Pragmatism: What’s the Use?   /   Fall 2001   /    Articles

Reclaiming Truth Talk

Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary

Linda Martín Alcoff

Spagghettieis, a dessert designed to look like spaghetti. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Catherine Elgin has usefully diagnosed a “bipolar disorder” that continues to incapacitate philosophy and much of contemporary social theory. Its unwitting sufferers oscillate between equally unhappy alternatives: the absolute and the arbitrary. Following Elgin, I will define the absolute position as one committed to the belief in determinate or absolute truths, as opposed to relative or pluralist ones, and committed to the possibility of discerning truth in a way that is agent-neutral, or better, agent-transcendent—that is, not dependent on the position or perspective of the person discerning it. Both those espousing absolutism and those espousing arbitrariness share this conceptualization of truth as absolute, but differ in whether or not they are fatalistic or optimistic in regard to its attainability. Those at the absolute end of the spectrum believe that absolute truth is attainable, while those at the arbitrary end of the spectrum believe it is unattainable.

Many who want to cure philosophy and contemporary social theory of this pathology and transcend the dualism of the absolute and the arbitrary argue that we need to leave behind truth talk altogether.11xElgin herself argues against truth talk at times, as does Rorty, which should indicate that the repudiation of truth talk can be made for very different reasons. Rorty wishes to dispense with a metaphysical description of what we know in favor of an aesthetic one, while Elgin merely wishes to forego the application of representational models to every arena of inquiry. See Catherine Elgin, Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 1. They say that it unnecessarily creates absolutist requirements and makes everything non-absolute look like it can have nothing to do with truth and must therefore be arbitrary. Many who take this line of argument see themselves as following in the pragmatist tradition. I will argue in this paper that the attempt to transcend the bipolar disorder of the absolute and the arbitrary is not served well by dispensing with truth talk. By truth talk I mean here not simply the use of the word “true” but the idea that truth is substantive, that it is not collapsible to or a mere extrapolation from procedures and concepts of justification. In short, truth talk brings in the world.

This is a large conversation with many participants. To make my project manageable, I will look at just two of those involved in this discussion: Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam, who are today surely the main competitors for the title of head pragmatist. Both Rorty and Putnam repudiate absolutism. Thus both have adopted some of the main premises on which the repudiation of truth relies, but they have come to different conclusions about the viability of truth and representation. To compare their positions, I will take up a specific example of a recent feminist argument in the discipline of history, in order to consider just how plausible, or relevant, the arguments for and against truth talk appear in relation to this example. The example comes from Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse’s excellent, recent study of personal life and the emergence of the English middle class in The Imaginary Puritan: Literature, Intellectual Labor, and the Origins of Personal Life.

Philosophers too often pick relatively easy cases, such as simple perception or claims in the natural sciences that have a lot of empirical evidence and appear neutral, such as the existence of atoms or electrons. The question of truth is much more difficult in complex, multi-variable, explanatory accounts or theories in the social sciences. In cases where empirical evidence is at least a part of the argument, but the grounds for justification are highly interpretive, can we ever claim truth? Even if we think we can’t, it is not so easy to dispense with this arena of inquiry as inappropriate to truth talk, since it spans received knowledge from evolutionary biology to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Moreover, there is much at stake in these debates in the social sciences, much more than in how to characterize electrons ontologically.

I chose the particular example I will discuss for two main reasons. First, it is explicitly feminist and thus useful because some will be suspicious about its truth status just on those grounds: how can a claim be both objective and politically motivated? Yet every large claim in the social sciences necessarily begins with some assumptions, and the choice of assumptions almost always reflects some broad political values. It has become especially clear in the domain of historical narrative that political values inform the choice of narrative, as between, for example, a story of “discovery,” an “encounter,” or an “invasion.” Nor can we simply add such various accounts together to achieve the truth; they often directly conflict. Thus, arguably, feminist arguments simply make explicit what is there all the time.

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