Friday, May 28, 2010

Rhetorical Universalism

I shall define universalism as the philosophical position taken by any range of claims of which it is said that a claim might be true whether someone believes it or not. For a universalistic claim, truth swings free of belief.

To weigh the universalist claim, I would distinguish two questions: 1) Is it true? and 2) Is it effective?

On its face, to distinguish these two questions seems to concede the issue to the universalist—the effectiveness of a claim is its ability to claim belief. So to distinguish between effectiveness and truth as two different questions is to already claim that truth swings free from belief.

To justify this distinction, I would suggest that attempts to move around the distinction fall into two camps, two different reductionisms: Platonists and Sophists. The battle between Platonists and Sophists is the battle between Platonists who think that the second question collapses into the first (truth automatically produces effectiveness) and Sophists who think that the first question collapses into the second (effectiveness automatically produces truth). Each camp, however, needs to explain their own set of anomalous occurrences. The Platonist needs to explain why the truth isn’t always effective—why isn’t hearing a true statement always convincing? Why does it sometimes fall on “deaf ears”? The Sophist, on the other hand, needs to explain the smell of sulfur—why is her claim not just an excuse to tell lies, since we all know lies can be as effective as truths?

The way I’ve described both anomalies cues both camps to their own pernicious, and unsatisfactory, responses. The Platonist can claim that it is just deafness on the part of some, which at its extremes is a kind of willful plugging of the ears. The Sophist can claim that that’s all truths are—just lies we all believe, and the name of the game is getting people to buy what youre selling, however you do it. Both of these responses are unsatisfactory for the same reason—they are too easy, both ending discussion with a dogmatic assertion of how things are. And if the retort from either is, “ah, but that doesn’t mean what I’m saying isn’t true,” then we’ve already moved further into the game I’m suggesting—that truth and effectiveness are distinct.

To defend their reductionisms without contradiction, without reducing and distinguishing in two separate, analogous breaths, both the Platonist and the Sophist need to suggest a mechanism by which we can tell when one side has been reduced to the other. This mechanism would then be able to suggest to us what cases of pernicious static do in fact look like. For example, for the Platonist to not look like a jerk who cries “you are deaf to the truth!!!” every time someone disagrees with him, the Platonist needs a method that’s publicly available that will tell us when a person really is just willfully plugging their ears or spitefully blinding themselves in order to hold on to some cherished, though now falsified, belief. Likewise, for the Sophist to not look like a devilish, insincere fraud who will say anything to get her way, the Sophist needs a method that’s publicly available that will tell us when a particular line of reasoning or justification that up-holds some particular belief is sincere truth and not simply convenient falsehood. In other words, the Platonist and the Sophist are looking for the same thing.

Since a search for a theoretical method or theorem that will ascertain truth is a typical trope for what we think of as Platonism, but not the Sophist, I will say a little bit more about the Sophist. For, have not philosophers occasionally argued that we do not need truth, that all we need is justification? Justification, when properly distinguished from truth, is relative to an audience in a way that truth is not. Your ability to justify yourself in front of an audience is relative to your ability to communicate with them, which means sharing a language, relevant concerns, and a sense of what counts as evidence and good and bad reasons. This means that you could find yourself in front of an audience that counts as a good reason a belief (e.g., in God) that you yourself do not hold. So what is stopping you from grasping at the disbelieved straw if it gets your audience to do what you want?

One might say the virtue of sincerity, but Platonists don’t think this option is available to the Sophist. They don’t understand why, if one really thought that all you needed was effectiveness, one wouldn’t grasp at whatever means were available at any moment to attain one’s ends. I don’t have an answer to this because I honestly don’t see the difficulty—it is unclear what the relationship is, to use Bernard Williams’s distinction, between truth and truthfulness (from his book Truth and Truthfulness). It is that relationship that further needs theoretical adumbration, a mechanism.

In my first formulation of Platonism and Sophism, I claimed they were reductionisms and that this reduction requires a mechanism. In this sense, they both deny the distinction between truth and justification. On this formulation, however, it makes as much sense to say that Platonists can use whatever justification they want, just so long as they know the true truth in their hearts. For if you know the truth, but have no mechanism available to convince other people, what aside from sincerity keeps you from grasping whatever means of persuasion you can? But this lack of mechanism includes the link between truth and sincerity, so if it is denied the Sophist, so too for the Platonist. And the fact of the matter is that I think there is historical precedence for both phenomenons—for pernicious liars who are pathologically only out for themselves (e.g., the Hitler administration) and for pernicious Holders of Truth who will do what they need to do because they know it’s true in their gut (e.g., the Bush administration).

I’d like to note that I modulated earlier from “truth reduces to justification” to “all you need is justification.” The “all you need” formulation is a modulation from the reduction-formulations to try and capture a wilier version of this problem, to try to avoid stawmen as much as possible. But look what happens when we apply both versions to Platonism and Sophism. The picture of the Platonist looks normal when wearing the notion of a mechanism, but the Sophist does not. So to help the picture of the Sophist I modulated from reduce-as-mechanism to reduce-as-“all you need.” But “all you need” is not a reduction in the strictest sense because what it requires is a firm distinction between two things (only one of which you need). The picture of the Sophist looks normal when wearing the notion of reduction, but the Platonist looks a little odd with “all you need” because we are used to associating the Platonist with Up-Holders of Truth. As I’ve suggested, though, without the “Up-” of mechanism, the Holders of Truth could produce just as much nasty material as liars.

So what is going on? James, Dewey, and Foucault all seemed to toy with the Sophist reduction. Foucault’s channeling of Thrasymachus in the formula “knowledge is power” is just the darker-seeming flipside of James’ more optimistic-seeming “the true is the good in the way of belief.” The more neutral formula of what both come to is Dewey’s “truth is warranted assertibility.” But what does this reduction amount to without the mechanism? So-called “postmodern” reductions of truth to illusions, of which Foucault’s is one of the more sensible (once you understand what Foucault means by “discipline”), themselves founder for the same reason the appearance/reality distinction does—if you aren’t going to offer a method for discerning truth from illusion, using the rhetoric of illusion for anything is self-referentially inconsistent at the level of theory.

I would like to say that the dialectic between Platonist and Sophist I’ve brought us through helps us better appreciate the situation we face when considering the universalist claim. The idea that truth swings free from belief is often associated with the Platonist side of the dialectic, but notice that if we don’t get a mechanism—which is what drove the seesaw—it is unclear what the universalist claim gets us: the Platonist wanted more truth, but without the mechanism, what more does the universalist claim give?

Rorty’s strategy for dealing with the situation was to claim that truth and justification are distinct, but that justification is the only route we have for making a claim of truth. I want to call this rhetorical universalism. By the time the Sophist side of the dialectic with Platonists reaches Dewey, it has become clear that Dewey would need a mechanism as much as the Platonist. This realization causes us to notice the similarities. Against reducing truth to justification that has been a typical strategy of pragmatists, Rorty sides with Donald Davidson’s claim that truth is a semantic and radically non-epistemic notion. Truth swings free of belief, but that tells us nothing about what to believe.

If we call the universalist claim—a claim might be true whether someone believes it or not—the realist intuition, we can see the impetus behind philosophical realisms and Platonisms and the force of Davidson’s theory as a way of paying homage to that intuition. The realist and Platonist want to emphasize that what we happen to believe now might not be the truth. Davidson is saying that it is the case that truth swings free of belief, but that there is no way to motivate this in a way that tells us which particular beliefs are false (aside from the universalist claim itself). The key is motivating truths—how do you motivate the realist intuition that is, e.g., housed in the semantic, disquotational theory of truth: “X” is true iff X. Davidson claims that the disquotational theory of truth is all the theory we are going to get. All it tells us is how the word “true” works: a sentence is “true” if and only if what the sentence says is the case. “Snow is white” is true iff snow is white.  What it doesn’t give us is a mechanism for ascertaining the truth of the sentence. What Davidson is saying is that the realist intuition is true, but that’s as far as it goes.

But say we accept all this—is there not still something left to account for in coming to terms with the realist intuition? For, where did the realist intuition come from? Even if we don’t believe in various supernaturalisms, positing various kinds of “intuitive” faculties; even if we are naturalist through and through, that still means the realist intuition came from somewhere.

In fact, intuitive faculty explanations turn out to be the easy way out. To say that an intuition of some kind, some belief you have about this or that which you have no easy explanation to offer about its source, to say that it came from a “direct” relation to reality is to basically halt the explanatory sequence at that the claim of directness. Doing this changes the subject of explanation from “where did this particular belief come from?” to “what is this ‘direct relation’ exactly?” The former question is a perfectly understandable, naturalistic historical-rhetorical question. The latter question is a perfectly suitable, specifically epistemological question. If your interests are to move from questions anybody can answer to a disciplinary question only specialists can answer, then this performs the delimiting magic required. However, to delimit the field of inquiry in this manner—to construct “epistemology” as a subject that asks questions which are not historical-rhetorical—is to revert to a Cartesian-Kantian understanding of epistemology. Specifically, I am suggesting that direct-relations claims will at some point need to fall back on a faculty psychology, one that is anti-naturalistic.

So to return to the difficult historical-rhetorical question (rather than posing a different, non-natural question)—where does the realist intuition come from? What is it about the world that produces the sense that some things are true whether or not you believe them (like snow being white)? The answer that I think Davidson would suggest is that to use “the world” in stating the question has been what has misled us into creating philosophical realisms all these many years. There is a hidden, pernicious distinction in the question between “the world” and “us,” how “the world” is that produces something “in us.” For Davidson, the fact of successful communication presupposes triangulation, an inseparable triad of person-community-world. So the best answer about where the realist intuition comes from may be “it comes from the fact that a single person is typically successful in her communicative negotiations with other people and the world at large, and that the idea of ‘success’ presupposes an occasional unsuccess, which produces in the single person a sense that she might be, on occasion, corrected in her attempts at communication.” Or to put it more simply: “I feel like I’m right, but I have to allow for the fact that I might be wrong.” The realist intuition is just fallibilism. Philosophical realisms have been trying to convert our occasional wrongness about the world into a theory. When the topic has been truth, it has taken the guise of a certifying theorem that will convert historical-rhetorical justifications into irrefutable, infallible true statements that are impervious to further inquiry. But we have found out—so goes the Rortyan story about the march of 2500+ years of philosophical dialogue—that there is no theorem that will relate justification and truth in this way. There is no route from fallibility to infallibility.

What I’m calling rhetorical universalism is the claim that we are always and everywhere situated in a rhetorical web, and that this is true whether or not you believe it. Davidson’s arguments about triangulation, the disquotational theory of truth, the principle of charity, the rejection of the scheme/content distinction—all of these dovetail into a description of how communication must work for something called “communication” to be said to be happening at all. And since we agree that we do most of the time successfully communicate, it follows from this very simple fact that we are always situated in a historical-rhetorical community—that “rhetoric goes all the way down.” This truth has not always been recognized, would not have always been justified, would not have always been rhetorically effective. But there is nothing contradictory between holding these two things, just so long as you distinguish between two questions: Is it true? and Is it effective?


  1. Hi Matt,

    I'd liked the way you painted the realist intuition as fallibilism. I was reminded of Susan Neiman's take on realism as usually amounting to advice to lower your expectations.


  2. I still need to read Moral Clarity. I'm writing something right now about intellectual triage. I now see a cunning, if unconscious, strategy behind my recommending of books I haven't read--if I can get someone else to read them, and then tell me about them (like the good bits), then it will feel like I know what they are good for.

    I'm reading Bernard Yack's amazing(ly hard to find) book, The Fetishism of Modernities, right now, and it makes some excellent, down to earth, commonsensical points about how not to go back and forth between theory (translate: philosophical isms) and practice (translate: shit we do in real life). The book is largely a polemic against totalizing concepts of "the modern," such as we find in Adorno, Heidegger, Lyotard and MacIntyre (to take four very different versions). What those four chaps do is, roughly, make philosophical isms coextensive with "life," which means if we fix our isms, supposedly that'll have an immediate correspondence to what happens in life. None of the four think that, but that's the only way to make more of theory than pure masturbation.

    So, the trick is to find a way between the isms and life. Because another bad way to do it is in Simon Blackburn's book, Truth. He seems to just up and state that isms have a real important impact on life. No idea how, but there it is. "Relativism is a bad guy, blah blah." Isms are too technical and esoteric to move between them and how we conduct ourselves in a conversation or in line at the grocery store.

    So what we need is an intermediary between our isms and our conduct. "Intuitions," I think, are a good candidate. It's a "how things are" which you don't have a good explanation for. Because of their intractability and seeming mysteriousness, they are the kind of things we start producing theories to explain. So what we need more explicitly in philosophical discourse are identification of the intuitions about the world that people think they need to explain, the things that motivate the construction of the theory. Too often we don't get that, or rather, they come so heavily garbed in the theory already or too thinly, that it's too difficult to agree on them. When it's too heavy, they look question-begging. When too thinly, the theory looks like a non sequitor. We need to be able to make good, clean, intelligible inferential paths between the intuitions and the theories.

  3. I’m getting tied up between “Universalism” and “Absolutism”. You state:
    “This truth (that rhetoric goes all the way down) has not always been recognized…” That seems to imply (given what you’ve said) that even though it may not have always been recognized etc., that it has always been true; even though no one believed it. However that would mean that truth not only swings free of belief, but also of language.

  4. I guess, but it doesn't seem like an interesting issue to me anymore. Heidegger once thought it was an interesting issue, saying Newton's laws weren't true till Newton spit them out. Pirsig said much the same thing in ZMM. Rorty said something very similiar in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, and wrote a paper on what he later called Heidegger's audaciousness, but shortly after, Rorty gave up on trying to toe that line--that the truth doesn't exist if you don't have the language to state it. The above bit of admittedly confusing writing was an experiment to try and cover the ground I think Rorty gained in not following Heidegger.

    The ground gained is to say that belief (justification) is separate from truth, and leave the ontological question about language twisting in the wind. What practical question hinges on it? Brandom's philosophy of language resurrects something like Aristotle's potential/actual distinction, but divorces it from ontology by stating it as something about language--implicit/explicit. Because this is about sentences, and not "stuff," when you go to wonder "what" it was that was implicit, the answer is "what was made explicit." When it was about ontology, it might be more cogent to wonder what this "potential-stuff" is, like all the wondering over the years about "mind-stuff" that was neither brain nor God. But when you move to language, to wonder what "implicit-stuff" is--other than another sentence (which makes it explicit)--seems to get the hang of what language is wrong. What is implicit isn't there, in a certain sense, and yet is, in another sense.

    Rorty said about representationalism that the move from experience-talk to language-talk ended up helping us defeat representationalism a little bit better than before (Davidson succeeded a little bit better than Dewey), but that doesn't mean you can't be a representationalist after taking the linguistic turn. Likewise, you can still press for a "but what is this implicit, unstated truth?" Brandom's philosophy of language is an attempt to make it a little bit harder, seem a little bit sillier.

    The differentiation between effectiveness and truth, the question "is it true?" and "is it effective," is part of this larger plot to make Platonism a hard position to hold. I wanted to give each side their due in terms of consequences to life, as it were. But what are the consequences for thinking truth swings free of language? I'm not sure there are any. The realist intuition, as I stated it, would seem to be satisfied with "gravity was true before Newton said so." It isn't clear what further intuitions there are to be appeased by deciding the issue between realists and idealists who want to fight over the ontological status of truth (or, what gain there is for overturning the realist intuition).

  5. Unfortuneately, now months later, I'm still "dear in the headlights" with Brandom's monstrosity of a book. I think my wife and kids are starting to worry.

  6. I'm tellin' ya', don't feel bad about putting it down (only somewhat in failure) and picking up his Articulating Reasons, literally an introduction to his thinking. Then read the Introduction (almost 50 pages itself), Chapter 5, 6 and 1 (in that order).

    You'll be a Brandomian in no time. Also, I had a professor recently suggest that for people like Brandom (he was talking about Foucault), the best thing to do is to just burn through piles of pages, rather than slugging it out with every sentence. Heavies like these cats only begin to make sense after you have a bunch of it in your head already.

  7. Back to truth: I'm assuming you make a distiction from, lets call it rhetorical truth, and, I don't know, let's go with ineffable truth. i.e. little "t" and big "T" truth.

    So when you say that truth swings free of language, you're really talking about "T", but when you say that "rhetoric goes all the way down", and this has always been true whether you believe it or not, you're talking about "t".

    If truth swings free of language, we're never really talking about it - logically you can't, and I get hung up on that.

    "Articulating Reasons", it's added to the list.

  8. The way I see my post, the distinction between rhetorical and ineffable, little and big, truth is what I'm trying to get away from.

    I think Davidson's work, and Brandom following him, is trying to get us to a point in our understanding of what truth is that we don't come across Kantian-like distinctions between effable and ineffable (phenomena and noumena).

    You press upon me again the idea of "truth swings free of language," but I'm not sure why I need to take such an idea seriously. My first response was a way of saying, "why do I need to take that idea seriously?" "Ineffable Truth"--why take it seriously? My slogan is "truth swings free of belief," but why do I need an ontological twist to it where I wonder what a Truth is if it isn't stated in a language? "Truth swings free of belief" is an attempt to get away from "truth swings free of language."

    Or, put it this way: the problem of "truth swings free of language" rests on an equivocation in what is meant by "truth": 1) as a statable belief and 2) as a structure in how language functions. Once you distinguish those two, here's what Davidson says: (1) is a sentence and (2) is the disquotational theory of truth. In the second case, you can't separate truth from language, because "language"--as a thing--doesn't work without a concept of truth. In the first case, you can separate truth from a particular sentence: some sentences are false. And, more importantly for your point, some sentences haven't been stated. You're wondering about the unstated truth (not yet effed) and rubbing that together with the unstatable truth (ineffable). Brandom's implicit/explicit distinction takes care of the unstated truth (giving it the ontological status of an implicit sentence which is true). But what about the unstatable truth?

    Well, why should we wonder about an unstatable truth? Wouldn't that require a Kantian-style distinction? Wouldn't that demand a different path to knowing of its existence than speaking, like a faculty called "intuition" (which I suggested we stay away from)?


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