From Knowledge to Understanding: or, why Truth is Unimportant in Philosophy

In Reason in Philosophy, Robert Brandom devotes an essay to justifying the claim that truth is not important in philosophy. This is something of a jarring claim, and when I first read it, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Having read it a few times over, I now think there is a lot of potentially fruitful ground mapped out by Brandom, whose overall goal here is to deflate notions of truth where truth is a property that does explanatory work. Brandom takes this to be something of a grammatical confusion, since saying that X is true looks a lot like predicating a property of X. Truth here has both a practical role – Brandom thinks that for the philosophical tradition, truth is basically how one gets what one wants, since true beliefs guarantee the success of our every day undertakings – and a more ‘constitutive’ role, where truth is what separates us from the animals. This is so, says Brandom, because we can have propositional attitudes, distinguished by propositional contents which can can be assessed as being true or not. What separates us from the animals, more precisely, is our relationship to this truth-property. The fundamental way of explaining and understanding propositional content is, then, in terms of truth conditions.

Brandom takes aim first at the success-making construal of truth – ‘The idea that it is the truth of my belief that there are cookies in the cupboard that explains the fulfillment of my desire for cookies’ (p. 160), and he makes quick work of it, dispatching it in two important moves

(1) ‘The practical utility of a belief’s being true is wholly hostage to the truth or falsity of the collateral beliefs with which it is combined’ (p. 161) If I have the true belief that there are cookies in the cupboard but the false belief that the cupboard is in the kitchen rather than the pantry will not lead to success.

(2) Brandom notes that this can perhaps be remedied by talking about the truth of a set of beliefs – thinking holistically, as it were. But this is only a remedy if all error is expunged from the set of beliefs, as well as expunging ignorance – if I don’t know that due to wet weather, the cupboard has swelled up to the point where it can’t be opened, then there is yet again no path to success. Expunging both error and ignorance seems to leave only an omniscient being with the possibility of practical truth.

Theories of truth have largely been Tarskian – that is, content-redundant. Such a theory of truth, Brandom notes, is problematic because

It defines ‘true’ by the principle that the quoted or named sentence [p] is true just in case p, where ‘p’ is any claim that has the same content as is expressed by the expression [p]. This can be called the “content redundancy” theory of truth. This is plausible. But notice that it uses the notion content, or at least same-content (co-contentful) to define ‘true’. If that is how we define truth – Tarski-wise – then truth cannot be appealed to in explaining the notion of content, since that notion is rather defined by appeal to the notion of content, and accordingly presupposes it. (pp. 162-163)

Brandom here is trying to draw out a fundamental point: that appealing to truth conditions – which in the case of semantic explanation express propositional contents – doesn’t license the inference that one can explain what propositional contents actually are. This, as we saw above, is problematic. This thought underlies Brandom’s whole essay: truth is not something which performs explanatory tricks. In this sense, truth for Brandom is unimportant because truth as an explanatory property causes nothing but problems and needs to be deflated. What, then, is Brandom’s positive account of truth?The essential point to grasp here is that Brandom is advocating a move in our conceptualization of truth and knowledge: ‘from knowledge to understanding; from truth to inference‘ (p. 166). What does this have to do with saying that something is true? Instead of ‘putting something forward as true’ meaning that ‘truth is predicated of the thing put forward as an explanatory property’, Brandom, drawing on Frege, argues that putting something forward means that we put it forward as a premise from which we can make inferences:

Frege, the founder of modern logic, explicitly codified a semantic principle relating truth to inference: good inferences never take premises that are true into conclusions that are not true. The traditional way of exploiting this principle is to use it to underwrite an explanation of the goodness of inference in terms of truth: any inference is true, so long as it does not have true premises and a false conclusion. This is a very weak notion of good inference…we could exploit Frege’s semantic principle to underwrite an explanation going the other way around: truth is what is preserved by good inference (p.166-167)

For Frege, conceptual content (recall that the overarching goal here is to ‘understand and explain propositional content’ but not in terms of truth conditions) is what is the same in two different claims. Frege’s examples are the claims ‘the Greeks defeated the Persians at Platae’ and ‘the Persians were defeated by the Greeks at Platae’. Frege’s own concept of conceptual language is that ‘only that part of judgements which affects the possible inferences is taken into consideration’. Thus, Brandom notes that Frege ultimately thinks of conceptual contents in terms not of truth but of role. ‘To be propositionally contentful is to be able to play the role both of premise and of conclusion in an inference’ (p. 167-168). A key advantage here is that there is in this kind of inferentialism a strong connection between these conceptual contents and what speakers and thinkers actually do, which is infer. On this view, asserting something as true or putting something forward as true is to put it forward as an inferential premise. In doing so we do not have to presuppose, as we did above when the focus was on truth conditions, the very concept of ‘content’. Brandom advocates this move from truth to inference as being a move from knowledge to understanding: to put it well-known terms, a movement from knowing-that to knowing-how:

The talk of ‘knowledge’ here is very different from that involved in knowledge of truth conditions. For it is a kind of knowing how rather than knowing that: knowing how to do something, namely distinguish in practice between good inference and bad inference in which the sentence appears as a premise or conclusion, rather than knowing that the truth conditions are such-and-such. Understanding shows up on this account as a practical ability, a kind of skill: sorting possible inferences into good ones and bad ones, endorsing or being disposed to make some of them, and rejecting or being disposed not to make some others. (p. 169)

It might be objected that knowing that the truth conditions are such and such is itself a kind of skill or practical knowing-how: a kind of classifcation ability or ability to recognize the truth of a given sentence. Brandom notes that caution is required here, since a parrot or any kind of detecting instrument can be trained or used to recognize a concept (say, red) and to squawk or beep when it does so. What’s the difference here? While the parrot or instrument can be used to detect red, these

…responses are not claims that things are red or wet, precisely because they do not understand those responses as having that meaning or content…what is the difference that makes the difference here? What practical know-how have you got that the parrot, the photocell, the chunk of iron, do not? I think the answer is that you, but not they, can use your response as the premise in inferences. For you but not for them, your response is situated in a network of connections to other sentences, conncections that underwrite inferential moves to it and from it. (p. 170)

To put a Wittgenstein-ian spin on things: the fundamental difference here is that the parrot or whatever detector cannot make moves in a language game – or, perhaps, to take a cue from Sellars, these detectors cannot move about in the space of reasons, because this moving about requires a practical know-how that mere detectors cannot have. In this space, we ask for and give reasons, particularly in asserting sentences or making claims. This know-how, argues Brandom, is what distinguishes sentience from sapience. While a parrot, or photocell, or chunk of iron may be able to respond to stimuli or recognize concepts, they are not, do not and cannot move about as we do in the space of reasons by inferring and asserting. Why, then, is truth unimportant in philosophy? Because once we see truth as inferential over against truth-condition-al, we see that it simply can’t do the kind of explanatory work it’s been called on to do in philosophy. This inferntialism is a far more powerful concept which is situated within human practical knowledge: ‘…we are seekers and speakers of truth because we are makers and takers of reasons.’ (p. 176)




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