This is based on a comment I made here.
Matt Yglesias is a very clever guy, so it is sad to read him writing Rortarian mush. Yes, of course language is a matter of social conventions. It has to be to be language – that is, something used to communicate between sentient beings. If you do not know the operating social conventions, you cannot use the language.
But notice the cognitive slide involved in the term 'social convention'. It has that useful, to sceptical arguments, ring of "could be anything/it is just made up stuff". That any particular sound or symbol has a particular reference is arbitrary. That is why it is so hard to decode lost scripts. There is nothing in the structure of the universe that impels any connection between any particular sound or symbol and any referant beyond that which sentient beings give it.
But there is more to language than social convention. There is the whole realm of "meaning" – reference, connotation, etc. That 'water' refers to water is social convention. That water is wet is not. If language did not have the ability to usefully connect to the world, there would be no advantage to it.
But that utility is a consequence of such connection, not a driver of it. Nor is it an arbitrary or conventional consequence. The utility in "look out for that truck!" is a consequence of a connection between the statement and how the world is. And it is the ability of language to make and express such connections that make language useful. The connection is not a consequence of the utility, the utility being captured is a consequence of the connection and does not exist without the connection.
And whenever Matt Y explains what he means, he is making truth claims. Language is not possible without some concept of truth because otherwise no statement has any specific meaning. Every act of definition is a truth claim, a setting of connection.
Moreover, that a statement has utility does not mean it is true: lies can have utility. Being useful in general has no specific connection to being true. To have some specific connection between being useful and being true, including if one attempts to redefine truth in terms of utility, one has to define ‘being useful/having utility’ in some specific, restrictive way. When one does that, one will find that connecting to what is, is actually driving the restricting: ‘being useful/utility’ will not be adding anything to the process.
That statements are abstractions from reality, are about reality, so not the same as reality, and can never be complete representations of reality, is all true, but not a problem for truth: just overblown concepts thereof. Rortarian sceptical pragmatism obsesses over motive, distracts over convention and misses the underlying reality: which makes it archetypal post-modernism.
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