Danto on Rorty

In the introduction to his Truth and Progress, Richard Rorty signals his appreciation of Donald Davidson’s work on truth:

“The greatest of my many intellectual debts to Donald Davidson is my realization that nobody should even try to specify the nature of the truth. … Whether or not one agrees with Davidson that it is important to be able to give a definition of “true in L” for a given natural language (by means of a Tarski-type “truth theory” for that language), one can profit from his arguments that there is no possibility of giving a definition of “true” that works in all such languages.”

Yet, a page later, Rorty is breaking his vow of agnosticism in order to make the claim that “truth is not the goal of inquiry” for all the intellectual ‘progress’ we may have made:

“How do we know that the greater predictive power and greater control of the environment (including a greater ability to cure diseases, build bombs, explore space, etc.) gets us closer to the truth, conceived of as an accurate representation of how things are in themselves, apart from human needs and interests?”

It is between the renunciation of an absolute specification of truth and the attack on a specification of truth that Rorty, for people like me, runs aground. I admit that I am not very thrilled about reified notions of truth, and rather buy Tarski’s structural notion, which depends on a schema of language use rules, out of which arise a criteria of success encoded in the semantic function of truth. This does not look like the mirror of nature; instead, the truth becomes a device for the organization of conventions. Tarski published his paper in the forties, which was the seed time of organizations and cybernetics. Just as the U.S. government was reclassifying its citizens as Human Products, the targets for experiments with radioactive materials, the idea of truth as having some higher and more piercing meaning was being shrunk to its semantic function referencing variable places related through sentiential connectives. In other words, that some things are always true and some things are passingly true no longer has a first order significance for truth. Rather, truth is absorbed into a given construct language with no more fuss and bother than the successor function or the equivalence function. As Tarski writes of objections to his theory:

“As a typical example let me quote in substance such an objection.23 In formulating the definition we use necessarily sentential connectives, i.e., expressions like "if . . ., then," "or," etc. They occur in the definiens; and one of them, namely, the phrase "if, and only if" is usually employed to combine the definiendum with the definiens. However, it is well known that the meaning of sentential connectives is explained in logic with the help of the words "true" and "false"; for instance, we say that an equivalence, i.e., a sentence of the form "p if, and only if, q," is true if either both of its members, i.e., the sentences represented by 'p' and 'q,' are true or both are false. Hence the definition of truth involves a vicious circle.

If this objection were valid, no formally correct definition of truth would be possible; for we are unable to formulate any compound sentence without using sentential connectives, or other logical terms defined with their help. Fortunately, the situation is not so bad.

It is undoubtedly the case that a strictly deductive development of logic is often preceded by certain statements explaining the conditions under which sentences of the form "if p, then q," etc., are considered true or false. (Such explanations are often given schematically, by means of the so-called truth-tables.) However, these statements are outside of the system of logic, and should not be regarded as definitions of the terms involved. They are not formulated in the language of the system, but constitute rather special consequences of the definition of truth given in the meta-language. Moreover, these statements do not influence the deductive development of logic in any way. For in such a development we do not discuss the question whether a given sentence is true, we are only interested in the problem whether it is provable.

On the other hand, the moment we find ourselves within the deductive system of logic -- or of any discipline based upon logic, e.g., of semantics -- we either treat sentential connectives as undefined terms, or else we define them by means of other sentential connectives, but never by means of semantic terms like "true" or "false." For instance, if we agree to regard the expressions "not" and "if . . ., then" (and possibly also "if, and only if") as undefined terms, we can define the term "or" by stating that a sentence of the form "p or q" is equivalent to the corresponding sentence of the form "if not p, then q." The definition can be formulated, e.g., in the following way:

(p or q) if, and only if, (if not p, then q).
This definition obviously contains no semantic terms.”

LI was thinking of these things reading Danto’s review of Rorty’s last published work, here. Davidson himself said that Rorty’s problem was that, although he acknowledges that there is a difference between truth and justification, he continually conflates the two. Thus, the oddity of saying about any research program that its goal is the truth. Only research programs in philosophy take truth as their goal – most research programs take proof as their goal. This, I think, is the ‘irritating’ thing about Rorty – Danto’s review is less about Rorty’s essays – in fact, I am not sure Danto read them – than an elaboration of the fact that Danto found Rorty irritating.

As a rule, Rorty used the word true the way everyone else does, but if you were to ask him for his theory of truth, he would say something outrageous. He did so because he believed we all know when and how to use the word true, but no one has—or needs—a theory of truth to be able to do so: “Everybody knows that the difference between true and false beliefs is as important as that between nourishing and poisonous foods,” he writes in “Philosophy as a Transitional Genre,” one of thirteen essays from the last ten years collected in Philosophy as Cultural Politics, the fourth volume of his Philosophical Papers published by Cambridge. So philosophers who seek a theory of truth are wasting their time. When he quotes a philosopher who says something he agrees with, that doesn’t mean that he believes everything—or anything else—the cited philosopher says. This implies that he doesn’t really need the philosopher anyway. But it helps bring together the two sides of Rorty’s character—that of the likable, even lovable philosopher, with the exemplary values and virtues he indisputably possessed, and that of the saboteur of philosophical sobriety, a role he adopted for himself after the immense success of his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, published in 1979. He demonstrates that not one of his admirable attributes is grounded in a piece of philosophy, since philosophy in no way explains any of them. The writing is a kind of performance, the purpose of which is to dramatize philosophy’s impotence. He liked to say that he never tried to rebut positions he opposed—he merely sneered at them.”

Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick has called the fifties and sixties the era of the cybernetic fold – the era of the structure and the variable. I think that is very accurate. Some came out of it command and control freaks - like Robert McNamara. People like Rorty lived near the heart of the cybernetic fold and came out of it marked for life. They were the cybernetic dissidents, but their dissent was strongly marked by the inescapable truths of cybernetic city – truths that have now become our environment, from the pixel characters in our movies to the humble orgies of cheesecake and ipod sanctioned by the credit card industry, the anti-union that has yearly raised our anti-wages for a village usurer’s price. The virtual invades the actual only after the actual discovers, like some burning and irremovable ulcer, its constitutional structuralism. Only then is it completely vulnerable. Slothrop's erections exactly predict the sites the V-2 will hit because Slothrop's dick - and indeed Slothrop - have been put together again, in a Primal Scene II laboratory, exactly as they were, except that - they are recombinants. And so our recombinant orgies are absolutely anti-Sadean in that they do not aim at the cold mastery of desire, but subserve a commuter-office slavery, a routine so hideous that no Josephine has arisen from us human product mousepeople to sing it.


Anonymous said…
Hi, I just wanted to let you know that I did the Goethe experiment that I mentioned last week, but I haven't found time to write my results or develop my conclusion.
roger said…
Love and Terrorism, oh my god, it must have been like a Peter Handke play, or a Herzog film. Definitely, you need to write that up!