Listening to Yesterday: Light and Truth
14 hours ago
Some Davidsonians might see no reason why they too [i.e., as Wright does] should not say, ringingly, robustly, and commonsensically, that the goal of inquiry is truth. But they cannot say this without misleading the public. For when they go on to add that they are, of course, not saying that the goal of inquiry is correspondence to the intrinsic nature of things [i.e., metaphysical realism], the common sense of the vulgar will feel betrayed [footnote: for an example see such-and-such typical realist griping from Searle and Rorty's reply]. For "truth" sounds like the name of a goal only if it is thought to name a fixed goal – that is, if progress toward truth is explicated by reference to a metaphysical picture, that of getting closer to what Bernard Williams calls [in his book on Descartes, I believe] "what is there anyway." Without that picture, to say that truth is our goal is merely to say something like: we hope to justify our belief to as many and as large audiences as possible. But to say that is to offer only an ever-retreating goal, one that fades forever and forever when we move. It is not what common sense would call a goal. For it is neither something we might realize we had reached, nor something to which we might get closer.So instead of saying truth is our goal, because we can't tell when we have reached it, Rorty would have us say instead that justification is our goal, not truth. Now as you may know Rorty has been trying to get Davidson to go pragmatist in one way or another for many years. So prepare yourselves for another landmark in RahC. Davidson has resisted (as well he might) any "pragmatist theory of truth" In which truth just is "the good in the way of belief" (James) or something "good to steer by" (Dewey); but in "Truth Rehabilitated" (RahC pp. 65-73), he finally joins Rorty in this "somewhat tamer, but clearly recognizable, version" (p. 67):
What is clearly right is a point made long ago by Plato in the Theaetetus: truths do not come with a "mark," like the date in the corner of some photographs, which distinguishes them from falsehoods. The best we can do is test, experiment, compare, and keep an open mind. [...] We know many things, and will learn more; what we will never know for certain is which of the things we believe are true. Since it is neither visible as a target, nor recognizable when achieved, there is no point in calling truth a goal. Truth is not a value, so the "pursuit of truth" is an empty enterprise unless it means only that it is often worthwhile to increase our confidence in our beliefs, by collecting further evidence or checking our calculations.Let's not get fuddled by Davidson's use of "pragmatist" here. He thinks of Rorty as a "pragmatist" in the sense he uses it on the basis of Rorty's endorsement someplace or other of the "pragmatist" reduction of truth to utility. But as we have just seen, Rorty endorses both of the last two sentences of this quotation (and is thus not a "pragmatist" in this sense, at least not by 1995). Even without the (later) concession to Ramberg that true statements "get things right," it would surely be pointless for Rorty to say both 1) that truth is not objective, but instead to be identified with utility, and 2) truth is pointless as a goal; for that would mean that utility is pointless as a goal, which is nuts. So in agreeing to (2), we lose any motivation to deny that truth is objective. After all, as Davidson tells it, the whole point of (2) was to improve on (1). But we still have a version of pragmatism here. Compare e.g. Davidson's invocation of the Theaetetus with Peirce's dictum that "the final opinion [his criterion of truth] does not glow in the dark." And of course realists won't want to save the objectivity of truth by giving it up as a goal.
From the fact that we will never be able to tell which of our beliefs are true, pragmatists [i.e., those committed to the "pragmatist theory of truth"] conclude that we may as well identify our best researched, most successful, beliefs with the true ones, and give up the idea of objectivity. (Truth is objective if the truth of a belief or sentence is independent of whether it is justified by all our evidence, believed by our neighbors, or is good to steer by.) But here we have a choice. Instead of giving up the traditional view that truth is objective, we can give up the equally traditional view (to which the pragmatists adhere) that truth is a norm, something for which to strive. I agree with the pragmatists that we can't consistently take truth to be both objective and something to be pursued. But I think they would have done better to cleave to a view that counts truth as objective, but pointless as a goal.
Rorty's picture is on these lines. If we use an expression like "accurate representation" in the innocent internal [i.e., to our practices, as in Putnam] way, it can function only as a means of paying "empty compliments" to claims that pass muster within our current practice of claim-making. Now "the representationalist" finds a restriction to this sort of assessment unacceptably parochial. Recoiling from that, "the representationalist" tries to make expressions like "true" or "accurate representation" signify a mode of normative relatedness – conformity – to something more independent of us than the world as it figures in our world view [i.e., as an objective world – one, that is, that does not depend our our thoughts about it – so that what the Cartesian demands is fealty to a world more independent of us even than that; this distinction is McDowell's metaphysical analogue to Bilgrami's "first-person" epistemology, of which McDowell has his own variant]. This aspiration is well captured by Thomas Nagel's image of "trying to climb outside of our own minds" [The View From Nowhere; but of course Nagel – a sap, but a good philosopher nonetheless – thinks that this task, which we should all deplore as irretrievably Cartesian, is "philosophically fundamental"]. The image fits a conception, or supposed conception [there's the Wittgensteinian in McDowell speaking], of reality that threatens to put it outside our reach, since the norms according to which we conduct our investigations cannot of course be anything but our current norms. [...]Ooh, the Devil don't like that kind of preachin' (as Jimmy Swaggart would say, in rather a different context)!
This conception is naturally reflected in just the sorts of philosophical wonderment at, for instance, the meaningfulness of language, or the fact that we so much as have an "overall view of the world," that Rorty tellingly deplores. In this conception, being genuinely in touch with reality would in a radical way transcend whatever we can do within our practices of arriving at answers to our questions. Thus a familiar gulf seems to open between us and what we should like to think of ourselves as able to get to know about. And the only alternative, as Rorty sees things, is to take our inquiry not to be subject to anything but the norms of current practice [i.e., as we have seen above]. This picture of the options makes it look as if the very idea of inquiry as normatively beholden not just to current practice but to its subject matter [that is, the idea that we want to "get things right," which Rorty is now willing to equate with "believing true sentences" – but only to abandon both as goals] is inextricably connected with the "Augustinian" picture [i.e. as so described in the opening sections of Philosophical Investigations] and the impulse to climb outside of our own minds. But a piece of mere sanity goes missing here.