ERROR AND TRADITION
Thomas Russell Wingate
Philosophers recognize two theories of truth. These are quite different from each other.
Most people, however highly educated they may be considered, do not routinely take these differences into account.
The correspondence theory of truth holds that an idea is true if (and only if) it corresponds to (matches, reflects, fits) the real (factual, objective) world.
The coherence theory of truth holds that an idea is true if (and because) it makes ideas near to it more plausible.
Lawyers have a maxim: “two wrongs don’t make a right, but they do make a precedent.” It is easier to remember this than it is to fathom the dialectic of Hegel and his heirs.
The lawyers are operating on the coherence theory of truth. (Their technical term is stare decisis.) They believe that a text is best understood after generations of lawyers have polished it to gleam to a different wavelength.
To its embarrassment, philosophy comes in “national flavors.” The English Channel separates the sway of “British empiricism” from that of “Continental rationalism.”
The latter relies heavily on the coherence theory of truth; the former, on the correspondence theory.
This leads us to America’s contribution to philosophy: pragmatism. It originated in New England after the Civil War. It has been dominant in our universities since the 1920s.
It is important to be aware that this country was not founded by pragmatists, nor were American folkways and institutions intended to produce them.
Pragmatism started as a good-faith attempt to soften the hard edges of honored thinking that led to the unexpectedly gigantic Civil War.
Early pragmatism sought “the moral equivalent of war” and declared that it would be good, while it simultaneously declared that real war is bad.
Pragmatism equates “what is true” with “what works.” It was first expounded with rhetoric of “cash value” and “the will to believe.”
Its principal cart-before-the-horse is that one cannot find out “what works” until after one senses much of “what is true.” Pragmatism presupposes a cultural context it claims to repair but means to supplant.
Dewey’s later refinement, instrumentalism, holds that “warranted assertability” is the best we will ever reach. He means “warranted by each other.” This amounts to collective subjectivism.
“What works” is said to be an adequate substitute for moral doctrines, although this cannot be “warrantably asserted” within its own framework.
If an analogy to chemistry is not out of place, doctrines are molecular, not atomic.
Advocates of RBNUWAD clash with those who prefer NKFJWCV.
The more elements the two doctrines have in common, the fiercer the dispute tends to be.
We are now in a position to inspect heresy and error.
If the truth is MKQLPGZ, then a doctrine of TOYBSVX is error, for it contains no elements in common with the truth.
Consider, however, PGZEFWK. It matches the truth in places, but in others it does not. This is heresy, classically described as “lopsided truth.”
My use of random capital letters is intended to convey the point that truth is complicated.
Koestler summed up the politics of the twentieth century: “We are fighting against a total lie in the name of a half truth.”
Heresies are much more common and influential than error.
When ZRN has existed for six hundred years, ZRN is definitely a tradition.
If ZRN has existed for sixty years, is it a tradition? Says who?
Is a tradition worthy of continuation simply because it is a tradition? Or should a tradition be evaluated by standards outside itself? Or did standards outside itself lead to its becoming a tradition?
Again, says who?
If ZRN is to be replaced because it conflicts with JYB, is it relevant that JYB has not been tried, or tried successfully, yet?
If you think JYB needs more than glitter to recommend it, you are following the correspondence theory of truth. If you think ZRN should be dumped and untried JYB installed, you are following the coherence theory of truth.
Wittgenstein advised us: “Do not assume these things have something in common. Look and see whether they do.”
Traditions coexist with other traditions. Doctrines coexist with other doctrines.
When most people think of “truth” they have the correspondence theory in mind. Pragmatism has gotten as far as it has because most people suppose that the practical is associated with the true.
“Tin is heavier than tungsten” is not true; therefore, any operation based upon it will come to grief. This is common sense, which has not fled the field.
Utilitarianism is another doctrine based on circular reasoning and emotional appeal. It married pragmatism without benefit of clergy. Situationalism is their predictable spawn.
An ethic cannot be improvised. Who would obey it or respect it? And how long would it last?
Common sense is duty-bound to be cautious.
We routinely read that “we are facing an uncertain future” full of “potential dangers” and that “things are spinning out of control.”
“The future” does not “come”; rather, probabilities are always unfolding.
Thus, no future is fully known or fully knowable.
Every past had an earlier past. Every future will have a later future.
In human affairs, probabilities change all the time and time changes all probabilities. We must all settle for that.
The concept “future” contains the concept “uncertain.” The concept “danger” contains the concept “potential.” (As your hand nears the buzzsaw, the danger increases. As the blade slices your hand, that particular danger is past but you have a disaster.) Redundancies, desirable in machines, are not desirable in thinking.
The world “under control” has never been, never will be, and cannot be “the natural situation.”
Writers should avoid the loaded vacuities unprecedented and outdated, for they smuggle in the concept of “a natural time” for human affairs.
Progress isn’t the best choice, either. What is progress for a cancer is not progress for its host.
It would be difficult to find a doctrine that does not add triumphalism to itself.
KYRBVNQ announces that, due to its excellence, it will prevail over its competitors, given sufficient time. (This is said to be another evidence of its excellence.)
There are those who will rejoice at the triumph of KYRBVNQ, even though they do not expect to see it.
There are those who expect to find KYRBVNQ acceptable or endurable if and when it takes over.
There are those who detest KYRBVNQ and dread its triumph, but believe in its triumph anyhow. Some will resist it; many will not bother.
Triumphalism is a stimulant to some and a sedative to others.
Triumphalism can march irresistibly forward—or off a cliff to its doom.
One of Ashleigh Brilliant’s best Pot-Shots is: “To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first, and whatever you hit, call it the target.”
Much happens by chance, without let or hindrance, rhyme or reason. (This has warranted assertability by the ton.)
Historical inevitability is the idea that nothing else could ever have happened than what did happen. Does your experience tell you that?
As for what will “certainly (!!)” come about later on, toward which our collective efforts “must (!!)” be directed, how much knowledge of the next five years do you have? How much do you think anyone else has? When you multiply zeroes, what do you get?
When you boil the logic down, it comes to:
If A, then B.
“The wave of the future” has no merit as an argument. Wolfgang Pauli’s dismissal fits: “Not only is it not right, it’s not even wrong.”
If English did not try to straddle both theories of truth, its nouns past, future, and tradition would be plurals seldom or never used as singulars.
“The times” (appropriately plural) are made by man, not man by the times.
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