Richard Rorty’s critique of the concept of “The Truth” as a useless historic relic continues to enflame philosophers and cultural commentators alike. They see Rorty as the architect of the post-truth era and as morally culpable for the human suffering they think it causes. But that view grossly misunderstands Rorty’s philosophy whose aim was to liberate us from defunct authorities and remind us that all we have as our guide to knowledge is the evidence and reasons we can give each other, not some “Reality” out there, writes Neil Gascoigne.
On the 1st December 2020 the High Court published its judicial review of the Tavistock’s practice of prescribing puberty-supressing drugs to persons under the age of 18. Later that day the feminist and philosopher Kathleen Stock “tweeted” the following:
Their sources were not medical, but Richard Rorty, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler… they provided an intellectual rationale that wholly obfuscated the harms they were permitting in the name of progress. And wider philosophy and academia let them… One day soon, the full story will emerge… how therapists with backgrounds in post-structuralist philosophy… came to believe they were forging new “meanings” with kids bodies.
If anything links these “post-structuralist” thinkers it is the conviction that progress involves increasing human freedom, which necessitates challenging traditional sources of authority. For Foucault this meant exposing what he regarded as the human cost of the Enlightenment’s narrative of progress. But while Rorty mentions Foucault’s work often enough he had no interest in engaging with genealogies of punishment and madness; and although he wrote about feminism and Freud he says little about sex and gender. Indeed, when Rorty was attacked by the Left it was usually for being—in his own words—a bourgeois, ethnocentric liberal!
The notion that “post-structuralist” philosophy in general and Rorty’s thought in particular is culturally corrosive has been part of the intellectual landscape for the past forty years. Perhaps, because he had secured a position in the strongest philosophy department in the United States (Princeton) and then published a book—Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature—that appeared to assail the project around which many of his colleagues had constructed their intellectual identities. And if Rorty—turncoat, recusant, gamekeeper turned poacher, apostate!—personified the internal threat to traditional philosophy, it was his views on truth that provided its ominous leitmotiv. For a philosopher to refuse to acknowledge Truth as the uber-authority, it seems, is far more dangerous to society than the baddest, baldest French intellectual because it eviscerates the very idea of normative standards, of their being right ways to think and act. But is the whole truth about Rorty’s view that he is one of the principle architects of the post-truth era? Or is it rather the case that the only authority Rorty challenged is the authority of a certain “traditional” conception of philosophy?
For a philosopher to refuse to acknowledge Truth as the uber-authority, it seems, is far more dangerous to society than the baddest, baldest French intellectual because it eviscerates the very idea of normative standards, of their being right ways to think and act.
Traditional Philosophy and Metaphysical Realism
The “traditional” view is sometimes called “metaphysical realism”:
Knowledge is typically of a mind-independent reality. It is expressed in a public language, it contains true propositions—these propositions are true because they accurately represent that reality. (Searle 1992a: 69).
For Searle, Rorty’s suggestion that we drop the notion of “truth as correspondence” is a rejection of metaphysical realism. And
[a]n immediate difficulty with denials of metaphysical realism is that they remove the rational constraints that are supposed to shape discourse, when that discourse aims at something beyond itself… without metaphysical realism, anything is permissible. (1992b: 112)
Here’s another example:
On one side we find the relativists, the subjectivists, the antirealists, the postmodernists... According to Richard Rorty, one of the high priests of this church, “only a sentence can be relevant to the truth of another sentence.” So don’t appeal to the way the world is, for there is no such thing... But when Rorty says (so blithely) that… a sentence like “Millions of human beings were murdered in the 20th century” comes to mind. For what makes this sentence true… is… the strictly nonlinguistic fact that millions of human beings were murdered in the 20th century… Might the nonsense be less bad if it didn’t build in such an astonishing contempt for the reality of human suffering? (G. Strawson 2002).
Strawson and Searle make explicit what Stock merely gestures towards: Rorty’s philosophy is not just bad philosophy it’s bad philosophy. Good philosophy respects the limits of mathematics and morals, but Rorty’s has baked-in to its very core a “contempt for human suffering” because of his denial of the idea that true sentences are “made true” by the way things really are. Now, one might have thought that claiming election fraud, lying about the long-term effects of smoking and failure to respond to climate change display a more measurable contempt for human suffering than opposing metaphysical realism. From that perspective it’s hard to account for the puffed-up preachiness of these responses other than as attempts to scourge a recreant. And perhaps the best way to evaluate that conviction is to look at what Rorty does say about truth.
How do we navigate a world where truth is tribal? Rebecca Goldstein, Homi Bhabha and Hilary Lawson examine.
Freedom from Truth
In his Introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism (1982) Rorty argues that philosophy in the guise of “metaphysical realism”—what he capitalises as “Philosophy”—has made itself culturally irrelevant by cleaving to the notion that there is something interesting to say about the nature of “Truth”—something along the lines that a sentence is true if it “corresponds to reality”. On Rorty’s genealogy, the idea that reality transcends what we presently and perhaps are forever fated to believe is but an echo of the Platonic idea that we’re trapped in the cave of mere opinion refracted through the Christian notion that to know the truth about the World would be to disclose the mind of God. This conviction that the Real is already fixed determines that truth is “revelatory”—found rather than made. It impedes human freedom and thus moral growth because it sees humans standing in thrall to a superior authority (the Forms; God; the World) and not taking collective responsibility for our cognitive projects.
This “revelatory” account of truth is expressed in the conviction that truth is an explanatory concept and a norm of inquiry. Consider “smoking is bad for your physical health”. We want to know whether or not this is true because it has an impact health-advice and law-making. Having established that this is a good thing to believe because it improves public health, the Philosopher concludes that that success is explained by the fact that it’s true; and one way to make “explain” something other than an empty compliment is to assume that true here signifies “represents reality”. And since on this account the truth of a belief explains its success because it represents reality it is evident that truth is a norm for inquiry: we should actively seek out true beliefs because, representing as they do the way things really are, they will be successful in coping with the world.
The pragmatist view of “Truth” is a gamble that things will be better if we dispose of this explanatory-revelatory model because it will democratise inquiry by opening-up the conversation about particular truths to more interlocutors.
The pragmatist view of “Truth” is a gamble that things will be better if we dispose of this explanatory-revelatory model because it will democratise inquiry by opening-up the conversation about particular truths to more interlocutors. To encourage that gamble Rorty suggests a way of thinking about truth that discourages the “metaphysical” interpretation. He suggests that “true” has three different uses: the endorsing, the cautionary and the disquotational (1991, p. 128). The primary use of truth is to “endorse”. When I avow that smoking causes cancer I commend that belief to you, expressing my willingness to show you the evidence that’s available. This “use” of true is normative insofar as the requirement for justified beliefs is an expectation of my peers and of myself. “True” isn’t a distinct norm for inquiry, then: the weight of the norm is carried entirely by this socially-mediated requirement to justify one’s claims. More importantly, the process of inquiry is just the process of keeping in view all the possible evidence that counts for or against one’s belief. If someone refuses to accept the evidence you offer there’s no further move in the game that involves waving a “non-linguistic fact” in their face. The desire for an affidavit to trump the claims of those who disagree with us is just a lingering nostalgia for Deus revelatus. So we have the following maxim:
No Confrontation. The only way to inquire into the truth of particular beliefs is by justifying them through social activities of one sort or another. We never encounter “reality” directly.
This acknowledges the normative associations of “true”-use without embracing metaphysical realism. Impugning the idea that truth-bearers “represent reality” is a reminder that justification is only ever a temporary resting-place for belief: subsequent discoveries might compel us to revise our commitments. That is commendable, but it raises a problem. Consider the disquotational “use”:
- ‘smoking causes cancer’ is true if and only if smoking causes cancer.
In its very vacuousness this “use” seems to reveal something basic about truth: a sentence or belief is true if and only it what it states is the case. Contrast:
- ‘smoking causes cancer’ is true if and only if we are justified in asserting that smoking causes cancer.
No matter how expansive the “we” or how exhaustive the evidence this seems just false. What it suggests is:
Non-reductionism. Truth is not the same as justification.
Although Rorty is not offering a reduction of “truth” to justification, “Non-reductionism” does capture something supplementary about “true”-usage. Given the prima-facie tension between the two maxims one can see the temptation to look for an account of truth that registers its status as a distinct norm. For metaphysical realists the challenge is showing that truth is revealed to us through the process of justification that issues in confrontation with a fact. Consider:
- ‘smoking causes cancer’ is true if and only if the sentence “corresponds to” (or “represents”) the appropriate extra-linguistic fact.
What does the right-hand side add here? Isn’t it a metaphysically tortured way of saying “it’s true if and only if… it’s true”?! We know how to use “represents” and “corresponds to” correctly in context but how do I demonstrate my superior awareness of human suffering by checking my beliefs against non-linguistic facts? What do those facts look like? How do I know when I’ve finally confronted the correct one and can cease forever the unsettling process of inquiry?
Have we evolved to see the truth about reality?
There are those (Putnam, Habermas, Misak, Price et al) who share Rorty’s aversion to fact-confronting accounts of truth and yet resist his own suggestions. These are influenced by Peirce’s attempt to combine “No Confrontation” and “Non-reductionism” by idealising the justification requirement. For Peirce justification is contrasted not with truth as “representing reality” but with truth as “what people believe at the end of inquiry” or “what we cannot imagine being overturned by further evidence”. Their shared conviction is that we can conceive of truth transcending any particular human practice of justification whilst denying that we must think of such transcendence in term of a movement towards a sought-after non-linguistic fact that mysteriously draws inquiry towards it. Rorty’s preferred response is to suggest a further, “cautionary” use for the word “true”. This is not a norm; rather it is a reminder that many of things that we’ve endorsed in the past have turned out not to be commendable (“true”) in the light of the emergence of new evidence. The key point is that the “endorsing” and “cautionary” uses are not assimilable. As he later notes ‘As far as I can see, there is no deep reason why “true” is used to do both of these jobs’ (1998, p. 25, fn. 23).
These critics would never accuse Rorty of being insensitive to human suffering on the grounds of his aversion to metaphysical realism, because they too share that antagonism. In this regard there’s very little difference that makes a difference here: As we’ve seen, the overall thrust of Rorty’s project is to open up the conversation to as many potential contributors as possible. The cautionary use of “true” is a reminder to keep in mind that even if one cannot conceive of a belief being overturned that still doesn’t mean that it can’t be; that any residual “idealization” might just be a way of excluding certain other voices from the debate. It is a mistake to infer from the anti-authoritarian stance that finds its clearest expression in Rorty’s view of truth that all sources of authority are equal. This has doubtless led some to think that ditching “medical facts” in favour of their preferred sources is within the theorist’s gift. But that is just as great an error as assuming that “nonlinguistic reality” will reveal itself to the initiate. Entreating discussants to open up the conversation is not a rejection of “rational constraints”: it’s the ultimate compliment to them. It’s an attempt to ensure that such constraints aren’t just traditional interests masquerading as legitimate authorities.