On how to use the term “truth”


by Jack Flynn

I want to expand and modify my discussion to bring it more in line with Goran’s and Harland’s positions. I owe my ideas on this to James and Rorty and by way of the latter to Davidson.

I do not believe that there are mind independent descriptions of the world or of “reality,” if this implies that we are given a pure apprehension of reality without the intervening structures of language and mind. Or in other words, that “we may define the real as that whose [characteristics] are independent of what anybody may think them to be.” I do not know what this could mean and I find it more or less unintelligible as stated for a criterion of the “real.” If it affirms that there are things which exist and that these things have properties that are what they are independently of what anyone may think or affirm about them, I take this as a statement of some variety of realism which I cannot accept. This view of ontology is supported by an epistemological theory of correspondence based on the dualism of subject/object or knower/known. Central to correspondence theory is a theory of representation in which some form of mental representation is found to, in some way, correspond with the object of interest outside the subject – I find insuperable difficulties with each of the key interlocking concepts in this theory: the concept of the “real,” of “correspondence,” and of “representation.”

My interpretation is that Harland, with a few reservations, supports Goran’s realism and correspondence theory, but criticizes his “perspectival chauvinist” views, his “bandwagon” argument, as well as his use “epistemic absolutes.” My approach to the issues raised by Goran’ example of the primitive village of peasants response to a solar eclipse by telling a story of a dragon who devours the sun until all the villagers bang on pots and scare the dragon away thus saving the sun, is based within the pragmatic tradition. Instead of saying that the peasants’ belief was false because it did not correspond to reality as such, I would say that this belief as an account of an eclipse does not fit with any of our current understanding as contained the science of astronomy and physics and therefore should be abandoned except for historical or anthropological inquiry. This way has certain advantages as I see the matter. It avoids the awkward attempt to say what the representation of the event might be and how a mental representation would correspond (or copy) a physical object, assuming that there would be an attempt to explain this theory from the perspective of the villagers.

From our current perspective another advantage is that it allows a charitable account of the villagers’ explanation and behavior. Given that their noise making was always (presumably, by this knowledge being passed down through generations) followed by the reappearance of the sun, their actions were rational. Then we have the explanation which out of context is fantastic but from within their point of view, that is, from within the traditional stories of their culture, satisfied their need for an account of what was happening. I agree that calling their story false smacks of chauvinism.

The pragmatists and James in particular looked upon “true” as the expedient in the way of thinking and without any explanatory use. James wanted to dissolve the traditional problematic about truth and offer a pragmatic one in its place. These are the uses he saw for a notion of truth: (a) an endorsing one, or one of praise, e.g., a hypothesis; (b) a cautionary use as in “Your belief that S is perfectly justified, but perhaps not true.” – reminding ourselves that justification is relative to, and no better than, the beliefs cited as grounds for S, and that such justification is no guarantee that things will go well if we take S as a rule for action; and (c) a disquotational use; to say metalinguistic things of the form “S is true iff____. (quoted in Rorty 1991).

I would hold that there is a limited use for the concept of “correspondence” in relation to inquiry or knowledge. In so far as our beliefs undergo continuous change as a result the active testing of new hypotheses, the acceptance of a new hypothesis can be viewed in a broad sense as “corresponding” with experience in the sense that a new tool corresponds with the task it performs – it “fits” with an immediate experience but, more importantly, it coheres with the larger body of previously tested and accumulated knowledge that ideally increases our survival chances.


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