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December 5th, 2009

Rorty and Truth

I’ve been talking a lot with Tom Donaldson about various iterations of pragmatism in 20th Century philosophy, especially in America. And I was struck by some things that came up when discussing Rorty.

Rorty sometimes says that the distinctive claim of pragmatism is that we can’t give a positive theory of truth, and should instead settle for noting that ‘true’ can be used disquotationally, and perhaps in a couple of other ways.

Now I think, or at least suspect, we can’t give a positive theory of truth. I’m certainly no expert on the various attempts that have been made to resolve the semantic paradoxes, but I’m sympathetic to views that deny there is a single truth predicate (or operator), and instead say that the best we can do is offer up some kind of Tarskian hierarchy of different truth predicates/operators.

Let’s say I did adopt that Tarskian kind of view. It would then seem that I could agree with a lot of what Rorty says about truth. There is no universal theory of truth. Indeed, it is impossible to even state a full theory of truth, of the kind traditionally desired by philosophers.

But it seems wrong to say that accepting such a view about the paradoxes commits me to being a pragmatist in any broad sense. It seems I’m on quite the opposite side to Rorty about most of the big picture questions. What could have gone wrong?

My guess, and it is really no more than a guess, is that truth is less important to Rorty than inquiry. I think that inquiry (as such) aims at correspondence to reality. I don’t think that’s the same thing as saying it aims at truth, because I don’t hold the correspondence theory of truth. But having a narrowly construed aim of inquiry, and having that aim be defined in correspondence terms, puts me outside the pragmatist camp. This suggestion is meant to be one that both realists and pragmatists can accept; if I’m a Tarskian about truth, and a correspondence theorist about inquiry, then I clearly disagree with them about inquiry, and that seems to be the important disagreement.

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized


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3 Responses to “Rorty and Truth”

  1. fitelson says:

    Some years ago, I attended a seminar on truth run by Sol Feferman @ Stanford. Rorty lead the seminar one day. It was difficult to get a clear sense of where he was coming from (he tended to just shrug off just about any question we threw at him). But, one thing became pretty clear by the end of that discussion — Rorty (at least then) cared much more about inquiry than truth. I’m no Rorty expert, but that experience does support your guess. And, so does this clip: .

  2. fitelson says:

    Oh, and this one: .

  3. Matt Brown says:

    This strikes me as correct as well, not just for Rorty but for most pragmatists.

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