Dewey and Russell …

Well, I was busy at work today and really want to play City of Heroes tonight, so I’m running a little short on time for a blog post. But I’m taking a course on the debate between Dewey and Russell, and have to write commentaries every weak on the readings, and thought that since I have to do it anyway I might as well use them to fill in my empty blog space [grin].

The first readings were on Dewey and Russell’s independent attempts to disprove notions like that of F.H. Bradley and others. Both were sympathetic to that view at one point and both rejected it, and then formed their own theories. The readings were:

Dewey, “Reality and the Criterion for the Truth of Ideas”.

Russell, “On the Nature of Truth”.

And this is what I said about them:

Dewey and Russell here are both taking aim at F.H. Bradley’s idealist notions.  Both advance arguments against the challenges the idealists make to empiricism and also advance theories on what truth really is that rebuild the notion of truth after taking down the idealist conception.  So it will be useful to examine for each of them one of the main ways they attack the idealist position and also to make a point about how each tries to save truth afterwards.

For Dewey, the key argument against the idealist view is that it relies on two senses of reality and truth.  One is the Absolute Truth, and Absolute Reality, which is the ideal and idealized.  The other is our specific experience.  What we have, even as a complete unity, is nothing more than our experience, but our experience is precisely what the idealists are claiming is incomplete and in error.  Any attempt to derive any notion of truth from experience, then, is going to be flawed on the conception of the idealists.  But if that is the case, how can we get any notion of this Absolute Truth at all?  What logical basis can we have for linking to this Absolute Truth and this Absolute Reality?  What basis can we use to decide what logical values are of use – such as, say, the principle of non-contradiction – in determining a reality without us having something to guide us to better and worse conceptions of reality?  Thus, the conundrum: if the Absolute Truth is not related to the experienced truth in a way where we can connect the two, then of what use is this Absolute Truth?

An idealist could reply here that it is possible that we cannot, in fact, access the Absolute Truth.  Dewey’s counters rely heavily on the idealists thinking that it is attainable.  However, if the idealist tries to argue that there is an Absolute Truth that is not attainable, then this seems to reduce to the Kantian noumenal, and the pragmatist can simply acknowledge it but proceed precisely as they would without it, and deal with the mere appearances as that is all they and anyone can have.  So this retreat is not as palatable as it might seem.

Dewey’s notion of truth, however, is more problematic.  He ties it to the verification principle, and argues that what makes something true is, essentially, what truth is.  His example of the streetcar (pg 335) highlights the problem with this: it suggests that if you do not verify something true then it is not true, which is a theme he carries on throughout the rest of the paper even to his “saved man” example (pg 337).  But for true propositions, it seems reasonable to say that a proposition is true or false even if I cannot currently – or ever – verify whether or not it is true.  That noise either was or was not a streetcar even if no one goes to look out the window.  So that is a dubious proposition, to say the least.  Additionally, if he sticks to empirical verification he runs into an issue of propositions – like mathematics – that do not need or cannot have empirical verification.  A Davidsonian can define truth as the set of conditions that would prove or make the proposition true by claiming that it applies to any condition, empirical or not.  But this stance may not be open to Dewey.

Russell, on the other hand, makes his major push against the relation principle, trying to demonstrate that we have good reason to think it false.  Ultimately, the key argument seems to be that for at least some terms we have to expect that they will eventually end with something that is not a relation, and so the proposed infinite regress never occurs.  Russell uses the example of “greater than” to suggest that if we try to follow the proposed infinite regress we will eventually end up with something that is not an adjective of the two terms, especially if the relation is asymmetrical.  This, however, seems like a bit of argumentative slight of hand, especially since it would have to apply to any possible relation and the idealist problem might include a relation to the nature of only one term.  It is not as clear that this will happen, and Russell does not work even the “greater than” relation out in detail to show where it would end.  A stronger argument is about the nature of an object.  If the nature is different than a thing itself, then it must be related to it, and so the nature of a thing must have a way to relate without an infinite regress.  But if it is the same, then in what sense?  Is a subject just a collection of predicates?  Then what makes a unique nature?  Will not any set of predicates do? (Pg 42 – 43) It is unclear, however, if this is a real challenge to idealists like Bradley, who insist that the natures of everything are bound up all together in one massive monism.  Russell disregards this as not properly allowing for an identity of differences, but this seems, again, like argumentative slight of hand; the idealists likely do not see that as a problem, and so it is no reason to reject it for them.

Russell’s definition of truth is based on the relation between facts and beliefs (pg 45).  One can either take the simple approach and argue that truth is how beliefs link up with facts, or one can add an additional objective falsehood and argue that beliefs link up with either facts and truth or fictions and falsehoods, which would easily allow for us to understand and accept false beliefs.  If, on the other hand, we reject objective falsehood, then belief becomes a complex notion and beliefs that do not link up to facts are, essentially, beliefs about nothing.  Neither option seems palatable; beliefs that are false still seem to be beliefs about something, just something that is false.  However, that does not mean that we need some kind of objective falsehood like some kind of objective truth.  Do mistakes really need an object, or can they simply be errors?  What, in fact, is an objective falsehood that underpins this?  What kind of object is it?  What reality does it have?  True beliefs can point to reality, but false beliefs with objective falsehood point to … what, exactly?  Are all possible falsehoods contained in the fact object?  Why would a fact contain falsehoods?  It is not all that clear how this is supposed to work out in the end.

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