Monday, August 29, 2011

Rorty on truth

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.


  1. I don't see where Richard Rorty would disagree with you at all. As far as I can tell, all Rorty wanted to do in this area was deflate "overblown concepts" of truth, because he, following Wittgenstein, thought they were intellectual blind alleys that distracted from real work.

  2. After a few minutes thought, I think I have to retract my comment as to there being "no disagreement," but the reason I put it that way was because I don't see any "difference that makes a difference" between your position and Rorty's. The thing people often miss about Rorty is that he spent a lot of time talking about truth without actually having a theory of truth. "Sure," he would say, "you can call truth a matter of connecting to the world, but that won't add any content to any of the truth claims you make, and furthermore will enlist you in some fairly pointless abstruse epistemological debates." To Rorty, saying that some sentence is true because it represents the world as it really is is the same activity as Moliere's doctor saying that opium puts you to sleep because of its dormitive power. Maybe you know all this, but if so, I request you expand on why you think that Rortian sceptical pragmatism is so bad. I haven't read the Hicks book, but I don't recognize Rorty in the summary you provide.

  3. FredR: That a sentence is true and another is false is an important distinction: ask any lawyer. That our sentences can be true is a very important feature of language. That, in being true, they connect to how the world is, is not a philosophically uncontroversial claim. (Not a positive feature of philosophy.)

    So, "but that won't add any content to any of the truth claims you make" is true, but that one can successfully make truth claims, not as some "social convention" but as actual connection to reality, matters.

    Moreover, as is so often the case, there is what the original philosopher/thinker actually wrote and there is what people take from him: Rorty's work seems to encourage the sort of mush I am criticising above.

    There is also a common feature of a certain type of sceptical philosopher, that some statements can be taken one way, others another, so when critics point to one set, the other set is then invoked in defense. I find Rorty annoying to read, since he seems to play that sort of game.