Saturday, August 11, 2012

Kelly on Truth

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.


  1. You misunderstood my point, but I can't blame you. I wasn't especially clear.

    As it happens, I do think pragmatism is deeply mistaken, but my post wasn't intended as a criticism of pragmatism. I should have used a different example, such as coherence theory, to avoid this kind of confusion. My point was just how the debate concerning theories of truth is poorly framed. I completely agree with the Tarski quote at the end of the piece.

    Now, I can make some really awesome arguments for pragmatism if you want, probably better than you can, but I still think it's all wrong.

    1. Well right, I know that post wasn't a criticism but you still seem to be essentially saying "we can accept pragmatism, that's fine, but once we've done that I'm just going to put their semantic revisionism aside, make up a new concept of trooth, and continue to approach trooth as a correspondence to reality"

      My response to that is that you seem to have just made up a new word and done nothing different. What is the value of that? As you say, if there is an argument to be had let's have it (or we don't have to have it... I for one think correspondence theories may be functional even if they're wrong). Why introduce "trooth"?

      I guess I'm just having a tough time because you say you don't want to get caught up in word games or essentialism, but you're the one that's proposing all the new word games and he semantic twists that move us closer to essentialism.

      You seem to think the argument is over what the word "truth" means. That seems wrong to me. That's not what the argument is over.

      As far as I can tell, the argument is over what we can and can't say about "trooth" as you've rechristened it, or whatever else you want to rename it.

    2. You and Tarski seem to put great stock in opting for:

      1. "Let's be very exact and separate truth from trooth and then go on our way, perhaps arguing about what our goals should be but not arguing about the same word "truth" that is signifying different things to different people" instead of

      2. "Well everyone knows words signify different things at different times for different people and when I say 'correspondence theory' vs. 'pragmatist theory' it's clear the slightly different connotations involved, so why don't we ignore the diversity of uses of the word 'truth' and just argue about what actually matters: whether or not the correspondence approach is even legitimate"

      I don't have a big problem with your choice of #1 but it does seem to overcomplicate things and I'm not sure why you think it's so essential. And it's confusing to me because you seem to be frustrated with the word games when as far as I can tell you and Tarski are the ones demanding more word games!

    3. I suppose my question to Tarski, when he writes: "It seems to me that none of these conceptions have been put so far in an intelligible and unequivocal form. This may change, however; a time may come when we find ourselves confronted with several incompatible, but equally clear and precise, conceptions of truth."

      Is that "truth" and "trooth" as Lee lays them out are intelligible and unequivocal, and that's great. But "correspondence approach to truth" and "pragmatic approach to truth" seemed perfectly intelligible and unequivocal too. So what exactly were you worried about in the first place, Tarski?

    4. ------quote------
      Daniel :'Well right, I know that post wasn't a criticism but you still seem to be essentially saying "we can accept pragmatism, that's fine, but once we've done that I'm just going to put their semantic revisionism aside, make up a new concept of trooth, and continue to approach trooth as a correspondence to reality"

      That is emphatically not what I'm saying!

    5. You said: "If it merely a matter of words, then I have no objection, in principle, to defining the predicate ‘is true’ to refer to theory’s usefulness for categorising and predicting phenomena.".

      It seems to me that "I have no objection" (your words) means that it's "fine" (my words) to talk about truth the way pragmatists do. So I don't see how that is emphatically not what you are saying. Then you go on:

      "Besides, I would just coin new words to describe correspondence to the facts, such as ‘troo’ and ‘thalse’, and carry on as before."

      Which seems to me to be "make up a new concept of trooth, and continue to approach trooth as a correspondence to reality", or as you call it, "fact".

      If I am missing a nuance, feel free to clarify yourself. But if this is "emphatically not" what you are saying then you aren't writing very clearly.

      Tarski seems preoccupied with the same issue: getting an unambiguous set of words to use when we talk about these sorts of widely varying concepts. In other words you seem to like Tarski precisely because he sees value in the exercise of saying "OK, if that's how you define truth then we ought to use "trooth" for this other thing.

      If this is not what you're saying I'm not sure what you're saying.

    6. I disagree with pragmatism. I think statements can, and do, correspond to the facts and they can be known. Traditionally, especially in philosophy, the word used to describe such statements is 'true'. I do not think we can substitute the pursuit of truth with something like practical usefulness and expect the same results from science--I think pragmatism is unpragmatic. It is within this context say I would just coin new words, 'troo' and 'thalse', and carry on as before, because arguing about what 'truth' really is is a fools game, an essentialist black hole. The real arguments and disagreements have nothing to do with the meaning (or a theory) of truth, but to do with the limits of knowledge and what ought to be the purpose of our investigations.

      The pragmatist position is that truth, at least empirical truth, is inaccessible to knowledge, e.g. we can have no justification for supposing that a scientific theory is true. The concept of truth is said to be redundant--of no practical consequence. Even if we believed a true theory, there is no way to know that we do. What we can know, however, is that a theory is useful for categorising and predicting phenomena. In this view, we should consider scientific hypotheses, not as descriptions of a reality, but as instruments to anticipate and control reality. As Rorty writes: 'I tend to view natural science as in the business of controlling and predicting things, and as largely useless for philosophical purposes.'

      This is, of course, the real point of contention. This is the meat of the disagreement--about we can and should do. The whole "theories of truth" debate is severely misleading. Technically, I am a pluralist. 'Truth' may refer to correspondence, usefulness, consensus, subjective judgement, or whatever else given the appropriate context. Pretending to argue about which "theory of truth" is the right one is, at best, highly misleading and, at worst, futile essentialism. It is a classic case of a widespread problem where people argue about words, in an essentialistic way, rather than their actual disagreements--good examples from politics include arguments about what is a 'human being' in relation to abortion or what is 'marraige' in the context of the gay marraige debate.

    7. But controlling and predicting things is absolutely contingent on describing it. You can't quote Rorty saying that and then juxtapose it with a "description of reality". That's an entirely different argument that is not being made.

      The whole point of scientific hypothesis is to describe reality - if you want a "why", one could add "to predict and control it". I'd add "just because we enjoy the wonder of it too", and any number of other reasons why.

      The real question is what kind of description of reality is it?

      Pragmatists say it is an always imperfect - because it is always contingent and mediated - description.

    8. If scientific hypotheses actually describe reality, then they are true, in the classic sense. Therefore, they are also true in there meataphysical implications, but it's precisely this sense in which Rorty, and other pragmatists, mean that science is 'largely useless for philosophical purposes.' The concept of truth need not be involved in the epistemological discussion, since it exerts no force in arguments concerning warrant for belief. Scientific theories need only be true insofar as they are instrumentally true, and thus us subject to the pragmatic assessment, but that falls short of truth in the classic sense. We simply do not know, and there is no point in asking, about whether a scientific theory is really true. This is behind the so-called "pragmatic theory of truth", which is not a theory of truth per se, but just a disguised proposal to abandon the grandiose ambitions of past philosophers to strive for the truth and replace with the more humble and achievable goal of controlling and predicting the phenomena we can access.

      Saying that our explanations of reality are always fallible or imperfect is just run-of-the-mill fallibilism. Pragmatism, as a species of empiricism, though rejecting truth as the end of our investigations, and even attempting to explode the notion of representationalism altogether, is more than just fallibilism.

    9. Reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on pragmatism, I found this excellent paragraph about Rorty:

      Richard Rorty has described his philosophy as ‘pragmatist’ on a number of occasions. Where Peirce and Dewey—and even perhaps James—were engaged in working out systematic philosophical visions, Rorty treated ‘pragmatism’ as something more negative. What pragmatists teach us about truth, he tells us, is that there is nothing very systematic or constructive to say about truth at all. In particular, this concept does not capture any systematic or metaphysical relation between our beliefs and utterances, on the one hand, and reality on the other. We can describe what we do with the word ‘true’: we use it to express our endorsement of beliefs and sentences, and sometimes we might find it useful to express our fallibility by saying that some of our beliefs may not be true. But, beyond talking about the rather trivial formal properties of the concept, there is nothing more to be said. He also uses what he describes as a ‘pragmatist’ principle to show that the truth cannot be our aim when we inquire. This principle holds that we can only adopt something as an aim when we are able to recognize that it has been achieved: it must thus make a practical difference whether a proposition is true or not. And since we are fallible, we are never in a position to recognize that one of our beliefs is actually true—all we can recognize is that it meets standards of acceptance that are endorsed, for the time being, in our community (Rorty 1991a: chapter one; 2000; Davidson 2005: 7; Hookway 2007). The consequentialist character of pragmatist ideas is also reflected in his account of how we can criticize and revise our view of the world. We should be free to propose new ‘vocabularies’—systems of classification and description. We do not test these vocabularies by seeing whether they enable us to discover truths or by showing that they can be read off the nature of reality. Instead, we evaluate them by seeing how they enable us to achieve our goals and formulate better and more satisfying goals (Rorty 1995).

      Rorty, like most who came out of the analytic tradition, was deeply entrenched in the quagmire of what Bartley called the 'Wittgensteinian problematic'. That problematic is built on error and can be avoided altogether. However, Rorty's views on truth, language, and conversationalism are, in my view, actually quite typical of someone who has become lost down that road.

    10. re: "If scientific hypotheses actually describe reality, then they are true, in the classic sense."

      Right, but now once again you are adding "actually". It doesn't actually describe reality. We can't claim that. It instrumentally describes the reality we perceive. Whether it does more than that (it may do more than that, after all) isn't something we have access too.

      Yes, it's definitely more than just saying that our knowledge is imperfect. It definitely is more than just fallibilism. Nobody was saying that was all there was to it. I'm not broadly read on this, but my impression has always been that a simple fallibilist orientation is much broader than pragmatism.

    11. Re: 'Right, but now once again you are adding "actually". It doesn't actually describe reality. We can't claim that. It instrumentally describes the reality we perceive. Whether it does more than that (it may do more than that, after all) isn't something we have access too.'

      Right, but I believe the opposite. I think scientific hypotheses really do, or at least are an attempt to, describe the reality 'out there', so to speak. I don't think this attempt is futile--Rorty and his ilk are wrong, in my opinion. We really can know the truth even if we're fallible. I'm not interested in science just to control and predict, but to understand and explain how the universe really works.

      While all interesting in its own right, this is all quite besides my original point. I merely offer these comments as clarification: although I believe it is mistaken, pragmatism is a substantive position. It was bad judgement to use the pragmatic theory of truth as the example in my original post.

  2. Though may I suggest that you change the name of your blog to 'Appearances and Other Stubborn Things'.

    1. Now why would I want to do a thing like that?

      "Facts" is fine. Again, you seem caught up in the words.

  3. You would have enjoyed a Philosophy course, Daniel Kuehn. It's worth taking to help sharpen your arguments.

    Dr. Michael Emmett Brady once told me that he was a triple major in Economics, Mathematics, and Philosophy, so perhaps you could share a thing or two with him on Pragmatism.

  4. 'Understanding truth as "the compliment we pay to sentences that pay their way"'

    So, if I tell you that I have started up a business sure to make millions when I haven't and dupe you out of your life savings, that is "true" because it paid its way!

    1. Literally paying you seems a little different from paying it's way through the maze of this wondrous and confusing thing we call our perceptions of the real.


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