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.

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