Huw Price | Truth as Convenient Fiction

Rorty argues that the distinction between truth and justification makes no difference to the decision that I make about what to do, in other words, my decision making power is not enhanced by an understanding of what distinguishes truth from justification. As such, for Rorty, truth is equal to justification. Commitment to a norm of truth rather than a norm of justification makes no behavioural difference; rather, the norm of truth is an ‘additional norm’: ‘our ability to attribute beliefs to someone does not require obedience to an additional norm on top of the need for justification’ (Rorty).

Huw Price positions himself against Rorty, for on his view, ‘there is an important and widespread behavioural pattern that depends on the fact that speakers do take themselves to be subject to such an additional norm’ (1). The additional norm is worthwhile to human life, central to conversation, not merely pathological (as Rorty would have us believe’ and is the key to enabling interpersonal dialogue about ‘factual’ matters (2).

Conversation relies upon speakers taking themselves and each other to be governed by a norm stronger than justification. Price makes the notion of disagreement of critical importance to his demonstration of the truth norm in conversation. According to the cautionary use of truth, a speaker can be wrong even with a well justified belief. We consider to the norm of truth to be breached by someone with whom we disagree ‘independently of any diagnosis of the source of disagreement’ (2). Ordinarily, we look through truth because it is so familiar; however, it is the norm of truth which gives disagreement its ‘immediate normative character…a character which no lesser norm could provide’ (2) and this, Price maintains, is what dialogue depends on.

Price’s position takes elements, like Rorty’s, from pragmatism. He differs from Rorty in one important aspect, however, because he thinks that there is a promising position on truth that Rorty has overlooked. Price posits three norms of truth that acquire increasing strength: sincerity, justification, and truth. In the non-assertoric use of language, the two weakest norms apply. In the assertoric use of language, some functions could be fulfilled in an analogous way by a practice that lacked the third norm, but such a practice would not support dialogue as we know it. For Price, ‘truth is the grit that makes our individual opinions engage with one another’ (3), in other words, truth is what distinguishes assertoric dialogue from mere individual opinion.

The position seems to point towards a commitment to theism, insofar as the norm depends on speakers thinking that they are governed by it, ‘not that their view be somehow confirmed by science or metaphysics’ (3). This is exactly what Rorty urges that we should wean ourselves off; it is one thing to show that there is a realist notion of truth at play but quite another to show that we ought to employ it (theism = bad realist habits). Price disputes the connection between his position and theism for three key reasons. First, the consequence of giving up theism would be significant but hardly devastating, whereas the consequence of giving up on truth would be ‘very serious indeed, reducing the dialogue of mankind to a chatter of disengaged monologues’ (4). Second, giving up truth altogether is not really an option at all; people who say that it is fail to see how radically different a linguistic practice without truth would be, and underestimate ‘the practical inflexibility of an admittedly contingent practice’ (4). Finally, ‘the issue of the status of truth is enmeshed with the terms of the problem’ (4), which is to say that when theism’s claims are said to be untrue, it is through a failure of the terms of reference. It is hard to come up with a meaningful antirealism about the semantic terms. That is not to say, however, that this is a transcendental argument for semantic realism; rather, as Price argues, the right response is to be suspicious of realism/antirealism itself. Rorty also argues as much but ties this to a rejection of the distinction between truth and justification and the notion of representation. This is ‘the wrong path to the right conclusion’ (5), for we should ‘reject the metaphysical stance not by rejecting truth and representation, but by recognising that in virtue of the most plausible story about the function and origins of these notions, they simply don’t sustain that sort of metaphysical weight’ (5).

Rorty oscillates between Jamesian pragmatism (reduction of truth to justification) and deflationism (minimalism about truth). Price, for his part, is part minimalist and part Jamesian. He is not, however, a minimalist that Rorty would recognise (‘Tarski’s breezy disquotationalism’) but he agrees with familiar disquotationalist minimalists like Horwich and Quine that there is no substantial property ‘truth’. The better question to ask would be: what is truth’s function in human discourse? What difference does it make to have the concept? Unlike minimalists, Price does not think that truth is merely a grammatical device for disquotation: ‘it has a far more important function, which requires that it be the expression of a norm’ (5). Once the question of function has been answered, Price believes, similarly to the minimalists, that there is no further questions of interest to philosophy.

He is also part pragmatist, in the sense that he seeks to explicate a definition of truth in terms of its role in practice. Price’s position conflicts with the pragmatists as he is against the view that truth is identified with justification. His position points to a tension in pragmatism, for in trying to answer the question ‘what is truth?’, pragmatists turn their back on alternative paths (explanatory and genealogical) that are compatible with ‘and mandated by, the pragmatist doctrine that we understand problematic notions in terms of their practical significance’ (6). Rorty is also aware of this tension, but he too is not properly aware ‘of the range of possibilities for non-reductive pragmatism about truth’ (6), possibilities that would confirm what the pragmatists are trying to deny: that truth is a goal of inquiry distinct from the norms of justification, and that the realist’s mistake is to try to analyse this normative notion rather than to investigate its function and genealogy. This is the view that Price will go onto defend.

Weaker norms consist of 1) subjective assertability and 2) warranted assertability. Price hopes to show that an account of dialogue that has only these two norms in play would be missing some thing more, in other words, the norm of truth. Subjective assertability states that it is prima facie appropriate to assert that p only when one believes that p. This norm has little to do with truth; it is analogous to situations that are not truth-apt. For example, it is inappropriate to request a coffee when one does not want a coffee ‘but this does not show that requests of expressions of desires are subject to a norm of truth’ (6). The norm governs conventions, which depend on the fact that communities censure those who break them in this specific sense, in other words, by acting in bad faith.

When the norm of warranted assertability is in play, the speaker not only believes that p, but is justified in doing so. Justification is analogous to subjective coherence and there are degrees of warrant built into the norm, starting with something less subjective and going through to my own evidence. Assertion may nonetheless be incorrect; personal warranted assertability does not guarantee truth. But, Price points out, proponents of warranted assertability often have in mind something more akin to communal warranted assertability, in other words, objective invariance based on whether a statement or utterance coheres with other people’s views. This is how we make sense of a gap between personal and communal beliefs, for a belief ‘may be justified in one sense but not in the other’ (8). The normative communal dimension is distinct from both subjective assertability and personal warranted assertability. It doesn’t establish why the norm in question needs to be marked in ordinary conversation; it might be a theoretical notion useful for reflection on linguistic practice but unnecessary in folk talk about other matters. This position is untenable for Price, for ‘unless individual speakers recognise such a norm, the idea that they might improve their view by consultation with the wider community is simply incoherent to them’ (9). Similarly, this holds for communal warranted assertability: ‘the actual community needs to recognise that it may be wrong by the standards of some broader community’ (9).

So, are we to follow Peirce in identifying truth with warranted assertability at the ideal limit of inquiry? No, Price says; we do not answer the question ‘what is truth?’ at all and ask instead explanatory questions, for example: why do we have such a notion? What job does it do in language?

The third norm, in addition to the above, is passive ‘because it doesn’t yet provide an active or causa rui for a commitment to truth’ (10). It is also active, in the sense that it ‘not only creates the conceptual space for argument…but actively encourages speakers to participate’ (10). One can fail to meet the third norm whilst meeting the norms of personal warranted assertability and subjective assertability. As Price argues, one of the reasons why this third norm is hard to distinguish from the two weaker norms of assertability ‘is that when we apply it in judging a fellow speaker right or wrong, the basis of our judgement lies in our own beliefs or evidence’ (11). That is to say, in not making a judgement from the stance of reality itself, it feels as though we are merely reasserting or negating the original claim, which is what the disquotational use of the truth predicate facilitates anyway. Surely this means that there is no need for truth to be a distinct norm. But, Price argues, if our response to a claim were just reassertion, it would involve no commendation or criticism of the original utterance. Thus, disagreements would have no significance if we had a linguistic practice without the third normative convention.

Price had already introduced the concept of merely-opinionated assertions (MOA) in a previous paper. So called Mo’ans can criticise each other for insincerity and for lack of coherence, or personal warranted assertability. Mo’ans do not treat a disagreement as indicative that one speaker is mistaken. In such a situation where ‘disagreement’ might arise, both speakers may have spoken correctly and by the standards the community takes to be operable. Such a community could make use of the disquotational truth predicate (which does not introduce the third norm), for example, the statement ‘that’s true’ would function as in a similar way to the statement ‘same again’, in other words, ‘I have the same opinion as the last person’.

Mo’ans use linguistic expressions to assert their ‘beliefs’ and other psychological states such as preferences and desires. No disagreement can come down to whether one person is right and the other wrong, thus, failure to observe one of the two weaker norms pre-empts the possibility of fault: ‘by default, disagreements are of a no-fault kind, in the way that expression of different preferences often are for us’ (14). Price’s argument for the introduction of a third norm depends on our ‘irresistible urge to see the situation in terms of our own normative standards’ (14). This motivates the Mo’ans to adopt the practice that ‘whenever they are prepared to assert (in the old MOA sense) that p, they also be prepared to ascribe fault to anyone who asserts not-p, independently of any grounds for thinking that that person fails one of the first two norms of assertability’ (14). In other words, a person can satisfy the first two norms but can still fail the third. Disagreement then becomes a stage for disapproval of one’s conversational partner on the grounds that they have fallen short of some normative standard.

But why should the Mo’ans care about disagreements at all? Price argues that I must be motivated by your disapproval itself. The terms ‘true’ and ‘false’ carry the normative force of the third norm in natural languages. The terms must be giving voice to something ‘more basic’; that something more basic is the practice of giving expressions of attitudes of approval/disapproval and that in turn is motivated in response to perception of agreement or disagreement.

The usage rule for correct and incorrect is very close to the disquotational schema (p is true if and only if p). Over and above this, the third norm carries out two distinctive functions. In the passive account, without a norm stronger than warranted assertability, the idea of improving our or my own current commitments would be incoherent. As such, we would have to give up on the very notion of progression in thought, of adding or taking away beliefs that are no longer viable. Thus the third norm functions and is necessary for creating the conceptual space for the idea of further improvement.

The second function, in the active account, encourages improvement by motivating speakers who disagree to try to resolve their disagreement. Disagreement is ‘normatively loaded’ (16), and so the third norm ‘makes what would otherwise be no-fault disagreements into unstable social situations, whose instability is only resolved by argument and consequent agreement – and it provides an immediate incentive for argument, in that it holds out to the successful arguer the regard consisting in her community’s positive evaluation of her dialectical position’ (16). Thus, Price’s claim is ‘simply that the third norm adds something new to the preferential mix’ (17) and the reason why a community would adopt obedience to the third norm becomes linked with its commitment to prosper. The third norm thus exploits the fact that we care about certain things, in order to make disagreements worth having therefore matter in their own right. Price argues that it is the disposition to disapprove of speakers with whom we disagree that is ‘the mark of the third norm’ (17).

What difference does it make? It makes our linguistic practices genuinely assertoric. The most interesting consequence of the third norm is dialogue; dialogue is what turns ‘a small difference in normative practice into a big difference in the way in which speakers engage with one another (and thereby ensures that Rorty’s claim [about blending truth and justification] fails in an interesting rather than an insignificant way)’ (19-20). Neverthless, the pragmatist may still raise the question: couldn’t the third norm be just a personal notion of justification or a ‘Peircean flavoured’ (20) of ideal warranted assertability? Price has four responses. First, he claims that the proposal is mistakenly motivated as it stems from the tendency to ask the wrong question, i.e. what is truth? As Price has already argued, it is far better from the pragmatist’s point of view to get rid of this need for analysis completely. The needs that such analysis serves are better answered by ‘an explanation of the practices, rather than a reduction of the object’ (20), the corrolary of which is that we would no longer feel troubled by the fact that it is so hard to answer a question that we no longer feel obliged to ask.

Second, it is unclear what the notion of the ideal limit might amount to, or whether it is coherent. Third, the nature of truth is not identical to ideal warranted assertability, for ‘truth is essentially a normative notion. Its role in making disagreements matter depends on its immediate motivational character. Why should ideal warranted assertability have this character?’ (21). Lastly, it seems to be suggested (including by Rorty) that we need not bother with arguing about truth, but can nevertheless argue about warranted assertability instead. However, without truth, ‘the wheels of argument do not engage, disagreements slide past one another’ (21). Thus, if we did not have truth we could not argue about warranted assertability; we would be aware of differences in our opinions but would have absolutely no concept of why that difference. The reason it does matter is that we ‘already take ourselves to be subject to the norms of truth and falsity’ (22).

And so we come onto the question of what exactly Price is putting forward. If it is neither pragmatist nor realist (because the account does not commit you to saying that there actually be a norm to which all speakers subscribe), does this commit Price to a form of antirealism? Or even fictionalism? Such a label leads to the threat of dialogical nihilism, for the realisation of truth as fiction surely undermines our linguistic practices and would make it the case that we no longer feel ‘consistently bound by the relevant norms’ (23). We should be cautious, Price warns, of calling ourselves antirealists ‘if these categories presuppose the very notions we want to avoid being realist about’ (24). Overall, then, what Price is proposing is a normative theory of truth that can be translated into neither metaphysical nor ontological issues, which is, he argues, like ‘discovering the geographical analogue of the platypus, a region which our pre-existing cartographical conventions seemed a priori to disallow’ (26). It is deflationary and prevents re-inflation by undermining the realist-antirealist distinction altogether; pragmatic insofar as it appeals to nothing more than the role of truth in linguistic practice and yet non-pragmatic because it rejects the identification of truth with justification.

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