Correctness, appropriateness, and truth

by Dave Maier

William_James_b1842cHere’s a joke I remember from my childhood. A man takes a taxi. The fare comes to $9.63, so the passenger gives the driver nine dollars, two quarters, a dime, and three pennies. The driver looks at the money dubiously; whereupon the passenger asks “Isn’t that correct?” The driver’s answer: “It’s correct, but it ain’t right.” Here the driver is distinguishing correctness from moral rightness in particular. That’s not quite the distinction I want to talk about today, so let’s instead use a word which wouldn’t make the joke quite so funny: appropriateness.

Our context is that of the nature of truth. Pragmatists are often accused of reducing truth to appropriateness or utility. (William James invited such attacks with his supposedly pragmatic slogan that “truth is what works.”) Yet it certainly seems possible to say something true which is not appropriate or useful. There are many types of case, but for now as an example of “inappropriateness” try tactlessness: “Why yes, that dress does indeed make your butt look big.” While clearly effective against James’s slogan, this is not the refutation of pragmatism that it appears. We must look more closely at what determines what it is appropriate to say, and why.

* * *

After 9/11, President George W. Bush emphasized that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were not wars against Islam generally by claiming that, as he put it, “Christians and Muslims worship the same God.” He got immediate pushback on this from some Christian leaders (Richard Land is the one who sticks in my mind, but there were others), who disputed this claim. More recently, a professor at a Christian school got into hot water when, as a way to show solidarity with Muslims, she made that same claim. In each case, the objectors quite plausibly pointed out that the Christian deity and the Muslim deity have many conflicting characteristics – for example, that the former is triune and the latter not – so how could they possibly be the same entity?

This presents itself as a disagreement about the correctness of a manner of speaking, or a matter of fact, one which is difficult even to word properly so as not to beg the question: is the entity (are the entities) which Christians call “God” and (Arabic-speaking) Muslims call “Allah” the same entity or different entities? Bush says they are the same and Land disagrees; so it seems that one of them must be wrong, depending on how the world actually is. Let’s examine the arguments and see if we still think this when we’re done.

In investigating this matter of fact, we naturally assume that we shouldn’t worry about what inferences President Bush wanted to draw from it; we simply want to know whether it’s true or not. Maybe we can agree about the fact and still preserve whatever further differences remain. That is, maybe Land could be persuaded that Bush was right about the ontological issue, if he found that he could still make his objections to Bush’s conclusions equally strongly. That is, he would then be able to say something like “it doesn’t matter that the two deities are the same entity – it doesn’t follow from that, as you think it should, that the differences between Christianity and Islam are simply friendly or abstract disagreements rather than matters of crucial spiritual importance.”

If he were thus able to preserve the substance of his view against Bush’s, Land might well see his concession to Bush’s way of talking as just that: an abstract terminological issue rather than the substantive spiritual one it seemed to be. Let me spell out in some detail an argument for the truth of Bush’s claim. Note that it does not argue for the truth of his broader views, and in fact the way it makes the ontological claim plausible is by showing, as already suggested, that talking this way does not threaten Land’s broader views as Bush had made it seem that it did.

Christianity and Islam are both religions in the monotheistic tradition that dates back to the ancient Hebrews. Both religions, for example, honor Moses as a prophet of the Hebrew deity. Both differ from Judaism in acknowledging further revelations. For example, Muslims regard Jesus of Nazareth as at least a prophet (rasul, the same word as they use for Muhammad) on the level of Moses and Abraham, and of course Christians consider him to be the son of God (and in some way identical with God).

So Christians and Muslims do indeed both worship the same God: that is, the God of Abraham; but about this entity they believe importantly different things. For example, Christians believe God to be triune, but Muslims do not. Each takes the other not simply (as they would, say, Buddhists) as believing a false religion, but in fact blaspheming against God (that is, saying something false about that same entity rather than something (potentially) true about a distinct one). In rejecting the Trinity, Muslims, to Christians, wrongly say of God that He is ontologically distinct from Jesus of Nazareth. They also believe, contrary to Christian doctrine, that He sent the angel Gabriel to Muhammad with divine revelations in the 7th century A.D. Of course, to Muslims, Christians believe the converse falsehoods, and are not simply denying divine revelation but, in affirming the Trinity, are thus “polytheists”. (This is the point of the Muslim affirmation that “there is no God but God” (La allahu ill’ Allah)).

Note, again, that both ways of talking allow virtually the same objection to Bush's statement. Instead of saying “No, they don’t in fact worship the same God, so we shouldn’t minimize the differences between Christianity and Islam”, Land can instead say “Yes, but they don’t acknowledge the divinity of Christ, so we shouldn’t minimize the differences between Christianity and Islam.”

Land might instead prefer to continue to make his point in the former way, perhaps finding compelling the naturalness of speaking, as above, of “the Christian deity” and “the Muslim deity” as distinct entities with differing properties. He would then have to account for the common historical origins of the two faiths in the Hebrew tradition, as well as lingering ontological questions suggested by his way of speaking (so does the Muslim deity not exist at all? or is it a distinct but minor deity, or a demon?); but there’s no reason to think that this couldn’t be done.

Similarly, it seems that whatever substantive point Bush was making might survive being transposed into Land’s preferred idiom (and that if it couldn’t, that would be a problem for Bush’s view). True, he might say, Muslims worship a different God, in the strict metaphysical sense of numerical distinctness (not that it’s plausible that W would use this term; bear with me here); but if we look closely at the great deal of conceptual overlap between them (as well as, again, the historical inheritance from the Hebrew tradition), and pay attention to the moral and cultural roles played by each in their respective traditions, then we can see past the specific doctrines of each – without, of course, thereby giving them up, as adherents of our respective faiths! – to the broader similarities.

Now of course Land need not agree with this; but it does seem that however the conversation continues, neither he nor Bush is simply required by the nature of the world itself, as it had seemed would be the case for matters of fact, to speak in one or the other idiom. If Land points to this or that section of the Qur’an which can be read to suggest that, for example, Muslims may use violence to defend their faith against its enemies, we have left the ontological issue of the identity or distinctness of deities, and thus the proper metaphysical way of conceptualizing their differences, far behind. Nor, again, can Bush simply cite the Qur’anic story of Moses’s deliverance of the ancient Hebrews with the help of God/Allah, with its clear implication that Muslims worship the Abrahamic deity, in support of his ultimate views. Neither can get from the metaphysical issue alone what he thinks he needs.

* * *

I hope it is clear that nothing depends on this particular example and whatever properly metaphysical or theological obscurity it brings with it. It has been meant to resist the metaphysical-realist idea that the world in itself determines what we must say to get it right – that the independent reality of the objective world requires that we purge our inquiries, and our representations, of their subjectivity, such as they might acquire if we were to consider, for example, which of our ends we would further by speaking in this or that way, when what we should be doing in inquiry is getting things right. So far, though, all we have done is to see how we may construe (what seemed to be) disagreements in matters of fact as (mere) differences in manners of speaking. If we left it there, though, we would accede to the realist criticism of pragmatism as a facile linguistic instrumentalism, or worse, the sophistic “pragmatism” of Stanley Fish. We would lose the very idea of speaking truly, of getting things right. The world is indeed independent of us in some way; the pragmatist criticism of realism concerns what way that is.

This means that having pushed in one direction, we need now to push back in the other. (Such is the nature of dualism-smashing.) The issue between Bush and Land, even at the properly metaphysical level (that is, putting to one side the idea of a war against Islam) cannot be merely semantic, just as it is not merely ontological. The two idioms cannot, and should not be made to try to, pick out exactly the same empirical facts. Instead, they are to be used in different contexts for different purposes, to express different ideas and beliefs, each when appropriate, as judged by a speaker at a time. (Nothing should prevent Bush from speaking of “the Muslim deity”, nor Land from speaking of blasphemy as opposed to error, should the context require it.)

But now, in affirming that the issue is not merely semantic, it seems that I have thereby reopened the door to empirical refutation of one or the other way of speaking. Indeed, I freely grant that one could, should one so desire, try to (re)construe any particular difference in ways of speaking as instead specifically a difference in belief in matters of fact, such that one or the other could be decisively refuted by evidence or argument. This is, for example, why we no longer speak of “phlogiston” or “luminiferous aether”: the newly discovered facts that we wished to incorporate into our discourse made such ways of speaking not worth the trouble, and there’s no reason not to just go ahead and say that we used to believe one thing and now we know that another is true instead (i.e. rather than that we found our old way of speaking no longer to pay its way – although I think we could say that instead if we felt like it. Hell, with enough conceptual reworking we could continue to speak in the old idiom if we felt like doing that – but with extremely rare exceptions that would really not be worth the trouble!)

Contra James (or James’s slogan, at least), pragmatists do not demand that we speak in merely useful ways, as opposed to getting the world right. But we do not thereby accede to the realist’s demand that we speak correctly, if that means taking the world, on the one hand, and the dictionary, on the other, to determine this. I propose that pragmatists urge instead that we speak appropriately, so as to acknowledge the very real demands made on us by world and dictionary respectively, whlle recognizing as well that our first obligation is to express in what we say our own commitments, whether doxastic, semantic, or practical, in the most cogent and coherent way we can (without, of course, thereby betraying them). To speak appropriately is to balance these shifting requirements in such a way as to do justice to them all, as we judge them in the context.

This, I take it, is what Richard Rorty means by his claim that the primary, or even only, constraints on what we say are “conversational” ones. Rorty himself responded inadequately, in my view, to the chorus of abuse directed his way for this claim. He resisted, as always, the realist dogma of truth as determined by the world in itself; but he failed to emphasize in turn – bizarrely, to my mind, as the student of Davidson he claimed to be – the commitments to objectivity actually implicated in the conversational constraints he advocated.

Pragmatists are not sophists, concerned only with our ends. Speaking of appropriateness in this way, elevating it to a theoretical commitment alongside that of correctness, does not threaten our understanding of what the sophist is doing in manipulating others with his words, as realists charge. Instead, it allows us to preserve our commitment to the objectivity (in the relevant senses) of meaning and belief – while at the same time noting the sense in which the sophist’s actions are outrageous, if they are: he is not playing fair, conversationally speaking. (We may go on to regard him as thereby unethical; but we are not, it seems, required to do so in every case. After all, Machiavelli, for example, defends his seemingly cynical manipulation of others on what he claims to be explicitly moral grounds, and there’s no reason for us to close down that defense prematurely, on theoretical grounds alone.)

Next time (maybe): appropriateness and the tool metaphor.