Richard Rorty on Truth and Language

Richard Rorty (1931–) is one of the most widely read of contemporary American philosophers, influenced by John Dewey’s philosophy of pragmatism (or practical, motivated inquiry), Ludwig Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the centrality of language, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s doubts about truth.

Truth, for Rorty, is no more and no less than what can be framed with language:

We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.

Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world in its own—unaided by the describing activities of human beings—cannot …

The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak …

It was Nietzsche who first explicitly suggested that we drop the whole idea of ‘knowing the truth’. But in abandoning the traditional notion of truth, Nietzsche did not abandon the idea of discovering the causes of our being what we are … In his view, in achieving this sort of self-knowledge we are not coming to know a truth which was out there (or in here) all the time. Rather, he saw self-knowledge as self-creation. The process of coming to know oneself, confronting one’s contingency, tracking one’s causes home, is identical with the process of inventing a new language … So the only way to trace home the causes of one’s being as one is would be to tell a story about one’s causes in a new language …

[O]ne can—fruitlessly, in my view—come at [the question of knowledge] by way of anthropology and the question of whether there are ‘cultural universals’, or by way of psychology and the question of whether there are psychological universals. [There is an] indefinite plurality of standpoints, [a] vast number of ways of coming at the issue sideways … It is central to the idea of a liberal society that, in respect to words as opposed to deeds, persuasion as opposed to force, anything goes. This openmindedness should not be fostered because, as Scripture teaches, Truth is great and will prevail, nor because, as Milton suggests, Truth will always win in a free and open counter. It should be fostered for its own sake. A liberal society is one which is content to call ‘true’ whatever the upshot of such encounters turns out to be ..


Rorty, Richard. 1989. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 4–5, 6, 27, 51–52. || Amazon || WorldCat


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