Lacking Definition

The working title for my book was Tangled Terms because I was interested in showing how our most common words, the ones we barely notice as they leave our lips or fall on our ears, have meanings that we simply cannot define any more. I finally used three of those terms in my title and as the title of this blog simply because these are the words all of our declarative sentences claim to be about. But as their meanings now depend entirely on the mode of warrant we use to validate them, we enter into a thicket of incomprehensibility almost as soon as we make our declarations. Allow me to illustrate using these three terms so central to our understanding of our world.

Truth is the sine qua non of all of our declarations. The title I finally chose for my book acknowledges that. What Makes Anything True, Good, Beautiful? Challenges to Justification focuses on what I think is the key question in all of our truth claims: exactly what is it that gives them the quality we call truth? I won’t get all epistemological here. But even at the broadest level, it should be clear that the “maker” of truth in a truth claim lies not in the claim itself but in some relation between the claim and …what? Let us call that relationship the truth claim’s warrant, validation, or justification. In form, the sentence explaining that relationship goes something like this: my truth claim is true if and only if it is warranted. But warranted how?… by what?

Until the seventeenth century, the answer to that question was pretty unambiguous. My truth claim was true if it described what exists and not true if it claimed something other than what exists. The relation was to external reality. This position is called correspondence. And there are five good justifications that argue for a true relation: empirical (based on very close observation), logical (based on very close reasoning), expertise (based on repeated and thoughtful exposure), authority (based on the assent and trust of the listener), and undifferentiated experience (based on singular sense data). What these five truth tests share is a correspondence between what I claim and the reality I claim it about. The ideal is a one-to-one correspondence, indicating certain truth. That is rare (see “What Makes It True?).

In previous posts, I have explained another mode of justification entirely different that came to maturity when correspondence revealed some of its deficiencies in the wake of World War I (for more, please see “What Is the Virtual Circle?“). The coherence virtual circle draws on a single truth test: the harmonious integration of any new truth claim into a web of already accepted truths. This test is called the principle of non-contradiction. A similar notion is that any new candidate for truth must be logically entailed by all truth claims already accepted as true.

These two modes are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they coterminal. A correspondentist sees one reality we all discover and participate in. A coherentist sees reality as constructed by personal experience and therefore unique. A correspondentist sees disagreement as evidence that someone must be wrong. A coherentist should expect difference, for experience does not only determine the virtual circle but also the personalized reasoning that applies the single truth test of non-contradiction. The correspondentist can appeal to the five truth tests of correspondence to discover who is right and who is wrong and can therefore correct error. The coherentist, who must practice toleration as a condition of her warrant and therefore might be expected to regard disagreement as irrelevant to her own value system (a coherence term if ever there was one) might be forgiven for regarding any challenge to her values as an affront to her personhood, for the virtual circle she has constructed comprises her identity, and as the reality she interprets is a private one, she well might consider disagreement synonymous with assault. Such is the origin of so much outrage and stridency in our culture.

Speaking of values, the role of goodness claims also resonates quite differently for the correspondentist and the coherentist. We all use “goodness” in three different senses: utility, quality, and morality (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?”).  Utility often structures the coherentist value system, though we should temper that generality by the observation that the rules of the virtual circle are idiosyncractic. Still, coherentism is certainly congruent with the classical utilitarian argument of David Hume and Jeremy Bentham, one that was polished by the pragmatist American philosophers of the early twentieth century. What is useful is good, and only the individual can contextualize utility in each unique situation. Some interesting challenges to that warrant arise when the correspondentist challenges the personalized notion of utility. The doctor who recommends the medicine that the patient distrusts or the jury member who disregards the judge’s instructions in favor of a gut feeling might exemplify this conflict. The issue of quality is easier. If you think the quality of a thing is a matter of personal opinion, you are a coherentist, particularly if in the next breath you proclaim your own opinion the equal of anyone else’s. But so steeped are we in postmodernism that you might now be asking, “If quality isn’t a matter of opinion, what else can it be?” That is an excellent challenge to the correspondentist, who must face what is called the problem of specification in all matters of quality. For where in the thing does its “goodness” reside? What makes a good novel, a good movie, a good speech? Correspondence requires something in reality for a judgment of quality to correspond to, and what could that be? If an answer can’t be found, correspondentists must cede the field of quality to those who find the “facts” of their own taste sufficient warrant for their opinions of quality. And of morality too, for the problem of specification is, if anything, more apparent in issues of moral goodness than in any other judgment we make. Exactly what makes something good in the common reality we all share? If correspondentists cannot answer that question, all judgments of goodness are matters of taste or culture. Remember that the strongest truth test of correspondence, empiricism, is helpless in questions of moral judgment. Can one reason out moral goodness? Can one be an expert in the subject? What about authority? Can experience be our best teacher in such matters and, more importantly, would experience teach the same lesson to all? If none of these warrants provide a satisfactory answer, moral goodness becomes a matter of personal taste or cultural influence. And that is what the coherence virtual circle is all about (see “Is Goodness Real?“).

That leaves questions of beauty, and here correspondence faces the stiffest of headwinds. Does it really make any sense at all that aesthetics, art, and beauty correspond to anything in the world, that our appreciation for such things is somehow objective, or maybe that it should be? Doesn’t it seem much more likely that the only thing our sense of aesthetics corresponds to is our own experience, our own tastes, or perhaps our culture’s? Does it make any sense at all to claim, as correspondentists must, that some works of art are simply more beautiful than others, that some production of human craft is art and another is not and that your own opinions on such matters must give way to someone else’s judgment? Doesn’t it make more sense—or perhaps I should say, doesn’t it feel more natural—to say that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, that art is good if I like it and not good if I don’t? Coherentists may confidently hold up their virtual circle, regardless of what binds it together, and proclaim that they know what they like, and they like to call that “art.”

Can you already see the wooly mammoth in the room? If our truth, goodness, and beauty claims were innocuous; if toleration were an unlimited good; or if laws, religion, or cultural disputes never produced unpleasant discord, then we might all applaud a world of six billion virtual circles. But stop and listen for a moment. Do you hear that cacophony? That is dispute and it is everywhere: among individuals, economic classes, nations, religions, political parties, races, and genders. And every angry tone, every shouted word, every clenched fist lays down some claim to truth, goodness, or beauty. What do correspondentists and coherentists have to say to each other when their understandings of what makes these terms true are so very different? The virtual circle is a core truth claim of our zeitgeist, yet its premises are splintered by the simple and painful truth that we disagree.


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