It Really Matters What is True

Did you listen to that In Our Time with Julian and Anthony Grayling and Miranda Fricker? There was one bit near the end where it seemed to me Julian kind of pulled a fast one. I transcribed it. See what you think.

The thing about Rorty is that he does reject this idea of Truth with a capital T, as all the pragmatists do, and – but the thing is it’s not so much that he thinks it’s a philosophical mistake to think we can have that kind of truth, which represents the world – he does think that’s a mistake – but I think more importantly, he thinks it’s just not that important or relevant. And his attitude to philosophers who are very preoccupied with it like a lot of his British critics like Simon Blackburn and the late Bernard Williams is that these people really need to kind of grow up, and this preoccupation is irrelevant, because what matters for the spreading of liberal values, broadly liberal values, is not fundamentally whether or not we can show their truth value, as it were, in a traditional philosophical sense, it’s whether or not we can gain the kind of social solidarity and agreement which allows people to take them up and to share them and to live together – so again it’s that idea of trying to create political values – based on sharing – and truth is irrelevant. Who’s going to persuade someone to adopt, say, broadly western liberalism on the basis that ‘it is the Truth’? No one. Who’s going to get someone to share them on the basis that ‘look, this is how we can live together, this is how we can work, this is how we can get respect – maybe that stands a better chance.

No one, but calling western liberalism the Truth isn’t really the issue, is it? Liberalism is a set of political ideas; it’s a set of values; it’s not a set of facts. The question is not so much who is going to persuade someone to adopt liberalism by saying ‘it is the Truth’ as it is who is going to persuade someone that the Holocaust really did happen and that the gas chambers really were gas chambers, or who is going to persuade someone that the scientific evidence does not support ‘Intelligent Design’. It’s the is-ought gap, the facts-values gap, again. Miranda Fricker indicated that:

In a funny sort of way Rorty, who many – many fans and followers of the original pragmatists are pretty angry with Rorty for his co-opting pragmatism into a very relativistic-sounding programme – many defenders of liberal values, the same values as Rorty espouses, want to say ‘well hang on a minute, it may not be that we persuade others of liberal values by talking about truth, but my goodness, if you’re living in an oppressed state, you really care whether it was true that you were a spy or not when you’re sitting in prison, it really matters what is true and what is not.’ And so there is an unfortunate relativistic drift in Rorty’s co-option of pragmatism, and yet, he is partly responsible for bringing it all back to our attention, and bringing people to read it again, and I think it’s now being taught much more than it was for awhile. And if you pick up a reader on truth you’re much more likely to find something by James or Peirce than you were a few years ago.

It really matters what is true and what is not.

And that’s good because there’s this book coming out in a few months about exactly that – the fact that it matters what is true. Why Truth Matters, it’s called.

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