Truth & Consequences

By Midgely, Mary | Commonweal, May 21, 1999 | Go to article overview

Truth & Consequences


Midgely, Mary, Commonweal


Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate Susan Haack University of Chicago Press, $22.50, 212 pp.

This is a good book, which might perhaps have had a better title: In Defense of Truth. Philosopher and logician Susan Haack does passionately seek a middle position between absurd extremes on a number of questions. But her central passion concerns, as the blurb puts it, "whether there is such a thing as truth, whether there is a real difference between knowledge and propaganda," particularly in the case of science. This is, of course, a current battlefield. As she says: "The Old Deferentialists, taking the rationality of science for granted, assumed that there must be a uniquely rational method of enquiry exclusive to the sciences; the New Cynics, noticing the failure of efforts to articulate what that uniquely rational method is, conclude that science is not a rational enterprise, in fact, that the whole idea of an objectively better- or worse-conducted enquiry is ideological humbug. Neither the Old Deferentialism nor the New Cynicism will do."

Well, no. After all, we have known for a long time that science is not infallible or unique in the way that Descartes hoped. It is not obvious why this startling discovery should now force us to ditch the whole concept of truth. But the ideological Law of Pendulums, by which every action must have an equal and opposite reaction, does (it seems) require this. Accordingly, a genuine recognition of the way in which social backgrounds affect science has been inflated into the claim that this background is the whole picture. Inquiry thus becomes simply social interaction; there is no real quest for scientific or philosophical truth.

Haack's main business in this book is, then, to examine and explode this current truth-phobia in the writings of various thinkers, above all of perhaps America's most widely read philosopher, Richard Rorty. Like everyone who takes these positions, Rorty oscillates between being a quite reasonable Jekyll, making useful statements about particular relativities, and a Hyde who pours out vertiginous, paradoxical generalities. With the reverent care of a naturalist, Haack collects specimens of Hyde at work: "'Justification' is a social phenomenon rather than a transaction between 'the knowing subject' and 'reality.'...We understand knowledge when we understand the social justification of belief; and thus have no need to view it as accuracy of representation....I do not have much use for notions like 'objective truth.'...Truth is entirely a matter of solidarity....Nominalists like myself...see language as just human beings using marks and noises to get what they want....[To call a statement true] is just to give it a rhetorical pat on the back....'Truth' is whatever can overcome all conversational objections. [The pragmatist] drops the notion of truth as correspondence with reality" [emphasis mine].

Haack points out interestingly how often flamboyant rhetoric alone is left to do the work of discrediting the concept attacked. Most of these remarks come from a particularly hilarious chapter where she ingeniously intersperses Rorty's remarks with quotes from the founder of pragmatism, Charles Pierce, so as to form a continuous argument which shows how totally Pierce rejected these extreme positions.

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