The Contingency of Language

Richard Rorty

About two hundred years ago, the idea that A truth was made rather than found began to take hold of the imagination of Europe. The French Revolution had shown that the whole vocabulary of social relations, and the whole spectrum of social institutions, could be replaced almost overnight. This inspired a new sort of politics – revolutionary, utopian politics, the sort of political thought which sets aside questions about both the will of God and the nature of man and dreams of creating a new kind of human being. Simultaneously, the Romantic poets were showing what can happen when art is no longer thought of as imitation, but rather as self-creation. These poets made it plausible for art to claim the place in culture traditionally held by religion and philosophy, the place which the Enlightenment had claimed for science.

In the course of the last two centuries, these two tendencies have joined forces and have achieved cultural hegemony. For the contemporary intellectual, questions of ends as opposed to means – questions about how to give a sense to one’s own life or that of one’s community – are questions for art, politics, or both, rather than for religion, philosophy, or science. This development has led to a split within philosophy. Some philosophers have remained faithful to the Enlightenment, and have continued to identify themselves with the cause of science. They see the old struggle between religion and science as continuing, having now taken the form of a struggle between reason and all those forces within culture which take truth to be made rather than found. These philosophers take science as the paradigmatic human activity, and think of science as discovering truth rather than making it. They regard ‘making truth’ as a merely metaphorical, and thoroughly misleading, phrase. They think of politics and art as spheres in which the notion of ‘truth’ is out of place. Other philosophers, realising that the world as it is described by the physical sciences teaches no moral lesson, offers no spiritual comfort, have concluded that science is no more than the handmaiden of technology. These philosophers have ranged themselves alongside the political utopian and the innovative artist. Whereas the first kind of philosopher (a kind common in Britain and America, and exemplified by even such relatively liberated analytic philosophers as Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams) contrasts ‘hard scientific fact’ with ‘the subjective’ or with ‘metaphor’, the second kind – common elsewhere in the world – sees science as one more human activity, not as the place at which human beings encounter a ‘hard’, non-human reality. On this view, great scientists invent descriptions of the world which are useful for purposes of predicting and controlling what happens, just as poets and political thinkers invent other descriptions of it for other purposes. But there is no sense in which any of these descriptions is an accurate representation of the way the world is in itself. These philosophers regard the very idea of such a representation as pointless.

Had the first sort of philosopher, the sort whose hero is the natural scientist, always been the only sort, we should probably never have had an autonomous discipline called ‘philosophy’ – a discipline as distinct from the sciences as it is from theology or from the arts. As such a discipline, philosophy is no more than two hundred years old. It owes its existence to attempts by the German idealists to put the sciences in their place, and to give a clear sense to the vague idea that human beings make truth rather than finding it. Kant wanted to consign science to the realm of second-rate truth – truth about a phenomenal world. Hegel wanted to think of natural science as a description of spirit not yet fully conscious of its own spiritual nature, and thus to elevate the sort of truth offered by the poet and the political revolutionary to first-rate status.

German idealism, however, was a short-lived and unsatisfactory compromise. For Kant and Hegel went only half-way in their repudiation of the idea that truth is ‘out there’. They were willing to view the world of empirical science as a made world – to see matter as constructed by mind, or as consisting in mind insufficiently conscious of its own mental character. But they persisted in seeing mind, spirit, the depths of the human self, as having an intrinsic nature – one which could be known by a kind of non-empirical super-science called philosophy. This meant that only half of truth – the bottom, scientific half – was made. Higher truth, the truth about mind, the province of philosophy, was still a matter of discovery rather than creation. What was needed, and what the idealists were unable to envisage, was a repudiation of the very idea of anything – mind or matter, self or world – having an intrinsic nature to be expressed or represented. For the idealists confused the idea that nothing has such a nature with the idea that the idea that space and time are unreal – with the idea that human beings cause the spatio-temporal world to exist.

If we are ever again to live in that dawn in which the young Wordsworth exulted, to recapture Schiller’s conviction that art and politics together may jointly shape a new humanity, we need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that the truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations. Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own – unaided by the describing activities of human beings – cannot.

The suggestion that truth, as well as the world, is out there is the legacy of an age in which the world was seen as the creation of a being who had a language of His own. This suggestion runs together the truth that the world sometimes causes sentences to be true or false with the falsehood that what causes a sentence to be true is, somehow, itself true – that the world splits itself up, on its own initiative, into sentence-shaped chunks called ‘facts’. If one runs these together, it is easy to start capitalising the word ‘truth’ and treating it as something identical either with God or with the world as God’s project. Then one will say, for example, that Truth is great, and will prevail.

This conflation is facilitated by confining attention to single sentences as opposed to vocabularies. For we often let the world decide the competition between alternative sentences (for example, between ‘red wins’ and ‘black wins’ or between ‘the butler did it’ and ‘the doctor did it’). In such cases, it is easy to run together the fact that the world contains the cause of the sentence being true with the idea that that cause, that state of the world, is itself an example of truth. But it is not so easy once we turn from individual sentences to vocabularies as wholes. When we turn to examples of alternative language-games – the vocabulary of ancient Athenian politics as against that of Jefferson, the moral vocabulary of St Paul as against that of Freud, the jargon of Newton versus that of Aristotle, the idiom of Blake rather than that of Dryden – it is difficult to think of the world as making one of these better than another, of the world as deciding between them. When the notion of ‘description of the world’ is moved from the level of criterion-governed sentences within language-games to language-games as wholes, games which we do not choose between by reference to criteria, the idea that the world decides which descriptions are true can no longer be given a clear sense. It becomes hard to think that a vocabulary is somehow already out there in the world, waiting for us to discover it. Attention (of the sort fostered by intellectual historians like Thomas Kuhn and Quentin Skinner) to the vocabularies in which sentences are formulated, rather than to individual sentences, makes us realise, for example, that the fact that Newton’s vocabulary lets us predict the world more easily than Aristotle’s does not mean that the world speaks Newtonian. The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak. Only other human beings do that.

The realisation that the world does not tell us what language-games to play should not, however, lead us to say that a decision about which to play is arbitrary, nor to say that it is the expression of something deep within us. The moral is not that objective criteria for choice of vocabulary are to be replaced with subjective criteria, reason with will or feeling. It is rather that there are no criteria – that the notions of criteria and choice (including that of ‘arbitrary’ choice) are no longer in point when it comes to changes from one language-game to another. The mind of Europe did not decide to accept the idiom of Romantic poetry, or of socialist politics, or of Galilean mechanics. That sort of shift was no more an act of will than a result of argument. Rather, Europe gradually lost the habit of using certain words and gradually acquired the habit of using others. As Kuhn has argued in his book The Copernican Revolution, we did not decide on the basis of some telescopic observations, or on the basis of anything else, that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, that macroscopic behaviour could be explained on the basis of micro-structural motion, or that prediction and control should be the principal aim of scientific theorising. Rather, after a hundred years of inconclusive muddle, the Europeans found themselves speaking in a way which took these interlocked theses for granted. Cultural change of this magnitude does not result from applying criteria (nor from ‘arbitrary decision’) any more than individuals become theists or atheists, or shift from one spouse or circle of friends to another, as a result either of applying criteria or of actes gratuits. We should not look within ourselves for criteria of decision in such matters any more than we should look to the world.

The temptation to look for criteria is a species of the more general temptation to think of the world, or the human self, as possessing an intrinsic nature, an essence. That is, it is the result of the temptation to privilege some one among the many actual and possible languages in which we habitually describe the world or ourselves. As long as we think that there is some relation called ‘fitting the world’ or ‘expressing the real nature of the human self’ which can be possessed or lacked by vocabularies-as-wholes, we shall continue the traditional philosophical search for a criterion which will tell us which vocabularies have this desirable feature. But if we could ever become reconciled to the idea that reality is indifferent to our descriptions of it, and that the human self is created by the use of a vocabulary rather than being adequately or inadequately expressed in a vocabulary, then we should at last have assimilated what was true in the romantic idea that truth is made rather than found. What is true about this claim is just that languages are made rather than found, and that truth is a property of linguistic entities, of sentences.

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