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Truth and Progress by Richard Rorty

Is truth about the way the world is, or is it about what is convenient for society? Les Reid takes a look at a modern pragmatist and asks: Who’s Afraid of Richard Rorty?

Truth is an important concept in our everyday lives. We want our politicians and the media to tell us the truth. We want our law courts to punish or release people depending on the truth of the charges against them. We want lies and propaganda to be exposed as such. We expect scientists to conduct their research honestly and to report the facts, not some convenient fiction.

Truth is also an elementary concept. We expect our children to distinguish between telling lies and telling the truth and we expect them to do so from an early age.

But what is truth? And how do we know when we have it? Whatever else it is, it is a problem that has exercised philosophers since the beginning of philosophy.

The commonsense view of truth is that a statement is true if it describes situations or events as they really were or are. A kind of correspondence or match is needed, between the description and the reality. Thus “Oswald shot Kennedy” is true only if the facts correspond to that description; it is false if the facts are in any respect different, for example if someone else shot Kennedy or if Oswald missed. When correspondence fails, we have falsehood, whether it is the effect of deliberate deceit or unintentional error.

Richard Rorty will have none of it. He says that the correspondence theory of truth does not work and that we should dump the notion of correspondence itself. Instead of the ‘yes/no’ of correspondence, Rorty advocates a pragmatic and holistic view of truth as that which is most convenient for a society. He says that the idea that the ‘World’ (or the ‘Facts’ or ‘Reality’, etc.) validates our true statements is a nonsense, because there is no way that we can get outside language to encounter the thing-in-itself. Statements are supported by other statements. Even ostensive definition is an act within a language game. There is no vantage point outside language from which we can observe the match between language and the ‘World’.

Rorty has been expounding his philosophy for many years now and has encountered considerable opposition. His opponents include many of the leading philosophers of today: Daniel Dennett, John Searle, Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor and Thomas Nagel, to name but few. Truth and Progress is an anthology of essays written during the 1990s in which Rorty squares up to his opponents. The book is quite demanding. It is not for the casual reader or philosophical dabbler. It assumes a good grasp of the main arguments about mind, realism, truth and science. But it creates an exciting image of philosophical struggle and it maps out, albeit from a particular perspective, the various positions of a range of contemporary philosophers on the big issues. The main subject is truth, but Rorty goes on to outline his moral philosophy, his politics, his attitude to feminism and post-modernism, and his view of philosophy itself as a social practice.

The essay on Dennett’s book, Consciousness Explained, provides a useful and persuasive point of entry. Rorty joins Dennett in denouncing the ‘Cartesian theatre’ i.e. the misleading idea which Descartes bequeathed to philosophy that pictures the mind as a spectator in a theatre where sounds, sights and smells are experienced. Rorty and Dennett agree that Cartesian dualism of mind and body was a mistake which landed later philosophers with “... such nuisances as epistemological scepticism, transcendental idealism, absolute idealism, logical constructivism and phenomenology.” Descartes has a lot of jargon to answer for!

The account of mind that Rorty favours owes a lot to Ryle and Wittgenstein, as he acknowledges. There is no Cartesian theatre. ‘Mind’ talk should be understood as talk about behaviour, dispositions and participation in social activities. In this way Rorty replaces mind-body dualism with a body-only monism that obviates all the paradoxes and contradictions that Cartesianism generates.

I found myself agreeing with Rorty on Cartesian dualism, but I was reluctant to stay with him when he pressed on to reject what he described as another dualism – the correspondence theory of truth. The dualism lies in the distinction between social construction and objective fact. Rorty maintains that such distinctions are worthless.

The essay on Charles Taylor concentrates on this issue and Rorty spells out his opposition to Taylor and other ‘self-styled realists’ or, as Rorty prefers to call them, ‘representationalists’. Rorty is most persuasive when he denies that the world is composed of ‘sentence-shaped facts’, or that there is one perfect language which fits the facts absolutely. He says that correspondence carries those implications. In a sly dig at the realists, Rorty promises not to use the phrase ‘Nature’s Own Language’ to describe the sentence-shaped reality which he says correspondence requires. The phrase is merely a rhetorical flourish, he disarmingly admits, but of course he has to explain it yet again before he abjures it. Sly indeed.

At first glance the example of correspondence that Taylor provides looks sound. His argument is that the Solar System was there before Kepler described it. It was falsely described as Earth-centred by Ptolemy, but later Kepler put the Sun at the centre and described it properly. However, the thingin- itself, if we ignore both descriptions of it, was there all the time. Here I found myself agreeing with Taylor’s intentions, but I was uneasy about his choice of example because I remembered Russell’s comment that, due to the relativity of motion, the difference between an Earth-centred model and a Suncentred model is only a matter of simplicity, not of truth. Rorty, however, took a different line of reply, saying that the Solar System was indeed there in terms of causality, but causal relations must be kept distinct from description. I could not help wondering if ‘description v causality’ was really a more useful distinction than ‘social construction v objective fact’.

Dennett defends correspondence by using the example of a nautical chart. If you are sailing off Maine, he says, a nautical chart will be more use to you than a road map of Kansas. It is more useful because the lines on the chart correspond to the features of the sea and coast at that point. Rorty replies that of course there is correspondence in that case, but he says that it is ‘trivial’. No such correspondence applies to scientific theories. Theories about electrons, for example, are not maps like that.

Rorty says, “I reject all forms of that theory [of correspondence], except those that are so shallow and trivial as to be noncontroversial” (p.85).

There are two aspects of that statement which cause problems. The first is that Rorty does not explain what makes some examples of correspondence ‘shallow and trivial’. It seems that Dennett’s nautical chart is a trivial example. But is it? It would certainly not be trivial to the sailor. Conversely, when Taylor says that no-one will dispute the trivial correspondence which makes “There are no chairs in this room” true or false, Rorty does dispute it (p.86), arguing that the ingredients of the description are neither ‘given by the world’ nor ‘created by us’. So it is not at all clear how we are to decide which examples are trivial and which are not, nor how the distinction is grounded. (Perhaps this is another distinction which we would be better off without?)

The second problem with Rorty’s statement is that the arguments which he uses against correspondence are very abstract, and therefore very general. His arguments operate at the level of ‘word and object’, ‘sense and reference’, so it is surprising that there are any exceptions at all, trivial or otherwise. It seems odd that Rorty should advance an abstract argument against correspondence, saying that ‘reality’ is not ‘independent’ nor ‘sentence-shaped’, etc., but then concede that the nautical chart does work by correspondence after all. It is a bit like “What did the Romans ever do for us? – apart from the roads, aqueducts, sanitation…”

One motif of the book which I must admit I found irritating was Rorty’s repeated appeal to Donald Davidson’s dictum that most of our beliefs, most of anybody’s beliefs, must be true (p.25). This bizarre remark follows from Rorty’s and Davidson’s rejection of the ‘social construction/objective fact’ distinction. Being radical pragmatists, they treat beliefs as habits of behaviour, rather than as intentional states, which is what correspondence makes of them. However, I felt that such cosy conservatism was merely a product of their relativistic views and did not connect with the real world of diverging and conflicting beliefs. Just as people are divided in their attitudes to moral issues like abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment, so they are divided on matters of fact: life after death, the existence of God, the predictions of astrologers. In particular, there are rival accounts of the history of the human species: on the one hand, traditional mythologies about Creation which grant special status to humans, and on the other, Darwinian accounts of the evolution of life on planet Earth, treating humans as just another species. Believing one account rather than the other is not simply a matter of social practice. The mythologies are based on social practice, but the Darwinian account appeals to evidence, analysis and the systematic ordering of data. In my opinion, the Darwinian account will still be true even if the traditional mythologies succeed in suppressing it. Its truth does not reside in its social usefulness, but (wait for it) in its correspondence to objective facts.

You will have gathered that I align myself more with Rorty’s opponents than with the man himself. I hope that I have not misrepresented his views here, just as I believe that he tried not to misrepresent the views of his opponents in the essays collected in this book. Suffice to say that this book expounds his philosophy in considerable detail and carries the reader into the thick of current philosophical controversies. It is challenging and rewarding, even if its conclusions are contentious, to say the least.

© Les Reid 2000

Les Reid is Secretary of the Belfast Humanist Group and is the author of ‘Baldness and Evolution’ on the PN website.

Truth and Progress by Richard Rorty is published by Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55686-4

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