Truth and Convention

I see Karl Smith is puzzling over Richard Rorty’s account of truth.

This is clearly not a topic that will be resolved in a blog post, but as an adherent of a Rortian view I think the best way to get there is to start with Tarski, who offered the disquotational account of the truth condition:

“Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white.

That seems utterly trivial. But it can be made somewhat less trivial:

“La neige est blanche” is true if and only if snow is white.

Add the element of translation and it looks a little bit less trivial. And what you’re seeing here more clearly is that truth is a property of sentences, of linguistic elements. You have the language inside the quotation marks and the language outside the marks. You’re saying things and you’re talking about things that are being said. And while people can (and do) devise formal languages on their own and by stipulation, ordinary language doesn’t work this way. English is a set of social conventions and so is French and so are all the rest. Note that this doesn’t commit you to any kind of outlandish propositions about the nature of the world, it’s an account of the nature of descriptions of the world. It says that there will always be some margins at which the distinctions between advancing false claims and misusing words breaks down. When Jonah Goldberg says that liberalism is a species of fascism, for example, he largely seems to me to be abusing English rather than abusing the facts. But there’s no definitive adjudicator of what does and doesn’t constitute an acceptable way to use English words, there’s merely a very large and diffuse community of people who use the language.