Truth Rediscovered: A Humanistic View of Rationality

By Jay Jeffers


The Buddha said, “Three things cannot long be hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” Or maybe he didn’t. Scholars would have to chime in on the popular interpretation through the lens of history, linguistics, and the like. Either way it’s a vivid quote. The real problem isn’t whether or not he said it, but that truth often comes in and out of view. Right when we think have it all figured out, a mistake in detail or perspective is discovered, or a revolution in paradigm overthrows our previous understanding. Views are adjusted, and confidence is restored. People deliberate and trade reasons, holding one another to rules of rationality, including consistency, accuracy, and all manner of standards in the family of reason [varying terms within the family resemblance of truth and rationality will be used liberally and interchangeably]. Misfires and re-starts aside, “Truth with a capital T,” modern science, and a kind of hard-nosed objectivity reign. Mere sentimentality doesn’t stand a chance against this onslaught.

Here in the pages of The Electric Agora, Kevin Currie-Knight pours cold water on this hyper-rational state of affairs and the role analytic philosophy plays in encouraging it. Currie-Knight is concerned not so much with the specialized application of this picture, as in science proper, but with how broadly the picture has taken hold. Human beings experience a multiplicity of emptions and motivations, yet philosophy and the over-application of the hyper-rational model disembodies and ignores what life is all about: culture; emotion; creativity; belonging. Currie-Knight writes “philosophers tend to conceptualize human cognition in their own image,” and he wants to preserve “important things our methods can swallow up, those non-rational factors like partial attachments, adherence to traditions, and areas of life that can be cheapened by overemphasis on the rational.”

There’s a lot to agree with in this treatment. Truth and reason often come with an unearned air of authority, stomping over other precious turf. Currie-Knight’s thinking falls within the framework of American Pragmatism, a more fluid and humanistic offshoot of modern rationality, making its appearance in late 19th and early 20th century America, starting with Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. After a long period of decline and public stagnancy, the Pragmatist approach was re-vitalized by the philosopher Richard Rorty in the 1970’s.

Currie-Knight places his view specifically in the Rortyan tradition, sometimes dubbed “Neopragmatism.” Rorty believed that literature is on par with science and that truth is the “compliment” we pay to our present beliefs. There is another flavor of Pragmatism, however, from Hilary Putnam, a contemporary and sometimes interlocutor of Rorty’s in internecine squabbles over the degree to which to sideline the ideals of reason. Rorty thought truth was just a pat on the back we give to our beliefs, while Putnam warned against throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This essay is in keeping with Putnam’s counsel.  

Admittedly, somewhere along the way, truth and rationality became hegemonic to the point of serving as the automatic default in too many discussions in our culture, crowding out the human needs of identity and emotional satisfaction, much more delicate and complex life-goods. Eventually the strength of truth required no defense at all. But this pole-position status, once an effect of its power, becomes a vulnerability. As its grip is loosened, no resources remain to save truth from its cold and clinical appearance. We become discontented with technology that alienates us from nature, and reason retreats to bureaucratic formulations. Louder dissents than Currie-Knight’s come from the Postmodern Left and Reactionary Right, the former seeing knowledge as a kind of oppressive power, the latter blaming the condescension of the highly educated for its resistance to crucial public health measures.

With science and rationality’s power and success, it becomes too tempting to see their detractors as plucky underdogs. In many rhetorical and political spaces, the value of truth and reason is far from hegemonic, appearing more as a lame duck than an overlord. From Currie-Night’s perspective, the weight of balance still so heavily favors “Truth with a Capital T” that a reprioritization is in order. Although Currie-Knight’s treatment is more tailored than that of the Postmodern Left or Reactionary Right, even his affirmation of the value of truth and reason comes as a formality, pulled along by the common sense of prudence. Truth is like living in a makeshift house with a roof and four walls. It’s nice to have, but the main thing is that the structure is needed to house what really counts, which is the love and relationships and memories made inside. But I want to contend that the clustered ideal of truth and rationality represents a value on all fours with all the other values.

Bernard Williams already started this undertaking in Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. Williams was said to posses “an analytical mind with a humanist heart” and set out to provide not a theory of truth, but an account of “the value of truth.” In this view Accuracy and Sincerity, and even trust, are reliant on the notion of truth [the capitalization is Williams’s choice for handling accuracy and sincerity as terms of art]. The approach includes imagining the pooling of information that would take place in a state of nature, and indeed for “almost every human purpose.” Contributing to the pool would require having a correct belief in the first place. An objection that sometimes arises is that truth, though it may be important to human activities, is only an instrument in the process, not of inherent value itself.

The problem with the “truth as merely instrumental” objection is that the subsidiary values — values we already agree have significant moral and emotional meaning — are too intertwined with the ideal of truth to function without it. Truth has a gravitational pull, so to speak, that keeps the subsidiary celestial bodies in its orbit: In the case of truth and reason, honesty, sincerity, and more come along. Without the relative hyperobject, the other values spin off into oblivion. From the other direction, the objection selectively avoids applying the same standard to a value like love, somehow above scrutiny, as even love would appear quite sterile if imagined as completely divorced from its more manifest and specific examples – the love for parents, children, a vocation, etc.

Not only is truth on par with other values in the sense of its pull, but in terms of the impoverishment that can result from its absence. To flesh things out a bit, we can imagine a community that enacts many of the features that provide human beings with emotional and mental health, including belonging, connection, making a substantive contribution to the group, and narrative to provide integrity of identity. We can also imagine this community to be relatively free from the excesses of truth and reason that concern Currie-Knight. The rites of passage that confer some of this meaning come due, but one developing member of the community is uneasy because of a nagging worry that the myths that provide narrative aren’t true, and the roles assigned to varying members aren’t based on a correct understanding of nature. This person is unsettled, and while her initial questions are treated gently, she eventually becomes a nuisance, as the adults and leaders in the community not only have no satisfying answers, but their answers lack consistency over time, so her concerns are aggravated.

The local form of life this community practices provides some of the best psychological benefits. Nevertheless, it is the prerogative, often taken, of relatively senior and satisfied members of communities to leave people like this emotional outsider alone with their burdens. In this case, to share in her burdens would be to see the burdens, at least preliminarily, through her eyes. To decline to do this is to decline an opportunity to experience a deeper level of emotional burden-sharing and intimacy with a loved one. It’s true that a well-intentioned mentor could try to relate, but without the strong ideal of rationality, the attempt would be much more superficial than otherwise.

William James pointed out that people want to avoid being dupes and how this is one path to skepticism, but it’s also the case that we should avoid being manipulators. These roles are not always obvious to us, or even which role we fit into as we participate in their development. For Williams, deception not only betrays the trust of the deceived, but exerts power over the deceived by coercively constraining their beliefs and therefore, their choices. Similarly, the satisfied members of the community who’d rather not have their worldview disturbed, choosing to leave epistemic misfits alone with their existential angst, are indeed exercising a prerogative of power.

Even after all this, we’re still left with the reality that the standards of rationality can at times play nefarious roles in society and relationships. The move here is not to deny that this happens, but to point out that the forms of power exercised in emotional manipulation and epistemic obliviousness are no less examples of the illegitimate use of power than those that can accompany truth and reason. Power can appear anywhere.

The ideals of truth and reason are hardly the only gameable or corruptible virtues, as the psychologist Paul Bloom illustrates in Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Bloom is using ‘empathy’ not as a mere synonym for something like compassion, but in the sense that one can feel the way another feels. But this alleged virtue is demonstrably biased, even sometimes leading to racist preferences, and it’s innumerate, leading to inefficient forms of charitable giving toward more topical or local causes instead of where funds are more needed. Rather than empathy being a neutral value that can be applied by the good and bad alike, Bloom says that empathy also has a psychological tunneling effect that makes it more susceptible to bias and problems of proportionality. The book is not a sweeping dismissal of empathy in all cases, but a caution of what often lurks in and around it. Keeping in mind Bloom’s illustration of the negative potential of a common value like empathy, along with William’s positive evaluation of the value of truth, and finally with the guidance Putnam provides, the view Pragmatism should take toward the value of truth is now more illuminated. That is to say, the value of truth and its ability to stand alongside other reputed values is a force that holds whether or not “Truth with a Capital T” is hidden from view (with apologies to The Buddha). All this perhaps casts a wider net than Currie-Knight intended in his piece. Despite this latitude, nothing in this essay forestalls a re-evaluation of civic and philosophical priorities that ends up knocking truth down a peg or two. That’s a conversation for another day. I only ask here that if truth is to stand before this tribunal, that it be allowed to appear with its proper effects, that conceptual parity with the other values is stipulated, and with a plea that a world with a corruptible form of truth is still eminently preferable to a world without truth altogether.

15 thoughts on “Truth Rediscovered: A Humanistic View of Rationality

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  1. Indeed, solid evidence for the truth of the Buddha quote actually being the Buddha’s words.
    From Bodhipaksa, who researches these things on See the article on the quote used by the author here: Now, that said, not so fast! As Bodhipaksa wrote in the about section of the website consider this: “One question that arises though is whether there’s such a thing as a Genuine Buddha Quote. And in a sense there’s not. The earliest scriptures we have were passed down for hundreds of years before being committed to writing.” Thus in the end maybe don’t have any truth in the matter after all. For me I am left with there are things I know. There are things I think I know and they are wrong. There are things I know that I don’t know. Then there are the things I don’t know that I don’t know. I have come to accept that this predicament is a ticket to the game of being human. To rant on a bit more, I never agreed much with Donald Rumsfeld. That said, I did appreciate his famous quote here: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” Thanks for the article.

  2. Great essay! Would love to hear more about it via the podcast suggested by Dan.

    Seems to me the essay posits that reason is the generator of truth, and finds problematic the idea that rationality = reason. I’d agree. If the neopragmatist is to bring in things like emotion and narrative as additional generators of truth (implied above), then we’re going to have to consider the prospect that, at least in part, emotionality = reason and narrative = reason

    Ultimately, rationality + emotionality + narrative = reason

    The question then becomes, what part of the whole truth do each of these forms of assessment access and how is the truth assessed by each distinct? (I myself would say that emotionality and narrative are essentially the same) Most importantly, how do all these distinct forms of assessment reason together in tandem to form the most complete truth?

    Since there has been vastly more work done in philosophy on rationality and analytic assessments, the answer to that question is going to have to be done by spending considerably more time developing an understanding of emotional reasoning and narrative reasoning and how the emergent whole of human reasoning is constructed by all of them together.

    1. “If the neopragmatist is to bring in things like emotion and narrative as additional generators of truth (implied above), then we’re going to have to consider the prospect that, at least in part, emotionality = reason and narrative = reason.”

      That is definitely not what I was trying to sketch in my essay. I wasn’t saying that philosophers underappreciate how things other than reason can get us to truths, but the idea instead that reason cannot be separated from those other things, that when we reason, we are unavoidably doing some of those other things in the process.

      “Since there has been vastly more work done in philosophy on rationality and analytic assessments, the answer to that question is going to have to be done by spending considerably more time developing an understanding of emotional reasoning and narrative reasoning and how the emergent whole of human reasoning is constructed by all of them together.”

      Yes, this was closer to my point. I just think that a lot of philosophers, when talking about reason, are doing bad psychology along the way. In order to look at how truth works in the world – how we arrive at truth, why we need truth, etc – part of that HAS to be looking at reason less in an ideal way where it is a faculty separable from lowlier states like emotional attachment and partiality. Rather, it ha to be looked at in the very real and messy way it actually works among actually real people, a way that incorporates partiality, emotional attachment, etc.

  3. Kevin Currie-Knight may have been pooling together Dialectic and Rhetoric and making the point that the former is all very well but that if you want to persuade people of the truth of your position Pathos and Ethos must be deployed along with Logos. Most discussions in the public sphere rely heavily on emotional arguments and also testimonials from ‘reliable’ people. In these modern times that means celebrities.

    I beg to differ about the rationality of science and its hegemony in truth seeking. You will be aware of the massive replication problem and the forced retraction of papers by quite senior scientists. Topically, 250 papers on Covid have been retracted.

    1. “Topically, 250 papers on Covid have been retracted” – Amusingly, there is now a sizeable scientific literature on this phenomenon eg
      where we see that “[t]he median time to acceptance [for publication] for COVID-19 was lower than that for human influenza (8 vs. 92 days) and that 82/31319 retractions in 2020 (1 in 380) is very high compared to normal. That is, in an emergency, people are rushing.

      As regards replication in general – “it was ever thus”, especially in ropy areas like social psychology 😉 (my behavior genetics background showing).

  4. Many ideas and notions are floated on various blogs accessible today. I have read opinions on consciousness and rationality, just in the last month; they are both (or may be) illusion. My own holding on truth, parallels what I have said of reality: both are closely tied to context. Over time, interests, preferences, expectations, etc.,change. ‘Truth’ and ‘reality’ which are contingent upon meaning and contexts, become distortions of what they were before those changes in interests and the rest. The current controversy over abortion, which is unlikely to be settled, is a painful example. The right or wrong of it does not much matter to those who want to win—to be on the right side of history. Where ever that may be. When is truth both right and wrong? I just told you.

  5. Thanks for the essay response, Jay. Let me offer some preliminary thoughts in response to it.

    First, I can’t be sure, but it seems like you are splitting truth and other values in a way that I’m not sure I intended to do with my piece (or think can be done, which was the point of my essay. Here are two examples where you do it:

    “Admittedly, somewhere along the way, truth and rationality became hegemonic to the point of serving as the automatic default in too many discussions in our culture, crowding out the human needs of identity and emotional satisfaction, much more delicate and complex life-goods.”

    “The problem with the “truth as merely instrumental” objection is that the subsidiary values — values we already agree have significant moral and emotional meaning — are too intertwined with the ideal of truth to function without it.”

    Maybe I expressed it poorly, but my intent wasn’t to write that the problem with truth is that it ignores other values. My intent was to suggest that we probably shouldn’t talk about truth as if it is quarntinable from other values, especially not when we are talking about the way everyday folks come to form views on what is true.

    For context, the two books that motivated me to write the essay were looking at the psychology of how people change their minds. Sure, we want to convince people who believe falsehoods to believe truths – and I’ll get to the complexities of what that means in a bit – BUT we want to convince them… which means understanding the psychology of what is likely to persuade them.

    And it is there that I think philosophers need to be mindful that we need to start by looking at what is psychologically feasible, which doesn’t mean subordinating truth to other values, but recognizing how many other values coming to call something true is contingent upon.

    For context, one story in one of the books recounts the change of mind of someone who once believed that 9/11 was an inside job. It recounts how the change of mind could only occur once that person was no longer enmeshed in a cultural community for whom it was impermissible to even entertain an opposing position. Once he found other communities he felt comfortable in, he was able to ask himself “What if I’m wrong?” without self-censoring, and that was a necessary step.

    So, here is an interesting question. When faced with that person, are we more concerned to convince him of what we think is true, or speak truth as truth to him regardless of whether it is convincing? I’d opt for the former. I suspect a lot of folks would see that as dumbing it down or selling out if it means we have to do other rhetorical stuff than just show him the facts. In that case, maybe we’d be right, but our rightness would be inconsequential because it didn’t convince anyone who wasn’t already convinced.

    We could, of course, say that the question of what is true about 9/11 can be conceptually separated from the psychological processes that led him to believe 9/11 was an inside job. But we can’t possibly ask any actual inquirer to do that, because the inquirer depends on psychological processes and context to reach any conclusion about what the truth is.

    To some degree, this was the impasse between Rorty (and I) and Putnam (and you?). Putnam and Rorty agreed that all deliberation occurs within people and contexts and thata determining what truth is is always a psychological and cultural affair. But as I understand it, Putnam still wanted to say that we could in some sense rise above theses to see truth-as-it-really-is-out-there as the ideal we are shooting for. Rorty suggested that (a) this might be nice, but it would demand us pulling ourselves up by cognitive bootstraps in a way that no one can actually do, and (b) is akin to talking about what the world is like sans any experience of what it is like, which again, is as unachievable as imagining god without any qualities.

    So, it’s not that I think truth is overvalued and risk exalting other values above truth. It is that I think philosophy often underestimates how parasitic truth is already and unavoidably on other values. And this is particularly the case when we look at how the non-philosophically-minded (or scientifically-minded) outliers – the very people philosophy is supposed to be talking to! – relate to truth, but probably also evident – per Latour, et al. – when we even loo at how philosophers and science form and revise belief about what is true.

    1. I guess I might also say that my view here is probably informed by my peculiar type of pragmatism, that is deeply wedded I think to a Jamesian quirk.

      I think that truth always come through epistemology which always comes through psychology. That means that any talk of what the truth is independent from what we (do or could) believe about what the truth is is a non-starter. It’s an attempt to put the cart before the horse.

      We are beings whose chief concern is to function in the world and that seems to be what our minds are really attuned to. We have ‘truth’ in our conceptual vocabulary because it signals that we are talking about reliable beliefs we have about the world that we have reason to think reflect the world (even though we can never get at that world independently of beliefs about it).

      So, there seem to be better and worse ways to talk about how to get to the most reliable truths, and we can hone our psychological crafts to get at better and better ways. But when a regular Joe is told by a Scientific or Philosophical Jane that the former is wrong about what the truth is or the proper way to ascertain it, the latter HAS to convince the former by the light of the former’s actual psychology… or else all the latter has done in the former’s eyes is to say “I think you are wrong and yadda yadda yadda.” If the Scientific Jane doesn’t get Regular Joe’s psychology right, they won’t change Regular Joe’s beliefs.

      And when the person from a given culture reflects on whether the beliefs they have are the right ones, they need not appeal to anything more than “Will people in some imagined future believe things that I can’t imagine today but will prove better than the beliefs I have currently? Great speculation, and we should all engage in it. But they’re not leaving their psychological architecture behind, or getting at anything that could transcend it, when doing that speculating.

    2. Thanks, Kevin,

      I briefly alluded to this, but after your reply, I’m convinced that it’s the case and should be underscored, that I did go beyond your piece in my essay. Forgive me, but I took the liberty of sketching your position based on your piece but also on other writings you’ve done and conversations you’ve had at EA. Probably the largest portion to forming this background are the podcasts you’ve had with Dan and Robert, with Robert advancing a more robust form of realism than I would, and you and Dan pushing back. In the comments of one of those conversations, IIRC you affirmed that you’re comfortable saying with Rorty that truth is just the compliment we pay to our present beliefs, which I take to be properly characterized as full Rortyan (so it seems like Robert is on the epistemological right-wing, if you will, with you on the left, me in the center-right, and though I’m not as sure of this, I’ll put Dan in the center-left). I did intend to be responsive to your view on philosophy getting human beings wrong, but also, I went further.

      On my side, I’ve long had an interest in the Putnam-Rorty debates, and I take you to be an articulate exponent of the more or less unvarnished Rortyan position, so I took the opportunity in responding to your piece to enter that conversation. I was not only replying to your piece but also to the background it rests on, based on what I’ve gleaned hanging around here thus far (I also figured that while I was in the game, I might as well make a point or two on behalf of truth against Postmodern and Reactionary views, which have little or nothing to do with your piece). Combine this with the fact that the first book I read in philosophy was The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy by Putnam and I figured it could be a good exchange (this was a strange book to start on because it’s both too advanced for an intro while giving a false outward impression of simplicity and in the sense that starting with a relatively deflated view led to some confused interactions with the more classical/traditional material I encountered in philosophy undergrad).

      On truth crowding out other values, I actually took this to be a point of agreement between us, and as such I doubt it’s a big obstacle. That was my concession phase. If you don’t take your view to be properly characterized as a “crowding out” one, I’m fine characterizing my agreement to something like truth taking the floor while other more holistic or humanistic views about how we’re motivated are on the sideline, or truth being mischaracterized as utterly independent at the expense of a fuller account of human motivation, etc.

      Finally, I chose Putnam as a marker not only because of my personal history, but because there’s already a vivid and established Putnam vs. Rorty narrative (the Putnam vs. Rorty YouTube video is exquisite). But I don’t vouch for exactly whatever Putnam counsels in place of Rorty’s view. For example, Donald Davidson also expresses reservations with Rorty’s view while parting company with Putnam’s proposed solutions. I take my view from the general thrust of the concerns of Putnam, Davidson, Susan Haack, Peirce if he were here, etc.

      Similarly, IIRC you’ve said that you don’t necessarily agree with everything Rorty said. So, I don’t think either of us are responsible for literally everything Rorty and/or Putnam said, but generally speaking my position is from Putnam’s side of post-analytic/pragmatic thinking. You’ve characterized your position as Rortyan, and in his telling, he’s got Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Nietzsche, James and others in his corner.

      There’s probably more to be said but maybe I should leave it for our conversation!

  6. I ‘worry’ about any departure from following the argument wherever it may lead. The danger of wandering into the bogs of truthiness and the performing seals of approval, the likes. George Clooney thinks its O.K. so it must be alright, my gut feeling and all the fibrillations of the intuitive antennae are just more ignis fatuus. The Upanishad saying ‘Satyam Vada, Dharmam Chara (speak the truth, follow Dharma) is a quite sufficient motto that has very little to do with the vagaries of persuasion.

  7. My own view is that rationality includes pragmatic concerns. And it is often irrational to not consider the pragmatic concerns.

    So you have the “truth” which I take to mean a proposition that accords with reality. But often the truth is not quite clear to us. So then you have the question of what should a rational person believe is true. What we “believe” has implications for how we act. And it this connection to our action is often what makes a believing something (or not) important. And it is in this way rational people should take into account pragmatic concerns.

    Some people talk about this when it comes to pragmatic encroachment. But I think they go too far in that they are trying to redefine “knowledge.” I am not concerned with whether these pragmatic concerns can mean you “know” something just whether you reasonably believe something.

    Both theoretical/evidential reasons and pragmatic reasons are legitimate reasons to believe something in my opinion. Evidential reasons are reasons that seem to make a claim more or less probable that the proposition accords with reality. But you also have practical reasons to believe something which can be distinct from reasons that make it true.

    For example if for whatever reason doctors were to find that believing you will survive cancer increased your chance of surviving cancer you might reasonably try to believe you will survive beyond what the evidence of survival rates would indicate. Yes you want to hold true beliefs but you also want to survive.

    Another example to consider is this. Assume a study shows that people who do not believe in morality tend to cheat more. Now lets say you are not sure whether morality is real (or true). However, if it is true you do want to act morally. And if morality is not real or true then you are not concerned about morality or other norms generally. It may be rational to at least to some extent try to bolster your belief that it is true so that you will act morally. Since if it is true then you will be more likely to act according to its dictates which is your goal. Although this approach would make it more likely that you hold a false belief if morality is not true since holding a false belief beyond the evidence is at worst a violation of a non-moral norm and you tend to think you wouldn’t care much about norms if morality is not true then it may be rational to consider this beyond the straight up evidence for or against moral realism.

    I assume a certain level of voluntarism but if you think you absolutely no control over your beliefs then other issues come up.

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