John D. Caputo has recently made the fashionably outlandish claim that "what modern philosophers call 'pure' reason . . . is a white male Euro-Christian construction." Making this claim, Caputo purports to be saying something that is true. Moreover, his making of the claim in public is presumably for the purpose of convincing us that it is true. If so, he presupposes truth, in which case truth cannot be a social construct, as I said in my critique. A commenter responded:
To say that Caputo "presupposes truth" is not to say that he presupposes some sort of absolutist notion of truth. Why is the latter a necessary condition for the activity of "trying to convince"?
The short answer is that there is no notion of truth other than the absolutist notion. Truth is absolute by its very nature. The phrase 'relative truth' names a confusion. I won't go over this ground again, having trod it before. But there is a wrinkle, and that is what I want to explore in this entry. Is absolute truth the same as objective truth? Perhaps not. It might be like this. If there is truth, then it is the same for all cognizers: it is intersubjectively binding on all. It is in this sense objective. It does not vary from person to person, social class to social class, historical epoch to historical epoch, race to race, etc. But how can we be sure that truth in this objective sense is not a mere transcendental presupposition of intelligible discourse and rational debate? If truth is a mere transcendental presupposition, then it is not absolute. For what 'absolute' means is: not relative to or dependent on anything at all. Of course, if truth is absolute, it follows that it is objective in the sense of intersubjectively binding on all. But there is a logical gap in the converse. If truth is objective, it does not straightaway follow that it is absolute. For it might be transcendentally relative: relative to beings like us who cannot think or judge or speak intelligibly without presupposing truth. It might be transcendentally realtive while remaining the same for all in such a way as to exclude as meaningless such phrases as 'proletarian truth,' bourgeois truth,' 'Protestant truth,' 'Catholic truth,' 'White man's truth,' 'black female's truth,' and other similalry nonsensical constructions.
I will return to the objective-absolute distinction near the end of this entry.
While there may be a problem in showing that truth is more than a transcendental presupposition, and thus absolute, it is fairly easy to show that truth is objective. And so it is easy to show that Caputo presupposes objective truth when he makes his fashionably outlandish PoMo claims.
But what do I mean when I say that truth is objective? I mean that there is a total way things are, and that this total way things are does not depend on the beliefs, desires, wishes, hopes, etc. of finite rational beings like ourselves, whether human or extraterrestrial or angelic. So what I mean by 'Truth is objective' is close to what John Searle means by external realism.
According to John Searle, "external realism [ER] is the thesis that there is a way that things are that is independent of all representations of how things are." (The Construction of Social Reality, p. 182) Is it possible to prove this attractive thesis? And how would the proof go?
We will recall G. E. Moore's attempt to prove the external world by waving his hands. His idea was that it is a plain fact, as anyone can see, that his hands exist, and so it straightaway follows that external objects in space exist. This sounds more like a joke than a philosophical argument. Or if not a joke, then clear proof, not of the external world, but that Moore did not understand the issue. But let's leave Moore to one side for the space of this post. See my aptly entitled Moore category for more on Moore.
The realism issue really has nothing to do with spatially external objects. There unproblematically are such objects whatever their ultimate ontological status. Note also that ER can be true even if there are no spatially external objects. ER is simply the claim that there is a way things are independent of us: it says nothing specifically about spatial individuals.
As Searle interprets it, ER sets forth a condition on the intelligibility of discourse and thought rather than a truth condition of discourse and thought:
There are conditions on the intelligibility of discourse . . . that
are not like paradigmatic cases of truth conditions. In the normal
understanding of discourse we take these conditions for granted;
and unless we took them for granted, we could not understand
utterances the way we do . . . . (181)
Among these conditions on intelligibility is ER. It is a necessary presupposition of a large chunk of thought and discourse. What Searle is doing is giving a transcendental argument for ER. He takes it as given that a sentence like 'Mt Everest has ice and snow near the summit' is intelligible. He then inquires into what must be presupposed for it to be intelligible. For the sentence to be true, Mt. Everest must exist, and it must have ice and snow near the summit. But for the sentence to be intelligible, it is not necessary that Mt. Everest exist, or if it does exist that it have ice and snow near the summit. What is necessary is that ER be true: that there be a way things are independent of human representations. If the mountain exists, then that is (part of) the way things are, and if it does not exist, that too is (part of) the way things are. The way things are, then, is not a truth condition of any such statement as 'Mt Everest has ice and snow near the summit.' It is a condition of the intelligibility of such statements and their negations. So even if every statement asserting or implying the existence of a physical object is false, and there is no spatially external world, it is still the case that ER is true. For it is still the case that there is a way things are independent of human representations. The way things are would include the nonexistence of a spatially external world.
For Searle, then, external realism (ER) is a transcendental condition of the intelligibility of large portions of public discourse. He is aware that to have shown this is not to have shown that ER is true. (194) Speaking as we do, we are committed to its being true, but that is not to say that it is true. That there is a way things are independent of human representations is presupposed by the intelligibility of much of what we think or say, but it doesn't follow that it is true.
Why not? Because its truth is conditional upon the fact that our thought and speech is intelligible. If ER is true, then it is true whether or not human representations and their intelligibility exist. But if ER is argued to transcendentally as a condition of intelligibility, then ER's truth is conditional upon the existence of human beings and their representations. So we cannot say that ER is true, but only that we must presuppose it to be true. This is not to say that without us it would be false, but what without us it would be neither true nor false.
Is Searle's position satisfactory? I'm not sure. I want to be able to say that ER is true simpliciter, or true unconditionally (i.e., not conditional upon the fact of the intelligibility of our discourse.)
But does my desire to be able to say that ER is true unconditionally make sense? Maybe not. We cannot not presuppose that there is a way things are assuming that we continue to think and talk as before. But is there a way things are? Yes, it might be said, in the only sense in which it would make sense to assert it, namely, as a presupposition of our thought and talk. That is, what we as rational beings must presuppose as being the case IS the case. The 'possibility' that it not be the case is unmeaning. No sort of wedge can be driven between the presupposing and the being. But this seems to land us in a form of transcendental idealism.
A fascinating labyrinth, this. Collateral reading: Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, section 44 (c), Die Seinsart der Wahrheit und die Wahrheitsvoraussetzung.
The main thing, however, is that Caputo presupposes objective truth when he makes his ridiculous PeeCee assertions.