Durkheim On The Pragmatist Conception Of Truth

Pragmatism’s much reviled ‘theory of truth’ received a sympathetic and yet critical and rigorous treatment in Émile Durkheim‘s little-known–to philosophers–Pragmatism and Sociology (John P. Allcock, ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1955.) As part of this treatment, Durkheim notes that:

If thought had as its object simply to ‘reproduce’ reality, it would be the slave of things, and chained to reality. It would simply have to slavishly ‘copy’ the reality before it. If thought is to be freed, it must become the creator of its own object, and the only way to attain this goal is to give it a reality to make or construct. Therefore, thought has as its aim not the reproduction of a datum, but the construction of a future reality. It follows that the value of ideas can no longer be assessed by reference to  objects but must be determined by their degree of utility, their more or less ‘advantageous’ character. [emphasis in original, p. 66]

Understanding the ‘aim’ or the objective of thought as the ‘construction of a future reality’ causes a reconceptualization of truth too; truth is not ‘mere correspondence’ with reality but rather some other recognition of the ‘value’ of an idea; the former is exclusively semantic, the latter is a richer notion, more complex than the simpler notions which preceded it:

[I]n rationalism truth is….necessarily placed above human life. It cannot conform to the demands of circumstances and differing temperaments. It is valid by itself and is good with an absolute goodness. It does not exist for our sake, but for its own. Its role is to let itself be contemplated. It is so to speak deified; it becomes the object of a real cult….’To soften’ the truth is to take from it this absolute and…sacrosanct character. It is to tear it away from this state of immobility that removes it from all becoming, from all change…from all explanation….instead of being thus confined in a separate world, it is itself…naturally part of reality and life….It poses problems: we are authorized to ask ourselves where it comes from, what good it is and so on. It becomes itself an object of knowledge. Herein lies the interest of the pragmatist enterprise: we can see it as an effort to understand truth and reason themselves, to restore to them their human interest, to make of them human things that derive from temporal causes and give rise to temporal consequences. To ‘soften’ truth is to make it into something that can be analysed and explained.

It is this ‘irreverence’ for, and ‘softening’ of, truth that allows pragmatism to make its most ambitious and ‘outlandish’ claims; it is what allows it to participate as a theoretical contributor to the sociology of knowledge; it makes comprehensible the ‘value’ of truth and its importance for us in our thought and action; unlike rationalism, which takes truth’s value as a given, pragmatism inquires into the role it plays in our theorizing and investigates whether the goods it promises are actually delivered or not.

Teaching Wittgenstein And Making The Familiar Unfamiliar

I’m teaching Wittgenstein this semester–for the first time ever–to my Twentieth-Century Philosophy class. My syllabus requires my students to read two long excerpts from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations; bizarrely enough, in my original version of that exalted contract with my students, I had allotted one class meeting to a discussion of the section from the Tractatus. Three classes later, we are still not done; as you can tell, it has been an interesting challenge thus far.

The style of the Tractatus is notorious for the difficulties it can create for the unprepared. Many students find it its terseness, its statement in quasi-mathematical form as a series of seeming definitions, lemmas, theorems and corollaries–as part of a presentation of a grand total of seven propositions–off-putting and abstruse. Yet others find in it a curious beauty, a poetic statement, stark and austere, pregnant with meaning and suggestion. The content of the Tractatus can be forbidding too. Many philosophical doctrines–the picture theory of language, the truth-functional account of propositions, logical atomism and the correspondence theory of truth, the verification theory of meaning, the ‘no-sense’ theory of ethical and emotive statements–may be found here, varying in their level of implicit or explicit statement. A special vocabulary is employed, and the meanings of many of the special terms of art employed–‘facts’ for instance–has to be unpacked carefully.

I have read Wittgenstein before, and indeed, did my dissertation with a logician, Rohit Parikh, who doubled as a Wittgenstein scholar. (This excellent paper by Juliet Floyd explores the several dimensions of his appropriation of Wittgensteinian themes in his work.) For several years during graduate school I attended a discussion and reading group, conducted by Parikh, which often veered off into conversations on Wittgensteinian themes. Years after I completed my dissertation, I realized that many of its fundamental presuppositions and descriptions bore a similar stamp. But, I never taught Wittgenstein.

Now I have. And so, yet again, I’ve been reminded of how radically different my relationship to a philosophical text or doctrine becomes once I’ve had occasion to teach the material. I read differently; I critique differently, trying to anticipate the ambiguities my students might encounter; I notice more in the text, I seize on more. And then, in the classroom, as I work directly through the reading with my students my relationship with it changes yet again.

Sometimes, my teaching has consisted of making a few opening statements, previewing the theories and theses to be presented, and then turning to the text to find their statements within. I invite students to point me to particular propositions that they have found thought-provoking and/or difficult. At times, I have read aloud sections in class, stopping to offer and receive–along with the class–explications and exegesis. I’ve used the ‘reading-aloud-in-class’ method before; in that case, for Leibniz and Kant. What I wrote then about that particular method of approaching a philosophical text still holds:

First, more careful exegesis becomes possible, and little subtle shadings of meaning which could be brushed over in a high-level synoptic discussion are noticed and paid attention to (by both myself and my students). Second, students become aware that reading the text closely pays dividends; when one sentence in the text becomes the topic of an involved discussion, they become aware of how pregnant with meanings these texts can be. Third, the literary quality of the writing, (more evident in Leibniz and Freud than in Kant) becomes more visible; I often stop and flag portions of the text as having been particularly well-expressed or framed. The students become aware that these arguments can be evaluated in more than one dimension: analytical and artistic perhaps.

This method is exhausting, and that is an understatement. There is the obvious physical strain, of course, but doing this kind of close reading is also intellectually taxing. There is more to explain, more to place in context.

Now, with Wittgenstein and Tractatus, I am struck again, by how the seemingly familiar takes on a little of its older novelty.