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.)

Truth, Beauty

In my very first post here, I mentioned a reversal of order of precedence in my own top-level view of things. An always ongoing quest for better understanding of things large and small, combined with intuitive sympathy or empathy for others, used to seem to come first. (Such “understanding” would not be the univocal representational Understanding that Hegel talked about, but something broader and more open-endedly interpretive.) Ethics would thus have basically taken care of itself, and would at most have been a matter of working out details.

At another intermediate point, I thought what should come first would be to seek beauty in all things, incorporating a sort of ancient Greek notion of beautiful actions. Again, ethics would have basically taken care of itself. If queried about this, I might have added that provided one sincerely cares, it is better to be light of heart than worried all the time. (See also Affirmation.)

Now I have come to think that understanding of things large and small is itself at root an ethical or meta-ethical activity, and have even begun to speak of a normative monism. The point I want to make here, though, is that there is a common theme across all three of these stages.

The common theme is a profound interdependence between how the world is for us, how we ought to think about it, and how we ought to act. The three stages mentioned above represent not changes of values that would result in different ground-level ethical conclusions, but rather a progressively deepening “self-consciousness”. (According to Brandom, this sort of autobiographical Hegelian genealogy itself plays an important role in the improvement of what I am here loosely calling “understanding”.)

From a Kantian critical point of view, we know that there will always be a difference between how we think the world is and how it actually is (and ultimately that anything like Cartesian certainty can only be a dogmatic illusion). But from an Aristotelian pragmatic point of view, we can go ahead and work with our current best understanding. Then from a Hegelian point of view, without forgetting that our understanding will never be the last word, we can charitably or forgivingly recognize that current best understanding as an expression of Reality and Truth. (See also Objectivity; Brandom on Truth.)

Aristotelian Propositions

Every canonical Aristotelian proposition can be interpreted as expressing a judgment of material consequence or material incompatibility. This may seem surprising. First, a bit of background…

At the beginning of On Interpretation, Aristotle says that “falsity and truth have to do with combination and separation” (Ch. 1). On its face, the combination or separation at issue has to do not with propositions but with terms. But it is not quite so simple. The terms in question are canonically “universals” or types or higher-order terms, each of which is therefore convertible with a mentioned proposition that the higher-order term is or is not instantiated or does or does not apply. (We can read, e.g., “human” as the mentioned proposition “x human”.) Thus a canonical Aristotelian proposition is formed by “combining” or “separating” a pair of things that are each interpretable as an implicit proposition in the modern sense.

Propositions in the modern sense are treated as atomic. They are often associated with merely stipulated truth values, and in any case it makes no sense to ask for internal criteria that would help validate or invalidate a modern proposition. But we can always ask whether the combination or separation in a canonical Aristotelian proposition is reasonable for the arguments to which it is applied. Therefore, unlike a proposition in the modern sense, an Aristotelian proposition always implicitly carries with it a suggestion of criteria for its validation.

The only available criteria for critically assessing correctness of such elementary proposition-forming combination or separation are material in the sense that Sellars and Brandom have discussed. A judgment of “combination” in effect just is a judgment of material consequence; a judgment of “separation” in effect just is a judgment of material incompatibility. (This also helps clarify why it is essential to mention both combination and separation affirmatively, since, e.g., “human combines with mortal” canonically means not just that human and mortal are not incompatible, but that if one is said to be human, one is thereby also said to be mortal.)

This means that Aristotle’s concept of the elementary truth and falsity of propositions can be understood as grounded in criteria for goodness of material inference, not some kind of correspondence with naively conceived facts. It also means that every Aristotelian proposition can be understood as expressing a judgment of material consequence or incompatibility, and that truth for Aristotle can therefore be understood as primarily said of good judgments of material consequence or incompatibility. Aristotle thus would seem to anticipate Brandom on truth.

This is the deeper meaning of Aristotle’s statement that a proposition in his sense does not just “say something” but “says something about something”. Such aboutness is not just grammatical, but material-inferential. This is in accordance with Aristotle’s logical uses of “said of”, which would be well explained by giving that a material-inferential interpretation as well.

The principle behind Aristotelian syllogism is a form of composition, formally interpretable as an instance of the composition of mathematical functions, where composition operates on the combination or separation of pairs of terms in each proposition. Aristotelian logic thus combines a kind of material inference in proposition formation and its validation with a kind of formal inference by composition. This is what Kant and Hegel meant by “logic”, apart from their own innovations.

Brandom on Truth

One of the essays reprinted in Brandom’s Reason in Philosophy (2009) was “Why Truth Is Not Important in Philosophy”. Epistemic conscientiousness and the honesty that I largely equate with it are still important; it is the explanatory and justificatory role of truth that he wants to question. For Brandom, inferential goodness explains and justifies claims of truth rather than the other way around. Saying an assertion is true is a lot like just repeating the assertion; it adds no content.

Brandom argues that Frege understood propositional contentfulness in terms of being able to play the functional role of a premise or conclusion in an inference, and suggests going beyond Frege to say that truth just is what is preserved by good inference. Brandom wants to say that inference is constitutive and truth is constituted. We seek not just knowledge but understanding, and not just truth but reasonableness.

All this seems entirely right to me. Though unlike Brandom in Spirit of Trust I do still see a positive role for truth-as-goal, I take this in a Socratic ethical sense that belongs entirely on the side of epistemic conscientiousness, so the difference is not large. (See also Inferential Semantics; Normative Pragmatics.)

(Working with a notion of inference that was simultaneously formal and material, Aristotle made inferential goodness the main criterion of episteme, so I think he would also be sympathetic to the thrust here. See also Aristotelian Propositions.)