Friday, November 18, 2005

Pragmatism And The Question Of Truth

In Our Time on Radio Four was about pragmatism yesterday. Although I am more or less totally unfamiliar with the work of any of the three philosophers discussed on the programme, I think that there was something of a mistake in the discussion. It claimed that pragmatism was a kind of reductionism about truth, specifically that truth is to be understood as 'what works', and insofar as later philosophers like Quine are representative of the school as a whole, their position about truth shouldn't really be understood as a form of reductionism. Reductionism is a kind of 'nothing but' reflex, aiming at a kind of unmasking, a denigration. It means to expose something as more base, where base is to be understood as an evaluative term, and I don't think that that is what is meant by the pragmatist insistence on giving up on the myth of the a priori.

Bourdieu, the French sociologist, has been said to have affinities with the pragmatists, and in particular Mead, who wasn't mentioned yesterday. Bourdieu holds a kind of holist Wittgensteinian position, which claims that both objectivist and subjectivist approaches misunderstand linguistic practices. Objectivists - who for Bourdieu are the French structuralists, beginning with Saussure - mistake regularities, behaviour according to rules, for determined behaviour, yet as any one with passing familarity with Wittgenstein on rules should understand that rules are not deterministic: the infamous example of the person counting who adds two before two thousand and four afterwards comes to mind particularly. Subjectivists - rational choice theorists would be the obvious example - on the contrary can't explain that there are rules governing linguistic and so social practice. In the counting example, on their account, it is supposed to be unclear why we should find it surprising at all that after two thousand, the counter starts adding four instead of two.

To adopt this kind of position is to give up on the idea of a series of sharp oppositions which structure thought - the objective and the subjective, and associated with it, the synthetic and the analytic, for example. If it really is the kind of position that the pragmatists discussed yesterday were holding, then it isn't a kind of reductionism about truth, in the sense of a 'nothing but' reflex, because it does away with the idea of a 'nothing but' reflex by getting rid of the oppositions on which that reflex rests, in particular the opposition of the objective and the subjective where the reduction depends for its denigration on the possibility of some higher form or type. To put it another way, once we give up on the idea of the Platonic Forms, the claim that something isn't a Platonic Form no longer looks like the same kind of problem any more. This is one of the reasons that I have always been rather suspicious of Richard Rorty, since he seems to think, with his irony about truth, that it is a problem that it isn't a Platonic Form.

2 comments:

Phil said...

it isn't a kind of reductionism about truth, in the sense of a 'nothing but' reflex, because it does away with the idea of a 'nothing but' reflex by getting rid of the oppositions on which that reflex rests, in particular the opposition of the objective and the subjective where the reduction depends for its denigration on the possibility of some higher form or type.

From what I've read about Dewey - which was enough to convince me that he was an important thinker - this is exactly right. And the connection with Bourdieu is good. If there's a problem with Pragmatism it's that it suffers from an odd kind of foundationalism - it can say "this is how we see things because this is how we learned to see them because these are the experiences through which we learned because this is how we live", but it tends to stop there - it's not particularly interested in asking how it is that we live, or who it is that we are. Which is precisely where Bourdieu comes in, both as an anthropologist and as a Marxist.

This is one of the reasons that I have always been rather suspicious of Richard Rorty, since he seems to think, with his irony about truth, that it is a problem that it isn't a Platonic Form.

Or rather, that it isn't a problem - and that the fact that it isn't a problem is surprising and remarkable and liberatory. There's a lot of spoilt Dewey in Rorty, and this kind of compulsive kicking at Plato's shins is a big part of what spoils it.

Rob Jubb said...

Phil,

obviously, I agree with you. On the unwillingness of pragmatism to probe at any concepts of human nature underlying the various practices which come to form those practices, I'm quite tempted to appeal to what Bernard Williams - I should point out here, I have what must be at best a quasi-rational interest in Bernard Williams - called 'creeping barrage naturalism'. To quote, "[t]he question for naturalism is always: can we explain... the phenomenon in question terms of the rest of nature", where the rest is to be understood as being opposition to an idea of there being some kind of fundamental structure underlying it all. Under that kind of conception, 'this is how we live' seems like a perfectly good explanation insofar as it leaves open space for critique.