Lee Kelly has an interesting post on truth here that touches on pragmatist approaches. It was not a smooth first encounter for him: "The purpose of all my investigations is, first and foremost, to discover how the universe actually is. When I first encountered someone arguing for the pragmatic theory of truth, for example, I was rather surprised and confused. What were they trying to achieve exactly?"
I would have thought what it is trying to achieve is simply a sounder account of what human thinkers are capable of. The answer is "quite a bit of useful inquiry" but not all the grandiose claims or goals that philosophers have often hoped for.
Kelly sees it as more traditionally postmodern than that (and certainly there are parallels, but I think there's a good reason why pragmatists are called that and not postmodernists. He continues: "But mere definition cannot be why people care about this debate. Even
if I begin using the predicate ‘is true’ in a pragmatic sense, that
does not change the purpose of my investigations. Besides, I would just
coin new words to describe correspondence to the facts, such as ‘troo’
and ‘thalse’, and carry on as before.
However, it seems a change in purpose is precisely what was expected."
Exactly! A change of purpose is not just "expected", though - it is the point of the argument. Understanding truth as "the compliment we pay to sentences that pay their way" (roughly quoting Rorty) is really just the logical consequence of the acknowledgement that pursuit of Kelly's "troo" and "thalse" is a hopeless one. In other words, it's not mere definition. If you "carry on as before", you've missed the point. It's not that "troo" or "thalse" aren't valid goal. That sort of fundamental truth that Kelly would go back to searching for sounds like a wonderful goal, and we can easily conceptualize what it is he's trying to accomplish with that goal. The problem isn't that they are bad goals, it's that they are unattainable goals because of the nature of human inquiry (and so pragmatists say - what is the point?).
In this sense I don't think the pragmatist way of talking about truth is "degenerative" essentialism. You can use whatever words you want. You can introduce "trooth" or you can keep "truth" for all I care. Pragmatists aren't the language police. And if you make your point clearly we know when you're talking about a "correspondence with reality" approach to truth. The word "truth" isn't the issue. As Kelly points out it can mean different things in different contexts, and as far as I can tell that's fine. That's the way language works. The issue is making claims that you don't have justification to make, regardless of whether it's claims about "truth" or "trooth".
I think it's also important to remember whose purpose pragmatism is expecting to change. I think it's common for pragmatists to assert that the pragmatist way of thinking about truth is pretty much what people do every day. It's only philosophers that have added baggage on top of what "truth" really means. In this sense, I would have thought that it's the non-pragmatist philosophers that are liable to mislead people who are used to another way of thinking about "truth".
When people say "such and such happened and that's the truth", it's a far more basic suggestions that the phrase "such and such" provides a helpful, reasonable, understandable account of something experienced by the speaker. Thus it is "true". There's no presumption of any deeper correspondence with reality in the way some philosophers approach it. There's also an understanding when people say the word "truth" that different people could use slightly different phrases to describe the experience, and they could be "true" too, because they pay their way as well. This is comparable to the way pragmatists use the word. So I'm not sure it's pragmatists that are being misleading.
In fact when I first ran across pragmatism what as attractive about it was precisely that it seemed to correspond with reality so well (if you made it this far I'll make it easy for you: that last sentence was meant to be a joke).
Anyway, the point is the words don't seem to matter as much as Kelly suggests they do. The point is really what we are and aren't justified in claiming, thinking about where we want to expend our energy, and perhaps deflating a little of the Platonism floating around out there.
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