Is pluralism about truth inherently unstable?

ABSTRACT: Although it’s sometimes thought that pluralism about truth is unstable—or, worse, just a non-starter—it’s surprisingly difficult to locate collapsing arguments that conclusively demonstrate either its instability or its inability to get
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  Is pluralism about truth inherently unstable? Cory D. Wright Published online: 15 January 2011   Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011 Abstract  Although it’s sometimes thought that pluralism about truth is unstable—or, worse, just a non-starter—it’s surprisingly difficult to locate collapsing argu-ments that conclusively demonstrate either its instability or its inability to getstarted. This paper exemplifies the point by examining three recent arguments tothat effect. However, it ends with a cautionary tale; for pluralism may not be anybetter off than other traditional theories that face various technical objections, andmay be worse off in facing them all. Keywords  Truth    Pluralism    Property    Instability    Scope problem   Reductive analysis    Uniformity assumption    Disjunctivism 1 A precarious position? In thinking and talking about truth, we intuitively take ourselves to be thinking andtalking about one-and-the-same thing (Næss 1938). This intuition grounds the uniformity assumption  ( UA ), according to which the nature or essence of truth nevervaries, regardless of discursive commitments, entitlements, or content. Subjectmatter doesn’t matter.( UA ) If truth has a nature, then it has a uniform nature that is invariant acrossdiscipline or region of discourse.Because of its grounding in intuition, ( UA ) has rarely been examined, andwhen it has theorists seem to have found it to be unworthy of that very C. D. Wright ( & )Department of Philosophy, California State University, Long Beach, McIntosh Humanities Building(917), 1250 Bellflower Boulevard, Long Beach, CA 90840-2408, USAe-mail: cdwright@csulb.edu  1 3 Philos Stud (2012) 159:89–105DOI 10.1007/s11098-010-9691-0  examination. 1 Subsequently, traditional inflationary theories have been constructedin tacit accordance with ( UA ): the nature of truth uniformly consists in someproperty or feature  F  , for any given true sentence in any given domain, discipline, orregion of discourse. Candidates for  F   abound: weak homomorphism, isomorphism,congruence, correlation, identity, indirect correspondence, coherence-as-constraint-satisfaction, pragmatic expediency, verification, superwarrant, etc. None haveachieved consensus.A few philosophers, scattered throughout the 20th century, have raised doubtsabout the descriptive adequacy of ( UA ). For instance, George Boas observed thatassessment of theories of truth typically depends on the assumption that ‘[t]ruth ishomogenous, that there are not several kinds of truth, one for one kind of [sentence],one for another’, though he ultimately found the assumption of ‘homogenous truth’to be baseless:when the impossibility of heterogenous truth is thought over, it does not seemimpossible. It would make most critical arguments superfluous, for no onewould be able to tell what kind of truth was involved in an opponent’s point of view. But that would not be a very telling reason against it if one wanted topress the matter. (1921, p. 283)Similarly, Harry Acton advanced the suggestion that a ‘suitably stated’ correspon-dence theory would be consistent with the claim that truth may vary by subjectmatter or by kinds of sentence. 2 [N]ot all true [sentences] are true because they correspond to the facts. Such[sentences] as  two contradictory propositions cannot be both true  do notcorrespond to facts in the way in which  Jack killed Jill  might. Thus, the theoryI have been examining must hold that  true  is ambiguous, and that [sentences]in logic are true in a different sense from other [sentences]. It is very difficultto show what this other sense of   true  can be. This, however, although adifficulty, is not necessarily an objection to the correspondence theory when itis stated suitably. (1935, p. 191)Following in these footsteps, Crispin Wright wrote:there ought in any case, I believe, to be no presumption in favor of a monisticview of truth. [ …  I]f truth has a single uniform constitution, then thatconstitution must be conceived along broadly correspondence lines. But whatenforces the assumption of uniformity? I think the answer is: nothing. (1998,pp. 57–58) 1 See, e.g., Haack (2005, 2008) and Horwich (1996, pp. 880–881). For reasons why ( UA ) isn’tnecessarily the fulcrum of the debate between monists and pluralists, see Wright and Pedersen (2010,pp. 206–209). 2 Acton neglected to articulate what that ‘suitably stated’ correspondence theory is. O’Connor (1975,p. 71) casually alluded to the idea that the nature of the correspondence relation may vary depending onthe nature of the relata, but likewise failed to develop this idea. Fortunately, the project has been pickedup by Sher (1998, 2004, 2005, 2011), who has worked out a theory under which there are a plurality of  ‘forms of correspondence’.90 C. D. Wright  1 3  Unfortunately, such remarks haven’t much surpassed the level of remark, andhaven’t achieved the degree of precision or systematicity required of fecund andfundamental principles, as Wright himself was keenly aware at the time:‘I acknowledge, of course, that more detail and a sharper theoretical setting isrequired for the proposal before it can really be clear that it makes genuine sense,let alone possesses merit’ (1998, p. 58).In the past decade, increasing skepticism over ( UA ) has become the point of departure for a new alethic theory: pluralism about truth, which is usuallysummarized as the thesis that there’s more than one way of being true. Given howwidespread the commitment to ( UA ) is, however, philosophers generally haven’tthought much about this thesis, and haven’t thought much of it when they have. Notthat they would be unjustified; for summations are only as gainful as the contentthey are summations of, and there hasn’t been much more content to pluralism abouttruth than the thesis itself. 3 In the absence of further detail, the danger is thatpluralism—which amounts to a sort of phrenologizing of truth—may just evanesceinto some historical curio, much like phrenology itself.One group of explanations commonly reverted to for this paucity of content isthat the pluralist’s thesis is conceptually unstable, or perhaps just a non-starter—somehow incoherent, tabling with one hand what it takes away with the other. 4 (  INS  ) Pluralism about truth is conceptually unstable.The fomenting idea behind this group of instability/non-starter explanations seemsto hark from a familiar taunt: ‘[Pluralism] is a heady and exotic doctrine, or wouldbe if we could make sense of it’—as Davidson (1974, p. 5) might have put it—though surely the driving complaint is not—as Davidson would have then put it—that the pluralist’s thesis cannot be made sense of. Quite plainly, the thesis istantamount to the claim that the number of ways of being true is 1 \ i \ n . And sothe sense of   unstable  in (  INS  ) should not be understood as mere unintelligibility.Subsequently, those who take (  INS  ) to be a promising explanation for this paucityof content must have something else in mind. Yet, locating some ‘master’ argumentthat conclusively demonstrates (  INS  ) is surprisingly difficult. For example, onemight reckon that pluralism about truth is itself either true or false. But of what useis pluralism if the theory is not true? And if it is true, then isn’t the sentence  pluralism about truth is true  somehow just self-refuting? Either way, why be apluralist? Immediate rejoinders are available: e.g., attributive or predicative uses of  true  are merely elliptical for something like  true in one way or another  . And evenwere the theory eventually shown to be untrue in one way or another, or just untruesimpliciter, that’s hardly to say that it stumbles out of the gate. 3 For some of the better, more sustained presentations of pluralism see, e.g., Wright (1996, 1998), Sher (1998, 2004, 2011), and Pedersen (2006, 2010). In my own view, functionalism about truth is a far more developed theory but is not obviously classifiable as a version of pluralism (Wright 2005, p. 14; see alsoPettit 1996, p. 886; cf. Lynch 2000, pp. 211–212). For further exposition and criticism of functionalism, see, e.g., Lynch (2001, 2004, 2005), Wright (2005, 2010), Sher (2005), Horton and Poston (2011), and Dodd (2011). 4 See, e.g., Horwich (1996, pp. 880–881), Dodd (2002, p. 290), Patterson (2004, p. 500), Lynch (2005, p. 42), and Haack (2005, 2008, p. 21 ff.). Is pluralism about truth inherently unstable? 91  1 3  After rehearsing the standard motivation for pluralism in §2, this paper recoversthree recent and much more nuanced attempts to articulate just such a masterargument—one by Michael Lynch, Nikolaj Pedersen, and Susan Haack in §§3–5,respectively—and contends that none yields a successful collapsing argument. Thisis mixed news for pluralists. On one hand, their view seems to be in much bettershape than (  INS  ) would have it: pluralism may face difficulties and objections, butno more devastating than any other major theoretical competitor. On the other hand,the content of their view remains thin relative to other well-developed theories.Finally, I end by articulating a further worry about pluralism in §6, which raises thepossibility of instability anew. Consequently, we can lay some groundwork for aninductive counterargument to the effect that (  INS  ) is a poor explanation, thoughpluralism may not be the better for it. 2 Is pluralism unmotivated? For our purposes here, the standard understanding of inflationism shall suffice. Let T  be a traditional inflationary theory of truth if   T   entails the conjunction of thefollowing four general principles:(1) There exists some property or feature  F  .(2)  F   is had by all and only the true sentences.(3) Truth is the property consisting in being  F  .(4)  F   is necessary and sufficient for explaining why those sentences are true.Because of their commitment to ( UA ), traditional inflationary theories have beensaid to be saddled with the so-called  scope problem , which is the problem of generalizing the explanatory scope of   T   beyond the select few regions of discoursefor which it is competitive. For example, some theories—such as those suggestingthat the nature of truth is, uniformly, correspondence to fact—seem intuitivelyplausible when applied to truths about bananas, postage, sporks, and other ordinary,observable, or otherwise human-scale objects; however, they seem much lessconvincing when applied to truths about fictive motion, comedy, ethical mores,fashion, ethnic slurs, numbers, or jurisprudential dictates. Conversely, theories thatseem intuitively plausible when applied to legal, comic, or mathematical truths—such as those suggesting that the nature of truth is, uniformly, coherence amongbeliefs—seem less convincing when applied to truths about our physical world. Orso goes what is now the standard story. 5 Deflationism is the primary alternative: truth has no underlying nature, and so theproblem is dissolvable by rejecting the very need for substantive explanation, andthe generalization thereof, in the first place. Yet, where the antecedent of ( UA ) isfalse, then neither the rejection of theorizing about truth as an explanatory projectnor the rejection of reductive analyses renders deflationism inconsistent with ( UA ). 5 See, e.g., O’Connor (1975, p. 13), Wright (1998), Lynch (2001, pp. 723–725; 2004, pp. 384–385), Wright (2005, pp. 1–2), and Pedersen (2006, pp. 102–103 ff.; 2010, pp. 92–94). For an attempt to undermine the use of the standard story as motivation for pluralism, see Dodd’s twist on the basic Quine/ Sainsbury argument that the ‘problem’ is only apparent (2011; see also Horwich 1996). 92 C. D. Wright  1 3  Consequently, and as pluralists are fond of pointing out, ( UA ) appears to becommon ground between inflationists and deflationists. And insofar as the centralrift among theories of truth just is the debate between inflationists and deflationists,( UA ) appears to be common ground for constructing theories of truth, full stop.Pluralism about truth fits uncomfortably on either side of this rift preciselybecause it takes ( UA ) to be uncommon ground. Hence, it stands as a genuinealternative to both if it stands at all. With deflationists, pluralists reject one or moreof principles (1)–(4); however, the reason owes to the monistic assumptions therein,not the reductive analysis itself. Instead, pluralists usually posit several properties orfeatures  F  1 ,  … ,  F  n , which are individually necessary and jointly sufficient fordemarcating the class of true sentences, such that the truth of any given truesentence  r  in discourse  d   consists in being  F  i . In that sense, pluralism is every bit the‘red-blooded’ inflationary theory committed to just such a reductive analysis:(5) There exist properties or features  F  1 , … ,  F  n .(6)  F  1 , … ,  F  n  are had by all and only the true sentences.(7) For any given true sentence  r  [  d  , truth is the property consisting in being  F  i .(8)  F  i  is individually necessary and sufficient for explaining why any given  r  is atrue sentence.Principles (5)–(8) suggest, inter alia, that truth can be reductively analyzed ashaving different natures that vary across different regions of discourse. Sentences inpsychopharmacology might be true in one way, for example, while sentences inbusiness advertising true in another, and sentences in gastronomy yet another.I’ve nothing here to add to the standard story, though it’s worth observing thatpluralists (as a group) have done amazingly little to expound on the scope problemor to go far beyond the usual glosses on it (such as the preceding one). Nevertheless,it will do for our purposes here to reaffirm that the intuitions driving it are fairlyrobust (see, e.g., Næss 1938), and that there do seem to be extant and thusproblematic limitations on explanatory scope. That being the case, the scopeproblem is sufficient to motivate pluralism about truth, and, so motivated, pluralismoffers a reason to reject ( UA ). 6 The rejection serves as a sort of diagnosis of what iswrong with current disputes between inflationists and deflationists, and thedevelopment of that diagnosis doubles as a solution to the scope problem.Provisionally, then, we now have descriptions under which pluralism about truth isneither completely devoid of content, nor prima facie unintelligible, nor unmoti-vated. But none of that will matter if the view is inherently unstable; so pluralistshave a lot riding on the answer. 6 Pluralists would be better off if the scope problem were also unnecessary. An alternative route topluralism might also be through the issue of truth-bearing or perhaps even valuation, although theseoptions haven’t yet been well-explored (Marian David and Patrick Greenough, personal communication(May 16th 2009)). In the latter case, establishing the contrast between species of indeterminate anddeterminate truth may be unhelpful if indeterminate or determinate truths turn out to be truths that cross-cut regions of discourse in the uninteresting way that, e.g., literal truths, long-winded truths, andcontingent truths do.Is pluralism about truth inherently unstable? 93  1 3
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