Truth, Lies and Pragmatism

by Chris Horner

I won that election —Donald J Trump

The truth is out there —X files

There is a story that Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France, was in conversation with some German representatives during the Paris peace negations in 1919 that led to the Treaty of Versailles. One of the Germans said something to the effect that in a hundred years time historians would wonder what had really been the cause of the Great War and who had been really responsible. Clemenceau, so the story goes, retorted that one thing was certain: ‘the historians will not say that Belgium invaded Germany’.

The anecdote repays some reflection. On the one hand, its main point seems clear: the brute fact that it was Germany that invaded Belgium and not the other way around cannot be wished away by later historians, whatever else they may say. Clemenceau, of course, is pointing to this as the evidence for the German responsibility for starting the war. On the other hand, the German representative also seems to be right: historians have been discussing the causes and the responsibility for World War One ever since 1914, and show no signs of concluding. The assessment of an event like that depends on interpretation and the sifting of evidence. It isn’t just a matter of pointing what happened on an August day in 1914. Yet some things remain stubbornly the case, we think: German troops violated Belgian neutrality in 1914.

In a hundred years time will historians wonder who won the US Presidential Election of 2020? Perhaps not, but the world we live in seems to be one in which the most ‘stubborn’ facts are in question. Much of the confusion can be wrought by bad faith actors, people who know they are lying when they claim certain things to be true. These bad faith actors aren’t just figures from the margins of the political spectrum, or among the deluded ‘QAnon’ conspiracy enthusiasts. In our time we have seen the US and UK governments, supported by the bulk of the established media outlets repeat falsehoods about the possession of WMDs in Iraq, to give just one example. No wonder there is a lot of ‘fake news’ when so much of it is generated by government itself. 

‘The truth is out there.’ True seems to be that which is in accordance with the facts or reality, the way things simply are. But it is not as simple as that. For there are not only ‘brute facts’ (eg whether Germany invaded Belgium in 1914), but also more complex phenomena, where interpretation and the weighing of evidence apply (eg, the causes of World War One). How we make sense of things has a great deal to do with what truth means. Recent American philosophy in the pragmatist tradition has had interesting things to say about this, and looking at what two of the most famous recent figures in that tradition have had to say about it may be useful. It also sheds some light on the strengths and weaknesses of  Pragmatism itself. First, though, what do Pragmatists have to say about truth?

Mirrors versus Tools

Many people would say that the value of an idea or belief lies in its truth, its faithfulness to the way things are. To have a true belief is thus to get an accurate picture of reality. To be ‘objective’ is to reflect on the way things are, independently of the wants and needs of the person who does the reflecting. The aspiration to achieve this has been shared by philosophers, scientists and saints. The methods may vary and the answers may differ dramatically, but the goal has been the same: to see the Truth, to know Reality-As-It-Is-In-Itself. Pragmatism offers a decisive break with this tradition.

For pragmatists, ideas are the means that allow us to do things, and the success of an idea is measured by its practical effectiveness, not by its faithfulness as a reflection of reality. Ideas are tools, not mirrors. They therefore reject the traditional model of truth and knowledge as deeply misleading. For the traditional model, a belief is true if it corresponds to reality: this is why it is usually called the ‘correspondence theory of truth’. It seems to have common sense on its side: after all, what could the truth of a sentence consist in if not correspondence to some independent reality, some way the world is in itself? But pragmatists (and others) have pointed out that there are serious difficulties with such an approach. Let’s reconsider it.

The correspondence theory goes something like this: on one side there is (A) human thought (beliefs, ideas, sentences, propositions), and on the other (B) the way things are. Truth amounts to getting (A) to accurately mirror (B). But this is an oddly ‘sideways on’ model. It supposes we can imagine what B is like, apart from A. But to do that we would have to grasp reality plain, independent of human concepts and beliefs, and that is something that no one can do. For the model to work, we have to imagine standing outside of (A) and (B) in order to imagine them lining up. But the demand that we do this is does not make any sense ― it is unintelligible. No one can stand ‘outside’ of ‘merely human’ concepts to think about Reality, as concepts are what we think with. And if we still insist on the correspondence model of truth we then become vulnerable to doubts about our attempt to mirror the Way Things Are In Themselves. Does appearance correspond to reality? Our knowledge claims become the targets of the sceptic.

Rortian pragmatism

Pragmatists urge us to ditch the correspondence theory of truth. They divide on what should go in its place. Our first pragmatist, Richard Rorty, argues that since there is no way that things ‘really are’, we should drop the appearance/reality distinction and instead ask which of our descriptions are more or less useful for our purposes. Ideas are like tools that help us to get what we want. This does not mean something like ‘truth is whatever I say that it is’. What we call a ‘fact’ or a ‘truth’ can not be considered in isolation from the larger fabric of beliefs into which it is stitched. Suppose I claim that I have just flown across The White House by flapping my arms. You are unlikely accept this because of all the other things you believe about people, objects, physics, etc. I will find it difficult to convince you as there seems no way in which the idea of unaided flight by a middle aged philosopher is going to connect with those other beliefs. If you do choose to believe me, you are going to have to do a pretty drastic rethink of everything else you think you know.

On the other hand, the view that I have just made it all up can be stitched into your web of beliefs, via terms like ‘drunk’, ‘mad’, ‘joking’ or ‘doing a thought experiment in philosophy’. Claims have to win a game of justification to be accepted, and to do that they have to cohere with other beliefs. They then earn their keep by being of some use to us. So in science, for instance, a given theory like that of Darwin’s, overcomes its rivals by convincing the scientists that it makes the best connection with everything else that they know, not by being connected to some Reality lying outside language altogether. It then pays its way through the use we are able to make of it. Science is just a human project for controlling and predicting nature, not achieving One True Description. The success of a theory will be how it contributes to that project, not how it mirrors non-human reality.

The Rortian point is that Truth with a capital ‘T’ cannot be invoked as an external validation for our descriptions. We should instead see it as a ‘compliment’ we pay to an idea or a belief of which we approve. Since we cannot go beyond mere agreement with other members of our community to ‘reality as it is in itself’, we should replace the search for objectivity with the goal of solidarity with our community. The criteria for approving one idea rather than another will depend partly on what kind of vocabulary we are using. Science, poetry, religion etc. will have different internal standards and rules: scientific theories are subject to different criteria to those of literary criticism. Sometimes different accounts correspond to such different human purposes that no clash need occur, even when they seem to concern the same things. The poet’s and the scientist’s description of a field of daffodils use different vocabularies, for different ends. The poet’s golden host of daffodils is not undercut by a truer language of photosynthesis and osmosis. Neither of these vocabularies should be viewed as ‘truer’ description of the daffodils because there is no single true account of what daffodils are. There are only different ways of describing daffodils and everything else in our world. Philosophy too is just another way of describing for particular purposes, and thus it has no reason to imagine itself as superior to literature or science when it comes to helping us lead better lives.

Criticising Rorty

Rortian pragmatism has attracted plenty of criticism. What, some critics have asked, are we to make of the claim that objectivity amounts to nothing more than solidarity with a community? Suppose we abandon objectivity as something like ‘true independently of what people believe’ and substitute ‘solidarity with other members of my community’. What would be the status of the claim ‘Joe Biden won the US Presidential election in 2020’ or ‘there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’? When someone makes these sorts of claims, they surely imagine that they are saying something that is categorically right or wrong, whatever other people in a community may believe. A Rortian pragmatist might respond that whatever the speaker might imagine they are doing, all ‘true’ or ‘objective’ or ‘just’ really means is ‘passes the tests my community has for justifying a belief’. We can go on using ‘true’ and ‘objective’ when we make claims about an election result, but when we reflect on the ultimate status of a claim we see that ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ belong inside the language of a given community; they don’t point at some extra linguistic reality. Many of Rorty’s critics have found it impossible to accept this line of argument, including the philosopher who was often viewed as the other leading contemporary pragmatist: Hilary Putnam.

Putnam on truth

In a recognisably pragmatist spirit Putnam also rejected the ‘mirror’ or correspondence theory of truth, but this did not lead him to abandon the notion that our ideas are somehow answerable to the way things are, apart from what a community might agree is the case. Putnam argues that the idea that we can aspire to an ‘absolute conception of the world’, distinct from human concepts, values and needs is misleading. It is misleading because experience involves concepts. We do not just observe (or feel) sensations like ‘blue’, ‘hot’, or ‘pain’: we have concepts which, as language users, we cannot do without if we are to have anything recognisable as a human experience. These concepts are always related to the purposes that we have. Different purposes will call forth different concepts.

Imagine that a physicist and a layperson are both looking at the same table. Ask them both what is ‘really there’ and you could get quite different answers: the lay person (me, for instance) might tell you that the table is solid, or mostly solid. Now if we ask the physicist we may get a very different account: the table is mostly empty space, as the atoms that make up the table contain huge spaces between their particles in relation to the radius of the electron or the nucleus of the atoms. Which account is the more true? Neither of them, according to Putnam, as both serve different purposes and therefore use different concepts. The two accounts operate at different levels; one cannot be reduced to the other. The layperson’s account of the table is not somehow an illusion that the scientist has seen through (or beneath?). The tendency to think that the scientific account is a kind of master description revealing what is really there must be resisted as a symptom of the scientism of our modern culture. There is no escaping the humanness of all our descriptions.

Rorty’s metaphysical rebound

Note that in all of this there is no Rortian talk of objectivity being reduced to agreement or ‘solidarity’. Putnam wants to refute what he calls ‘metaphysical realism’ (the belief in the possibility of One True Description of Reality As It Is In Itself), and he argues for the unbreakable connections between of human purposes, concepts and knowledge. But he does believe that experience must be answerable to a reality that is more than the agreement of a community. Rorty, according to Putnam, was right to reject the correspondence theory of truth, but wrong to then conclude that we cannot describe reality. Putnam’s point is that once we see that it is unintelligible to say (1) ‘we sometimes describe reality as it is in itself’ we should not then say (2) ‘we cannot describe reality as it is in itself’. There is no sense to the idea of a ‘reality as it is in itself’ and so if we can’t make sense of (1) then (2) doesn’t make any sense either. But the term ‘reality’ still has a use. Either ‘Donald Trump lost the Presidential election in 2020’ is either true or it isn’t, whatever the people in a community may believe. We use language, concepts, in many different ways to do many different things, including saying what we think is true. Rorty’s problem is that he is on the rebound from metaphysical realism and this has led him to embrace a position that only looks like an insight. 

We are always already enmeshed with the things we call truths: they aren’t simply ‘out there,’ waiting to be found by us. But I would add here that there is an inescapably physical dimension to truth and reality, that talk about descriptions can easily miss: the fact that I cannot find my front door keys on a particular morning, the touch of a leather boot on a bit of ground west of the Rhine in 1914, the number of ballots cast in the US Presidential Election in 2020. While the causes of the First World War continue to be in dispute, the fact that some soldiers did a certain thing on a certain day is part of a true description of reality. As is the fact that Donald Trump is no longer the rightful President of the United States of America, because he lost the election.