Davidsonian Pragmatism

Donald Davidson didn’t like being called a pragmatist. He associated pragmatism with William James’s definition of truth as that what works (or something similar), which he rejected for a number of reasons.1 Davidson’s understanding of pragmatism and how it contrasts with his own view is probably most clearly expressed in a passage from “Truth Rehabilitated”:

Truth is not a value, so the ‘pursuit of truth’ is an empty enterprise unless it means only that it is often worthwhile to increase our confidence in our beliefs, by collecting further evidence or checking our calculations. From the fact that we will never be able to tell for certain which of our beliefs are true, pragmatists conclude that we may as well identify our best researched, most successful, beliefs with the true ones, and give up the idea of objectivity. […] But I think they should have done better to cleave to a view that counts truth as objective, but pointless as a goal.2

The two key claims in this passage are (1) truth is not a value or goal (or not a norm, as he would also say), and (2) pragmatism gave up objectivity and (re-) identified truth with our most successful (etc.) beliefs.3 The second claim is dubious, and consequently, Davidson’s view is much more closely aligned with pragmatism than he thought it was. I will make no attempt to present a detailed reconstruction of Davidson’s views on truth here, however.4 Instead, I want to briefly introduce the kind of pragmatism that I call “Davidsonian Pragmatism”, which may not exactly be Davidson’s pragmatism – if that exists at all – but which is based on his rejection of truth as a norm or goal of inquiry. Hence the adjective “Davidsonian”, denoting that it is based on Davidson’s thought, instead of the genitive form “Davidson’s”, which would imply that it is a representation or summary of his thought.

This short article consists of three sections (not counting this introduction). The first explains Davidson’s claim that truth is not a value, goal, or norm, as well as the pragmatist implication of this claim. The second section deals with my assertion that Davidson’s characterization of pragmatism is incorrect (see “(2)” in the previous paragraph). The third compares Davidsonian pragmatism to two closely related views, namely, Quinean naturalism and Atrekic Buddhism, the latter of which I introduced in my previous post.

“Truth is not a norm”

While Davidson said that truth is not a value, goal, or norm at several places in his writings, his most clear and explicit explanation of what he means with this claim appears in a short response to Pascal Engel in the Library of Living Philosophers volume dedicated to Davidson:

When we say we want our beliefs to be true we could as well say we want to be certain that they are, that the evidence for them is overwhelming, that all subsequent (observed) events will bear them out, that everyone will come to agree with us. It makes no sense to ask for more. Of course, if we have beliefs, we know under what conditions they are true. But I do not think it adds anything to say that truth is a goal, of science or anything else. We do not aim at truth but at honest justification. Truth is not, in my opinion, a norm.5

Davidson’s point is really quite simple and I’m not sure whether I can make it much simpler and clearer than Davidson did himself in this quotation. Let’s say that I believe that it is raining outside. This means that I think that it is true that it is raining outside because that is what “believing” means.6 However, I want to be sure that my belief is true indeed. So what do I do? The most obvious answer is that I go outside to check. Let’s say that I do and that I gather evidence that it is raining indeed. Or perhaps, I ask my wife who just came home. Let’s say that she says that it is raining indeed (while showing me her wet umbrella). What Davidson says, is that in seeking confirmation like this, all I do is gather evidence (and/or look for agreement). And importantly, that is all I can do. The idea that there is anything I could do beyond gathering evidence (and agreement, if relevant) makes no sense. When we “aim for truth”, we gather evidence. “It makes no sense to ask for more.”

Evidence is a form of epistemic justification. Evidence (and other kinds of epistemic justification, when and if relevant) justify some of our beliefs, or in other words, they give us the right kind of reason(s) to believe that those beliefs are indeed true. So, when we are looking for evidence (etc.) we are looking for justification. “We do not aim at truth but at honest justification.”

Recall that Davidson also said that it would be better “to cleave to a view that counts truth as objective, but pointless as a goal”.7 Notice that “a view that counts truth as objective” is the common sense view. That is, most of us think about truth in this way. There is, of course, much talk about a “post-truth era”, “alternative truths”, and so forth, but when it comes down to it, the vast majority of people agree that to say that something is true is just to say that it is a fact, that it is the case, that is corresponds with the way things are, and/or something very similar. In the example above, either it is the case that it is raining, or it isn’t,8 so either my belief that it is raining is true, or it is false. And whichever it is, it is objectively so.

Justification isn’t like that. Justification isn’t objective, but isn’t subjective either. Justification is intersubjective. Above, I characterized epistemic justification as “the right kind of reason(s) to believe that some belief is true”, but what counts as “the right kind of reasons” depends on agreement between people. There is no natural fact that specifies what counts as evidence and what doesn’t. We decide that together on the basis of experience, scientific knowledge, and so forth. On the basis of our collective experience, we consider going outside and finding out that water is falling from a cloudy sky (in most cases) pretty good evidence that it is raining.

What is more important than this intersubjectivity itself, however, is that justification is not infallible. What appeared to be (and was accepted as) evidence may turn out to be mistaken, and what was a justified belief can lose its justification. Again, when we “aim for truth”, we gather evidence (and/or other kinds of epistemic justification), and “it makes no sense to ask for more.” But this means that all that we can ask for can turn out to be mistaken. Justification is provisional or tentative, and consequently, anything we accept as true – that is, any belief for which we have epistemic justification – could in principle turn out to be false.9 This I take to be the essence of pragmatism: the idea that we do not and cannot aim for absolute and final objective truths, but tentatively accept whatever we have the best evidence for.

That any idea we accept as true could in principle turn out to be false should not be misinterpreted, by the way. Davidson pointed out in several writings that because our perceptions and perceptual beliefs are caused by things in the world, most of our most basic beliefs are true. Hence, any individual belief – and especially individual non-basic beliefs – can turn out to be false, but the majority of our beliefs (in as far as the term “majority” makes sense as beliefs aren’t really countable) is necessarily true. The problem is that we do not and cannot know which are the true beliefs and which are the (rarer) mistaken ones.10 While this is an important aspect or implication of Davidsonian pragmatism (and the coherence theory of justification associated with it) it is of lesser relevance here and an attempt to give a fuller account of the arguments and implications involved would lead us too far astray.11

“Any idea upon which we can ride”

Many decades before Davidson objected to being called a pragmatist (by Richard Rorty) because he disagreed with what he understood to be the pragmatist understanding of truth, Bertrand Russel argued that pragmatists like William James confuse truth with criteria for assigning “truth” status (or in other words, with justification).12 To what extent James indeed made this mistake is debatable, however. Indeed, he wrote that “the true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief”13 and that “ideas […] become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience”,14, but the latter is followed almost immediately by the following passage:

Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much, true in so far forth, true instrumentally.15

And elsewhere, he distinguished “absolute” from “temporary truth”:

The ‘absolutely’ true, meaning what no farther experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing-point towards we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge.16

Furthermore, in The Meaning of Truth, he emphasized that pragmatists accept a realist understanding of truth, which grounds truth in a “reality independent of either of us” such that “with some such reality any statement, in order to be counted as true, must agree”.17

It seems to me then, that the typical interpretation of the pragmatist understanding of truth is wrong, at least when it comes to James. That typical interpretation is that pragmatists (like James) define truth as whatever works, “any idea upon which we can ride”, or something similar. Russell was entirely right that that understanding would be confusing truth with criteria for assigning “truth” status, that is, with justification. A charitable reading of James suggests that he did not make this mistake – he did not confuse truth with justification. Nevertheless, his terminology and ways of phrasing things were so sloppy that he pretty much invites this misreading of his ideas. James’s notions of realist truth or “absolute truth” (see above) refer to truth in its most basic and literal sense (that is, truth as being the case, and so forth), while the terms “instrumental truth” and “temporary truth” refer to a kind of epistemic justification. That he used the word “truth” in these terms, that he often omitted the adjectives (apparently assuming that the context made clear enough what he meant), and that he sometimes used terms like “the true” to refer to the same notions lead to much of the confusion.

James’s point was that scientists use the words “truth” and “true” instrumentally. They call “true” whatever is best supported by evidence, whatever has been proven to work, and so forth, while recognizing the fact that all we really have is evidence – that is, epistemic justification – and that we cannot really ask for more. We (should) accept as true whatever is most justified, but only tentatively, acknowledging that new evidence may force a change of minds. That, again, is pragmatism. What James did not do, was give up the objective or realist understanding of truth, which he made very clear in The Meaning of Truth.

Quinean Naturalism and Atrekic Buddhism

Truth is not a norm. Truth cannot – strictly speaking – be a goal of inquiry. All we can aim for is evidence or other forms of epistemic justification. By implication, we can never know for sure which of our beliefs are true (although we can know that most of our most basic beliefs are true), and we can only accept something as true tentatively or provisionally. The impossibility to ascertain the truth of a belief (rather than merely its justification) implies that we can never be 100% sure. Like the access to truth, certainty turns out to be an illusion.

The philosopher who shared most ideas with Davidson is W.V.O. Quine.18 It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that they largely (albeit not completely) agreed with regards to their pragmatist ideas as well. The relevant aspects of Quine’s philosophy are often referred to as “Quinean naturalism”. This naturalism is a methodological naturalism, meaning (roughly) that it models all inquiry on the sciences. According to Quine, all scientific and philosophical ideas are provisional and thus open to revision,19 but, any revision of scientific ideas starts at the edges of our “web of belief” and central beliefs are only revised as a last resort. Thus, while the belief that 1 + 1 = 2 is open to revision in principle, there are very many more peripheral scientific and other ideas that are candidates for revision before considering to revise “1 + 1 = 2”.

Atrekic Buddhism was the topic of my previous post. As explained there, atrekic Buddhism is not really a variety of Buddhism, but an application of some core Buddhist ideas or attitudes to atrekeia or certainty. Atrekic Buddhism rejects the craving for certainty. It does so on grounds that are largely analogous to the Buddhist ground for rejecting craving, namely, craving leads to suffering, but aside from that there is very little difference between atrekic Buddhism and Davidsonian pragmatism. The most obvious difference is a difference of approach or perspective. That is, they reach largely the same conclusions, but from different starting points. The Davidsonian starting point is the realization that we cannot aim for truth, but only for justification. The atrekic Buddhist starting point is the rejection of craving for certainty. However, these “starting points” are also what is missing from the other perspective, and consequently, the two views complement each other. Most importantly, atrekic Buddhism recognizes that the craving for certainty is rooted in “ignorance”, but does not explain what kind of “ignorance” that is (as explained in my previous post). Davidsonian pragmatism fills that gap: the relevant “ignorance” is “ignorance” of the fact that we cannot aim for truth and only for justification.

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  1. One of those reasons – perhaps even the most important one – was that Davidson rejected all attempts to define truth. He considered truth a primitive that cannot be defined. — e.g., Donald Davidson (1996), “The Folly of Trying to Define Truth”, 2005), Truth, Language, and History (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 19–37. Donald Davidson (2005), Truth and Predication (Cambridge: Belknap).
  2. Donald Davidson (1997), “Truth Rehabilitated”, in: (2005), Truth, Language, and History (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 3–17, at 6–7.
  3. A third key claim, which is less important here, is that (3) “we will never be able to tell for certain which of our beliefs are true”.
  4. “Views” in the plural, as his ideas changed a bit over time. For example, while he accepted what he called an “objective” view of truth in the 1990s, in “Epistemology and Truth” (dating to 1987/1988) he considered an “objective” understanding of truth unintelligible because he associated it with the correspondence theory of truth, which – in his view (and mine) – makes no sense. — Donald Davidson (1988), “Epistemology and Truth”, in: (2001), Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 177–91.
  5. Davidson, Donald (1999). “Reply to Pascal Engel”, in: L.E. Hahn (ed.), The Philosophy of Donald Davidson (Chicago: Open Court): 460–1 at 461.
  6. To believe p is to hold true that p.
  7. In the first block quote above.
  8. I’m ignoring sophistry about drizzle, which isn’t really rain and isn’t really the absence of rain either. Drizzle doesn’t imply that there is something in between true and not true, but that our definition of “rain” is vague – that’s an entirely different issue.
  9. This is sometimes called “fallibilism”.
  10. Davidson, in the first block quote above: “we will never be able to tell for certain which of our beliefs are true”.
  11. My best attempt can be found in A Buddha Land in this World (Punctum: 2022), pp. 231–63.
  12. Bertrand Russell (1910), “William James’s Conception of Truth”, in: (2009), Philosophical Essays (London: Routledge): 104–22.
  13. William James (1907), Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, in: (1978), Pragmatism and the Meaning of Truth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press): 1–166, at 42.
  14. Ibid., p. 34.
  15. Ibid., p. 34. Original emphasis.
  16. Ibid., pp. 106–7.
  17. James, William (1909), The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to “Pragmatism”, in: (1978), Pragmatism and the Meaning of Truth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press): 167–352, at 117/283.
  18. This is obviously not true. Any dedicated Davidsonian philosopher would share more with Davidson than the latter shared with Quine. But among famous and widely influential philosophers, Quine was the closest (by far) to Davidson.
  19. W.V.O. Quine (1953), “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”, in: From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964): 20–46. W.V.O. Quine (1970), Word and Object ( Cambridge: MIT Press). Quine (1969), “Epistemology Naturalized”, in: Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969).: 69–90.

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