Rethinking truth

Richard Rorty's revolutionary departure

We all think we can get at the truth, this objective part of the world which can always be discovered. But everything from physics, philosophy and neuroscience tells us truth is untrustworthy. Michael Unger argues that the radical programme of Richard Rorty, can give us a new way of seeing the world, Truth as Trust.

Philosophers spent the 20th century trying to find a foundation for truth. Few figures dared to challenge its very foundations. Richard Rorty stands as a bold and controversial figure who shook the theory of truth to its core. Building a framework which offers a more liberal and democratic way of seeing the world and the truths we hold. Though often denigrated as leading to relativism, Rorty's neo-pragmatism can be seen as a radical new way of engaging with the world. His philosophy offered a new philosophical paradigm and a new way of understanding the world and our role in it. I explore what his impact is and how we should incorporate it into our lives.

Imagine a world where truth is not an immutable, external reality waiting to be discovered. Picture truth as a fluid and evolving concept, shaped by our social interactions, language, and cultural practices. This is precisely the vision Richard Rorty advocated, shattering the traditional framework of absolute truth. According to Rorty, truth is not a mirror reflecting an objective reality; instead, it emerges from the collective agreements within a specific community.

Rorty's departure from traditional notions of truth challenges us to reimagine our understanding of knowledge and reality. He proposes that truth should be evaluated based on its usefulness and coherence within a particular social context, rather than its correspondence to an external, objective reality. In this perspective, truth becomes a social construct, a product of human practices and interactions.

Consider the realm of science as an example. Scientific truths are not unchanging dogmas but are subject to revision based on new evidence, theories, and paradigms. Rorty's dynamic perspective on truth allows for growth and adaptation in our scientific understanding, enabling us to evolve alongside the ever-expanding frontiers of knowledge.


Trust serves as the foundation upon which our shared beliefs and understandings are built.


At the core of Rorty's philosophy lies the notion of trust. Trust serves as the foundation upon which our shared beliefs and understandings are built. Just as trust is essential in interpersonal relationships, it becomes the cornerstone of our shared truths.

Language, a fundamental component of human communication, exemplifies the role of trust in the construction of truth. We place our trust in words and their meanings, relying on a shared understanding within our linguistic community. When we communicate, we trust that others will interpret our words in a manner consistent with our intentions. This mutual trust enables effective communication and the construction of truth through language. Agreements are made, understanding is achieved, and plans are set through the notion of trust, trust of the speaker they are understood and of the listener, they will interpret similarly.

However, trust extends far beyond language. We also place our trust in the practices and customs of our society, recognizing their influential role in shaping our worldview. Think of the trust we place in the legal system, social norms, or scientific methodologies. Our acceptance of these frameworks contributes to the construction of truth.

Critics, such as the philosopher Huw Price argued, that Rorty's emphasis on trust can lead to relativism. A call towards the post-truth world, where any belief can be deemed true within a specific community. However, Rorty's goal is not to deny the existence of an objective reality. Instead, he acknowledges that our access to reality is always mediated through our language, culture, and social context. Trust becomes the lens through which we engage with reality, even if our understanding is inherently subjective. Consider the similarities to the moves being made by neuroscience to explain the construction of the world by our own minds. We do not have unmediated access to reality; therefore, we don’t have unmediated access to truth.

For Rorty, truth emerges through ongoing conversations and negotiations among individuals and communities. Imagine the common metaphor of a bustling marketplace of ideas, where beliefs are traded, scrutinized, rejected, and refined. Within these negotiations and debates, we collectively determine what we accept as true within our social framework.


We do not have unmediated access to reality; therefore, we don’t have unmediated access to truth.


Consider the realm of societal progress as an example. Throughout history, conversations about justice, equality, and human rights have played a pivotal role in shaping our collective understanding of these concepts. Over time, our conversations have evolved, challenging previously accepted truths. We expand our ideas of morals, rights, and duties, by looking for those truths upon which we can agree. The power of conversation lies in its ability to broaden our perspectives, fostering intellectual growth and moving us closer to a more perfect union.

We should find value in Rorty’s emphasis on the role of language, culture, and social practices in shaping our understanding of truth. I argue that his philosophy encourages humility, fostering an open-mindedness that allows for dialogue and collaboration among diverse perspectives. Rorty's ideas challenge us to critically examine our shared beliefs, keeping our minds open to new possibilities and insights.

Moreover, Rorty's perspective highlights the contextual nature of truth. It reminds us that truth is not a fixed entity, but a constantly evolving process that requires ongoing engagement, critique, and re-evaluation. This notion urges us to remain vigilant and reflective, always questioning the validity of our beliefs and remaining open to alternative viewpoints.

While Richard Rorty's philosophical ideas may seem abstract, they have practical implications that can improve our lives. Rorty urges us to engage in open and meaningful conversations. By actively listening to others and being receptive to diverse perspectives, we can expand our understanding of truth. Engaging in dialogue allows us to challenge our own beliefs, learn from others, and foster a culture of intellectual exchange.

We can cultivate intellectual humility by recognizing the influence of language, culture, and social context on our understanding of truth. Acknowledging the limitations of our perspectives encourages us to approach truth with a sense of curiosity and openness. Embracing intellectual humility empowers us to continuously learn and grow.


Trust becomes the catalyst for the construction of truth, grounding us in our linguistic and cultural communities


This view encourages us to seek out diverse experiences and engage with people from different backgrounds and cultures. This liberal philosophy led to his liberal politics which sought to bring us together in more democratic ways. By exposing ourselves to a variety of perspectives, we can gain a broader understanding of truth. These experiences challenge our assumptions and help us develop empathy, fostering a more inclusive worldview.

Incorporating this notion of truth as truth into our everyday lives requires conscious effort and reflection. We can develop a more nuanced and inclusive understanding of truth by embracing open dialogue, cultivating intellectual humility, seeking diverse experiences, questioning assumptions, fostering trust and collaboration, and embracing growth. This approach empowers us to navigate our lives with empathy, intellectual rigour, and a commitment to continual learning and personal growth.

Richard Rorty's notion of truth as a product of trust challenges the very fabric of our philosophical traditions. By reconceptualizing truth as a social construct, Rorty encouraged us to critically examine our shared beliefs and understandings. Trust becomes the catalyst for the construction of truth, grounding us in our linguistic and cultural communities. Let us embark on this journey of applying his philosophy to our daily lives, enriching our interactions, broadening our perspectives, and fostering a deeper understanding of truth within ourselves and our communities.

While Rorty's ideas are not without controversy they force us to question long-held assumptions and pave the way for new avenues of exploration. In this ever-changing world, Rorty beckons us to embrace the dynamic nature of truth, reminding us that our pursuit of knowledge is inherently intertwined with trust and collective understanding. As we continue to navigate the vast expanse of human understanding, let us embark on this intellectual adventure with open minds, embracing the transformative potential of this vision.

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