Richard Rorty, professor of humanities at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville since 1982, retired from that position in 1998 to teach at Stanford University. Rorty published two books in the spring of 1998. One, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America, presented his 1997 William E. Massey, Sr., Lectures on the History of American Civilization. It garnered a flurry of attention in the mainstream press for its efforts to rehabilitate traditional leftist reformist attitudes and denigrate the contemporary pessimism of the cultural left. The other book, Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Volume Three, received much less notice but constituted the more substantial effort.
A collection of seventeen papers written mostly in the 1990’s, Truth and Progress is divided into three sections. In the first, Rorty engages such philosophers as Crispin Wright, Hilary Putnam, John Searle, Charles Taylor, Daniel Dennett, Robert Brandom, John McDowell, Michael Williams, and Donald Davidson on the nature of truth. Here Rorty is mostly destructive: He wants to show that any correspondence theory of truth that depends on a distinction between what human beings say about the world, and the way the world actually is, is fraught with danger. If statements are true because they “correspond” to how the world is in itself, the door is opened to epistemological skepticism, since human beings have no God’s-eye view by which to compare language about the world with the world itself.
Instead, Rorty recommends replacing the appearance-reality distinction with a “less useful and more useful” distinction, though he admits that this will look like his position is that “there is no truth.” “The essays in this volume,” he writes, “argue that philosophy will get along better without the notions of the intrinsic nature of reality’ and ‘correspondence to reality’ than with them.”
Rorty is perfectly willing to speak about truth, but he uses it as a term of approbation. In effect, calling some statement “true” means that most or all of those in one’s particular group approve of it. Truth, he says, is not a goal of inquiry; if it were,
then, indeed, there is no truth. . . . A goal is something you can know that you are getting closer to, or farther away from. But there is no way to know our distance from truth, nor even whether we are closer to it than our ancestors were. For, once again, the only criterion we have for applying the word “true” is justification, and justification is always relative to an audience.
Yet Rorty concedes that there is a distinction between a relative criterion of truth and the notion of truth as expressing something absolute about the real world. Though he denies that truth is correspondence to reality, he has little to offer by way of an alternative theory—and that is precisely his point. Referring to the work of Donald Davidson (Rorty often calls himself a “Davidsonian”), he says that because truth is an absolute notion, it is not definable. No theory of truth is possible that would apply in all language systems. There is no property called “truth” that can be isolated from every possible true statement.
Such a quest is misleading, Rorty claims, because it views truth as tied up with the ability of language to “represent” the world. The skeptic (and here Rorty is no skeptic) can always ask if the world is being correctly represented, and, if so, how one knows. The way is open to deep pessimism about the limits of human understanding. If truth cannot be known in some absolute sense, the philosophical or scientific quest for truth is a chimera.
Rorty’s alternative is to discard the representationalist position altogether as an unworkable dualism. Drawing again on the work of Davidson, Rorty wants to eliminate a scheme-content distinction that affirms a difference between the sense impressions presumably caused by the world out there (the content) and one’s beliefs about the world (the scheme). The pragmatic experiment involves “setting aside the subject-object, scheme-content, and reality-appearance distinctions and thinking of our relation to the rest of the universe in purely causal, as opposed to representationalist, terms (the same way we think of the anteater’s and the bowerbird’s relation to the rest of the universe).”
Rorty does not claim to be expounding a metaphysical truth about reality, since he wants philosophy to move away from any such activity. The old philosophical constructs are simply not useful any more; they are outmoded, boring, and, what is worse, representationalist views that “preserve an image of the relation...