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Rarely Pure and Never Simple: Talking about Truth

From: Configurations
Volume 7, Number 1, Winter 1999
pp. 1-14 | 10.1353/con.1999.0010

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Rarely Pure and Never Simple:
Talking about Truth

The less said about truth, the better. That is one sentiment about the subject, and it has many and strong points to recommend it. There are quite enough theories of truth and definitions of truth to be going on with: truth as coherence; truth as correspondence; semantic theories of truth; conventionalist theories of truth; actor-network-stabilization theories of truth; pragmatist, deflationary, and redundancy theories (or antitheories) of truth. 1 The community of academic philosophers shows no signs of settling on any one of them, while both everyday worlds and technical subworlds seem to go on their knowledge-producing and knowledge-assessing ways without the benefit of such theories and definitions. I can think of no activities outside the academic world, and very few within it, that await the outcome of academic theorizing about truth.

I am not a philosopher; I have no professional interest in sorting or evaluating philosophers’ theories about truth; I do not have another formal theory of truth to propose in opposition to any of theirs; and my part of the academic world is not in the epistemology business. That is to say, the sorting of my subjects’ knowledge-claims into proper-stuff and pseudo-stuff is not my job. I am a historian and a sociologist of science. As such, I try to describe what various peoples in various temporal and cultural settings have counted as natural knowledge—knowledge that corresponds, or coheres, or that [End Page 1] is in some other way deemed the right stuff. When I am feeling particularly ambitious, I sometimes venture explanations of why people come to the judgments they do.

Nothing follows from this for any sense I may have of the disciplines’ relative virtues. I admit to intermittent irritation at philosophers’ apparent hubris in setting themselves up, unsolicited, as judges of the quality of knowledge, and I sometimes wonder to what extent many philosophers really care to familiarize themselves with the knowledge whose quality they evaluate. On the other hand, I do not feel myself wholly unresponsive to charges that the rejection of evaluation is either disingenuous or a failure to take up the burden of intellectual duty. I have my intellectual preferences too, but, so far as possible, I try to keep them separate from my historical and sociological accounting. I suspect that epistemologists and sociologists are pretty much on a par with respect to their intellectual evaluations when they clock off their academic day-jobs: sociologists (of course) going to M.D.’s rather than astrologers when they feel poorly, and philosophers (of course) accepting their plumber’s inadequately justified version of what is wrong with the pipes. The professional inquiries of both lots of academics are adapted to special-purpose intellectual tasks—one would have thought that much was obvious—and, as prescriptions for how to conduct everyday assessments, both would look fairly ridiculous. The activity of playing baseball and the activity of explaining baseball—in Stanley Fish’s vivid example—are distinct: the baseball commentator can justifiably say that he knows more than the baseball player, so long as no claim is made that the commentator’s knowledge can substitute for what the player knows, or that commentators’ knowledge is a condition for improving play. 2

As David Hume noted, the world begins to look very different when you leave the study for the street. Both special-purpose skepticism and special-purpose demands for certainty, clarity, universals, and foundations, which flourish in the schools and in the closet, “vanish like smoke” in everyday conversation and practical action. If you feel a fit of metaphysical or epistemological anxiety coming on, Hume suggested, you should have something nice to eat, a chat with your friends, and a game of backgammon. 3 That should make [End Page 2] you feel a lot better. Refreshed by a healthy draft of street-realism, you can go back to your closet, and have another metaphysical or epistemological anxiety attack, if that is what turns you on.

Yet it is just the acknowledgment of my proper business as historian and sociologist that draws me to a sentiment in apparent direct...