Desktop version

Home arrow Philosophy arrow Postnarrativist philosophy of historiography

Pragmatism and the meaning of truth

One of the most interesting suggestions for replacing the correspondence theory stems from the pragmatist tradition. William James wrote about truth as a dynamic property (James 1998, 97):

The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself, its verification. Its validity is the process of its valid-ation. (James 1998, 97)

And the following sentence looks very much like a redefinition of truth: 'Truth for us is simply a collective name for verification-process' (James 1998, 104).

I agree with Richard Rorty (2011b, 127) and A. J. Ayer (1998, xxiv) that it was a mistake for James to attempt to offer a positive theory of truth, that is, to redefine 'truth'. Beyond this, Rorty provides a very charitable reading, in which he has James to stick to a 'negative point' about truth. According to Rorty's reading, James thought that no theory of truth had managed to explain the relation between language and the world satisfactorily and, therefore, it would be best to understand 'true' as 'a term of praise used for endorsing, rather than one referring to a state of affairs' (Rorty 2011b, 126-127). On one occasion, James envisions 'truth' as 'a name for all those judgments which we find ourselves under obligation to make by a kind of imperative duty' (James 1998, 109). He seems to be suggesting here that the role of 'truth' is to give epistemic authority to our beliefs and statements. Truth-judgements appear as tokens of a very specific kind of speech activity, asking others to believe and accept what is stated. Although I agree about the imperative role of truth, I think, for the reasons that will be explicated below, that James should have been less categorical with respect to the meaning of truth in general. When James writes that '"The true," to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as "the right" is only the expedient in the way of our behaving' (James 1998, 106), it would have been more advantageous, had he only said that 'the true' is expedient, but not that it is 'only the expedient'.

John Dewey introduces an even more interesting idea when he suggests that one could replace the notion of truth with that of 'warranted assertability'. This notion seems to convey the message that our claims could have rational warrant, and thus epistemic authority, without correspondence. Dewey defined 'warranted assertability' as the end state of an inquiry that has removed the doubt that existed at the beginning of that inquiry. Epistemic authority would thus seem to stem from a satisfactory termination of inquiry. But Dewey goes further. He posits that 'knowledge' simply means 'warranted assertability' (Dewey 1938, e.g. 1-23). This is an interesting suggestion, but the definitional link with knowledge is prone to create problems since knowledge is, in epistemology, traditionally defined as a true justified belief and Dewey's postulation prompts the question of whether 'warranted assertability' implies 'is true' in some sense.

In general, the idea that our knowledge-inquiries always begin with doubt or with a problem fits well with historiographical practice. In the following chapter I elaborate on this when I introduce the concept of argumentative context, according to which a historian always takes a stance for or against a view in an already-existing discursive field. However, the problem with Dewey's definition of 'warranted asserta- bility' from the perspective of this book is that it is too categorical in its problem orientation; put differently, the way in which it specifies rational warrant is not nuanced enough. Although the idea of problemgenerated inquiry thus agrees with the practice of historiography on a general level, there are cases that require a more detailed explication of the rational qualities of historical assertions.

My view is that Dewey takes a misstep, like his esteemed predecessor, when he uses the kind of language that suggests a definition of truth via 'warranted assertability'. It appears that 'warranted assertability' turns ideal circumstances into a definitional feature of the truth itself, which also extends the re-definitional approach to the 'founding father' of pragmatism, Charles Peirce. As Dewey writes in a footnote of his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry:

The best definition of truth from the logical standpoint which is known to me is that of Peirce: 'The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented by this opinion is the real.' Op. cit., Vol. V, p. 268 (Dewey 1938, 345; ft 6)5

Further, in an earlier text Dewey, like James, also discussed truth and falsity as 'properties only of that subject-matter which is the end, the close, of the inquiry by means of which it is reached' (Dewey 1988, 205, my emphasis). And he even put forward an alternative pragmatic definition of the correspondence theory as operational and behavioral, with 'the meaning, namely, of answering, as a key answers to conditions imposed by a lock, or as two correspondents "answer" each other; or, in general, as a reply is an adequate answer to a question or a criticism; as, in short, a solution answers the requirements of a problem' (Dewey 1988 207). These kinds of statements, and specifically his reference to Peirce's

'definition of truth,' have provided a reason for many to conclude that Dewey attempted to characterize truth in terms of assertoric correctness. Peter Pagin writes that common to Dewey, Michael Dummett (1976) and Hilary Putnam (1981) is that they all think that there cannot be anything more to truth than being supported by the best available evidence (Pagin 2012).6

Dewey's effort to draw our attention to the conditions in which our assertions can be said to be rationally warranted is nevertheless fruitful. One way to understand the act of asserting would be to think that to assert something is to present it as true. The idea is, thus, that when one asserts something, one presents a proposition as having the property of being true. The crucial question here is whether assertion necessarily commits one to the truth of the proposition or to the property of being true. Rorty suggests that we should view pragmatism as something that entails 'the dissolution of the traditional problematic about truth, as opposed to a constructive "pragmatist theory of truth"' (Rorty 2011b, 127). What if truth-clauses are just for the purpose of endorsing, as James in Rorty's reading advocates? In that case, 'is true' in the assertion that p is true would not add much content but would serve a social function. In other words, saying that 'the historian X's interpretation is true' asks the listener/reader to accept the interpretation, but does not give the interpretation any additional epistemic quality.

Rorty's reading appears sensible with regard to the pragmatists' argumentative rationale despite some obvious interpretative difficulties. It is also compatible with Cheryl Misak's interpretation of Peirce. Misak writes that Peirce's critique of the correspondence theory of truth boils down to a conviction that the correspondence definition is nominal or trivial. According to her, Peirce's view was that the correspondence theory is pragmatically empty and philosophically unsatisfactory. Misak emphasizes that 'the analytic definitions' of truth, such as the correspondence theory, make 'truth' a useless word from the Peircean pragmatist perspective since the pragmatist is not attempting to put forward a definition but is interested in the practical import of a true hypothesis or belief (Misak 1991, 38-43). Misak writes that a pragmatic elucidation of truth is a specification of what one can expect from a true hypothesis, that is, that it would not, in the end, be overturned by experience. Because the pragmatists' approach to truth is 'in principle detachable' from the analytic definition, the pragmatic expectation of a true hypothesis and various analytic definitions, such as a 'Tarski-style definition,' for example, can in principle co-exist (Misak 1991, 43; 129).

In this regard, Nicholas Rescher offers a very useful distinction: one can take either the definitional or criterial route to truth. In the first case, one is interested in the meaning of truth and thus attempts to provide a definition of truth. In the second case, one examines the conditions for the application of the concept of truth and in this way aims to provide a criterion for truth. Rescher also expressed the criterial route as an attempt to provide a 'warrant' for applying the characterization 'is true' to a given proposition (Rescher 1973, 1-3). It may be said that pragmatism has been more successful in the explication of criterial conditions than of definitional ones.

To sum up, there seems to be something very intuitive about the correspondence theory in a primitive sense, even if that intuitive correctness is something entirely different than specifying what 'correspondence' itself means, answering the question of whether it captures the meaning of all kinds of 'true-clauses' or explaining what 'truth-makers' and 'truth-bearers' are. Since this is not a book about truth, I will not analyze different theories of truth and their problems further.7 I accept the point that the correspondence theory is intuitively appealing as an expression of the meaning of truth, but I have already explained the reason why it does not apply to historiographical theses or other statements that contain colligatory or synthesizing notions: the lack of truth-makers. If someone insists on redefining 'truth', say, as an epistemic notion, that is of course entirely possible. I might even agree concerning the substance but suggest that different terminology be used. I think that some redefinitions are simply unintuitive. For example, if the principled grounding of 'truth' is (ideal) justification, then why not to talk about 'justification' directly? It would be more intuitive. The bottom line is that an advocate of an epistemic theory of truth does not disagree about my analysis of the fundamental problem with the truth-claims of historiographical theses, that is, that they cannot be in isomorphic to, or structural similarity relations with, the past, due to the lack of truth-makers. As expressed above, the most important thing is that our claims can be credited with some kind of epistemic authority, not that this epis- temic authority is necessarily 'truth'. Now, the situation is that the most intuitive theory of truth, the correspondence theory, is judged as unsuitable for providing the needed epistemic authority for the most important knowledge contributions of historiography, which are the synthesizing historical theses about the past.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics