Truth and Judgment

Negative reactions to Brandom are a veritable industry these days. Another one I just encountered, by Karl Hahn, comes from a Thomistic direction, and mainly wants to reassert an incompatible view of truth. This yields a useful delineation.

Humanity owes Thomas Aquinas an immense debt of gratitude for helping end the European dark ages and usher in the high medieval development that led to the Renaissance, by making Aristotle acceptable to the Church. But while I am broadly sympathetic to Aristotelian tendencies in theology, I also think theological “improvements” to Aristotle were not improvements.

Aquinas had a very distinctive and sophisticated view of truth. It was extremely remote, however, from that of Brandom and the one I attribute to Aristotle. Aquinas wanted to combine Aristotelian learning and ethical discourse with Christian revelation and the broadly Augustinian tradition of faith seeking understanding, into one seamless edifice. From this perspective, there are truths of reason, truths of experience, and truths of revelation, but truth must agree with truth, so things must be interpreted in a way adequate to them all.

Hahn, following Alasdair MacIntyre, summarizes the Thomistic view of truth as something said primarily of intellect, rather than of propositions. Aristotle discussed truth in the context of things said, but Plotinus already articulated something like MacIntyre’s view, which apparently puts a kind of immediate synthetic mental apprehension ahead of any extended articulation. Simultaneously, Plotinus contributed to a shift in emphasis from form or concept to something more like what we think of as a subjective “mind”. (I would argue that Aristotle’s own notion of intellect is fundamentally not subjective in the modern sense; see Substance Also Subject.)

When we speak of some understanding as “true”, I take that as a sort of poetic metonymy, not a literal statement. Truth can be derivatively said of an act of understanding, based on judgment of that understanding’s soundness and circumstantial appropriateness, which is to say not only the inferential but also the broader emotional and social reasonableness of its articulable content. Understanding-as-truth could almost be taken to hint at something like Hegelian truth-as-process, except that for Plotinus or Aquinas it is an achieved result that should be valid for all time.

Hahn is wary of “intra-rational” criteria for the evaluation of reasons, relating this to what he calls idealist-pragmatist “relativism”. Such worries about relativism depend on a huge equivocation between views that want to take more distinctions into account, and views that implausibly deny the reality of all distinctions. (For Aristotle as well as Kant, distinctions rather than assertions form the basis for evaluation and determination of content. Responsible, serious assertion is an outcome of evaluation.)

Thomism, while placing high value on reason, is fundamentally at odds with the Kantian autonomy of reason, which is an ethical imperative that evaluation be exclusively “intra-rational”. Here, “rational” means not just narrowly logical, but substantively reasonable.

I see strong textual evidence for anticipation of Kant’s autonomy-of-reason thesis in Plato and Aristotle. While we should respect the opinions of the wise, no opinion or received truth can be the final word. An assertion is just as good as the evaluation on which it is based.

As important as reasoning is for Aquinas, it is ultimately subordinate to a body of received truths, both of revelation and of what he calls natural light. (Along with Duns Scotus, Aquinas was an important precursor of modern doctrines of truth-first representationalism that stand in contrast to Aristotle and Brandom’s reason-first inferentialism.)

My view is that even the most polite, well-intentioned claims of received truth prematurely end the possibility of real dialogue about what is reasonable and good, and that they are in that way opposed to truth in a deeper sense like the Hegelian truth-as-process (or, I would argue, even Platonic truth). Kant called claims of received truth “dogmatism”. Genuinely good insights are diminished by being presented with inappropriate finality. (See also Theology; God and the Soul; “Said Of”; Justification; Realism, Idealism; Metaphysical, Nonmetaphysical; Weak Nature Alone; Brandomian Forgiveness.)