The notion of Absolute Truth began from the conviction that, though what we are justified in believing changes, what is in all actuality true stays the same. We can imagine its origins in the notion of a supreme being that looked down on the affairs of humanity from on high and had, because of its omniscience, an invariable sense of truth. Plato still had this notion of omniscience when he suggested that the affairs of humanity were a pale reflection of what was really going on, mere shadows of the actual objects. So, Plato said, we could follow the Sophists and play with shadows if we wanted, but true philosophers seek the actual objects standing behind them.
Plato, however, didn’t just posit his notion of the Realm of the Forms as some explanation of why things change, of why we used to think kings or democracy were good, but now we don’t. Plato also had a much more practical goal in mind. Plato had learned from his teacher, Socrates, that doing what you believe is pious conversationally amounts to the same thing as performing the will of the gods. And yet, Plato thought that we could find out what the will of the gods was. He thought he had found a method, a way of cutting through the thick veil of appearance. This was Socrates’ elenchus transformed into the dialectic. The exercise of the Republic was to show that if we found out more about the Form of Justice, we could be more just to our fellow citizens, more about the Form of the Good, more ethical to other people, more about Truth, less wrong.
If we could find out more about Truth, which is invariable, eternal, and absolute, we could have more true beliefs—truth is the ultimate justification. The trouble that immediately confronted Plato’s project was the sense that its aspirations and ambition was enormous. To undertake the project of looking for the ultimate justification was to bypass run-of-the-mill justification, which we can see in Plato’s bitterness in describing the ship of state—nobody bothers to ask how to run the ship the only people who really know how to run the ship. The problem, of course, is that the Platonic philosopher’s faraway gaze tends to gloss over the here and now. Plato thought that in the long run, philosophers were the only way to go. But in the short run, Aristotle’s practical philosophy took over the hearts and minds of intellectuals.
I follow Stephen Toulmin in thinking that Descartes marked the resurgence of the Platonic desire to bypass the here and now of justification to attain the always and forever of Absolute Truth. This desire is marked by the priority of epistemology, of figuring out and getting straight in advance what the foundations and criteria are for truth and justification. By figuring out in advance what the criteria of truth are we could short-circuit the need to justify for particular audiences. Descartes, like Plato, knew that any particular person or audience could be flawed, though both supposed that every person, deep down, has the same unequivocal capacity to see the Truth.
Post-Cartesian epistemology has struggled long and hard in the face of a seemingly insurmountable difficulty: all criteria are stated by people, people who belong to audiences, audiences that are transitory and perhaps flawed. The counterinsurgency to Cartesian philosophy, led by philosophers from Bayle and Hume to Hegel and Nietzsche to James and Wittgenstein, has been a long trail countering the idea that we may yet erect an ahistorical boundary-water for what we may think, for what truth may appear as to us. The trail has taken many turns and forms, but one thing is worth highlighting here: every step of the way, every counter to proposed methods and criteria, has forced Cartesians further and further away from the lives of their fellow brethren. Cartesian philosophy became more and more insulated from the concerns of humanity the harder they tried to formulate this foundation for Knowledge and Truth. And this surely makes predictable sense: one can imagine that reformulating and refining a project who’s goal is to bypass the need for any particular, historically instantiated audience’s assent (because an audience’s assent is the devil’s curse of transitory historicity) will eventually become remote from what the rest of humanity is doing. As every branch originally grown on philosophy’s tree fell to the earth, from astronomy to physics and psychology to intellectual history, philosophy happily waved good-bye and focused on what increasingly became its only purpose: the search for Absolute Truth, though in these latter days we prudently call it something like the search for independent criteria of veridical validity.
As the 19th-century strolled into the 20th, in the anglophone world old-school system building waned in the face of the waxing of what is now called “analytic philosophy”. Philosophers put the sloppy and tidy speculations aside in favor of the solution to definite and discernible problems. Everything, however, still revolved around the search for criteria. After all, without criteria for the solution of problems, arguments would continue on for centuries—like they had been. Philosophers began to feel anxious about this. What’s more, the movement that many early analytic philosophers had pinned their hopes on, logical positivism, began to fall apart by the middle of the century. Logical positivists had thought that they had finally found their way to Truth. Their first move against the muddy tradition of criterionless, speculative philosophy was to pin all of their hopes on science. The New Science changed philosophy irrevocably in Descartes’ time, but the logical positivists thought that the philosophical proposals marshaled by the descendents of Descartes and Locke, and even Kant (though especially evil Hegel), had fallen away from the science bandwagon and had hoped for something special for themselves. Oh no, said the logical positivists, science is where it is all happening and the sooner we figure that out the better we’ll all be. Science gets results. They have criteria. So, positivists said, the sooner we start acting like scientists, the sooner we’ll solve these trifle things we call “philosophical problems.”
Having already peremptorily relegated themselves to a status lower than physics, they set about trying to help science by getting straight what science was doing. This prompted the second move against the tradition, the move towards the study of language. Since everything has to be stated in language, the sooner we get a rigorous, scientific study of language off the ground, a set of logical and grammatical rules, the sooner this mess will all end—hence the rise of symbolic logic in philosophy departments.
To pull it all together, both the obeisance to science and the lynchpin of language, the logical positivists proposed their great criterion for truth: the verifiability criterion. If what made science so lovely was that it was verifiable, and science got us truth, then shouldn’t the great criterion for truth be verifiability? This wasn’t a bad idea at all, except for one thing: how was the criterion itself verifiable? By any of the interesting versions of the criterion’s own lights, the criterion itself was unverifiable and therefore cognitively meaningless. This broke one of the first rules of philosophy: don’t deny anything you’ve presupposed.
Logical positivism never really recovered and through the fifties and sixties was subjected to continuous attacks by an ever more bolder subsection of the analytic establishment. This subsection began to increasingly identify as pragmatists. The pragmatists from an earlier generation, Peirce, James, and Dewey, were famously reviled by the up and coming analytic movement. Russell said of Dewey that the pragmatist theory of truth amounted to “the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety.” The pragmatists were famous for returning to the realm of human praxis, in focusing on justification, rather than truth. Platonic realists like Russell feared that such an exultation of the powers of humanity might bring the hubris of future generations declaring that Caesar never crossed the Rubicon.
Analytics who led the attack on logical positivism were those like Quine, Sellars, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Putnam, Davidson, and Rorty. Rorty in particular became a poster-boy for the attacks because of his combination of acute analysis and argumentation, breadth of historical knowledge, range of philosophical acquaintance, and, perhaps unfortunately most of all, his penchant for bombastic turns of phrase. Rorty linked most explicitly the movement away from logical positivism to the movement towards pragmatism, but, like James and Dewey before him, became attached to such notions as relativism, irrationalism, nihilism, and the end of philosophy. For our purposes at hand, he was taken to deny truth. By attacking the notion of “absolute truth,” the Platonic notion of theoretically outlining where and how truth occurs and therefore what is true, Rorty suggested that truth is not a philosophically interesting topic that inquiry into could help in the living of our lives.
Lately Rorty has come to grips with the idea that some of the suggestions proposed by pragmatism are counterintuitive, which itself seems counterintuitive to the idea of pragmatism. Pragmatism was supposed to be about the elimination of extraneous philosophical attachments, appealing to the common sense of our practical lives. But Rorty agrees with Feyerbend that, for instance, as long as we have common speech, we are going to have the idea of “mind,” that which philosophical wrecking balls like Ryle and Dennett have been trying to demystify. Rorty has generalized this sentiment (along with Nietzsche’s that as long as we have grammar, we’ll have God) by suggesting that Platonism is built into our common sense. But philosophy since Plato has been not just about summarizing the way we think, but also suggesting changes in the way we think. In philosophy, the intuitive has always been commingled with the counterintuitive to create a new intuition, a new common sense that is perhaps better than the old.
One of the ways in which this is given effect is by making a distinction between commonsensical conversation and philosophical conversation, so-called “speaking with the vulgar” and more sophisticated, specialized talk. As I suggested above, philosophy has become a highly technical enterprise that has been disengaging itself from everyday life for many, many years. Some people, however, are suspicious of such a distinction between two conversations, seeing it as breeding pointless jargonizing and instead valuing “plainer speech.” However, I think one can still keep, for instance, Pirsig’s criticism of pointless Victorian circumlocutions while acknowledging that, for instance, scientists keep the kind of distinction I’m talking about between their activities at work and at home (by calling it a “table” instead of a “cloud of electrons between vectors X, Y, and Z”), or between writing articles for scientific journals and writing a “popular science” book.
The point is the common sense one that our words gain resonance and meaning from the contexts in which we use them. A great impetus for 20th century analytic philosophy was the notion that the problems of philosophy (so-called “metaphysical problems” like free will vs. determinism) were created by taking words like “freedom” out of the original, common sense contexts in which they arose and creating a new context for them, one that warped their original meaning until it had little to do with the original context, thus creating pseudo-problems—in other words, metaphysics was simply a set of pointless circumlocutions that just confused things.
The subsection of the analytic movement that was based on the above impetus became known as “ordinary language philosophy”, or Oxford philosophy (because of the residence of its most well-known gurus, J. L. Austin, Gilbert Ryle, and P. F. Strawson). On the one hand, Oxford philosophy foundered just as logical positivism did, but it does create added pressure for us philosophers in justifying some of the contexts we deal in. How does, or could, this effect us? What I think we see in the rise of neopragmatism, basically pragmatism in the analytic idiom (i.e., post-linguistic turn), is the rewrapping of the upshot of both Oxford philosophy and logical positivism. Logical positivism was also known in a slightly wider sense as “ideal language philosophy”. Their goal was to create a language that made it impossible to state or make sense of philosophical problems. They looked to the future, to possible innovations in language to relieve us of these problems, whereas ordinary language philosophy looked to our past, at the ways in which we use words in common sense contexts. I think pragmatism combines these two directions by playing them off of each other. We look at the way in which we currently use words, we look at our current contexts, and if we see problems arising, we either 1) eschew the context as being extraneous, as serving a pointless purpose or 2) change the language we use, change the context so that it may serve its purpose, but without the problems. (This distillation of wisdom from mid-20th century analytic philosophy comes out strongly when we retrospectively read Rorty’s judicious introduction to his 1967 anthology The Linguistic Turn.)
With the notion of “absolute”, I would like to say that there’s nothing wrong with it in common sense contexts, but that there is something wrong with some of the notions created in philosophical contexts—that the effects in such contexts do not extend to everyday life at all. As James said after likewise dismissing the free will/determinism problem, it makes a difference that makes no difference. So, on the one hand saying that “my cat absolutely died by hanging itself with its leash” is true and perfectly understandle, saying that “we have to believe in Absolute Truth to be truthful”, while possibly making sense, cannot ever effect our practice. Plato created an activity, that of inquiring into Truth, of creating a theory of Truth that would surround all true statements, that cannot end, and cannot therefore cash out for us in everyday practice, because treating truth as an object of inquiry creates an activity that has no criteria for even knowing if we had found what we were looking for, an activity that would go on indefinitely with no parameters for even knowing which direction is the right direction to go hunting in. Absolute Truth, as an object to be inquired into, theorized and philosophized about, is a wheel that spins idly by itself. And if it is dead weight, it would be best to cut it loose from our philosophical language, thus trimming our own philosophical language and not letting it get away from us with pointless jargonizing.
The reason why pragmatists have often been excoriated about truth is because the so-called pragmatist theory of truth is said to prove its own falsity—if the true is what works, then the pragmatist theory of truth is false, ‘cuz it don’t work. Pragmatists like Rorty and Davidson have learned that this is right, that as a theory of truth it doesn’t work. One of the formulations that Dewey gave is that truth is warranted assertibility. If truth is warranted assertibility, then “truth” becomes the same thing as “justification”. That conflation is exactly what leads people to call pragmatists relativists, because while we see that justification is relative to audiences, communities, contexts, truth is separate from it for the exact reason that relativism is absurd.
So pragmatists should be willing to admit that justification is different from truth. What they’ve realized though is that the problem is with thinking we need a theory of truth, that we need (or can have) an interesting definition of truth. As Davidson says, truth, like good, is indefinable. The development of theories of truth are exactly those philosophical activities that treat Truth as an object of inquiry, inquiries through which we could learn more about truth and therefore, ideally, the application of “true” to particular linguistic items like “Slavery is wrong”. But how can we learn anything if, in such an inquiry, we appear to be in an endless sea with no compass?
In recent years, Rorty has learned to be content with the notion that truth is an absolute concept. Rorty is splitting the difference between common sense and the counterintuitive suggestions of pragmatism. It makes sense to say that justification is relative, but not truth. So we can say in perfect coherence that the Greeks were justified in practicing slavery, but they were still wrong. Truth may be an absolute notion, but pragmatists think we should give up the hope for a theory of it, that we should stop treating it as an object of inquiry. Justification (by such earmarks as Pirsig’s “tests of truth”) is our only criterion for truth, but that shouldn’t lead us to think they are the same, though likewise we shouldn’t hope for some other criterion. Justification is relative to community, but that doesn’t make us relativists because it isn’t clear what other criterion we could have for truth. It simply makes us fallible experimentalists, always in search of betterness. There are no theories for truth, justification, or betterness. We simply accrue them by the living of life.