Platonic Pragmatism





Platonic Pragmatism



The pragmatic theory of truth has this going for it: it recognizes that truth is something with value. Truth is something we ought to pursue and hence has a normative aspect. It is good to believe what is true and bad to believe what is false. Truth is a desirable property of belief. As William James says, “The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief” (1907). It is contradictory to say, “We ought to believe what is true but truth is not a good thing”. Any theory of truth that fails to acknowledge the normative character of truth is defective or at least incomplete. Thus the classic correspondence theory fails to meet this condition: for what is so good about correspondence? If correspondence is a type of isomorphism, what is desirable about isomorphism? Sameness of form is not ipso facto a good thing: objects can share their form without this being something they ought to do (crystals, mice). If truth were just correspondence, it would be normatively neutral, not the desirable trait we take it to be (much the same can be said about coherence). Truth cannot reduce to a property or relation that bears no trace of the normative; it must have some type of goodness built into it. This seems like a solid insight on the part of the pragmatist and a cogent criticism of other theories. Call it “Convention G”: any adequate theory of truth must reveal truth as an inherently normative property, i.e. an instance of the Good. It must be something about which we (rightly) care.

The pragmatist, having identified this requirement, goes on to give an account of what the goodness in question consists in; and it is an account both natural and dubious. The goodness of truth is simply the way it conduces to human flourishing—the way it leads to a satisfying life. Truth is what contributes to human happiness: believing what is true will make us happy not sad. This is because true beliefs enable us to satisfy our desires more successfully than false beliefs. The farmer with true agricultural beliefs will reap a better harvest than one who has false agricultural beliefs. We will dress more comfortably for the weather if we have true beliefs about the state of the weather. A stockbroker with true beliefs about the market will make more money than one who has false beliefs. We can express these facts by saying that true beliefs have good utilitarian consequences; indeed, we could call this type of pragmatism “the utilitarian theory of truth”.[1] The truth is what maximizes utility (so it has a lot in common with the right as a utilitarian conceives it). Truth is good because self-gratification is good—good food, nice home, stimulating company. Truth is good for the same reason other things are good: it leads to pleasure, satisfaction, happiness. We can all agree that these things are good; well, truth is just one among the engines of human gratification. The pragmatist thus invokes ordinary human goods and identifies the goodness of truth with these goods.

And this is a very natural move: what else could constitute the goodness of truth? But it is also a move that has generated criticism: for surely not all true beliefs maximize utility—for example, grief will be the result of believing truly that a loved one has just died. Sometimes truth requires us to face harsh realities; the happiness-producing belief may be the false belief. And what about true belief in a society ruled by propaganda, as in George Orwell’s 1984? In Orwell’s dystopia true belief leads inevitably to Room 101 (and we know what happens to you there). Isn’t the pragmatic theory a recipe for wishful thinking, conformity, and slavery to the passions? We want to protest: you could believe the truth and it lead to absolute disaster—it would still be the truth! Sure, truth often leads to utility, but not as a matter of definition, not as a matter of essence. A belief can be true even though it fails to maximize utility. Additionally, a belief can be true though it has nothing to do with desire satisfaction, as with abstract theoretical beliefs. The pragmatist has therefore failed to explain the nature of truth in terms of human goods of the standard sort. Is it then an incorrect theory?

But didn’t it seem to rest on an important insight—the normative nature of truth? Here we need to separate two things: (a) truth as a type of good and (b) the utilitarian theory of goodness. We can have (a) without (b). Consider Plato’s account of truth in which truth is essentially connected to goodness and beauty: for Plato, believing the truth is contemplating the sublime world of forms, chief among them the form of the Good. This makes for an elevation of the soul: communion with the perfect and eternal. This is not a matter of appetites and bodily needs, quite the contrary. Plato accepts that truth is a type of good but he doesn’t identify the good with desire satisfaction. For him, the good is contemplating the forms, and that is what true belief enables one to do. This will lead to a special higher form of happiness—the happiness of rational contemplation, roughly. There is thus room for a Platonic form of pragmatism: true belief is belief that leads to rational happiness, i.e. contemplation of the forms. This kind of happiness (soul elevation) is consistent with many kinds of ordinary unhappiness. A person may be destitute and yet in rational contact with a higher reality (Diogenes, for example): his believing is good even though it does not mitigate his material deprivations. If there are goods beyond the basic goods, then a Platonic pragmatist can appeal to these goods to explain the nature of truth.[2] We ought to pursue truth because of these goods not those identified by your typical American pragmatist, focused as he is on creaturely wellbeing. Truth is essentially connected to the Good and the Beautiful, according to Plato; so these notions can be invoked to inject a normative element into truth. We can thus be Platonic pragmatists not American-style pragmatists. At any rate, such a combination of views is logically consistent and not unattractive.

We need not agree with Plato’s view of truth in order to appreciate the architecture of his position. Truth is a good thing, but its goodness does not consist in desire satisfaction but in something more rarified—the “good of the intellect”. Truth is an intellectual good not an appetitive good; it is superior to falsehood as a condition of the intellectual faculties. It may not be easy to specify the nature of this kind of goodness, though it commands intuitive acceptance, but it offers a way to agree with the basic insight of pragmatism while avoiding the standard objections to it. There is something “pragmatic” about truth in the sense that it conduces to a human good—an intellectual good—but it is not a matter of maximizing non-intellectual wellbeing. The good of truth is not the good of satiety, safety, and prosperity; it is the good of understanding, insight, and judgment. More grandly, it is the good of intellectual receptivity to reality—a kind of self-transcendence. It is the very opposite of slavery to the passions, subjection to our own needy animal nature; it opens the self to what lies beyond it. Classic pragmatism puts the human self at the center of the search for truth, identifying truth with the satisfaction of basic human needs; Platonic pragmatism puts the aim of self-transcendence at the center of the search for truth, identifying truth with the intellectual good of apprehending reality impersonally, without regard to its ability to satisfy our needs. It is both the opposite of classic pragmatism and yet a version of its basic insight, viz. that truth must be connected to goodness in order to be what we intuitively take it to be. Platonic pragmatism thus has the virtues but not the vices of classic pragmatism.


Colin McGinn

[1] Pragmatism is a consequentialist theory of truth that emphasizes human happiness. Formally, it resembles utilitarianism with respect to moral rightness: the right act is the one with the best utilitarian consequences. Thus utilitarianism might be characterized as “moral pragmatism”. The two doctrines have a similar form, though one concerns rightness of action and the other concerns truth of belief. Were the pragmatists influenced by the utilitarians?

[2] Another traditional conception of truth provides a direct link between truth and goodness, namely the idea that in knowing the truth about the world we come to know God’s mind. If God created the world according to his own nature, then insight into the world is insight into God’s nature, and that is in itself deemed good. Thus truth is valuable because knowledge of God is valuable; such knowledge may even enable to live better lives by God’s standards. Again, this is a kind of “pragmatism” that does not appeal to the idea of human desire as the good that truth serves, instead invoking a “higher” type of good.


Ontological commitment

Ontological Commitment



Can there be a criterion of ontological commitment? Can there be a formal test of what a person is ontologically committed to? What a person is committed to is a matter of what he believes or assumes or presupposes or is prepared to act on—on his attitudes. So the question is whether there is a linguistic litmus test for an attitude of commitment. Can we read a person’s ontology off his verbal productions? Can I figure out my ontological commitments by inspecting my use of language?

The first thing to observe is that the question is not restricted to matters of existence. As the term is commonly used “ontological commitment” is taken to refer to what a person takes to exist, so that it is interchangeable with “existential commitment”. That is certainly one form of commitment—what a person believes to exist—but it is not the only form. Consider “chromatic commitment”: what colors you believe things have (whether they exist or not). You may believe that things are colored and you may believe specific color claims—these are your chromatic ontological commitments. Ontology concerns what is so, and color is a matter of what is so. Roses are red and violets are blue—and Santa Klaus has a white beard and a red cloak (whether he exists or not). I might believe that colors are unreal and that nothing has them; in that case I am not ontologically committed with respect to color, though I might well believe in the existence of the things commonly said to be colored. Ontological commitment can concern any fact or putative fact: do you believe in that fact or not? Do you believe in moral facts, divine facts, facts about unobservable entities, psychological facts, and so on? Existence is just one kind of ontological commitment: we might say that it concerns one type of property, viz. the property of existence. Does anything have the property of existing? Which things do? Does anything have the property of being colored? Which things do? And so for any property you care to mention. A criterion for existential commitment might be a willingness to affirm “Such-and-such exists”, and a criterion for chromatic commitment might be a willingness to affirm “Such-and-such is red” (and similarly for other kinds of fact). It is artificial to single out existence from other sorts of ontological commitment: it is just one kind of factual commitment. The proper contrast here is with “epistemological commitment”: what we are committed to in the way of knowledge. What is it that we think we know? Do we think there is any knowledge, and if so what is known? We can be committed on questions of being (fact, reality) and we can be committed on questions of knowledge; what we are committed to existentially is just a special case of a more general question.

The question of providing a criterion of ontological commitment is thus broader than that of providing a criterion of existential commitment. Quine announced, “To be is to be the value of a variable”; he has been paraphrased thus, “What you say there is, you say there is”. That is, you are committed to whatever your sentences mean: if you affirm a sentence that can be true only if certain things exist, then you committed to the existence of those things. For example, you can’t say, “There are numbers” and then turn round and deny there are numbers: you must be taken at your word. But it is the same with all forms of ontological commitment: if you say, “Roses are red” you can’t turn round and deny that roses are red (same for “good”, “solid”, “conscious”, and so on). To be committed to red things is to describe things as red. You are committed to such facts as your sayings require for their truth. The criterion of commitment is saying. You can’t disavow what you affirm: you can’t say it and then try to take it back. You can’t say it in practice but then disavow it theoretically. You can’t have your ontological cake and eat it. You can’t weasel out of your statements.

That sounds all very reasonable (indeed trivial—what was the fuss all about?), but actually it runs into difficulties as a formal test of ontological commitment. The idea was to provide a public formal test of ontological commitment, eschewing the vagaries of what a person internally believes. We might think of it as a behavioral criterion for a mental phenomenon: what a person is committed to (believes to be) is what he affirms in his public utterances. A person believes in unicorns if she affirms, “There are unicorns” or “Unicorns exist”. I determine what I believe in by examining what I say, and I might be surprised at what turns up (I may find that I accept, say, an ontology of events or possible worlds). Thus the criterion is formal and public: it invokes facts of language and it is interpersonally accessible. No need to delve into the inner recesses of a person’s mind.

But the proposal is obviously problematic. It hardly provides a necessary condition, since you can keep silent about what you believe or may not have language at all; and it is not sufficient, since speech is not always sincere assertion. It is possible to say something and not believe what one says, as in play-acting or elocution practice. Even in assertion you may not be committed to what you assert in the sense that you believe what you say. A liar can’t use his assertions to figure out his ontological commitments. The assertion must be sincere, i.e. you must believe what you assert. But that is what we were seeking a criterion for–belief. Speech is never a sure guide to belief, so we can’t formulate a test of ontological commitment from facts about speech. My ontological commitments can be read off my sincere assertions—if I sincerely assert, “Snow is white”, then I am committed to snow being white—but the commitment comes from the belief not the assertion. No act of speech (or writing) can add up to belief, so there cannot be a formal linguistic criterion of ontological commitment. In order to find out what I am committed to you have to find out what I believe; what I say isn’t going to get you there. It may be true that what I say there is I say there is, but it doesn’t follow that that is what I believe there is. The most that can be claimed is that we have criterion for the ontological commitments of what someone says—a speech act is “committed” to what is required for its truth—but this is a far cry from the ontological commitments of a person. What I believe is not the same thing as what I say, since I may not give voice to my beliefs and, if I do, I may not mean what I say. My ontological commitments are fixed by my beliefs—but that is a trivial tautology not an illuminating criterion.



This Country

I find it increasingly difficult to live in this country. The people are solipsistic, deluded, gullible, prejudiced, violent, histrionic, puerile, stupid, and callous. And there are some pretty terrible people outside of universities too.