Truth as Convenient Friction


In a recent paper, Rorty says that he swings back and forth between Jamesian pragmatism -- "trying to reduce truth to justification" -- and "propounding some form of minimalism about truth." He describes the motivation for pragmatism as follows:

"Pragmatists think that if something makes no difference to practice, it should make no difference to philosophy. This conviction makes them suspicious of the distinction between justification and truth, for that distinction makes no difference to my decisions about what to do."

This motivation rests on an empirical claim -- as Rorty puts it elsewhere, the claim that "obedience to a ... commandment to seek the truth ... will produce no behaviour not produced by the need to offer justification."

In my view, this claim is unjustified, indeed false. There is a widespread behavioural pattern which results from the fact that speakers take themselves to be subject to such a commitment. Moreover, it is behavioural pattern which Rorty of all people cannot afford to dismiss as a by-product of bad philosophy: it is conversation itself. In order to account for ordinary conversational practice, in my view, we need to recognise that speakers take themselves to be governed by a norm stronger than that of justification -- a norm which speakers acknowledge they may fail to meet, even if their claims are well-justified. This norm provides is the automatic and quite unconscious sense of engagement in common purpose that distinguishes conversation from a roll call of individual opinion. Truth is the grit that makes our individual opinions engage with one another.

A realist might object that this is a poor defence of realism about truth. Even if a more-than-pragmatist notion of truth does play this role in conversation, what the role demands is merely that speakers accept such a notion, not that such acceptance be metaphysically well-grounded. Realist truth might be simply a useful fiction. Rorty cannot consistently object to the view on these grounds, however, for he advocates that we walk away from realist&endash;antirealist disputes. I agree; but the upshot is a more-than-pragmatist account of truth which is acceptable by the only standards available.

In one sense, this view of truth is is itself pragmatist, for it explicates truth in terms of its role in practice. In another sense, it conflicts with pragmatism, for it opposes the proposal that we identify truth with justification. This reflects a deep tension within pragmatism, a internal conflict which stems from the pragmatists' inability to resist the the urge to ask "What is truth?", in preference to explanatory and genealogical alternatives. As he oscillates between pragmatism and minimalism, Rorty is intermittently free of this analytic addiction; but never properly aware, in my view, of the attractions of pragmatist alternatives to analysis.


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