Merrill Ring

Rorty begins his Introduction to the Consequences of Pragmatism by saying that the essays collected therein are "attempts to draw consequences from a pragmatist theory about truth." He wisely proceeds to say immediately what that theory of truth is upon which the remainder of the book will hang. It is his account of that theory of truth in which I am interested here.

Observe that Rorty does not refer to 'the' pragmatist theory of truth. What he offers as the foundation stone of the book is "a" pragmatist theory of truth. One might ask how Rorty's pragmatic theory of truth relates to the various characterizations of truth produced by Peirce, James and Dewey which are also given the label 'pragmatic'. I won't be interested in that line of inquiry here. All that I shall hold Rorty accountable for is producing a theory of truth which fits, even if generously or ingeniously, into some larger philosophical picture that can be said to be pragmatist.

Now for Rorty's account of truth: "This theory says that truth is not the sort of thing one should expect to have a philosophically interesting theory about."

It is certain that Rorty intends a paradox: 'There is something philosophically interesting to be said about truth, namely that there is nothing philosophically interesting to be said about truth.' What, of course, that way of putting the matter reminds us of is the relative nature of being 'philosophically interesting'. More of that later.

Rorty does not restrict himself to the paradoxical formulation of the theory and proceeds to offer a more substantial account. "For pragmatists, 'truth' is just the name of a property which all true statements share. It is what is common to 'Bacon did not write Shakespeare,' 'It rained yesterday,' 'E equals mc2,' 'Love is better than hate,' 'The Allegory of Painting was Vermeer's best work,' '2 plus 2 is 4,' and 'There are nondenumerable infinities.' Pragmatists doubt that there is much to be said about this common feature."

There are two claims embedded in the Pragmatic Theory of Truth (PTT) so conceived: (1) truth is just the name of a property which all true statements share and (2) there is not much to be said about that common feature.

The PTT appears nominalist. That is, it suggests the nominalist account that there is nothing which binds together the members of a group which we classify together other than the fact that we classify them together, presumably acting upon some interest of ours. That nominalism is suggested, I think, both by Rorty's dismissive "truth is just ..." and also by the second claim that there is not much to be said about truth.

However the nominalist appearance is misleading. For although he speaks dismissively, Rorty does say that truth is "the name of a property which all true statements share." It is what is common to his set of enumerated truths. And that language is definitely not nominalist, in fact is definitely realist, Platonic in fact. Plato, pursuing Socrates, would have said or assumed precisely that about truth had he written a dialogue in which the central question was 'What is truth?'

Thus, far from having a philosophically uninteresting story to tell about truth, Rorty has enlisted himself, though with a hint of treason, to the Platonic, realist, story about truth. But he is uncomfortable with that kinship (remember also his harassing of Platonism) and attempts to detach himself from such bedfellows and perhaps inch closer to nominalism. That dissociation is the role of the second clause of the theory: that even though 'truth' names a property possessed by all true statements, there is not much of interest to be said about that property. Not, notice, that there is nothing to be said, just: not much. I presume that one thing Rorty means we can't to do is what Socrates hoped to do with common properties, namely spell out a definition of them (e.g. 'knowledge is true justified belief'.) Still, even if that philosophical aim is impossible with respect to truth (and given what we know of Rorty, it may well be impossible on general grounds), it is possible to make a philosophically interesting thesis of that: Rorty on truth is not far from G.E. Moore on the subject of 'good'. Moore said about 'good' that there is no definition of it; rather 'good' is the name of a simple non-natural property whose presence in any given instance must be apprehended by intuition.

Hence in backing away from the Platonism of the first part of the PTT, Rorty does not get too far away at all. He ends up in an intuitionist version of Platonism. He can't be too happy about that.