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Rain Taxi
Sunday, December 23rd, 2007
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What's the Use of Truth?

by Richard Rorty and Pascal Engel

Truth and Consequences

A review by Jean-Paul Pecqueur

Of all the abstract nouns regularly encountered -- beauty, goodness, reality -- Truth with a capital T seems most essential to the act of living. If you want to elicit a wildly incredulous response from someone, try suggesting that you don't believe in Truth: not that you doubt the truth of a given proposition, but that you don't have much use for the concept in general. This is what the late pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty acknowledges in What's the Use of Truth?, one of the final two books to be published during his lifetime.

At a slim sixty-six pages, What's the Use of Truth? presents the transcript of a public debate between the French and American philosophers Pascal Engel and Richard Rorty held in 2002 at the Sorbonne. It is safe to say that the main draw of this book will be Rorty's position; in a sense, by titling the book "What's the Use of Truth?" the game is ceded to him. Throughout his career, Rorty was infamous for assuming a pragmatic position in regards to philosophical debates. Following the lead of William James, Rorty was fond of writing sentences such as: "If a debate has no practical significance, then it has no philosophical significance." This is precisely how he felt about philosophical questions regarding Truth.

Not surprisingly, this criterion of "utility" becomes the main point of contention between these two philosophers. Engel opens the conversation by summarizing Bernard Williams's observation that there seem to be two antithetical opinions regarding Truth. On the one hand, individuals are more dubious than ever about Truth and other "values of rationality" having been frequently deceived by both scientific and governmental authorities. On the other hand, without a concept like Truth, individuals would have nothing with which to contrast such dubious behaviors. As Engel writes:

A subject who does not understand that a correct assertion or belief is a true assertion or belief, and that he must satisfy this condition in order to have rational beliefs and utter his assertions correctly, is missing something essential to the notion of truth.

In a sense, Engel argues that Truth has a practical use because it has an essential function, which is to certify the correspondence between an assertion and the way the world really is. However critics may complain, this "truth as reality" theory remains the standard, common sense position in western society.

Rorty, on the other hand, argues that truth is a performative rather than a normative concept. In other words, if we examine how truth works in our day-to-day lives, we'll see it used to endorse propositions rather than to certify them. I say "the proposition ‘there is a blackbird in the tree' is true" because I have no practical difficulty with the statement, I am willing to live with it -- not because I want you to recognize that you are in the presence of some essential quality called Truth.

The Jamesian "cash value" of this discursive move is that along with the deflation of the concept of Truth comes deflation of privileged, truth-bearing discourses such as epistemology, religion, or physics. According to Rorty, since there is no "way the world really is," there is no discourse that will allow us closer access to this "true world." Ever since publishing Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979, Rorty doggedly suggested that we change our linguistic practices to ensure such a deflation of privileged areas of culture. Only after such a shift would his utopian democratic society have been possible.

Sadly, Richard Rorty died this past spring -- at a time when our society has not only not let go of our truth-bearing discourses, but has entrenched them in the fundamental, essential conditions of race and religion. These entrenchments radically divide rather than unite us, and unfortunately impede us from solving our very serious problems. This is, ironically, what Rorty was getting at in this conversation. There is no need to worry about truth: if we take care of food, and jobs, and shelter, the truth will take care of itself.


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