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Rorty on Truth: Truth, What is it Good For?

Ilkka Pättiniemi

Welcome, dear reader, to the third installment of Rorty on Truth. This time around I will take a look at what the concept of ‘truth’ can be good for, at least according to Rorty.

Let’s start with a caricature. (I’m not sure that this in fact is a caricature, but am perfectly willing to accept it as such.) What makes Truth supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is that it excludes error, explains the success of science or epistemic success more generally, and it’s the thing (with some other ingredients) that turns mere belief, mere opinion, into knowledge. So, I have not made a mistake, since what I say is true. Science works, because it gets at the truth. I know that dogs are mammals, because my belief that this is the case, is true. Truth, then, is something our enquiries should aim at. Rorty – and I – will have none of this. 

So, why is it that truth cannot be the goal of enquiry? First we must consider what the property ‘true’ or ‘truth’ applies to. Is it a property of things? Does it make sense to say, for instance, that “that rock over there is true”? Only in the sense of a paraphrase for something like “it is true that there is a rock over there”. Truth, then, is first and foremost a property of statements. This raises the question, what is the practical difference of the following two statements: (1) “There is a rock over there”, and (2) “It is true that there is a rock over there”? A certain tone of voice, perhaps. But how would one go about justifying (1) and (2). To justify (1) one could walk up to the rock, and check that it is indeed a rock, one could give an interlocutor with poorer eyesight a pair of binoculars with which to spy the rock, and so on. Is there an additional requirement for justifying (2)? Or would (2) need something other than justification to ground it? Or, to put the matter differently, given that (at least discursively) (1) implies (2), are there two distinct norms for making statements: the norm of justifying one’s statement, and the norm of getting at the truth? 

Crispin Wright, for instance, argues that we do indeed have the two aforementioned norms in play (Wright 1992: 19). Rorty (1995) in turn gives an analogy to show that the second norm, truth, is an idle one. Consider two archers, one from ancient Rome and the other one of our contemporaries. Our ancient archer considers herself to have two goals, two norms, at play. She has the goal of hitting the bullseye and the goal of pleasing Diana, the goddess of hunting, and by extension, archery. Our contemporary, on the other hand, is an atheist archer – she has no interest in pleasing any gods, she has only the norm of hitting the bullseye. For our eyes, both archers either fail or succeed at hitting the bullseye, and we can see how this norm influences their behaviour. But our ancient archer’s second norm seems absent: after all the behaviour of the two archers, when it comes to honing their skill, concentrating before release etc. is identical. The norm of pleasing Diana makes no difference for archery, at least for the atheist, since success at archery is not predicated on other norms than hitting the bullseye. Similarly, if we aim to satisfy the norm of justifying our statements, the added norm of getting at the truth is not an added norm at all. One might, however, point out that a belief being justified is not a guarantee that it is true. This is indeed the case. However, as Rorty notes, this

does not entail that two norms are being invoked. Analogously, the fact that an action can be fully justified to a given audience and still not be the right thing to do does not show that we have two duties – one to justify our actions to each other, and another to do the right thing. It merely shows that what can be justified to some audiences cannot be justified to others.[1]

Rorty 1995: 288

Indeed as with the case of the archers’ success, “‘it is true’ is not a helpful explanation of why science works, or why you should share one of my beliefs” (ibid: 286). 

So, if truth is not the goal of enquiry, is it still good for something? In his consideration of Donald Davidson’s views on truth Rorty (1991: 128) gives three roles that truth can still play: 

  1. An endorsing use, that is a recommendation to trust a claim, or a pat on the head of a claim that has done well by us.
  2. A cautionary use – “what you say is well justified, but it might turn out not to be true”. A reminder of the fallibility of our claims. 
  3. A disquotational use, as in the old Tarskian way of making a metalinguistic move: ‘Snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white.

In his (1995: 286) Rorty explicates a further use (implicit already in his 1991):

  1.  ‘True’ designates “what is preserved by valid inference”,

adding that he sees no significance in the fact that the same term is used for 1, 2, and 4. But these four uses are already a lot: they give us a way of distinguishing between casually held beliefs and well-supported statements (1), of reminding us that justification is an ongoing process (2), of helping us make a shift from talking about thing to talking about language and back (3), and finally, of making distinctions between valid and invalid inferences (4). Is this not enough? Our scientific project can keep going their merry way with this. The demand for Truth with a capital T does not get us any further than a demand for justification will. 

[1] It is noteworthy that audiences are not static things. What is accepted by an audience today might not be accepted by them at a later time, since their norms and practices might have changed – in a sense it will be a different audience.


Rorty, Richard (1991): Pragmatism, Davidson and Truth. In Objectivity, Relativism and Truth – Philosophical Papers vol. 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 126–150.
Rorty, Richard (1995): Is Truth A Goal of Enquiry? Davidson vs. Wright. The philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 45, No 180, 281–300.
Wright, C. J. G. (1992): Truth and Objectivity. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Published by Ilkka Pättiniemi

A Helsinki based philosopher and bassist. An idiot.

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