"For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday."
Hi Duncan -I have a question that though loosely related to the main topic does stem from Gutting's review. I'm a Rorty fan and especially like his "truth is what your peers let you get away with saying", which though flippant can be interpreted as a folksy expression of Sellars' not at all flippant idea that one attains the state of knowing by entering the "space of reasons". Gutting's description of Plato as one "who saw truth arising only from the right sort of discussion among inquirers accountable to one another" seems to suggest the same perspective. However, some who certainly have much better perspectives on such matters than I - a non-philosopher who has never read Plato - have dismissed Rorty's quip as patent foolishness. Surely if I recognize the connection, any credible philosopher should. Yet as one example, Simon Blackburn;s dismissive take on the quip (in "Truth" - a book, I should add, to which I feel quite indebted) is dismissive to the point of being insulting. Am I missing something?Gutting describes Plato as holding that "intuitions derive from a long and complex process of physical, emotional and intellectual formation in a supportive social system". Since correct application formal logic is also the product of a long and complex process, presumably reason - being the combination of those - must be as well. Which would confirm my contention that expecting reasoned debate - or perhaps more relevant to politics, reasoned reaction to debate - is wishful thinking. Since few go through such a process, it does indeed seem "naïve" to expect much from democratic politics, especially as it moves further away from representative democracy and toward "pure" democracy in which representatives are supposed mindlessly to "vote the will of the people". The picture painted in Federalist 10 of representatives as chosen from among "men who possess the most attractive merit" now also appears naive, presumably being based on the founders' assumptions that representatives would tend to be more like them than the riffraff. Fortunately for the founders, they did not foresee the disastrous effects of mass media on the political process.Thanks for highlighting these very interesting reviews.
Thanks, Charles. I share the view you express in your second paragraph.It sounds to me as though Gutting has not expressed himself very accurately. Plato's view, as I understand it, is that knowledge of the truth arises through discussion, but that truth itself is entirely independent of human beings and their thoughts. There is something right, or close to right, in Rorty's line, but, at the risk of being dismissive, couldn't one respond that one's peers will not let one get away with saying that truth is what one's peers will let one get away with saying? That is, agreement is extremely important in dialogue, dialectic, and the search for truth, but to define truth as what we all (or almost all) agree on is to contradict the definition of truth that we do in fact agree on. To put the point another way, Rorty is onto something, but if we look up 'truth' in the dictionary it will not say anything close to what his quip says. Which seems to make his position rather self-defeating.I don't see that as a reason to ignore Rorty, though, because then we would be ignoring his insight. The challenge, it seems to me, is to keep this insight in view without slipping into a paradoxical form of relativism. This is much easier said than done.
Thanks for that clarification on Plato, Duncan. Rorty's quip has to be understood in the context of his overall attitude towards "truth", which I understand to be roughly that "truth" in its common formal role isn't a useful concept and should therefore be dropped. If the quip is - as I take it to be - shorthand for "the product of discourse among relevantly well-informed colleagues - ie, in the 'space of reasons' - is the best we can realistically hope for", it appears to be consistent with Plato's position as you describe it. I may be wrong, but I understand Rorty's position to be that whether or not there is an objective but inaccessible truth "out there" is of no practical import. In which case Rorty and Plato perhaps would have agreed on the methodology of pursuit even if not on the objective.Both Rorty and Davidson have argued against the concept of "relativism". Although the contexts are different, the methodology of both seems to be to ask "'relative' to what common frame of reference?" In the case of truth, the origin of that frame presumably is "absolute (Platonic?) truth". But if one agrees that absolute truth is unknowable, there seems no way of determining the distance from the origin (ie, absolute truth) of a so-called "relative truth". So again, what is the utility of the concept?
That's a good question. Part of the answer is political: things get horrible quickly when politicians buy into the idea that truth (or reality) is what we say it is. Especially when by 'we' they mean 'they'. There's a good paper on Rorty and Orwell on truth by James Conant here. I'm interested by your suggestion that Rorty and Plato perhaps would have agreed on the methodology of pursuit even if not on the objective. This sounds about right, although I wonder how the practice might be changed by changing the objective. Plato's view risks a kind of naivete, but Rorty's seems to risk a kind of despair. Why look for something you are never going to find, that doesn't even exist? Perhaps more to the point, if truth and goodness are merely useful fictions, why ever risk one's life for their sake? And how useful can a fiction be if it is consciously thought of as a fiction?
Thanks for the pointer to the Conant essay. I've read "Rorty and His Critics", one contribution to which is the extended version of that essay. I found the extended version too literary for my narrow interests, but the shorter version is quite readable. I think part of the problem some have with Rorty's quip is a distorted view of the process of reaching consensus among ones "peers". Conant gives three conditions for a peer community in which the concept of objective truth is waning:1. beliefs are answerable only to standards/methods acceptable within the community in questionThis seems not only unavoidable, but desirable. There will be, of course, communities other than ours that adopt beliefs in conflict with those of our community. We can only hope our standards/method/beliefs yield results that are more attractive to more people. For example, there seems to be general agreement that accepting many beliefs emerging from the scientific community has led to positive impacts on modern society, resulting in widespread (though arguably waning) acceptance of the standards/methods of that community. 2. the standards/methods yield beliefs that are at variance with the factsAs stated, a Rortian presumably finds this incoherent since s/he isn't quite sure what "the facts" means. Restated as "beliefs that are at variance with the evidence", this condition is certainly undesirable, but the concept of objective truth doesn't seem to add anything.3. access to alternative standards/methods is deniedAgain, undesirable, but it isn't obvious to me what the concept of objective truth adds.The consistent problem I see with such objections is that they seem based on an understanding of "consensus of one's peers" as arising from some procedure analogous to a town hall meeting where any resident is free to vote and majority vote prevails. This seems quite surprising coming from those in the academy where significant limits are routinely placed on who is to be included among one's "peers". Not in the sense that opinions are admitted only from those who are in some way "certified" (in which case I'd never be allowed to offer an opinion in a forum like this) but in the sense that some opinions will be given low weight. As for how one deals with the absence of purpose, objective truth and goodness, et al, Clint Eastwood (in "High Plains Drifter") provided a possible answer: "Live with it." I and others find doing so no problem. And as you suggest specifically re politics, we think in general there is much more to fear from those who are sure that they possess "objective truths" than from those who are constantly concerned that they do not have beliefs founded on the best currently available evidence and thinking.
1. beliefs are answerable only to standards/methods acceptable within the community in questionThis seems not only unavoidable, but desirable.It does sound unavoidable, yes. But whether it's desirable would seem to depend on what is accountable to the community in question. But if it's unavoidable anyway maybe that's moot.2. the standards/methods yield beliefs that are at variance with the factsAs stated, a Rortian presumably finds this incoherent since s/he isn't quite sure what "the facts" means.S/he is really, though, isn't s/he? And if not, then we can substitute reference to evidence without much loss. We probably could do without the words 'objective truth' and just use words like 'evidence' instead if we wanted to do so, but I don't see what the gain would be.3. access to alternative standards/methods is deniedAgain, undesirable, but it isn't obvious to me what the concept of objective truth adds.I take it it's meant to add (the concept of) access to alternative standards/methods. That sounds facetious, but I don't mean it that way. Consensus is certainly very important, as I said before. I take your town hall point, which is well made. If we could spell out exactly what "consensus of one's peers" means--in what senses it is false that this is what truth amounts to and in what senses it is true--then we might all agree on the matter. But spelling this out is very hard.
CW: a Rortian ... isn't quite sure what "the facts" means.DR: S/he is really, though, isn't s/he?No. See, for example, "Rorty & His Critics", p. 184, first full paragraph, and p.354, last paragraph before section 3. Or just note that facts presumably are statements that are "true" in an absolute sense - and therefore go whither "truth" goes.And the advantage of "evidence" over "objective truth" is that status of the former is, as far as I know, uncontroversial.If we could spell out exactly what "consensus of one's peers" means--in what senses it is false that this is what truth amounts to and in what senses it is trueAgain, I understand the quip not as a definition of "truth" but just as an observation that consensus is the best we can do. One has to accept that consensus may form around ideas that we abhor, that are based on "evidence" we don't accept, etc. C'est la vie - sometimes our view of the "true", "just", "fair", etc, lose. Just look at the US today. Our side is losing, but that has nothing to do with what's "true".
I'll have to look those pages up. Thanks for the references. Not knowing what is said there I should not say anything, but I will anyway. My idea was that speakers of English do know what facts are, whatever their philosophy might lead them to claim. If asked in a court of law while giving evidence to stick to the facts, for instance, they would not be puzzled about what was being asked of them. But perhaps this point is irrelevant.If the quip is just an observation about what we can hope to achieve then it sounds much more right to me. I still wonder whether there might be dangers in setting our sights so low though. People who are sure they have the truth are dangerous, but so are those who reject the "reality-based community."
Rorty handles the kind of assertions that one encounters in day-to-day discourse - what we typically mean by "facts" - by characterizing them as "the sorts of beliefs nobody wants to argue about because they are neither controversial nor central to anyone's sense of [self]" (CIS, p. 47). Ie, there is essentially universal consensus because nothing is at stake. When something is at stake, different communities - peer groups - may reach different conclusions.I, of course, consider those who are sure they have the truth and those who reject the "reality-based community" to be one and the same since that phrase supposedly was used by a right-wing partisan hack to describe people like us.
You're pushing me closer and closer to Rorty's position. If day-to-day discourse is not at stake or in dispute, then I have less reason to care what he says about 'truth'. I.e. if he isn't rejecting the normal use of the word then I'm satisfied. That's the only use I would want to defend.I'm not a huge fan of right-wing hacks, but I think there's a difference (at least in principle) between people who are sure they have the truth (fanatics) and those who reject the reality-based community (relativistic enablers). It's noteworthy how often some people flip-flop between the two positions: true-believers until cornered and then who's-to-say relativists when challenged. Maybe that's a consistent position, but it doesn't look like it. I might be misremembering the point of the "reality-based community" remark, but what I had in mind is this. Some people support bad causes because they genuinely believe in them. Others insist that there is no truth anyway, or none that we can ever know, and thus claim that everything is a partisan power struggle. This allows for a kind of fideistic defense of the true-believers. Fox News is an example. Sometimes its fans insist that its reporting really is "fair and balanced." Sometimes they sneer at the very idea of objective reporting, and insist on their right to choose whichever version of the truth they want to hear. I think it's important to keep hold of the idea that actually being fair and balanced is (more or less) possible. We can then criticize Fox News (and others, of course) for being biased.
As best I can tell, neither Rorty nor Davidson (who ultimately moved close to Rorty's position - see Afterthoughts to Essay 10 in "Subj, Intersubj, Obj") seek to purge terms like "truth" from informal conversation. During one of GWB's presidential campaigns (2004, I think) some R operative made a self-aggrandizing remark along the lines of "the trouble with those in the reality based community is that by the time they grasp the reality of a situation, our community has moved on and created a new reality". Many of the kind of people he had in mind adopted the label as a badge of honor, notwithstanding that it was intended as a put down. I attach philosophical weight to neither the remark nor the phrase.There is, of course, an important difference between admitting that the evidence relevant to some debated issue is inconclusive between competing positions and ignoring - or worse yet, distorting - the evidence. Fox et al routinely go the further step of manufacturing evidence, a great boon for Colbert, Stewart, and their writers who are therefore seldom short of ready-made material.
That's right. Thanks for the reminder. So we have maybe three kinds of bad guys really: true-believing fanatics, enabling relativistic apologists, and hubristic God-players. I would want to identify with the reality-based community against all three of those. And I see the concept of truth, the ordinary version, that is, as being useful in making clear and defending that community.
Since we're the only participants in this thread, perhaps it's permissible to ask an entirely OT question. I'm intrigued by the PI sections right around 400 that address mental picturing. Can you point me to any good discussions of those sections, preferably online?
Nothing springs to mind, I'm afraid, but a quick search led me to this by David Egan, who is good. It might be relevant, or a useful starting point at least.