard] Rorty’s rejection of the notion of objective truth. One of his main arguments is that such a concept is of no help to us in practice, since we have no way to examine reality as it is in itself so as to determine whether or not our beliefs about it are accurate. To put it another way, we have no way of knowing whether or not our beliefs give us information about the way things really are, since “we cannot get outside the range of our lights” and “cannot stand on neutral ground illuminated only by the natural light of reason.” Thus, “there is no way to get outside our beliefs and language so as to find some test other than coherence,” and “there is no method for knowing  when one has reached the truth, or when one is closer to it than before.”

The first problem is that of figuring out what such statements mean. Rorty obviously cannot claim that they are  objectively true—revelatory of the way things really are, so that anyone who disagreed would be simply mistaken—since such a claim would obviously render him vulnerable to charges of self-refutation. But what, then,  does he mean? How, for example, could Rorty, consistent with his strictures regarding the impossibility of knowing the objective truth,  know that “we cannot get outside the range of our lights” and “cannot stand on neutral ground illuminated only by the natural light of reason”? Does he just mean that this is how things  look from  his lights? And how can he  know that there is no method for knowing when one has reached the truth, or when one is closer to it than before? Does he know that  this view is closer to the truth than is the one that holds that there  are methods for knowing when one is closer to the truth than one was before?

At a conference Rorty was once challenged to explain why he would deny that it is objectively true that there was not, at that time, a big green giraffe standing behind him. He replied as follows:

Now about giraffes: I want to urge that if you have the distinction between the idiosyncratic and the intersubjective, or the relatively idiosyncratic and the relatively intersubjective, that is the only distinction you need to take care of real versus imaginary giraffes. You do not need a further distinction between the made and the found or the subjective and the objective. You do not need a distinction between reality and appearance, or between inside and outside, but only one between what you can get a consensus about and what you cannot.

But if it is possible to find out that there really is a consensus about the presence, or lack thereof, of a real giraffe, then why isn’t it also possible, even without such knowledge of a consensus, to find out whether or not there really is a giraffe present? Or, to put it another way, if there is a problem in finding out directly that a giraffe really is or is not present, why does this problem not also carry over to the project of finding out whether or not there really is a consensus about the presence or non-presence of a giraffe? Why are consensuses easier to know about than giraffes? If they aren’t, then what is to be gained, from a practical standpoint, by defining “truth” or “reality” in terms of consensus?

It is as if Rorty were claiming that society’s norms and judgments are unproblematically available to us, when nothing else is. But why would anyone think that it is easier to see, for example, that society  judges giraffes to be taller than ants than it is to see that giraffes  are taller than ants? If anything, this gets things backwards. I would argue that the category “the way things are” is, over a wide range of cases, significantly  more obvious and accessible to us than is the category “what our culture thinks.” Is it a  more clear and obvious truth that we  think that giraffes are taller than ants than that giraffes  are taller than ants? I am quite certain of the latter truth from my own observation, but I have never heard anyone else address their own thoughts on the relative heights of giraffes and ants, let alone discuss their impressions of public opinion on the issue. Similar remarks apply to many elementary moral, mathematical, and logical truths.

Moreover, this problem remains no matter how one understands such phrases as “reality” or “the way things are.” For example, if we understand them in some jacked-up, metaphysical sense, to be expressed with upper-case lettering as Reality-as-it-Really-Is, beyond language or thought or anything human, then, while it is understandable that we might want to deny that we know whether or not a giraffe is “really” present, so should we deny that we know whether or not we “really” have achieved a consensus on the matter. (For notice that knowledge of consensus seems to require knowledge of other minds and their thoughts, and it is unclear why anyone would think that our knowledge of the existence of other minds is any less problematic than is our knowledge of the existence of an independent physical world.)

If, on the other hand, we understand them in a more humdrum sense, merely as meaning that things typically are the way they are no matter what we might think about them, and that some of our thoughts about them are made wrong by the way the things are, then, while it is easy to see how we might be able to gather evidence fully sufficient to entitle us to claim to “know” that we have achieved a consensus on giraffes, so is it clear that we might be able to claim to “know” some things about giraffes, even in the absence of any consensus about, or knowledge of consensus about, such matters. Of course, one could use the jacked-up sense of “reality” when saying that we don’t know what giraffes are “really” like, while simultaneously using the humdrum sense of “reality” when saying that we can nevertheless cope by knowing what our culture’s consensus view of giraffes is, but what would be the sense or purpose of this double standard?

Or again, consider Rorty’s statement that we should be “content to call ‘true’ whatever the upshot of free and open encounters turns out to be,”and that he “would like to substitute the idea of ‘unforced agreement’ for that of ‘objectivity.’” Notice that on this view, in order to know whether or not giraffes are taller than ants we must first know (a) whether or not there is a consensus that giraffes are taller than ants and (b) if there is, whether or not the communication that produced that consensus was free, open, and undistorted. But isn’t it obvious that it is easier to determine whether or not giraffes are taller than ants than it is to determine either (a) or (b)?

. . . At other times Rorty defines “truth” not in terms of consensus, but rather in terms of utility. For example, he characterizes his position as one which “repudiates the idea that reality has an intrinsic nature to which true statements correspond…in favor of the idea that the beliefs we call ‘true’ are the ones we find most useful,” declares that its “whole point is to stop distinguishing between the usefulness of a way of talking and its truth,” and says that it would be in our best interest to discard the notion of “objective truth.” This appears, at first glance, a clever way to avoid the problem of self-refutation. As Rorty obviously recognizes that it would be inconsistent for him to claim to have discovered the objective truth that there is no objective truth to discover, he here instead bases his rejection of “objective truth” solely on the claim that such a notion is not useful to us—we would benefit from abandoning it

But as soon as we ask ourselves whether or not it is indeed  true that the notion of objective truth is not useful to us and that we would therefore benefit from discarding it, all of the old problems return. For either we understand this as an objective truth claim, in which case we get a performative contradiction (because we make use of a notion in issuing the very utterance in which we urge that it be discarded), or else we understand it in terms of Rorty’s pragmatist understanding of “truth,” in which case we generate an infinite regress (because the claim that the notion of objective truth is not useful to us would then have to be understood as true only insofar as it  is useful to us, and  this , in turn, would be true only insofar as  it  is useful to us, and so on).

And insofar as Rorty’s move to pragmatism is motivated by doubts about our ability to know how things really are, the problem remains unsolved. For any grounds we might have for doubting that we can know whether or not giraffes “really” are taller than ants would easily carry over to our efforts to find out whether or not it “really” is useful to believe that giraffes are taller than ants. On the other hand, any standard of “knowledge” sufficiently relaxed as to allow us to “know” that it is useful to believe that giraffes are taller than ants would also be lax enough to enable us to “know,” irrespective of the issue of the utility of belief, that giraffes are taller than ants.

In short, I regard postmodern truth denial of the sort just described as confused, incoherent, and illogical, as well as, from a political standpoint, worse than useless. One might hope that Dxxxx Txxxx’s very different kind of assault on truth might help to reawaken our awareness of the political importance of truth, and of the value commitments (such as a prioritizing of evidence over opinion, and of realism over wishful thinking) necessary to attain it. 

The American Pragmatists by Cheryl Misak

This is an entry in a series called The Oxford History of Philosophy, written by an expert on the philosophical school known as “pragmatism”. Here’s how Oxford University Press describes the book:

Cheryl Misak presents a history of the great American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, from its inception in the Metaphysical Club of the 1870s to the present day. She identifies two dominant lines of thought in the tradition: the first begins with Charles S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright and continues through to Lewis, Quine, and Sellars; the other begins with William James and continues through to Dewey and Rorty. This ambitious new account identifies the connections between traditional American pragmatism and twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy, and links pragmatism to major positions in the recent history of philosophy, such as logical empiricism. Misak argues that the most defensible version of pragmatism must be seen and recovered as an important part of the analytic tradition.

According to Professor Misak, “the most defensible version of pragmatism” is the version initiated by C. S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright in the 19th century and carried forward by C. I. Lewis, W. V. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars in the 20th. She argues that it is more defensible because it considers truth to be less subjective. In the caricature or simplification of pragmatism as set forth by William James and criticized by G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, true statements are those that “work for us”. If religious beliefs make your life better, for example, they’re true. By contrast, the tradition that began with Peirce treats truth more objectively. Statements may “work for us” even though they’re false. The Peircean pragmatists see a stronger relationship between truth and how the world is, regardless of human goals or interests.

It isn’t easy to briefly explain what pragmatism is, but Prof. Misak gives it a try in the Preface:

Pragmatists are empiricists in that they require beliefs to be linked to experience. They want their explanations and ontology down-to-earth (natural as opposed to supernatural) and they require philosophical theories to arise out of our practices. As Peirce put the pragmatic maxim, we must look to the upshot of our concepts in order to understand them….

[But] pragmatists reject the part of empiricism that says that all of our beliefs originate in experience and that our beliefs can be linked in an atomistic way to discrete experiences…. They reject any naturalism that gives ontological priority to matter or physicality — they want to consider whether value, generality, chance, etc. might be part of the natural world. They are holists, taking their view to encompass all of science, logic, mathematics, art, religion, ethics and politics. Unlike most of their empiricist predecessors, they fence off no realm of inquiry from the principles they set out.

In the Conclusion, she adds:

The core pragmatist thought is about the human predicament. We must try to explain our practices and concepts, including our epistemic norms and standards, using those very practices, concepts, norms and standards. This is the pragmatist’s task and we have found that, within the pragmatist tradition, there are different ways of trying to fulfill it.

I’ll finish with a brief example of pragmatist thinking. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume is sometimes viewed as a skeptic (e.g. he believed there is no rational basis for ever thinking that one event causes another). The pragmatist John Dewey, however, saw Hume as a predecessor:

While in his study, Hume finds skepticism compelling, but as soon as he leaves that secluded place of theoretical philosophizing, skepticism loses any force it might have had. The skeptic’s doubts, as Peirce would put it, are paper doubts [107].

According to the pragmatists, what matters, even from a philosophical perspective, is how our ideas connect with our lives outside the philosophy class.

Update (January 2020): Without realizing I’d already read it, I read it again. More here.

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard Rorty

This short book from 1998 by the philosopher Richard Rorty gained attention recently because of this passage:

… members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet [89-90].

Given our recent election, that sounds right in some respects. I’d make a few points, however. Democratic politicians have tried to increase wages for the working class and keep more jobs at home but have run into strong Republican opposition; it’s unlikely that 40 years of gains for various minorities (and for women) are unlikely to be wiped out any time soon; and the “strong man” we currently have isn’t actually strong, was rejected by most voters and is already highly unpopular. 

But the real focus of Rorty’s book is leftist thought in the 20th century. He draws a distinction between the “reformist” left and the “cultural” left. America’s left wing was dedicated to reform from the 19th century up until the 1960s.  Left-wing politicians, labor leaders, activists and intellectuals saw the United States as a land of promise. Rorty cites Walt Whitman and John Dewey as two proponents of this basically pro-American point of view. They were aware of many problems but believed those problems could be addressed through incremental reforms, eventually resulting in a country that lived up to its ideals. In Rorty’s words, they were dedicated to “achieving our country”. 

Rorty argues that the left lost its faith in America’s promise in reaction to the Vietnam War. Incremental reform was no longer enough. It was wasted effort, because America was too far gone. American culture needed to be remade. “The people” needed to take control in revolutionary fashion. Rorty says left-wing intellectuals began to focus on “the system” instead of fighting for specific reforms. In addition, too much emphasis was put on what’s now called “identity” politics:

To take pride in being black or gay is an entirely reasonable response to the sadistic humiliation to which one has been subjected. But insofar as this pride prevents someone from also taking pride in being an American citizen, from thinking of his or her country as capable of reform, or from being able to join with straights or whites in reformist initiatives, it is a political disaster. 

Rorty concludes that we should admit America’s faults but see ourselves as agents rather than spectators:

Our national character is still in the making. Few in 1897 would have predicted the Progressive Movement, the forty-hour work week, Women’s Suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement…. Nobody in 1997 can know that America will not, in the course of the next century, witness even greater moral progress.

Whitman and Dewey … wanted to put shared utopian dreams – dreams of an ideally decent and civilized society – in the place of knowledge of God’s Will, Moral Law, the Laws of History, or the Facts of Science. Their party, the party of hope, made twentieth-century America more than just an economic and military giant. Without the American Left, we might still be strong and brave, but nobody would have suggested that we were good. As long as we have a functioning political left, we still have a chance to achieve our country, to make it the country of Whitman’s and Dewey’s dreams.

I think that Rorty, spending his days in academia, over-emphasized the intellectual left-wing at the expense of the politicians and activists who continued to fight for reform in the late 20th century and continue fighting today. But the book was still worth reading for its analysis of Whitman’s and Dewey’s political ideals and the distinction Rorty draws between the reformist and the cultural left.