Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Davidson on Dewey on Truth


I've started reading Davidson's Truth and Predication. It's a new book but old material: the first several chapters are Davidson's Dewey lectures from 1989.

The book starts out very promising, with a quick discussion of Dewey on truth. Dewey's theory of truth is rarely discussed (perhaps because he avoided the term in his 1938 Logic: The Theory of Inquiry). So it's good to see Davidson discussing Dewey on truth.

Davidson writes:

John Dewey drew two conclusions [re: truth]: that access to truth could not be a special prerogative of philosophy, and that truth must have essential connections with human interests. (7)


The second point is important: it's often overlooked, I think, that the concept of truth must have some use. That's a pragmatic point. But often the usefulness of the concept of truth is so refined that it isn't very useful at all: consider redundancy theories or Quine's notion of "semantic ascent." Sure, truth has a use: but not much of one.

It's to the pragmatists' credit that they always kept the general usefulness of the concept of truth front and center. And that makes a lot of sense: rather than focus on the usefulness of truth in a logical or semantic sense, they asked how our everyday lives would be different without this concept. Of course there's no reason why one can't be interested in both the logical usefulness of truth and its everyday usefulness - the problem is when the former is emphasized at the expense of the the latter. That gets things exactly backwards.

One other quibble with Davidson: while it's great that he quotes Dewey, he could have found better quotes. "Propositions, Warranted Assertibility, and Truth", for example, is an important part of Dewey's work on truth and deserves greater attention.

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