Why a pragmatist defense of truth is useful

by Dave Maier

A contemporary truism, ironically enough, is that we now live in a “post-truth” era, as attested by a number of recent books with that or similar titles, related by their authors with varying degrees of chagrin. We all know the ultimate, or at least proximate, source of this concern: that fount of untruth which is Donald Trump’s Twitter feed (with a side of Brexitmania for those across the pond). Even among his supporters – and this is indeed, I think, the most charitable interpretation of the phenomenon in question – Mr. Trump is, as his aide Ms. Conway has put it, best taken “seriously but not literally.” That is, he is not particularly concerned with whether what he says is true, but instead with its effect on his readers and listeners, friendly or hostile.

I’m not going to defend this attitude toward truth-telling, which has become known, thanks to philosopher Harry Frankfurt, as “bullshitting,” and in fact dates back to the ancients, when Plato’s Socrates criticized what were called “sophists” for similar attitudes. However, it does seem that some of today’s self-appointed defenders of truth can paint their targets with an excessively broad brush. Naturally there is a lot of complaining about “postmodernist skepticism about truth,” but since most of our writers are not philosophers, their somewhat vague griping is hard to evaluate. (Michiko Kakutani, for example, clearly doesn’t like Derrida; but that’s just about all I got out of what she said.) But I’m not here to defend postmodernism any more than I am to defend “alternative facts.” 

What bothers me here – in arguments about “truth” in general, that is, more than simply in this recent kerfuffle – is the casual slandering of pragmatism. (Wittgenstein too can suffer a similar treatment, but let’s put him to one side for today.) Pragmatism has often, even typically, been simply identified with sophism; consider Chesterton’s remark that “Pragmatism is a matter of human needs, and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.” Also, when I searched for that quote, I found, in an article by Louis Menand, an even better one: “If the pragmatist account is correct, warned Bertrand Russell a year later [than Chesterton’s 1908 remark], then ‘ironclads and Maxim guns must be the ultimate arbiters of metaphysical truth.’” [N.B.: I don’t endorse the rest of Menand’s account though.]

Some “pragmatist accounts of truth” do, it is true, sound like naive bumper-sticker slogans, like James’s “truth is what works,” or Rorty’s later “truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with saying.” The problem with such slogans is not simply that they provide critics with easy pot-shots like the above, but also that the “common-sense” refutations of such views help reinforce the realist dogmas which provoked pragmatist alternatives in the first place. It can thus seem that any defense of truth against sophism is ipso facto a rejection of pragmatism. In fact, in my view, it goes the other way: a proper defense of truth shows why pragmatist criticism of realist views is the key to the issue.

To see this, let’s consider not a pragmatist account of truth itself, but instead its account of accounts of truth. While realism depends on an opposition between objective truth and subjective interest, intuitive as that may seem in the case of inquiry into empirical matters – such as whether a certain drug is safe and effective, or who is the guilty party in a murder investigation – to plunk that requirement down at the beginning of a philosophical discussion is flatly dogmatic.

We might, that is, begin any such discussion by trying to decide out what we want out of it, and what will count as a helpful result. Maybe what will turn out to be the most useful result – not for our purposes in general, as on the sophistic account, but for our philosophical needs as we see them – will indeed take the traditional form of an argument from unexceptionable premises to a theoretical account of truth which one must accept on pain of irrationality. But to demand this at the beginning is, as I said, dogmatic. That is, after all, the very question under discussion.

In fact it seems that any such a priori requirement is not simply unforced but downright odd. Surely when we ask philosophical questions, and we try to decide what sort of answer we are looking for, we ourselves are the ones who get to decide this. The world cannot force us to want this or that, to tell us what we must want out of such a discussion. All it can tell us – all there is to it at all –  is how things are. It’s because we think we know that that it makes sense for us to decide how we want things to be instead, and then start to think about how to get them to be that way (which will no doubt require more inquiry into how things are, and so on). No defense of truth or objectivity, at any level, can require that we simply give up investigation into practical matters, even if those practical matters are those of how best to use my conceptual resources for philosophical aims. Neither may they demand that practical matters be reduced to matters of (here, philosophical) dogma.

In return, of course, realists will probably say that to say this is to stack the deck on my own behalf. (You decide.) But in any case, let me say what this pragmatist would find helpful from a defense of truth against sophism. First, of course, that it is a defense against sophism, one that pragmatists can endorse, would certainly help everyone keep the latter distinct from the former, which would certainly be nice. But what I would really like (as well as, yes, the proverbial pony) is a way to remove whatever conceptual obstacles there are to more general appreciation of the post-Cartesian prospects for philosophy in general.

Elsewhere, in the context not of truth but of metaphysical objectivity, I’ve suggested that a key anti-dualist insight is that knowing how to use a word to refer correctly to their referents, on the one hand, and knowing how things are in the world, on the other, are, if not exactly two sides of the same coin, then so closely interrelated as to make traditional dualist accounts of subject and object – and by “traditional” I mean those traditionally rolled out in defense of truth against its subversive detractors like postmodernists – utterly unworkable. (Note, here in this metaphilosophical context, how entirely appropriate it is to reject a position for its “unworkability” rather than its “falsity” or “incoherence.”)

Before we look truth more closely, let me note that while our account of truth, if all goes well, do something worth doing, it won’t necessarily, or at least directly, help with the reason people like our authors have been clamoring for one in the first place: to trump sophism (no pun intended, I swear). That’s because while sophists (naturally enough) use whatever tools they find lying around, with only the degree of concern for consistency that they think they need, they are perfectly capable of accepting the traditional account of truth as objective (and so cannot be resisted by means of reaffirming that account). For example, contemporary sophist Stanley Fish attributes his sophism not to “skepticism about truth,” but instead about the idea that rigorous argument from unexceptionable premises can fulfill its traditional promises to lead to agreement on how things are. It is all too clear to him, that is, that if you dig in with sufficient determination, doubling down after every apparent dialectical defeat, you can defer final defeat of your views indefinitely. Since he believes his own views to be correct, he says, he is therefore justified in using other, non-dialectical means to attain his ends: that is, sophistic ones.

Again, then, it seems that no philosophical defense of truth can help sway Fish, as he already believes in it. It’s objective inquiry, not truth, that he is skeptical about. (Fish also calls himself a pragmatist, quoting Rorty approvingly, which can lead to further confusion; however, this pragmatist finds Fish’s position both overly dogmatic in its skepticism as well as unacceptable in its other consequences – ironically, perhaps, precisely because of his acceptance of traditional objectivist doctrine. Let’s not get into that here.) What we should not expect, then, is that our account of truth and related matters will give definitive reasons for those now playing fast and loose with the truth to stop doing that – just as the continued presence of criminals and other scoundrels among us is in no way due to the failures, real and imagined, of moral philosophy. That’s just not what philosophy is good for, or at least not how it should be judged.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, what do we want from our investigation into (the concept of) truth? To help us out here, let me turn to another book I just picked up at the library, one of which this post is not a review: Simon Blackburn’s latest, a slim volume called On Truth. Blackburn, while not one of my very favorite contemporary philosophers, writes clearly in the analytic style, and is admirably free of any major conceptual or ideological blind spots in his views. Based on his previous book about truth (Truth: A Guide), we may hope that he will help to nip this “post-truth” business in the bud without any unnecessary concessions to traditional realist views (even if his treatment of “pragmatism” isn’t the same as mine). In a snippet quoted on the back of the book, Blackburn tells us that “[t]he basic reason why the concept of truth will never die is that to believe anything at all is itself to take a stand on its truth. And we cannot do without belief, since planning and acting in the world requires it.”

I am pleased to report that the words here are quite right, even if Blackburn hasn’t quite got the tune. He suggests that what our account should do, if I may spin the issue my own way, is to use the concept of truth to tie together the related concepts of (semantic) meaning, on the one hand, and belief, on the other. This makes truth – or, if you like, reveals truth to be – an essentially semantic concept. After all, it is meaningful statements about the world, not the world itself, which are true. As I will argue, that insight itself is all we may really need, and we may perhaps dispense with the traditional battles about whether this makes the “semantic view of truth” the correct philosophical theory, or whether (since that’s all we need) then the “minimalist theory of truth” is the correct one instead. Why can’t we just make sure to keep it in mind, and see how that goes? Why assume that we need a “theory of truth” above and beyond that? If there weren’t already something going under the name of a “pragmatist theory of truth,” it would be straightforward to regard this, well, pragmatic attitude as the one deserving of the name.

Okay, I better cut to the chase now. The theory I referred to as “minimalism” reduces the substance of the concept of truth to what has been traditionally called the “disquotational platitude”: in the traditional example, that the English sentence “Grass is green” is true (in English) if and only if grass is in fact green. That’s it.

You can see the appeal of this view. It cuts away excessive metaphysics (thus the “deflation”), while retaining the accepted form, that of a “theory.” But again we have the words but not the tune. Minimalism presents itself as deflationary in the sense of being (metaphysically and theoretically) parsimonious, a virtue of long standing in the post-empiricist tradition of analytic philosophy. But what the disquotational platitude, and the admirable restraint involved in focusing our attention on that alone, allows us to do is something quite different – that is, from what usually passes for “parsimony.” It’s not simply that disquotation reduces the content of our theory to the point that it can, qua theory, be, as Grover Norquist would say, drowned in the bathtub, to the cheers of metaphysical deflationists worldwide. This would be true of any theory with, well, “minimal” content. Truth in particular plays a unique role in our conceptual economy. The disquotational platitude it embodies connects mind and world in a way which, crucially, puts semantic meaning right in the center, rendering undeniable here in an unexpected context what can otherwise (as in the metaphysical contexts in which I’ve been arguing for “perspectivism” or Wittgensteinian (or, again, pragmatist) views) look like radical philosophical dogma rather than mere common sense with surprising philosophical consequences.

This itself would be explosive news if we only recognized it, and is missed (so far, at least) even by Blackburn, of all truth’s prominent defenders the one most charitable to what seems to the rest to be mere postmodern lunacy. In properly pragmatist practice, I have suggested that I will accept the key insight in whatever form it comes (even if “pragmatism” ends up on the outside – who cares what the name is?), and besides those already mentioned, I’ll take it in the form of Donald Davidson’s rejection of what he calls the “third dogma of empiricism”: the Cartesian dualism of conceptual scheme and empirical content, or again, mind and world. When Blackburn mentions Davidson at all, it’s in the context of “coherence theories” of truth, or in his explicit reference to Alfred Tarski’s pioneering work on truth, rather than (naturally enough in the context) the post-Cartesian metaphysics implicit in his account of meaning and interpretation.

But as far as I can tell, all we actually need to dispatch the “third dogma” is contained in the disquotational platitude itself, in the way I have suggested: meaning and belief (and their proper metaphysical domains: mind and world) are essentially connected, and in a way which puts truth in the center of the picture, as an essentially semantic concept. All we need to do is first, to get people to stop there, before running on to the various “theories of truth,” as if that were the actual philosophical issue; second, just accept the platitude (it’s a freaking platitude, for crying out loud), and third (easier said than done, I admit) carefully unpack the consequences of that platitude, so construed, in the other contexts we’re interested in. It won’t solve our problem of truth-free tweets, but there’s really only so much philosophy can do.

Next time (after, that is, I’ve actually read it): a review of Simon Blackburn’s latest book, a slim volume called On Truth.

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