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Truth isn't correspondence with the facts

Habermas and the social nature of truth

Sociality

Truth is what corresponds with the facts, right? That might seem like a simple and common-sense view, but as it turns out it is far from either of those things. Despite its many complications, the correspondence theory of truth is the default that contemporary analytic philosophers espouse. Perhaps surprisingly, critical theorist Jürgen Habermas can help us formulate a more plausible account of truth. Habermas reminds us of the social processes involved in our inquiry into the truth: it’s a never-ending attempt to generate social agreement through open, non-coercive and honest communication with others, writes Paul Giladi.

 

The correspondence theory of truth enjoyed, and still does to an extent, a rather privileged status in the Anglo-American philosophical world: it was (and in some circles remains) the default way Anglo-American philosophers answered one of the Big Questions of philosophy. Truth, according to this theory, amounts to correspondence with reality. In other words, a sentence is true when it corresponds to the way things are in the world, the facts, if you like.

But despite the mass-appeal and apparent simplicity of the correspondence theory of truth, it’s not at all obvious what its main claim is supposed to be. In trying to overcome the metaphysical complexities of the correspondence theory, Jürgen Habermas offers an alternative way of understanding truth, not as a direct relationship between language and the world, but as a special kind of social agreement.

The appeal of correspondence

I think there are at least two reasons for this mass-appeal of the correspondence theory within analytic philosophy. First, truth-as-correspondence prima facie has a lot going for it: it’s attractive insofar as a correspondence relation hooks up our sentences with the concrete objective world studied by all intellectual disciplines. Truth-as-correspondence also taps into ordinary common sense; the basic idea of the sentence ‘It is raining in Manchester’ corresponding to the fact that it is raining in Manchester is quite easy to understand. Truth-as-correspondence is a good, old-fashioned, no-frills position – the classic view of metaphysics and epistemology famously articulated already by Aristotle: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”.

Truth-as-correspondence is a good, old-fashioned, no-frills position – the classic view of metaphysics and epistemology famously articulated already by Aristotle: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”.

Second, the activity of labelling alternatives to the correspondence theory, such as coherence theories of truth (truth is what is internally coherent), pragmatist theories of truth (truth is what works), and semantic deflationism (truth claims are superfluous), as ‘alternatives’ reinforces how correspondence is the default position. Though there are obvious disanalogies here, correspondence may be thought of as similar to whiteness, marriage, and capitalism: It’s so traditional that it seems natural. It has normalising power. You devote a significant portion of your attention to it. You frame how you think about truth in terms of either advocating correspondence or railing against correspondence, and if you do the latter, you often receive incredulous looks.

One of the most entertaining critiques of correspondence, especially for those who enjoy irony, is that for a theory that’s supposed to be aligned with common sense, the very idea of a correspondence relation is obscure: do our sentences correspond with objects? If so, what does it mean for our sentences to correspond to objects? What kind of relation is a correspondence relation between a linguistic expression and an object? If our sentences do not correspond to objects, then do they correspond to facts? But, if so, then, what does it mean for our sentences to correspond to facts? Is the world made of facts? More broadly, what is the metaphysical relation between word and world, our human language and the world “out there”, existing independently of us?

One attempt to answer the above questions was given by the early Wittgenstein, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. His answer was that there exists an ‘isomorphic picturing’ relation between language and the world, much like between a map and the landscape it’s supposed to represent. But that doesn’t exactly simplify matters. How does an isomorphic relation between a proposition and a state of affair establish a correspondence? Does our language really resemble the world in the way a map does?  These questions (to name but a few) point to an inherent unclarity in the notion of truth-as-correspondence. So much for the so-called “clarity” of mainstream analytic philosophy.

One of the most entertaining critiques of correspondence, especially for those who enjoy irony, is that for a theory that’s supposed to be aligned with common sense, the very idea of a correspondence relation is obscure.

Richard Rorty in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) was perhaps the first analytically trained philosopher did not just quibble with truth-as-correspondence on technical philosophical grounds. He aimed to debunk the theory by arguing that correspondence, as a metaphysical relation, did not just rest on the mysterious view of language as representational, but that such representationalism was inherently anti-democratic, and even sadomasochistic (more on this later). Instead of truth-as-correspondence, Rorty emphasised the social nature of truth-claims:

Rorty aimed to debunk the theory by arguing that correspondence, as a metaphysical relation, did not just rest on the mysterious view of language as representational, but that such representationalism was inherently anti-democratic, and even sadomasochistic.

 “[We ought to] substitute the idea of ‘unforced agreement’ for that of ‘objectivity’”. (Rorty 1991: 36)

“For pragmatists, the desire for objectivity is not to escape the limits of one’s community, but simply the desire for as much intersubjective agreement as possible, the desire to extend the reference of ‘us’ as far as we can”. (Rorty 1991: 23)

However, let’s leave Rorty aside for now and pause winding up mainstream analytic philosophers.

Habermas and truth as the aim of communication

Jürgen Habermas is the philosopher who is perhaps best known for thinking that community, sociality and agreement were more important when thinking about truth than the metaphysical speculation about the relationship between words and things. For Habermas, meaning, knowledge, justification, and the full range of norms that comprise social and political value-systems are mediated by practices rooted in what he famously termed ‘communicative action’. Briefly put, this type of action is aimed at establishing consensus (i.e. mutual understanding) through the slow and often painful deliberative process of establishing legitimate and valid norms for language-using individuals:

“The concept of communicative action presupposes language as the medium for a kind of reaching understanding, in the course of which the participants, through relating to a world, reciprocally raise validity claims that can be accepted or contested”. (Habermas 1984: 99)

If you’re struggling to make sense of Habermas here, think about lots and lots of people engaging in a constant back-and-forth about what claims count as valid and legitimate. And, no, don’t think of it like Twitter. Crucially, for Habermas, successful communication between agents involves the hearer being able to transparently grasp the reasons motivating the propositions put forward by the speaker. On the corresponding socio-political front, then, all social processes are assessed with respect to how well (or invariably not) they foster communicability and the development of ‘discourse’, namely non-coercive, good-faith arenas for the deliberative, public use of reason.

Simply put, a purely theoretical conception of truth is not fit for social and philosophical purposes.

Communication and discourse for Habermas are products of what he called ‘postmetaphysical thinking’. Broadly speaking, this is very similar to the neo-pragmatist idea that thought and language have a significant expressive function, as opposed to being principally representational. Postmetaphysical thinking is perhaps most clearly exemplified in Habermas’s self-description as the late-ish 20th century resurrector of the Intersubjectivist Turn. As Habermas conceives it, the Intersubjectivist Turn – which began in early 19th-century Prussian philosophical circles (specifically, Jena, a university town whose Superstar Thinkers to Local Population ratio is just, well, wow) – involves moving away from Cartesian habits to the pragmatics of communication. As he puts it:

“[The pragmatics of communication] concedes primacy to world-disclosing language – as the medium for the possibility of reaching understanding, for social cooperation, and for self-controlled learning processes – over world-generating subjectivity”. (Habermas 1992: 153)

Habermas contends that the principal problem with metaphysical thinking is that it often requires a highly esoteric conceptual toolkit that neglects the pragmatic dimensions of everyday language-use. This neglect suppresses the ability to be socially and intersubjectively oriented. In being so committed to discovering correspondence relations that disclose the fundamental structure of reality, inquiry appears to suffer from a substantive failure, namely a disregard for and a disinterestedness in mutual vulnerability. To put this another way, the postmetaphysical critique of truth-as-correspondence revolves around three key ideas: first, that truth-as-correspondence ends up construing inquiry as asocial and amoral; second, that truth-as-correspondence is exclusively representationalist and occludes the complex, expressive use of language; third, that truth-as-correspondence pushes us away from relations of intersubjective care and communication.

The truth is ‘out there’ but in a very specific sense for postmetaphysical theorists. It’s not ‘out there’ in the sense that it lies independently of inquiry and is simply embedded in the fundamental structure of things.

In this way, one may reasonably claim that postmetaphysical thinking provides a novel take on what Hilary Putnam called ‘The Primacy of Practice’ (the fourth principal characteristic of pragmatism). Simply put, a purely theoretical conception of truth is not fit for social and philosophical purposes. Conceptualisations of truth have to be coded into the fabric of the ‘lifeworld’, identified by Habermas as the background set of institutional arrangements and social practices geared towards the (re)production of society, culture, and personality. So the argument goes here, inquiries into truth gain their legitimacy by the extent to which they serve our collective efforts to maintain not just morality, but a sustainable ethical life in both the private and public spheres:

“[a]rgumentation insures that all concerned in principle take part, freely and equally, in a cooperative search for truth, where nothing coerces anyone except the force of the better argument … Moral intuitions are intuitions that instruct us on how best to behave in situations where is it in our power to counteract the extreme vulnerability of others by being thoughtful and considerate. In anthropological terms, morality is a safety device compensating for a vulnerability built into the sociocultural form of life”. (Habermas 1990: 198; 199)

The postmetaphysical critique of correspondence theory is motivated by a desire to make inquiry social, collaborative, and cooperative. To make inquiry more human, in other words.

The truth is ‘out there’ but in a very specific sense for postmetaphysical theorists. It’s not ‘out there’ in the sense that it lies independently of inquiry and is simply embedded in the fundamental structure of things. Truth is ‘out there’ in the sense that it is the result of complex, transgenerational, historically-mediated conversations about what matters to us as human beings. This doesn’t mean that truth is whatever a community happens to agree to, here and now. Truth is something that involves not just one particular community of inquirers, but a potentially infinite community of inquirers, as C. S. Peirce – the originator of pragmatism – might put it. The key is constant communicative relationality. People have beliefs. They put these beliefs in the public space of reasons to test these beliefs. This process is never-ending experimentation, insofar as good inquiry demands constantly correction, refinement, and polish of inherently fallible knowledge-claims.

Rorty and the sadomasochism of correspondence theorists

The communicative dimension to this epistemic theory of truth here stands in contrast with what Rorty cheekily identified as the ‘sadomasochism’ of metaphysical thinking, representationalism, and correspondence. The problem, so Rorty’s argument goes, is that desperately seeking correspondence with a “hard, unyielding, rigid être-en-soi … sublimely indifferent to [us]” (Rorty 1982: 13) reveals a kinky propensity for regarding everything that matters to human beings as sourced in a structure beyond human practices. What to make of this idiosyncratic way of preferring anti-representationalism? Well, a facetious response would be to say that Rorty problematically kink-shames sadomasochism, construing it as a necessarily bad thing. Tell that to Samois and pro-sex feminists like Gayle Rubin. Furthermore, as an honest and self-avowed salt-of-the-earth American liberal, Rorty shouldn’t lambast someone who enjoys prostrating themselves before Being. It would not just be ironic if he did. It would also be deeply hypocritical.

All playfulness aside, there is a serious point to be made here. The postmetaphysical critique of correspondence theory is motivated by a desire to make inquiry social, collaborative, and cooperative. To make inquiry more human, in other words. This is surely a good thing. But, one might think the scope has room for more ambition: to make the pursuit of truth more humane. Given the times we live in, wouldn’t that be especially welcome?

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