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.

Durkheim On Social Facts As Things: Methodology As Metaphysics

In The Rules of Sociological Method (The Free Press, 1982, pp. 35-36) Émile Durkheim writes:

The proposition which states that social facts must be treated as things…stirred up the most opposition. It was deemed paradoxical and scandalous for us to assimilate to the realities of the external world those of the social world. This was singularly to misunderstand the meaning and effect of this assimilation, the object of which was not to reduce the higher forms of being to the level of lower ones but…to claim for the former a degree of reality at least equal to that which everyone accords to the latter….we do not say that social facts are material things, but that they are things just as are material things, although in a different way.

What indeed is a thing? The thing stands in opposition to the idea….A thing is any object of knowledge which is not naturally penetrable by the understanding….It is all that which the mind cannot understand without going outside itself, proceeding progressively by way of observation and experimentation from those features which are the most external and the most immediately accessible to those which ‘are the least visible and the most profound. To treat facts of a certain order as things is therefore not to place them in this or that category of reality; it is to observe towards them a certain attitude of mind. It is to embark upon the study of them by adopting the principle that one is entirely ignorant of what they are, that their characteristic properties, like the unknown causes upon which they depend, cannot be discovered by even the most careful form of introspection.

This passage of Durkheim’s is rich in metaphysical import–precisely because it offers a definition of ‘thing’ and suggests existence can be ascribed to orders of being that are not ‘material,’ and which are not for that reason, lacking in ‘reality.’ The fundamental opposition for Durkheim is between objects of the intellect–‘ideas’–and those that are not–things, which require externally directed study. These ‘things’ can be ‘material,’ made up of material substance, or they can have some unknown constitution. But a ‘thing’s’ reality is not a matter of its composition, or its location in space and time; rather, it is a matter of what relation our thought bears to it. The opposition between the ‘material’ and the ‘immaterial’ is not one between ‘existence’ and ‘non-existence’; the immaterial can have just as much reality as the material. Rather, if the ‘thing’ in question is an object of a particular kind of study, if it is a component of our theoretical schemes, it has reality.  The notion of ‘reality’ coming in ‘degrees’ might remain obscure, but whatever it is, Durkheim suggests that the lack of materiality of social facts does not prevent them from being ‘things’ if our methods of study for them–non-introspective, directed outward–treat them as such. In this blend of metaphysics and epistemology Durkheim’s claims reveal a certain pragmatist sensibility at the heart of the social science whose foundations he was establishing; here, yet again, Durkheim shows that methodology is metaphysics.