Glossing Heidegger on the Essence of Truth

The Questionworthiness of Our ‘Self-Evident’ Preconceptions Concerning ‘Essence’ and ‘Truth’

When we ask the question ‘what is that?’ we are asking after the essence of the thing. But do we not already know the ‘that’? ‘Indeed, must we not know them in order afterward to ask, and even to give an answer, about what they are?’ Must we not be able to use the word ‘table’ in order to even point to the object, and in so using the word be able to call to mind functional characteristics of the object at the very least? Questions so phrased seem to push us toward an a priori understanding of essence. But what is it about essence itself that makes a thing what it is? The essence is the universal, the common feature, the something in general. And yet, it is precisely in our grasp of the particular that we are able to formulate generalisations. By observing what all particular objects hold in common, we are able to extrapolate and pronounce the class of objects as universals. ‘Thus too,’ Heidegger says, ‘in the case of our question “what is truth?”’

So we unpack our question ‘what is truth’ by asking ‘what is the essence of truth?’ We are already familiar with particular truths – from the mathematical to the observational – but what is the essence of these particular truths? They contain ‘something true’. And wherein is that truth contained? It is in the propositions themselves, such as ‘2+2=4’ or ‘it is cold outside’. Thus, truth consists in the content of propositions corresponding with the facts about which they are saying something. We can verify that 2+2 does equal 4 through a simple calculation, and that it is cold outside by opening a window. And we can generalise these particulars through the maxim: being-true consists in correspondence. ‘So truth is correspondence, grounding in correctness, between proposition and thing’.

This is a quite peculiar situation. For not only do we know particular truths, but it would seem that the question we asked previously on the essence of truth is also answered! Not only do we know the essence of truth, we must necessarily know it for how could we otherwise name truths? ‘We could not otherwise bring forward what is stated and claim it as truth’. Not only do we know the essence of truth (correspondence), we also know the meaning of essence itself (universal) and in what essence consists (essence-hood). So why do we still inquire into the essence of truth? What is intelligible is what is understood by us, through our ability to measure, survey and comprehend a thing’s basic structure. What is intelligible is thus self-evident. But is the maxim ‘truth as correspondence’ really intelligible?

Correspondence is a being-toward the thing; the measure for the proposition consists in the correspondence between it and the thing. So do we not know what and how the thing is about which we speak? ‘Such knowing can only arise from knowledge, and knowledge grasps the true, for false knowledge is no knowledge at all’. What is the true? True is what is known, that which corresponds with the facts. The proposition corresponds with what is known and thus with what is true. So are we then left with the definition: true is correspondence with something corresponding?! And so to leave ourselves open to correspondence ad infinitum? What was the first correspondence? Is it not itself a ‘resemblance’, correspondence under another name? ‘Since everything is discussed in a groundless and formal way, we obtain nothing at all intelligible with the concept of truth as correspondence. What presents itself as self-evident is utterly obscure’.

We began by defining true in terms of propositions. But we also call things and beings true. ‘What does true gold correspond with, if being-true means correspondence?’ True is – in truth! – more ambiguous than we first thought. Are we to conclude that truth means something different in different cases? What then is its proper meaning? Does one usage have priority over another? If neither has priority, must we conclude instead that the common derivation consists in something expressed other than correspondence? ‘Truth as correspondence (characteristic of the proposition) is thus ambiguous, insufficiently delimited in itself or determined in its origins. It is therefore not intelligible, its self-evidence is illusory’.

Before, we defined essence as that which determines particularities in general, ‘in respect of what they are’. Essence is the universal, the what-being. And we applied this definition through the example of things – tables, chairs – quite different indeed from truth. Does it follow that the essence-hood of essence is also quite different in both cases? More pertinently, were we justified in ‘transposing’ our conception of essence-hood in things to truth? Even if we grant that essence-hood is the same in both cases, do we really understand the what-being – the definition of being that is at stake in the case of things and truth? The answer is we don’t understand it, we cannot clarify it, and yet we speak of it in such assured self-evident terms. ‘At bottom, what we are asking about remains unintelligible’.

We have said that we have knowledge of particulars, and that through our knowledge of these particulars as such, we already know the particulars in their essence. Indeed, we held that it is necessary to know the essence of the particulars otherwise we would not be able to recognise particulars at all from within their universal class. But why is it necessary? ‘Is it an accident, simply a fact that we register and submit to? Do we understand the essence-hood of essence if we stand helplessly before this peculiarity? Not at all. Essence and essence-hood are also in this respect unintelligible’.

Even assuming that the essence of truth is as we originally claimed, correspondence between proposition as fact and concerning universals governing particulars, are we really able to take this self-evidence as the ‘foundation for our investigation, as vouching for itself and as something secure and true?’ On what have we secured this understanding, how is self-evidence a guarantee for truth in and of itself? ‘How much has been self-evident and obvious to us humans and yet later turned out to be illusory, the opposite of truth and sound knowledge! Thus our appeal to self-evidence as the guarantee of truth is ungrounded and unintelligible’.

That which is self-evident enters into us without us having to do anything, without us having to actively perceive or take anything on. We find it so. But, and this is the devastating question in the whole piece, who are we then? And why is it that we are the ‘court of appeal’? Is what is self-evident to us really to be taken as the ‘ultimate and primary criterion? We don’t even properly understand what is at stake, let alone why it must be us to arbitrate the debate. ‘Do we know whether in general, within which limits, and with which deficiencies, the self-evident can and may be a standard for human beings? Who tells us who the human being is? Is this not all completely unintelligible?’

And so Heidegger has unraveled what at first seemed unshakeable. I will quote his concluding paragraph in full:

‘We began by defining the essence of truth as correspondence and correctness. This seemed self-evident, and therefore binding. Now, already after a few crude steps, this self-evidence has emerged as thoroughly incomprehensible; the concept of the essence of truth in two respects, the concept of the essence-hood of essence in two respects, the appeal to self-evidence as the measure and guarantee of secure knowledge again in two respects. The seemingly self-evident has become incomprehensible. But this means, in so far as we want to linger over and further examine this incomprehensibility, that is has become worthy of questioning. We must first of all ask how it comes about that we quite naturally move and feel comfortable within such self-evidences. How is it that the apparently self-evident turns out, upon closer examination, to be understood least? Answer: because it is too close to us and because we proceed in this way with everything close. We take care, for example, that this and that is in order, that we come here with pen and exercise book, and that our propositions, if possible, correspond with what we intend and talk about. We know that truth belongs in a certain way to our daily affairs, and we know quite naturally what this means. It lies so close to us that we have no distance from it, and therefore no possibility of having an overall view of it and comprehending it’.



Another device which philosophical liberals use to escape the nitty-gritty of politics is neutrality. Once again, the idea is to set up constitutional procedures, or something like them, to discipline day-to-day political activity: the state aims to be neutral or impartial between different conceptions of the good life, such as political ideologies or religious creeds. Where it can’t avoid taking a position (as, for example, with public policy on abortion, even if the state does nothing), neutralists shift their attention from the policy to the procedures which generate it. Neutrality, which has taken hold as a sort of new-variant liberalism, has claimed a number of prominent victims, including John Rawls, Thomas Nagel, Dworkin, Bruce Ackerman, Brian Barry and even Jürgen Habermas.

Glen Newey in the London Review of Books

Book Review: Reading Rorty (ed. Malachowski)

I found this review at this website:

It is NOT my own work; I am reposting the article in its entirety as it is about a book I recently finished on Rorty and is thus of interest to both myself and others reading this blog.



Imre Szeman

Alan Malachowski, ed. Reading Rorty: Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and Beyond). (Cambridge, Mass: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 384pp+xiv.

In the final essay of the collection Reading Rorty, Charles Guignon and David Hiley suggest that Richard Rorty’s later writings (his post-Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature output) should be understood as “making explicit the moral and social commitments that have motivated his critique of epistemology-centered philosophy from the outset” (349). Viewing Rorty’s work from this perspective, PMN becomes less the key to his thinking than simply the first cathartic moment in his attempt to “change the subject” (CP xiv). Critical focus on Rorty from within philosophy has long rested on the first two sections of PMN, in which Rorty shatters the mirror of nature and establishes his “epistemological behaviorism” as an alternative. But, if Guignon and Hiley are correct — and I believe that they are — those wishing to understand both the impetus and implications of Rorty’s work would do well to begin with the third section of PMN (paradoxically entitled “Philosophy”). It is here that Rorty decisively abandons philosophy and moves to cultivate the more fertile ground of what in Consequences of Pragmatism will come to be known as “cultural” (CP xl) or “literary criticism” (CP 66). It is not that Rorty does not address himself to philosophical issues after PMN: indeed, he is all too willing to engage with philosophic objections to his work, even while attempting to “forego argumentation” (CP 142). However, Rorty’s importance lies not so much in the minutiae of his philosophical views, views expressed better and less cartoonishly by others, as in the “moral” he presents: that “the attempt to gain objective knowledge of the world, and thus of oneself, [is] an attempt to avoid responsibility for choosing one’s project” (PMN 361).

It is unfortunate, however, that most philosophers, at least as exhibited by this collection, seem not to have /pp. 4-5/ understood the point of this “moral.” Subtitled “Critical Responses to Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (and Beyond),” the essays which Alan Malachowski has gathered together in Reading Rorty tend to focus only on the most traditionally philosophic issues addressed by Rorty in PMN. Those that do not explicitly deal with material in PMN concentrate on those aspects of Rorty’s work most amenable to philosophy in Consequences of Pragmatism, and on his series of “contingency” essays (particularly “The Contingency of Language”). The rest of Rorty’s corpus is consigned to the unexplored, and apparently unimportant, periphery. This lack of attention cannot simply be a matter of too little time having passed for an adequate assessment. PMN is the earliest of Rorty’s post-analytic writings, and so it may seem natural that it would be the work which has attracted the most attention. However, many of the essays contained in Consequences of Pragmatism pre-date PMN, and a large number of the essays in both Contingency, Irony and Solidarity and the two recent volumes of collected papers, Objectivism, Relativism and Truth, and Essays on Heidegger and Others, date back to the early 80’s The focus of the essays in Malachowski’s collection thus suggests a discomfort with all but those issues which philosophers could recognize as rightly their own. With a few notable exceptions — the essays by Charles Taylor and Nancy Fraser — none attempt Rorty’s task of seeing “how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term” (CP xiv) with respect to the body of his own work. This is not a matter of mere quibbling. For a thinker who advocates theoria over philosophy, “taking a view of a large stretch of territory from a considerable distance” (CIS 96) over loving wisdom, some attempt should have been made to assess Rorty’s work theoria-tically as well as philosophically. In focusing so narrowly on the strictly and traditionally philosophical, the essays in this collection not only fail to address the scope of Rorty’s position, but also inadvertently reinforce his description of philosophy as a discipline intractably haunted by the spectres it sees reflected in the mirror of nature.

Setting these general misgivings aside, the essays in this collection effectively, if narrowly, offer philosophical /pp. 5-6/ criticisms of Rorty’s various positions. In the opening essay, Tom Sorrel argues that Rorty misrepresents the notion of objectivity when he suggests that it is talk about “what the world is like in itself”(12). Sorrell argues that a claim of objectivity is simply a suggestion of what kind of world — outside and separate from us — is necessary to account for different subjective representations. This is why not every clash — for example, between Aristotle and Newton — is, in Rorty’s sense, a clash of vocabularies, but rather a clash of theories, i.e., a clash between conceptions of a world independent of us in which there is a clear victor — that theorywhich helps us to advance our knowledge of the world. In “Auto-de-Fe: Consequences of Pragmatism,” Bernard Williams suggests that conversational constraints of the sort exemplified by Habermas’ formulation of an “ideal speech situation” are necessary if the “conversation of mankind” is to be saved from mere anarchy and the rule of the powerful. While analytic philosophy’s may be unable to find criteria by which all discourses might be rendered commensurable, it nonetheless offers an “example of certain virtues of civilized thought” (35) — constraints of rational consistency, explicitness, and clarity – — which are important if “mere rhetoric and the power of words”(35) are not to prevail. In William’s view (a position reiterated by Jo Burrows and Martin Hollis), Rorty cannot then so simply abandon philosophy if he hopes to keep a liberal, post-philosophical culture intact. It is, for Williams, “excessively optimistic” to suppose that without the constraints exemplified by philosophy, liberal “traditions of open-mindedness and receptiveness to new considerations” will necessarily be sustained (35).

Jennifer Hornsby’s “Descartes, Rorty, and the Mind-Body Mind” argues that Rorty overstates his objection to the “mind” by focusing only on the phenomenal items of the mind (“raw feels,” pain, etc.), thereby failing to account for intentional items. This leaves room for at least a limited concept of the mind, since “resistance to a Cartesian view of the mind need not be resistance to the whole phenomenon of the mind, but only to a conception of the mental informed by a particular view of what the natural world can contain” (56). John Yolton, while not disagreeing with Rorty’s depiction of philosophy’s fascination with the mirror of /pp. 6-7/ nature, wishes to defend Descartes and Locke against those stereotypes which suggest that they originated the view of the mind as a mirror. What has been forgotten, Yolton asserts, is that talk of mirrors, blank tablets, camera obscura, etc, were for Descartes and Locke metaphors used “in lieu of an existing psychology vocabulary” (69). Gerald Vision, David Houghton and Michael Clark offer challenges to Rorty’s views on correspondence and reference, and Donald Davidson and W.V. Quine provide essays intended as correctives to Rorty’s idiosyncratic appropriation of their views. As Malachowski writes in his introduction, the “general worry” that all these authors share is that “the issues raised by the sort of philosophy Rorty attacks are not the sort of issues which can simply be dropped from the intellectual menu” (6).They thus unsurprisingly end with the common suggestion that their particular criticisms of Rorty reinforce the need for philosophy. Yet, by capturing too small a slice of what he says, and by failing to clarify how the particular points they make frustrate Rorty’s anti-philosophical message, none of these essays offer either an adequate defense of philosophy or a serious criticism of Rorty’s position as a whole.

A powerful critique of Rorty’s stance toward philosophy is, however, offered by Charles Taylor. In “Rorty in the Epistemological Tradition,” Taylor suggests that Rorty’s efforts to reject the epistemological tradition remain ineluctably trapped within this tradition. Taylor argues that Rorty has developed a “global ex ante” theory of knowledge which decides- -without appeal to particular cases – — that alterative vocabularies are necessarily “mutually immune to refutation” (268). For Taylor, such a theory arises from the fact that Rorty, as much as he would wish to deny it, is still commanded by a (roughly) Kantian epistemological framework. Rorty’s challenge to philosophy, and his consequent suggestion that a number of incommensurable vocabularies can exist side-by-side, rests on the supposition that since we can no longer assume that there are things-in-themselves to arbitrate different views, then it is possible that all views may be fundamentally incompatible. Taylor also offers a perceptive diagnosis of a problem which troubles a number of the contributors to this /pp. 7-8/ collection. Michael Clark identifies this problem as the “fundamental paradox of pragmatism”: “if it is right, then how can we know, how can Rorty be so sure it is right” (181)? Taylor describes this paradox as a case in which the “meta-issue” — for Rorty, the fact that alternative vocabularies are incommensurable — is made to be an instance of its own undecidability. As with Descartes’ establishment of a method of certainty whose certainty can itself only be guaranteed by the method, so, too, for Rorty, the pragmatic celebration of contingency renders this celebration contingent itself. Taylor argues that in any theory, the meta- issue should be decided upon before it is turned back upon itself. Otherwise, as Clark points out, “applied to itself, his [Rorty’s] pragmatism is self-defeating. And by what divine right does it escape self-application?” (181)

It is the essays by Jacek Holöwka and Martin Hollis which begin to reveal the essential tensions at the core of Rorty’s project. Both suggest that Rorty’s “epistemological behaviorism” and his concern with self-creation are positions that are fundamentally at odds. In “Philosophy and the Mirage of Hermeneutics,” Holöwka points out that because a strong behaviorist theory threatens the idea of “choice” in the sense in which this is normally understood, Rorty “cannot have the atoms-and-the-void theory which explains everything and also say that you have reality-under-a-certain-description” (191), a suggestion echoed by Jane Heal in “Pragmatism and Choosing to Believe.” Hollis makes much the same point in “The Poetics of Personhood,” suggesting that “active spinners” are required for the spinning of a web-of-belief. Epistemological behaviorism, however, allows spinning only in the “passive voice” (247). This passivity means as well that Rorty’s behaviorism negates the import he appears to place on moral choice with regards to such matters as distinguishing between better and worse communities, one’s solidarity to one’s community, and the proclivity to limit cruelty. Holöwka raises the further point that since any predictive model based on epistemological behaviorism would be both impossibly complex and open in any particular instance to easy falsification, that such a theory, rather than eliminating cruder, more clumsy models of the mind, in fact reinforces their necessity (192-3). Such a model of the mind need not be of the /pp. 8-9/ “glassy essence” sort, but could be the models used (for example) in psychoanalysis, clinical psychology or neurology (193). However, it seems to me that the suggestion that there is an essential tension between self-creation and epistemological behaviorism is somewhat misplaced. Why, for example, could choice not be the outcome of an extremely complex set of behavioristic conditions and still retain the quality of a “free” choice? That it could not seems to be a more a matter of philosophy’s historical framing of this question as a choice between an atoms-and-void description of things or the possibility of free will, as opposed to something essential to the character of choice.[1] Holöwka and Hollis are wrong, then, to point out that there is something inherently contradictory in a view which simultaneously suggests the possibility of the scientific prediction and control of human beings, and yet insists on celebrating their autonomy and individuality.

In many ways, the task of reconciling epistemological behaviorism and self-creation nonetheless dominates — if in a modified form — Rorty’s latest work. The concern is no longer to bridge epistemological behaviorism and self-creation (indeed,it may be said that for Rorty this never was a concern), but to reconcile the seemingly disparate realms of public solidarity — epistemological behaviorism reflected into the social- -and private self-creation. Rorty values the romantic ethic of private self-creation as exemplified in the work of poets and revolutionary thinkers. It is these romantic figures who, in an attempt to evade /pp. 9-10/ description by the vocabularies of their communities, struggle to create new vocabularies which capture their particular, idiosyncratic, “lading lists,” thereby ensuring that they are not simply “dying animals.” It is also the romantic who, by creating new vocabularies, acts as the motor of historical change: the vocabularies in which they redescribe themselves, provide the ever evolving terms in which “we” might similarly attempt to redescribe ourselves as more than simply members of a pack. Rorty is wary, however, of the fact that private self- creation, untempered by a sense of social solidarity, is susceptible to political excesses which may become cruel, harmful, or even fascistic. So his task becomes the articulation of a romantic impulse which is also liberal, democratic, and pragmatic, without these social elements dulling the sharpness of the romantic’s “ironism” — her sense that the terms in which she describes herself are always open to change.

Nancy Fraser’s essay, “Solidarity or Singularity? Richard Rorty between Romanticism and Technocracy,” examines the ways in which Rorty has attempted to reconcile these “romantic” and “pragmatic” impulses present in his writing. Fraser identifies three stages in this attempted reconciliation. In the first, “invisible-hand” stage, the romantic impulse fosters liberal values such as kindness and decency (307). By disenchanting the world, romanticism promotes tolerance and social justice. However, since “there is no logical entailment between anti- essentialism and loyalty to one’s society” (308) (the worry expressed earlier by Burrows, Hollis and Williams), Fraser suggests that Rorty, in his “sublimity or decency” stage, comes to wonder whether romanticism can in fact be compatible with decency. Solidarity involves affiliation to a community; romanticism, on the other hand, is a parasitic, selfish disaffiliation which might lead to elitism and cruelty. It would seem, then, that ultimately a choice must be made between the romantic and the pragmatic. Rather than choose between them, however, Rorty assigns these impulses to different spheres: the private and the public. In this third, “partition” stage, self-creation and solidarity need not be inextricable opposites, so long as we remember that “when irony goes public, it gets into trouble” (311).

/pp. 10-11/

As both Fraser and Jo Burrows point out, the division of pragmatism and romanticism into public and private has the unintended effect, pace Rorty, of reducing vocabularies and silencing the “conversation.” This is due to the fact that for Rorty “radical thought” — political theory influenced by Marx, Adorno, Althusser, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, etc. — “has no political implications” (311). Any use of these radical thinkers, and others like Heidegger and Nietzsche, is confined by Rorty to the private realm of self-creation: the romantic goals of self- invention may be appropriate to individuals, but if applied to societies may result in a “political attitude” in which we come to think that “there is some social goal more important than avoiding cruelty” (CIS 65). This limitation of radical thought de- politicizes both culture and theory, for in Rorty’s schema “there can only be apolitical ironist theory and atheoretical reformist practice” (314). It also means that “non-liberal, oppositional discourse” (315) becomes by definition non-political as well, representing either a retreat from solidarity or a political position which is hopelessly metaphysical. For Fraser, Rorty’s strict distinction between public and private rules out many of the features we might want to preserve in our social and political landscape. For example, the public/private division does not permit there to be a political (as opposed to a private) impetus for the creation of new vocabularies, a place for communities (as opposed to individuals) which might have non- liberal vocabularies, and the possibility of political assessments in terms other than Rorty’s own peculiar blend of pragmatism and liberalism. It also fails to note that much of what liberalismhas historically considered to be private (the economic, the domestic, the medical, the educational, etc.) has, as a result of radical thinkers, been shown also to be power-laden and political, and thus public as well (312). There are good grounds, then, for Burrows’ view of Rorty as a liberal-apologist peddling liberal-ideology. As she suggests, “despite gestures toward ‘openness,’ ‘pluralism,’ ‘sensitivity to persuasion,’ and so on, the liberal set-up as apologized for by Rorty does not cater for the political contender” (332). It is thus not at all clear that liberalism of the sort Rorty describes is in fact the best pragmatic option available given current historical circumstances. Rorty’s “partition” solution to problem of bringing together the romantic and pragmatic appears to /pp. 11-12/ endanger the evolution of social solidarity more than it extends “our sense of ‘we’ to people we have previously though of as ‘they”‘ (CIS 192). However, if we view Rorty’s public/private distinction as a concrete, political suggestion as opposed to a theory of the political – — that is, as “policing” rather than depoliticizing culture and theory – — the criticisms offered by Fraser and Burrows seem to be somewhat immaterial.

Fraser and Burrows locate Rorty’s difficulty in reconciling the romantic and the pragmatic on the side of the political. If there is anything which problematizes this rapprochement, however, I think one has to look beyond the ideology of Rorty’s comfortably liberal, frankly ethnocentric politics, to his benign treatment of irony, and thus of the romantic temperment as well. Rorty underestimates the eroding power of the irony he associates with romantic intellectuals. Irony places the intellectual in a position that Rorty, following Sartre, calls “meta-stable” — a position in which intellectuals are “never quite able to take themselves seriouly because always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change, [they are] always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies and thus of their selves” (CIS 73-4). There are two difficulties with such a view. One is touched upon by Bernard Williams when he suggests that Rorty “neglects the question whether one could accept his account of various intellectual activities, and still continue to practice them” (29).

How, or why, could an ironist — always aware of the impermanence of every vocabulary — ever be beguiled enough by any particular vocabulary to allow it to become her vocabulary, for whatever brief period of time? The second difficulty lies in the fact that the ironist’s doubt concerning the limitations of her own vocabulary is a doubt which quickly becomes all-consuming: irony turns on irony, meta-stability becomes radical instability. This is not to deny Rorty’s historicist point that “a belief can still regulate action, can still be thought to be worth dying for, among people who are quite aware that this belief is caused by nothing deeper than contingent historical circumstance” (CIS 189). It is to ask, however, whether the ironist belongs among such people. In being /pp. 12-13/ consumed by irony, in becoming completely ironic, the ironist displaces herself from concern with practical beliefs. To be an ironist means to be paralysed when it comes to the pragmatic activity demanded in one’s involvement in the liberal state. This more threatening, less benign sense of irony that I have been discussing here, is described by Paul de Man (who should know) in “The Rhetoric of Temporality”:

Irony divides the flow of temporal existence into a pastthat is pure mystification and a future that remains harassed forever by a relapse within the unauthentic. It can know this unauthenticity but can never overcome it. It can only restate and repeat it on an increasingly conscious level, but it remains endlessly caught in the impossibility of making this knowledge applicable to the empirical world. It dissolves in the narrowing spiral of a linguistic sign that becomes more and more remote from its meaning, and it can find no escape from this spiral (de Man, 222).

Rorty’s view of irony shares many features with de Man’s. Like de Man, irony for Rorty occupies a temporally mediate place between mystification (the old vocabulary) and the knowledge that no new vocabulary will ever serve as an authentic one (though Rorty, unlike de Man, would be uncomfortable in describing this place in terms of “mystification” and “authenticity”). Irony is for Rorty also inapplicable to the “empirical world”: it must remain confined to the private lest it overstep its bounds. For Rorty, the inability to apply irony to the public sphere is a condition of irony; for de Man, however, irony’s empirical impotence arises from the ironist’s obsessive pre-occupation with her inability to take any decisive action which would ever be more than purely and radically contingent. Unlike Rorty, de Man suggests, then, that irony cannot simply be “turned off” once one wishes to abandon the role of the romantic and join the world of pragmatic activity. For,

at the very moment that irony is thought of as knowledge able to order and cure the world, the source of its invention immediately runs dry. The instant it construes /pp. 13-14/ the fall of the self as an event that could somehow benefit the self, it discovers that it has substituted death for madness (de Man, 218).

If we accept this more threatening, less benign reading of irony, then it does not seem as if one could be a pragmatist by day and a romantic ironist by night. This is not to say that we cannot express scepticism about our vocabularies, or worry that we might have been born into the wrong tribe. What distinguishes “the urbane, sceptical person in a liberal society, who simply asserts things like: ‘Everything is relative”‘ (327) from the ironist is not this healthy scepticism, but the fact that when we discuss the ironist — those brilliant, neurotic individuals who go about redescribing themselves — we usually do so with the added caveat that while they might be nice to visit, we would not want to be them — individuals trapped and confined by contingency, as opposed to gaining freedom through and by means of it.

Rorty’s work is, if anything, a call to free ourselves through an understanding of the contingency of our beliefs, histories, and communities — the contingency of the web of beliefs which makes us the kind of selves we are. This includes, most importantly for Rorty, freeing ourselves of philosophy, an activity which opposes and fears contingency. It is only by accepting contingency, after all, that we can take up the romanticist task of re-fashioning ourselves for ourselves, and not in reference to some ideal standing outside and above us. As I have tried to suggest above, this ironic reshaping may be, as genius is, to “madness near allied,” and is thus perhaps a difficult task to imagine as the aim of intellectual activity. And yet, if there is anything which is lacking in Reading Rorty, it is precisely a lack of such madness, a refusal to be drawn — however slightly, however briefly – — out of philosophy and into the difficult terrain of self-description. It is this failure to reflect on the activity of philosophy, and the unproblematic insistence on doing “business as usual,” which marks in these essays the failure of philosophy to engage, however Iimitedly, with the main impetus behind Rorty’s thought.

/pp. 14-15/

Imre Szeman

Department of Comparative Literature

SUNY at Buffalo

/pp. 15-16/

Surface Page d’Acceuil/Home Page

Works Cited

de Man, Paul. “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” Blindness and Insight. Second, revised ed. Theory and History of Literature 7. (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1983), 187-228.

Dennett, Daniel C. “Self-Made Selves.” Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. Ch. 4. (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1984), 74- 100.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1979), (PMN).

. Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: (U of Minnesota Press, 1982), (CP).

. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989), (CIS).

/p.16 /

[1]See, for example, Dennett 1984. Dennett contests the view that “if we are mere conduits of causation…we cannot also be agents” (76). That we are such conduits seems to suggest that we are “mere dominoes” rather than “moral agents.” As Dennett points out, however, unlike dominoes, we are conduits of causation that are capable of significant self-improvement, have an “open-ended capacity for ‘radical self-evaluation’,” and have the “property of being caused to have reliable expectations about what will happen next, and hence to have the capacity to control things” (100). For Dennett, the view that causation and moral agency are fundamentally at odds stems from “our taking a good idea, the idea of the self as a unitary and cohering point of view on the world, and pushing it too far under the pressure.

Truth as One: A Reading of Michael Lynch

Truth as One

The Correspondence Theory of Truth is held as the realist position because it takes seriously the claim that there is one objective world about which we can have objective knowledge. The Objectivity Truism is at its heart, whether it be Plato, Aristotle or contemporary theorists who are writing from that perspective and it is commonly objected to on the grounds that the theory is vacuous, merely restating a platitude and consequently adding nothing to truth as such. Today, Correspondence has grown or developed into Representationalism. It is manifest in disciplines beyond the boundaries of philosophy, such as cognitive neuroscience, which holds that the mind represents the world and that beliefs are the vehicles of representation.

Representationalism can be traced back to early Wittgenstein and Russell in the early twentieth century; for these philosophers, correctly represented beliefs are ‘true’ beliefs, a la correspondence theory. True beliefs represent facts, which are in turn constituted by objects and/or properties, thus facts, importantly, are not metaphysically distinct from objects or properties. What is the element of the belief which represents the object or property? Concepts: these are the ‘components’ of belief. And thus we have contemporary naturalistic representationalism.

Representationalism is essentially a two-part theory of truth. In the first element, the truth of a belief is defined in terms of the representational features of its component concepts. Hence the representationalist’s basic intuition that beliefs are true because their components stand in certain representational relations to reality, and that reality is a certain way. This basic intuition can then be applied to more complex propositions. The second element is a theory of how concept denote objects or properties. For some, such a theory is explanatorily trivial in that all a theory of denotation amounts to saying is:

<c> denotes x iff c = x

Contemporary philosophers, however, regard a theory of denotation as a substantive issue, claiming that denotation can be explained naturalistically, in the same way as psychology provides an explanation of perception. There are, briefly, two theories of denotation: causal and teleological. The former prioritises appropriate conditions whilst the latter prioritises the biological/evolutionary function. In essence, both can be thought of as a framing hypothesis for naturalistically investigating mental representation.

Both the causal and teleological theories can be combined with a model of representation to give a representational theory of truth that not only incorporates truisms as part of the theory, but also offers an explanation of those truisms:

(CC) Causal-correspondence: The belief that a is F is true iff the object causally mapped by <a> has the property causally mapped by <F>

(TC) Teleological correspondence: The belief that a is F is true iff the object functionally mapped by <a> has the property functionally mapped by <F>

Another criticism of the representationalist’s position is about the possibility of unbelieved truths; for example, is it possible that a proposition is true or false if there is no possibility of discovering warrant for the proposition? In answer to this objection, one could go the way of Donald Davidson and dismiss the significance of them altogether, for nothing would be true or false if there were no thinking creatures. On the other hand, if you want to take the objection seriously, representationalists can argue for a subjunctive bi-conditional (norm of belief), such as:

(UB): The proposition that p is true iff were the proposition that p to be believed, the belief would be true

Representationalism also helps us to answer other interesting questions such as: why is truth an aim of inquiry? Answer: a truth making property is regulative of any practice aimed at belief; inquiry aims at truth because true beliefs are those that correctly represent the way the world is. The representationalist’s theory of truth is also a component part of a relatively simple way to explain interesting phenomena like intentionality. On this theory, truth is reductively explained in terms of an internal connection with representation. As such, platitudes have to be combined with concepts like represent/causal in order to give an informative an explanatorily interesting account of the nature of truth. Overall, we can conclude that representationalism is a successor theory of truth to older correspondence theories of truth and, far from being a decrepit topic in metaphysics, representationalism is taken seriously beyond the boundaries of philosophical discourse including in the scientific realm.

There are, nonetheless, particular problems with representationalism. The first of these is the problem of scope. TC and CC are only plausible in the case of ‘middle sized dry goods’ [Lynch, p.32], that is where we can make a statement that is responsive to the action of <F>. Responsiveness is plausible if mental states with a certain content <G> are causally responsive to an external environment that contains this content <G>, hence the conclusion that truth or falsity rests on the correct assertion of the proposition and the content matching that proposition. Responsiveness is not so plausible if the states or content are not causally responsive, that is, if there isn’t enough <G> to make the content of the proposition correct. Thus, some other account of what makes these statements true comes into play.

As it turns out, Lynch argues, the representationalist is committed to two further conditions. First, that true beliefs map objects that exist and have mind-independent properties (realist position). Second, that objects and properties that are so mapped are capable of entering into at least indirect causal interaction with our minds (causation position). Thus, because of these additional commitments, the scope problem arises because it seems highly implausible that all of our true propositions can fulfil the conditions demanded. For example, in the case of mathematical or moral truths such as ‘2+2=4’ or ‘torture is wrong’, how do our minds interact with numbers? How is wrongness a natural property? Even if we reject (2), non-naturalist correspondence theorists are still committed to the concept of mind independence, but how is that legal facts, for example, are mind-independent when they are the paradigmatic mental construction?

Various ‘isms’ have been constructed in order to deal with the scope problem, such as expressivism, fictionalism and error theory (not an ism, fair enough, but you get the point). But for Lynch, the sheer fact that these are even necessary points to the seriousness of the criticism and, moreover, it isn’t clear that any of the modifications have sufficiently overcome it. Thus, ‘the more substantive the correspondence theory becomes – as when it is seen as part of a larger theory of representation – the more it is vulnerable to the scope problem, and the less plausible it is as a universal theory of truth’ [Lynch, p.35-6].

On the opposite side of the ring, we have antirepresentationalism and superwarrant. For early twentieth century thinkers such as C.S. Peirce, truth is defined as the End of Inquiry, that is: “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to be all who investigate is what we mean by truth”. For the representationalists, what is true is so because something makes it true. For Peirce and the pragmatists, what is true is so because we agree upon it. In contemporary philosophy, Putnam has expanded upon the early antirepresentationalist intuitions through a theory of internal realism that claims that a proposition that p is true if the proposition that p could be warranted to believe in ideal epistemic circumstances for assessing the proposition that p. Positive aspects of Putnam’s account include his use of the subjunctive to get around having to claim the actuality of ideal epistemic circumstances, and that circumstances are not global but tailormade for each particular beliefs.

There are, however, some negatives, in particular the ‘conditional fallacy’. Crispin Wright has posited ‘superassertability’ to overcome this problem, or the ‘superwarrant’:

(SW) Superwarrant: A belief is true iff it is superwarranted

The benefits of SW are that it negates entirely the concept of ‘ideal’ epistemic conditions, since a belief is warranted by the information available at that present time to ordinary inquirers. Thus to be superwarranted is to be continually warranted at each stage of inquiry without defeat. Disagreements still arise amongst defenders of superwarrant, for example: is inquiry strongly incomplete? What is the nature of warrant? In answer to the latter question, defenders might align themselves with a coherence theory of truth, thus SW becomes SC: A belief that p is true iff that belief is supercoherent.

Other positive aspects include being able to incorporate the objectivity truism into the theory, if one is accepting of two further platitudes: 1) when I believe that p, things are as I believe them to be iff p; 2) the metaphysical view of idealism: p iff the belief that p is superwarranted. Moreover, it entails an attractively simple theory of content, which both explains how we grasp content and how we manifest that grasp in our behaviour.

Antirepresentationalism falls prey to the scope problem, though obviously for different reasons than did representationalism, for (SW) both requires that all content is non-representational and implies that truth is globally epistemically constrained. Now, in the case of some normative truths such as what is deemed to be ‘funny’, or legal truths, epistemic constraint seems plausible, for why would there be a truth for something if no one could ever be warranted in believing it? On the other hand, epistemic constraint becomes implausible when we try to apply it across the board: there must be some truths for which no evidence will be available on principle. Lynch refers to this as ‘humility in the face of the size of the universe [which] seems to demand that’ [Lynch, p.43]. But SW would force us to deny this, therefore resulting in the ‘absurd consequence’ that one must argue that all truths are justifiably believed by someone, or face admitting that the theory is limited in scope.

A second criticism results in a similarly absurd consequence; the ‘many systems objection’, which was pre-empted by Russell, argues that there could be more than one supercoherent system but SW has no way of showing us why two instance of P could not be members of rival systems. Even if one were to argue that supercoherence is predicated on propositions that are undefeasible – even from challenges from rival systems – defenders are still only able to say of one system of belief that it is primary ‘just because it says of itself that is so’: an absurd consequence. The antirepresentationalist faces two options: she can either restate the claim that what make <F> true is that it is a member of S (which leads to absurdity through not answering the many systems criticism) OR she can accept that propositions are not true in virtue of being members of S (which means abandoning coherence as a theory of truth altogether). Thus, there is no way to give an account of warrant apart from one that goes ‘all the way down’ and results in these problems.

The net result is that Lynch can now cite the scope problem as ‘entirely general’: ‘for any sufficiently characterised truth property <F>, there appears to be some kind of propositions <K> which lack <F> but which are intuitively true (or capable of being true)’ [Lynch, p.49]. The scope problem paves the way for Lynch to bring in his third alternative to dealing with the problem. Whilst the traditionalists ‘go for broke’ and damn the counterexamples, and the deflationists dismiss the whole project of a metaphysical account of truth altogether, functionalists argues that there can be more than one property that makes beliefs true. This is the third way that Lynch argues for throughout the rest of his book.



Philosophy as Literature?


I just came across this conclusion from Michael Fisher in a collection of essays about Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. As a former literature student, I found it to be quite interesting. How do other people feel about Rorty’s attempt to align philosophy with literature?

Despite Rorty’s considerable interest in literature, he still allows philosophy to decide its fate. Even when literature succeeds in Rorty’s argument – when it presides in triumph over the rest of our culture – literature does not win; philosophy defaults. Literature is less a force in Rorty’s argument than an inert category, represented by a list of titles and names that Rorty’s theory gives him no reason to analyse. Instead of doing constructive work in Rorty’s writings, literature, like a junk yard, just sits there, waiting to claim philosophical texts that cannot achieve what they set out accomplish. Rorty’s point, in short, is not that literature is cognitive, serious, powerful and responsible, but that philosophy (without admitting it) is like literature: imprecise, capricious and methodologically dishevelled. Instead of strengthening literature, Rorty leaves it impotent, which is why, among the consequences of Rorty’s pragmatism, I do not find a convincing rationale for literary study.

Unworthy Preconceptions of Truth


We know that truth belongs in a certain way to our daily affairs, and we know quite naturally what this means. It lies so close to us that we have no distance from it, and therefore no possibility of having an overall view of it and comprehending it.

So the first thing must be to distance ourselves from this self-evidence, to step back from it so that what we so readily conceive as truth can be left standing and resting by itself. But where are we to step back to, from where are we to observe the self-evident?

(Heidegger, The Essence of Truth)

I’m trying to go back to the beginning myself; the way forward in this project will come through a careful consideration of what is essential to a definition of truth. Heidegger teaches us that when he talks about going back to the beginning, back to the Greeks, back to aletheia, to unhiddenness, to see the eroneousness of our path from aletheia to adaequatio. More from Heidegger coming up shortly.

I’m back!


So I did something a little ridiculous and took a part-time job in order to, what else, earn a bit of extra cash. It wasn’t good for my sanity, or for my dissertation schedule. However, after a six week hiatus, I am officially back in Senate House Library and will hopefully be posting a few more articles based on the stuff I am reading over the coming weeks. I am very pleasantly surprised to see that my all time highest number of views has increased since last checking the site, so will take that as a sign I am doing something right and press ahead.

Thank you for bearing with me, and for reading!

Michael Lynch: Functionalism and Logical Pluralism

Truth, Consequence and the Universality of Reason – Michael P Lynch

Lynch writes from the perspective of an alethic functionalist, that is ‘truth is a functional property that can be realised…in more than one way…If truth were a functional property, then our true beliefs about the concrete physical world needn’t manifest truth – or “be true in the same way” – as our thoughts about matters where the human stain is deepest, such as morality or the law’ (3). So defined, truth is an immanent property. This core truism about truth allows us to retain the intuition that truth is one, as well as saying that the ways in which it is manifested can be many. That is, functionalism entails pluralism about truth.

In this chapter, Lynch is concerned with the consequences of the pluralistic definition of truth in terms of its relation to different domains of reason or inquiry. Though analysis of the truth property in atomic propositions appears, superficially at least, to be reasonably straightforward (p is true if and only if p is true), compound propositions – and mixed compounds in particular – present a set of problems for the alethic functionalist.

Mixed compounds are demonstrated by propositions such as ‘murder is wrong and the book is on the table’. The problem points to a deeper concern than a merely technical issue; specifically, how do we reason across different domains of inquiry? For if what is true varies across different domains – from the moral to the physical in the example above – then how can reason be universally applicable in different domains? We could potentially wind up with as many ways of reasoning as there are propositions.

One strategy in the case of mixed compounds stems from the definition of mixed inferences: ‘a valid inference is one where truth is preserved across its manifestations from the premises of the argument to its conclusion’. Analogously, The recursive strategy would apply the theory in the first instance to atomic propositions, and then understand compound propositions as ‘a truth-function of the atomic proposition of which it is composed’. But does this mean that compound propositions have a truth of their own or not? For the functionalist, compound propositions are true without manifesting truth. They thereby follow thinkers like Russell and Wittgenstein, who claimed that logical constraints do not manifest [themselves].

Thus, compound propositions are only true in a derivative sense. This claim accords with another Wittgensteinian intuition that the only thing that makes a compound true is the truth of its component parts. Moreover, the functionalist view parallels truth-maker theories, which similarly hold that there are no compound truth-makers. There are costs involved with holding this view, however; Lynch argues that holding the extensional definition of the truth disjunctive requires us to revise the original theory. The original theory looked something like this:

For all propositions P, P is true if and only if it has a property that manifests truth.

This must now be replaced with the following characterisation:

A proposition is true iff it manifests truth or is a derivatively true truth-functional compound proposition.

Thus, the property of truth can either be held or derived, leading to the claim that it can be manifest in more than one way, described below in relation to domain-specific logical pluralism.

Lynch doesn’t think that replacing the original theory with the above characterisation is a problem. The functionalist can adopt a weak grounding principle to show how compounds supervene on the atomic; the principle holds that there can be no change in the truth-value of some atomic proposition. Furthermore, manifestation, as a reflexive relation, allows the functionalist to say that ‘when a proposition is true only by virtue of self-manifesting truth, we can say that the relevant proposition is plainly true’. That is, a compound proposition is plainly true if their truth-value is grounded. This view is amenable to the functionalist because she is already committed a) the thought that what’s true depends on what is true in a particular way, and b) via her account of propositional domains, to the idea that true atomic propositions have further properties like superwarrant, which manifest truth.

We now come round to what seems to be Lynch’s principle concern, namely, the problem of logical pluralism and whether the functionalist is committed to this view. Logical pluralism is the view that there is more than one logic governing our reasoning. It therefore begs the question is there more than one way for an argument to be valid?

Beall and Restall are two contemporary logical pluralists. They put forward the claim that an argument is valid if and only if, in every case where the premises are true, so is the conclusion. This minimal concept of truth, they argue, can be further enriched, but only if the enrichment stems from additions that are necessary, normative or formal. Thus the classical and constructivist formulations:

Classical: An argument is valid if and only if in every possible world where the premises are true, so is the conclusion

Constructivist: An argument is valid if and only if at every possible stage of inquiry where the premises are true, so is the conclusion.

The latter formulation is similar to the functionalist’s account of superwarrant, whereby stages of inquiry are both extensible (additional information might always come in) and inclusive (all successive stages of inquiry include the information warranted at previous stages).

Domain specific logical pluralism (DLP) holds that the classical formulation might apply in some cases, and the constructivist might apply in others. Lynch is quick to point out that there is no direct route from functionalism about truth to DLP: just because there is more than one way for a proposition to be true does not mean that there must be more than one way for truth to be preserved from one proposition to another. There could, however, be an indirect link, for if there is more than one way to manifest truth, and some of the manifesting properties are epistemically defined properties like super warrant, and some not, then different domains will admit of different manifestations of the consequence relation. That is, some argument forms are valid in some domains and not others. Nonetheless, Lynch argues that the functionalist is still not committed to DLP, for she can either deny that truth is variably manifested or claim that our truisms about truth constrain the logic that governs any given domain. In spite of the get out clause provided, Lynch claims that the functionalist will probably still allow for some version of DLP, but she would ‘do well to be modest’, and claim:

Modest: where a compound proposition or inference contains propositions from distinct domains, the default governing logic is that comprised by the intersection of the domain-specific logics in play.