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’.


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.



Communicative Vs Subject-Centered Reason (I)

Foucault shows how human sciences and philosophy of subject are entangled. However, he tries to aim for more rigorous objectivity, gets caught in historiography, and thence to relativist self-denial and zero account of its normative foundations.

The problem is that followers of Nietzsche stubbornly refuse to see that the seeds of subjectivity’s counterreckoning were sown in Kant’s original formulation. So Habermas’s tactic is to go back to the starting point and trace other possible directions, since a single focus on power has not got us anywhere.

Each great philosopher could have taken a different direction. Hegel and Marx could have explicated the ethical totality in terms of the model of unforced consensus formation in a communication community. Heidegger and Derrida could have ascribed meaning-creating horizons of world interpretations in terms of communicatively structured lifeworlds that reproduce themselves via communicative action oriented toward mutual understanding.

A more viable solution than labouring under the metaphor for modernity of metaphysical homelessness is to see the endless to and fro between transcendentalism and empiricism as a symptom of exhaustion in the paradigm of the philosophy of consciousness. Habermas contends that such symptoms should dissolve entirely upon the successful transition to the paradigm of mutual understanding.

In the paradigm of mutual understanding the objectifying attitude is replaced by the perfomative attitude. Ego and alter enter into an interpersonal relationship, structured by a system of interlocked perspectives. On the level of grammar, the system of personal pronouns enables a speaker to take up and transform 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person perspectives.

Transcendental-empirical doubling, which results in the primacy of the subject to the world, is only unavoidable so long as there is no alternative to the observant (3rd) person perspective. This no longer applies. As the ego stands within an interpersonal relationship, it is able to relate to itself as a participant in interaction from the perspective of the alter, thereby escaping the kind of objectification above. Far from being frozen into an object, the 1st person recapitulates, via performative introspection from the 2nd person’s perspective, and thus ‘in the place of reflectively objectified knowledge – the knowledge proper to self-consciousness – we have a recapitulating reconstruction of knowledge already employed’ (297).

What was earlier relegated to the realm of the transcendental is now made explicit in the reconstructive sciences through analysis of successful or distorted utterances, ‘the pretheoretical grasp of rules on the part of competently speaking, acting and knowing subjects’ (298). There is no application for the separation between transcendental and empirical; the to and fro between ‘two aspects of self-thematisation that are as inevitable as they are incompatible is broken’ (298).

Foucault’s point about the unconscious/conscious binary – that the subject moves between reflectively transforming what is in-itself to what is for-itself and opaque backround that resists such transparency – also dissolves in the paradigm of mutual understanding. For participants in speech situations more within the horizons of their lifeworld, which is both context and resource for the process of mutual understanding. What is taken for granted, background, enables participants to ‘draw consensual interpretive patterns in their efforts at interpretation’ (298).

It is only possible to get insight into the lifeworld in general, for the lifeworld must evade thematisation and be present only pre-reflectively. Rule-knowledge present in utterances can only be reconstructed from the perspective of participants. In order to treat communicative action as the medium of reproduction of the lifeworld, we need a theoretically constituted perspective, and then, only formal-pragmatic statements related to the structure of lifeworlds in general, is possible. As such, participants appear as products as opposed to originators; the lifeworld can thus be said to reproduce itself to the extent that three functions, which transcend participant perspective, are fulfilled: ‘the propagation of cultural traditions, the integration of groups by norms and values, and the socialisation of succeeding generations’ (299).

If you want to understand individual biography, you must give up the intention of rational reconstruction and proceed historically. Reflection – self-critique – can dissolve hypostatisation, but only when directed at a single illusion: ‘it cannot make transparent the totality of a course of life in the process of individuation or of a collective way of life’ (300).

There are two heritages of self-reflection that get beyond the limits of the philosophy of consciousness, with two different aims. Rational reconstruction heightens consciousness, but is directed toward anonymous rule systems rather than totalities. Methodical self-critique relates to totalities but with full awareness that it can never illuminate fully the background of the lifeworld. Both heritages can be brought together within the framework of one theory.

In order to be empirically useable in the purpose of social theory, the formal-pragmatic concept of the lifeworld has to be integrated into a two level concept of society. Social evolution and history must be distinguished from one another. Social theory must be aware of the conditions of its emergence, for ‘even basic concepts that are starkly universalistic have a temporal core’ (300). Steering the course between absolutism and relativism means that we are no longer faced with the alternatives of the conception of world history as ‘a process of self-generation’, nor ‘impenetrable dispensation’ (301) that is felt through withdrawal and deprival, a yearning for lost origins.

Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature: Philosophy without Mirrors (II)

Systematic Philosophy and Edifying Philosophy

For Rorty, it is only possible to effect the process of edification if we first see ourselves as en-soi, that is, ‘described by those statements which are objectively true in the judgement of our peers’ (365). We must pass through the stages of implicit and then self-conscious conformity to our norms of discourse, before we can hope to put less value on the notion of being in touch with reality: ‘education has to start from acculturation’ (365). Rorty raises this ‘banal’ point as a ‘cautionary complement’ to the existentialist claim that normal participation in normal discourse is but one way of being in the world (365), cautionary in the sense that the ‘possibility of hermeneutics is always parasitic upon the possibility (and perhaps upon the actuality) of epistemology (366). The process of edification cannot proceed without the tools and materials provided by the current culture that we inhabit. For Rorty, to insist on being hermeneutic where an epistemological attitude would do, signals a lack of education. Existentialism is therefore a reactive movement of thought, ‘one which has point only in opposition to the tradition’ (366). Rorty will now move onto develop a contrast between ‘philosophy which centres in epistemology and the sort of philosophy which takes its point of departure from suspicion about the pretences of epistemology’ (366): namely, systematic and edifying philosophies.

It has been the case that in the Western philosophical tradition, one set of practices – that of knowing – has been seen as the paradigm human activity, and so persuasive that the rest of culture should fall into line with the example – possessing true justified beliefs – that it sets. Rorty argues that ‘successive philosophical revolutions within this mainstream have been produced by philosophers excited by new cognitive feats’ (366) from the revival of Aristotle to Carnap’s attempt to overcome metaphysics through logic. Cognitive achievements have led philosophers, scientists and mathematicians alike to attempt to reshape all of inquiry and culture on its model, ‘thereby permitting objectivity and rationality to prevail in areas previously obscured by convention, superstition, and the lack of a proper epistemological understanding of man’s ability to represent nature’ (367).

There are, nevertheless, those who stand on the periphery of the history of modern philosophy; Rorty cites Goethe, Kierkegaard, Santayana, William James, Dewey, the later Wittgenstein, and the later Heidegger as ‘figures of this sort’ (367). Such thinkers often attract the charges of relativism or cynicism as a result of their ‘distrust of the notion that man’s essence is to be a knower of essences’ (367). They are ‘often dubious about progress, and especially about the latest claim that such-and-such a discipline has at last made the nature of human knowledge so clear that reason will now spread throughout the rest of human activity’ (367). They are relativist insofar as they keep the suggestion alive that our current way of describing the world may not be our last, and may not even give us the privileged access to reality that we seem to crave. Rorty contrasts these philosophers – the edifying philosophers – with the systematic philosophers described formerly; it is in fact the whole project of system building about which edifying philosophers are primarily sceptical. The three philosophers Rorty singles out as in our time most clearly demonstrating the type of edifying activity he has in mind are Dewey, Wittgenstein and Heidegger. As well as making it difficult to turn out constructive proposals for philosophy from their writing, these philosophers ‘make fun of the classic picture of man’ (368), in other words, the one that aims at converging on ‘universal commensuration in a final vocabulary’ (368). Moreover, they ‘hammer away at the holistic point that words take their meanings from other words rather than by virtue of their representative character, and the corollary that vocabularies acquire their privileges from the men who use them rather than from their transparency to the real’ (368).

Rorty further distinguishes between two types of revolutionary philosophers. There are those who found new schools within an existing convention of the philosophical tradition and whom see the incommensurability of their vocabulary as a temporary inconvenience derived from their predecessors not going far enough; incommensurability, they believe, will disappear as their vocabularies become institutionalised. On the other hand, there are those philosophers, like the later Wittgenstein and Heidegger, who ‘dread’ (369) the thought that their vocabularies might be overcome by institutionalisation or commensuration with existing traditions. ‘Great systematic philosophers,’ Rorty writes, ‘are constructive and offer arguments. Great edifying philosophers are reactive and offer satires, parodies and aphorisms’ (369). Moreover, they react against the atemporalism that systematic philosophers aim at, to the point that ‘their work loses its point when the period they were reacting against is over’ (369). Whilst systematic philosophers want to put us on the secure path of science, edifying philosophers ‘want to keep space open for the sense of wonder which poets can sometimes case – wonder that there is something new under the sun, something which is not an accurate representation of what was already there, something which (at least for the moment) cannot be explained and can barely be described’ (370).

Though the accusation of one particular tradition not being philosophical has been levelled as a rhetorical gambit ‘whenever cosy professionalism is in danger’ (370), in the case of the edifying philosophers it ‘has a real bite’ (370). For, in attempting to offer simply another set of terms without saying that these terms accurately represent the way things are, the edifying philosopher is ‘violating not just the rules of normal philosophy…but a sort of meta-rule: the rule that one may suggest changing the rules only because one has noticed that the old ones do not fit the subject matter, that they are not adequate to reality, that they impede the solution of the eternal problems’ (370). These sorts of edifying philosophers differ from revolutionary systematic philosophers because they are abnormal at this meta-level. For the former, what they are trying to do is more important than presenting accurate pictures of reality; indeed, they do not think that aiming at accurate representations is the proper way to go about doing philosophy at all. But they nevertheless stop short of saying that it is an inaccurate representation of philosophy.

Both Heidegger and Wittgenstein manage to pull off this awkward position of having a view yet not having a view about views by arguing that not everything we say constitutes an expression of a view about something: ‘we might just be saying something – participating in a conversation rather than contributing to an inquiry’ (371). Speech, on their view, is not just the externalisation of inner representations – it is this very metaphor of mirroring against which they rail. Indeed, they claim that we should drop the notion of correspondence between sentences and the world altogether, and see the term “corresponds to how things are” as ‘an automatic compliment paid to successful normal discourse rather than as a relation to be studied and aspired to throughout the rest of discourse’ (372).

How are we to know when to adopt a ‘tactful attitude’ and when to ‘insist upon someone’s moral obligation to hold a view’ (372)? Rorty claims that we do not know such things ‘by reference to general principles’ (372). Rather, we should view such edifying philosophers as conversational partners, and the practical wisdom that they hold as being necessary to successfully participating in conversation. The edifying philosopher’s love of wisdom thereby attempts to continue the conversation, to stop it degenerating into inquiry and to allow it to be more than simply an exchange of views: ‘edifying philosophers can never end philosophy, but they can help prevent it from attaining the secure path of a science’ (372).


Philosophy & The Mirror of Nature: Philosophy without Mirrors (I)

Hermeneutics and Edification

Having established the priority of hermeneutics in our conception of ourselves and the world, and having dispensed with the term epistemology in the process, Rorty analyses the concept of edification through an exposition of Gadamer’s arguments primarily found in Truth and Method. Gadamer substitutes the notion of Bildung, glossed by Rorty as education or self-formation) for “knowledge” as the goal of thinking. The concept of Bildung points to a picture of self-creation through activities such as reading, talking and writing; it is a ‘dramatic way’ (359) of saying that sentences become true of us by virtue of such activities. These ways of changing ourselves can, furthermore, be classed as “essential”, though Rorty is careful to point out that his definition of essential differs from the traditional metaphysical sense. On the hermeneutical reading, wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein (consciousness of the past which changes us) characterises the attitude in which we are interested in what we can get out of nature and history for our own practical uses, rather than a merely theoretical interest in what is out there in the world. In this attitude, ‘getting the facts right…is merely propadeutic to finding a new and more interesting way of expressing ourselves, and thus of coping with the world’ (359). Thus, Rorty concludes, from this educational perspective, ‘the way things are said is more important than the possession of truths’ (359).

Rorty chooses to use the term “edification” in place of both “education” (‘ a bit too flat) and Bildung (‘a bit too foreign’), ‘to stand for this project of finding new, better, more interesting, more fruitful ways of speaking’ (360). The project of edification can be characterised in a number of ways, whether it is hermeneutic activity oriented toward making connections between our own culture and foreign cultures (one can substitute disciplines for culture as well) through the poetic creation of new aims, words or disciplines; or the reverse of hermeneutic activity, in which we make the familiar unfamiliar. The process of edification is not constructive; rather, it supports abnormal discourse as a means of taking us ‘out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings’ (360).

For Gadamer, there is no tension between the desire for edification and the desire for truth, because the desire for objective knowledge (Truth with a capital ‘T’) is, in the Heideggerian sense, one more human project among others. Sartre takes this one step further and claims that the attempt to gain objective knowledge of the world, and oneself, is a way of abdicating responsibility for choosing one’s project: ‘[the desire for objective knowledge] present a temptation to self-deception insofar as we think that, by knowing which descriptions within a given set of normal discourses apply to us, we thereby know ourselves’ (361). Thus, for Heidegger, Gadamer and Sartre, the desire for objective knowledge is not necessarily a bad thing for it is but another way of seeking to cope with the world; the danger comes when it hinders the process of edification.

The existentialist view of objectivity taken by Gadamer, Heidegger and Sartre can be characterised along the following lines: objectivity is the conformity of norms of justification we find around us. This conformity to norms only because dubious when it overreaches itself, in other words, when we use it to ground our processes of justification. When we ground a practice, we are implying that there is no need for further justification because we have identified a clear and distinct philosophical foundation. For the existentialists and for Rorty, this act of ‘grounding’ is self-deceptive for two reasons. First, it is a circular argument, for how do you ground the ultimate justification on something that is itself unjustifiable? Second, it assumes that the current vocabularies of science, morality etc have a privileged connection with reality, rather than just being further sets of descriptions that may become obsolete for future audiences. Insofar as the existentialists agree with the naturalists that redescription is not a “change of essence”, Rorty argues that this needs to be followed up ‘by abandoning the notion of “essence” altogether (361). The naturalists, however, fall down in trying to show that there is something essential about a particular culture, which leads to all incommensurable vocabularies being branded as ‘“noncognitive” ornamentation’ (362). Thus, Rorty sees the utility of the existentialist’s position as the ability to see various descriptions – be they based on scientific principles or artistic interpretations – as standing on equal footing: ‘the former are not privileged representations in virtue of the fact that (at the moment) there is more consensus in the sciences than in the arts. They are simply among the repertoire of self-descriptions at our disposal’ (362).

The process of education, which is thematic to the existentialist position, is often countered by the positivist attempt to distinguish learning facts from acquiring values. On the positivist point of view, Gadamer merely restates the commonplace idea that ‘even when we know all the objectively true descriptions of ourselves, we still may not know what to do with ourselves’ (363). However, from the existentialist point of view, the trouble with the fact-value distinction is that it conceals the fact that alternative descriptions from those offered by normal inquiry are available to us. Moreover, the positivist position implies that once all the facts are in, there is nothing left but to adopt a noncognitivist attitude, in other words, one that is not rationally discussable. Thus, Rorty argues that such ‘artificial diremptions…tempt us to think of edification as having nothing to do with the rational faculties which are employed in normal discourse’ (364). For Gadamer, Heidegger and Sartre, discovering the facts is just one more project of education among others: ‘all we can do is be hermeneutical about the opposition – trying to show how the odd or paradoxical or offensive things they say hang together with the rest of what they want to say, and how what they say looks when put in our own alternative idiom. This sort of hermeneutics with polemical intent is common to Heidegger’s and Derrida’s attempts to deconstruct the tradition’ (364-5).education-pic

From communicative rationality to a theory of truth and knowledge

The Theory of Communicative Action

To get to Habermas’s theory of truth and knowledge, we have to start with The Theory of Communicative Action (1971), a critical study of the theories of rationality that informed the classical sociologies of Weber, Durkheim, Parsons, Lukacs, Horkheimer and Adorno. TCA probably marks the start of Habermas’s mature philosophical position, through which he deals with the themes of the task of philosophy and its relation to the social sciences, whilst defending normativity and the universalist ambitions of philosophy within a framework that includes specific kinds of empirical social research with which philosophy interacts. For Habermas, philosophers work with social scientists to understand normative claims within current historical contexts, which are characterised by social and systemic modes of integration. By recognising both modes of integration, Habermas avoids the pessimism associated with other theories of modernity that traditionally focus on a primarily instrumental conception of rationality that misses the cultural dimension of modernisation.

Traditional large-scale macrosociological and historical theories have long been held as the most appropriate explanatory basis for critical social sciences. Such theories, however, have two main drawbacks. First, comprehensiveness does not guarantee explanatory power; indeed, there are many large-scale theories, each with their own distinctive social phenomena, that attempt unification. Second, explanations typically appeal to a variety of different social theories. Habermas’s employment of critical explanations runs along two levels: a micro-theory of rationality based on communicative co-ordination and a macro-theory of the systemic integration of modern societies through mechanisms such as the market. These are two levels of his social theory, which includes an analysis of communicative rationality (the rational potential built into everyday speech), and a theory of modern society and modernisation. On the basis of this theory, Habermas hopes to overcome the one-sided versions of rationalisation in order to better assess the losses and gains of modernisation.

Traditional comprehensive critical theories also make two problematic assumptions, first that there is just one preferred mode of critical explanation, and second that there is one preferred goal of social criticism. Such theories typically employ historical materialism, one consequence of which is that the correctness or incorrectness of a particular critical model depends on the adequacy of the theory to objective historical necessities or mechanisms, into which the critical theorist alleges that he has superior insight. On the other hand, a pluralistic mode of inquiry suggests a different norm of correctness: that criticism must be verified by those participating in the practice and that this demand for practical verification is part of the process of inquiry itself.

Though he does not explicitly say so, Habermas would appear to favour the practical plurality approach, going as far as Dewey in arguing that the logic of the social sciences is pluralistic and eludes the apparatus of general theories. In the absence of general theories, the most fruitful approach to social scientific knowledge is to bring all the various methods and theories into relation with each other. It is Critical Theory that takes on the role of unifying the plurality of approaches, which all have their own legitimacy as developed lines of empirical research.

Communicative Rationality

In order to achieve these theoretical and methodological aims, Habermas develops his own definition of rationality that is epistemic, practical and intersubjective. Rationality on this account is not so much the possession of particular knowledge but rather ‘how speaking and acting subjects acquire and use knowledge’. Habermas’s account is pragmatic because it views interpreters as competent and knowledgeable agents, in line with other pragmatic theories. Moreover, the account of practical knowledge is in the performative attitude, from the point of view of a competent speaker. Habermas’s account is formal because in attempting to reconstruct the practical know-how that is necessary for being a knowledgeable social actor amongst others, he attempts to articulate invariant structures of communication.

The perfomative attitude requires speakers to adopt a stance oriented toward reaching understanding. When speakers address each other with this kind of practical attitude, they engage in communicative action. Communicative action is distinguished from strategic forms of social action, in which actors are more interested in achieving individual goals rather than reaching mutual understanding. In communicative action, speakers coordinate their action and pursuit of goals on the basis that the goals are inherently reasonable or worthwhile. Strategic action succeeds insofar as speakers achieve their individual goals whereas communicative action succeeds insofar as all actors freely agree that their goal(s) is reasonable and thus merits co-operative behaviour. Communicative action is thus inherently consensual, and mobilises the potential for rationality given with ordinary language.

What makes rationally motivated agreement possible? Habermas argues for a particular account of utterance meaning based on acceptability conditions, by analogy to the truth conditional account of the meaning of sentences. Rather than linking meaning with representational semantics, however, Habermas takes a pragmatic approach by analysing the conditions for the illocutionary success of the speech act. According to the core principle of his pragmatic theory of meaning, we understand a speech act when we understand the speaker’s reasons for claiming validity for his utterance i.e. meaning is tied to the practice of reason giving, and in turn, to the processes of criticism and justification. A speech act succeeds in reaching understanding when the hearer takes up an affirmative position toward the claim made by the speaker. If this does not occur, the conversation shifts reflective levels from ordinary speech to discourse, in which the claim being made is submitted to argument and dialogue to test for their rational justifiability as true, correct or authentic.

In opposition to the positivist fixation on fact-stating modes of discourse, Habermas’s account enables him to recognise a far broader spectrum of intersubjective validity than just empirical truth, a spectrum that includes claims to moral rightness, ethical goodness or authenticity, personal sincerity and aesthetic value. Such claims to do not, for Habermas, represent a mind-independent world in the same manner as empirical truth claims, but they can nevertheless be publicly criticised and defended. As such, intersubjective validity involves a notion of correctness analogous to the idea of truth: validity claims do not have a narrow logical sense (truth-preserving argument forms) but rather connote a richer social idea, that a claim (statement) merits the adressee’s acceptance because it is justified or true in some sense, which can vary according to the sphere of validity and dialogical context. Habermas thus moves beyond the narrow focus of truth-conditional semantics of representation to the social intelligibility of interaction.

A constative speech act functions on three world relations, first, it expresses an inner world (intention to communicate a belief); second, it establishes a communicative relation with the hearer (relates to a social world); and third, it attempts to represent an external world. The triadic structure suggests that speech acts involve three tacit validity claims. These are that the speech act is sincere (non-deceptive), socially appropriate or right, and factually true (representationally adequate). Speech acts can be criticised for failing on one or more of these claims, so fully successful speech acts that involve these three world relations must satisfy the three validity claims in order to be acceptable.

Strong communicative action is at one end of a spectrum of possibilities, in which social cooperation is both deeply consensual and reasonable. On a day-to-day basis, however, it is not really practical to maintain such deep consensus in complex, pluralistic societies, so it makes sense that weaker forms of communicative action can be permitted in certain types of situations. In these situations, not all three validity claims need be satisfied. The system pre-defines those situations in which communicative action is relaxed within legally specified limits. Markets and bereaucracies are prime examples of systematic coordination, in which non-linguistic media such as money or power take up some of the burden in coordinating actions. The lifeworld refers to domains of action in which consensual modes of action coordination predominate i.e. the background resources, contexts and dimensions of social action that enable actors to cooperate on the basis of mutual understanding. Such contexts might be the family, church, neighbourhood or school, all of which stabilise patterns of action.

Analytic philosophers have criticised Habermas’s theory for its perceived failure to account for the compositionality of language i.e. how a finite set of words can be used to form an infinite number of sentences. However, one could reply that this criticism has little bearing on Habermas’s project, since from an early point in his career he has chosen to focus on communicative rather than grammatical competence i.e. the ability of speakers to use grammatically correct sentences in social situations. His focus on acceptability conditions points to a rather different sort of project to the analytic theories of meaning, one which articulates the validity basis of social order itself.

In terms of modern society, rationalisation of the lifeworld is shown by Habermas to go hand in hand with the growth of systematic mechanisms of coordination, to the extent that if large societies are unable to integrate solely on the basis of shared cultural values and norm, new nonintentional mechanisms of coordination based on non-linguistic media emerge. Colonisation of the lifeworld occurs when these media, like money and power, displace communicative forms of solidarity and inhibit the reproduction of the lifeworld. Juridification is the term Habermas uses to name the process by which law invades more and more areas of social life. Both colonisation and juridification are pathologies of modernisation.

Truth and Knowledge

Habermas is a realist insofar as he holds that the objective world rather than ideal consensus is the truth maker; in other words, a proposition is true because it accurately refers to existing objects or represents states of affairs, albeit only those that we can describe using our current linguistic resources. He eschews theories such as correspondence, which attempts to explicate the relationship between a proposition and the world metaphysically. Instead, Habermas argues for a theory of meaning in terms of accurate representation that is pragmatic; in other words, a proposition has meaning insofar as it has consequences for everyday practice and discourse.

Our daily practical engagement with reality is based on well-corroborated beliefs about objects in the world. Habermas argues that theoretico-empirical discourse becomes necessary when our everyday beliefs use their unproblematic status, for instance, when novel circumstances pose new questions about the natural world. These situations call for empirical inquiry, in which truth claims are submitted to critical testing. Critical testing is a combination of discourse with experimental actions, reinforcing the link between Habermas and Peircean pragmatics of scientific inquiry. The implications of this discourse theory are not fully worked out by Habermas, though it is most developed in the natural sciences as an argumentation theory. The theory has three levels, briefly: the logical level (discursive justification relies on empirical reasons), a dialectical level (chief challenge arises from theories that conflict with the claim at issue), and a rhetorical level (in which one seeks the agreement of a universal audience). I would be inclined to agree with commentators who say that the theory needs further work to make it a more interesting discourse theory of science.