Left a party and read a paper…

I’m leaving in about one and a half hours to go to a Bon Iver concert in LA.  I was pregaming with some friends, when a ton of freshman came in, and I felt awkward because there were more than 15 people in a room.

I miss you Ross.

Anyways, I picked up one of the 15 Rorty and articles I printed recently and read it, and typed up a summary.   It probably sucks, but whatever.

An alternative view to Rorty:  His take on Bernard William’s

Information in this post was gathered from this essay, which, if you have time, you might read.


In Bernard William’s work, he criticizes Rorty for being inconsistent: one cannot both be an effective defender of liberalism, and a denier of truth.  Rorty’s attempt to “detach the spirit of liberal critique from the concept of truth is a fundamental mistake.”  Though he claims Rorty is nowhere near Foucoult, he wants thinkers to ponder that as “we lose a sense of the value of truth, we shall certainly lose something, and may well lose everything.”

Now, for a second, I will turn to MacIntyre.  (this is mostly for Brian)  Just as how M. showed how modern phil correctly criticizes moral philosophy, but wishes we return to a new version of virtue ethics, Williams argues that we ought reject the concept of truth provided first by Plato, which has dominated works like Kant (trying to find a exceptionless and singular rule to guide all action), and many other philosophers.  Yet, Rorty and other post-modernists dismiss all truth too soon.

Like Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals, Williams creates a “genealogical story” which attempts to give a “decent pedigree to truth and truthfulness.”

The sentence in Rorty’s paper that really got me excited was this. “[Williams] shows that the value of truth can be ‘understood in a perspective quite different from the Platonic and Christian metaphysics.’, and that the deniers have thrown out the baby of intrinsically valuable truth with the Platonist bathwater.

Williams first sets up a “familiar and uncontroversial” account: in social cooperation, there must be trust within a community.  He uses two technical terms–the virtues 1) Sincerity and 2) Accuracy [the capitalization is intentional and explicit]–to represent a necessary condition for a community.  “No widespread truthfulness and reciprocal helpfulness, no social institutions.”

Williams argues that it is “essential to the defense of liberalism to believe that the virtue he capitalizes as ‘Sincerity’ has intrinsic rather than merely instrumental value.’ Williams claims, in order to have intrinsic value, a concept must satisfy three conditions: 1) it is necessary for basic human purposes, 2) human beings should treat is as an intrinsic good, and 3) we can coherently treat it as an intrinsic good.”

Rorty doubts that there is any way to tell when people are treating something as an intrinsic good.  “The utility of this definition obviously depends on there being a way of telling when people are treating something as an intrinsic good, and it is not clear what behavioural test Williams has in mind here. Is it that people find themselves stymied by the question, ‘Why do you think it a good?’ and can only reply: ‘Well, it just is’? But anybody asked that question about anything they regard as a very good thing (truth-telling, marital fidelity, doing what the Leader says, staying alive) will be able and willing to cite other goods that the particular good in question helps them to get. In the case of trustworthiness, they can be counted on to say something like: ‘Think what would happen if everybody lied! Society would break down!’ But maybe they are not giving their real reasons for thinking trustworthiness good? Maybe they are just being tricked into sounding utilitarian and pragmatic? Maybe they really think it is good in itself? Maybe. But what is the behavioural test for detecting people’s real reasons?

It seems unlikely that Williams can make either the notion of ‘intrinsic value’ or that of ‘real reason’ respectable without first of all taking a lot of Platonic-looking baggage on board.”

In others words, it appears that Williams has succumbed to the temptation to fall back into a form of Platonism.  Williams seems to be drawing an axial (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axial_Age) parallel between the merely human and the really real.

Williams wants to side with Nietzsche against Plato on the metaphysical issue–yet he also wants to disagree with those like Rorty who hold that there is no truth at all.  It seems, according to Rorty at least, that Williams wants inquiry to serve two distinct purposes: 1) acquiring beliefs for specific audiences, and 2) acquiring true beliefs.  Rorty says “from a pragmatist point of view, this looks like a regression to the Platonist idea that we have responsibilities not only to our fellow humans, but to something non-human.”

Williams says that Pragmatists think that 1) and 2) are the same because of the “indistinguishability argument”: the pragmatic view that there is no difference in the activity of acquiring true beliefs, and in reaching agreement with others.

Williams objects: a justified or true belief is one that comes about by a method, or is supported by considerations that favor this.  This is distinctly separate from the ability to make something more appealing.  For example, Williams offers the choice between brainwashing and an exchange between scientists in meetings of the Royal Society.  It seems self-evident that one represents the process of making something more appealing, and the other of following a method to its conclusion.

Rorty responds, “Williams’s criticism of ‘the indistinguishability argument’ stands or falls with the claim that analytic philosophers really can do the wonderful things he tells us they can – that they are not just hard-working public relations agents for contemporary institutions and practices, but independent experts whose endorsement of our present ways of justifying beliefs is based on a superior knowledge of what it is for various propositions to be true.”

The second half of the book moves out of the “philosophical mode of fictional genealogy” and into “real genealogy–to cultural contingencies and to history.”  This is the part that really got Rorty off.  “The historical portion shows Williams at his best – not arguing with other philosophers, but rather, in the manner of Isaiah Berlin, helping us understand the changes in the human self-image that have produced our present institutions, intuitions and problems.”

That sounds really interesting to me.

The book provides an episodic vie of various snapshots that inform the western conception of truth and truthfulness.  First Herodutous and Thucydides (ugh).  Second Rousseau and Diderot. This section is about  what it is to be a truthful person.  Rousseau thinks that being truthful is “laying yourself bare,” but Diderot explained it is much more complex.  In many ways, Diderot was a proto-Freudian.  Third, Williams contrasts Habermas and Foucault’s way of looking at the relationship between truth and power.  This chapter sounds epic.  “Habermas plays Rousseau to Foucault Diderot.”    Habermas argues that through “undistorted communication” we can gain access to the truth.  Foucault holds that something similar to the Marxist conception of a “false consciousness” will always plague our understanding of truth, and that no sort of communication can wipe the slate clean.

William’s ends up taking a middle ground view between Foucault and Habermas–arguing for a contextualized, non-Kantian conception of truth.

So, here my shitty review ends.

As Rorty concludes, “Whether it is or not, anyone who wants to understand the relations between the relatively arcane issues concerning truth debated by philosophy professors, and the larger question of what self-image we human beings should have, would do well to read Williams’s new book. It is a major work by a man plausibly described, in Princeton’s advertisements, as ‘Britain’s greatest living philosopher’.”

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