Saturday, December 12, 2015

Ernest Gellner on Truth


Ernest Gellner on Truth

 “Truth” is, on the one had, a bland and boring concept:  “Paris is the capital of France” is true, “Las Vegas is the capital of France” is false.
Yet in other venues, fraught:  as in, Pravda.  Shading into metaphysical mysticism (“The Search for Truth”).  If I am trying to find out, for which X the sentence “X is the capital of Albania” is true, then in a sense I am Searching for Truth; but really, only for a truth; and indeed, not really under that description:  I merely wish to know what Albania’s capital is called.

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Relevant quotes, bridging the gap, from works by Ernest Gellner.  (For our full essay on the subject of truth, click here.)

Re Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Freedom is the recognition that 2 plus 2 makes 4 :  not because there is no escaping such necessity, but because only such necessity is a refuge from arbitrary social power. [It is] an extra-social objective truth, which account for why such fuss should be made  of a morally and emotionally rather neutral piece of arithmetic.
-- Ernest Gellner, Contemporary Thought and Politics (1978),  p. 4



On a strategy of self-validating beliefs (which he dubs “auto-functionalism”, a term which seems not to have caught on):

It consists of establishing the soundness of one’s beliefs, not directly, in the ordinary and straightforward way, by showing them to be true, but, on the contrary, of deriving their soundness by showing them to play an essential role, to be ‘functional’, in the internal economy of one’s own personality or society … The first step is to put forward a theory of truth: truth ‘really is’ the fulfilment of a biological, or social, linguistic, etc., function.
-- Ernest Gellner, Contemporary Thought and Politics (1978), p. 14-15

(Truth, soundness, validity, provability -- actually an interesting Wortfeld;  a topic for another day.)

And, re the egregious Althusser:

He argues, in effect, not that Marxism is true, but that the Marxist epoch is still with us.  What is defended, in the end, is not the truth of a doctrine, but its alleged role.
-- Ernest Gellner, Contemporary Thought and Politics (1978), p. 17

Now,  that all sounds rather feckless and po-mo; but to add some perspective, it is reminiscent of the “regressive justification” in axiomatics, particularly for set theory.  (More here.)

A somewhat more degenerate version of this auto-functionalist approach, endemic to the America of “pot, pop, and protest” -- degenerate in that, unlike that of Althusser et alia, it makes little reference to the world outside the speaker’s individual ego-bubble (indeed, it works best for pure solipsists, for whom the external world need not exist):

In America, it possesses a theory of knowledge, and above all an associated style of expression, which goes back to populism and beyond it … Its basic idea is that sincerity is the key to truth.
-- Ernest Gellner, Contemporary Thought and Politics (1978), p. 82

(It’s amusing to hear such a stance referred to as a “theory of knowledge”, but social scientists really do talk that way, speaking  for instance  of a baby’s “theory of the world”.)


“The hysteria of complacency of the postwar period,
and the hysteria of protest of more recent times.” (1971)


And again, back to the math connection, reporting the fantasies of Michael Oakeshott:

What is proof? -- he asks.  There is no such thing as proof in general, he answers himself.  There is only proof  persuasive for this, that, or the other kind of man.   Cogency of proof  is relative to what you are.  he notices that this does not seem to apply to mathematics, and brazenly comments that just this has always made him suspicious of mathematics.
-- Ernest Gellner, Contemporary Thought and Politics (1978), p. 180

Actually Oakeshott  put his case too weakly:  varying standards of proof are relevant in mathematics -- indeed, it is only within mathematics  that such scruples have structure and are in point.   In pre-Cauchy/Weierstrass analysis, proof was a bit of a kludge.   Later on, Constructivist qualms  came into play.  And in our own day, we distinguish between theorems whose proof requires the (disputed) Axiom of Choice, from those that can dispense with it.

The ultimate selbst-aufhebung of all such alethic egalitarianism is plain:

If almost everything is true in its own fashion, truth cannot matter very much.
-- Ernest Gellner, Contemporary Thought and Politics (1978), p. 16

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Bonus nuggets, from the bottom of Gellner’s crackerjacks-box:

It is a travesty to say that martyrs die for Truth.  Real truths seldom require such dramatic testimony.
-- Ernest Gellner, The Devil in Modern Philosophy (1974), p. 55

the feminine theory of cognition:  that truth is not a matter of exploring or penetrating an external reality, but of gestation and parturition.
-- Ernest Gellner, The Devil in Modern Philosophy (1974), p. 62

Only psychoanalytic interpretations that tally with what is real in the patient, can mediate veridical insight.
-- Adolf Grunbaum, quoted in Ernest Gellner, The Psychoanalytic Movement (1985; 2nd edn. 1993), p. 185

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