Saturday, November 08, 2008

Truth, Uncertainty and the end of Inquiry

Richard Rorty:

“I think it was unfortunate that Pragmatism became thought of as a theory or definition for Truth. I think it would have been better if the Pragmatists had said; we can tell you about justification but we can’t tell you about truth, there is nothing to be said about it. That is, we know how we justify beliefs, we know that the adjective true is the word we apply to the beliefs that we’ve justified, and we know that a belief can be true without being justified, that’s about all we know about truth.

Justification is relative to an audience and to a range of truth candidates; truth isn’t relative to anything. Just because it isn’t relative to anything there’s nothing to be said about it. Truth with a capitol “T” is sort of like God, there’s not much you can say about God, and that’s why many theologians talk about ineffability and so on.

Contemporary Pragmatists tend to say the word true is indefinable, but none the worse for that, we know how to use it, we don’t have to define it. No description or interpretation is closer to reality then any other; some of them are more useful for some purposes then others, but that’s about all you can say. Nietzsche and perspectivism, which says you can’t rise above interpretations and get to facts, or dig down below interpretations and get to facts, is substantially the same thing as I meant before when I said that pragmatists try to get rid of the reality appearance distinction.”


"The Greek idea is that at a certain point in the process of inquiry you’ve come to rest because you’ve reached the goal. The Pragmatists are saying that we haven’t the slightest idea what it would be like to reach the goal. The idea that the aim of inquiry is correspondence to reality, or seeing the face of God, or substituting facts for interpretation is one that we just can’t make any use of.

All we really know about is how to exchange justifications of our beliefs and desires with other human beings; as far as we can see that will be what human life will be like forever. So Pragmatists regard the Platonist attempt to get away from time into eternity, or get away from conversation into certainty as a product of an age of human history where life on earth was so desperate and it seemed so unlikely that life could ever be better that people took refuge in another world.

Pragmatism comes along with things like the French revolution, industrial technology, all the things that made the 19th century believe in progress. When you think that the aim of life is to make things better for our descendents rather then to reach outside of history and time it alters your sense of what philosophy is good for. In the Platonist and theistic epoch, the point of philosophy was to get you out of this mess and into a better place; God, the realm of Platonic ideas, something like that.

The reaction against this Greek/Christian pursuit of blessedness through union with a natural order is to say, there isn’t any natural order, but there is a possibility of a better life for our great-great-great grandchildren. That’s enough to give you all the meaning and inspiration that you could use.



"Some human beings lead quite certain predictable lives. People in traditional societies, people in such miserable conditions that they have to work 14 hours a day and sleep the rest, there isn’t much uncertainty around. However, the uncertainty in the sense in which philosophers dramatize uncertainty is a luxury. It’s the kind of thing you can deliberately induce in yourself for the shear thrill of it by, say, reading all sorts of books and being uncertain over which ones to believe."


  1. Hi, Andrew. What's the source of these quotes?

  2. They're from an interview. YouTube Richard Rorty.

    I'm in the middle of reading "Philosophy and the Mirror Nature", and plan on weaving Rorty's pragmatism into my thoughts on "religious language". I've posted these quotes for later use and reference. A primer if you will.

  3. They look a little funny I suppose, as one's speech doesn't always translate well to paper.

  4. Thanks for the transcriptions. That's always a PITA, I know.