Issue #01. April 1995. Pp. 100-114.
Truth, Knowledge and Reality
Copyright (C) by SORITES and Cristina Lafont
Truth, Knowledge and Reality
Both positions seem to be supported by intuitions that are clearly related to the concept of truth: it would be difficult to argue, against the realist perspective, that truth depends on something other that what is the case; conversely, faced with the epistemic perspective, it seems equally difficult to question that «true» is a predicate which has an internal relation to our knowledge. Nevertheless, the fact that these positions are in contrast seems to exclude the possibility of accounting for both intuitions together.
Usually two sorts of arguments are advanced from the epistemic standpoint against realists. Either, it is said, the realists have to limit themselves to the assertion that the meaning of the concept of truth is completely captured by the equivalence formulated by Tarski (the «Convention T», ie the equivalence of the type «the sentence `the snow is white' is true, if, and only if, the snow is white»), in which case all philosophical relevance is taken away from such a concept by recognizing only its «disquotational» use and consequently by favoring a deflationary position.FootNote 75 Or, if realists want to situate the concept of truth in the context of our beliefs, then it is claimed that they must accept either a relativistic conception of Tarski's theory that considers the question of truth merely as internal to a given language or theory (thus reducing the meaning of the predicate «true» to «true-in-L», and in this way giving up precisely the realist intuition)FootNote 76, or they must accept a metaphysical interpretation of Tarski's theory by postulating a correspondence between language and realityFootNote 77 that, apart from being inexplicable, can only be asserted from the «God's eye» point of view -- to use Putnam's expression. The realist, then, would be faced with a choice between renouncing to give an explanation of the connection between «truth» and «knowledge», consonant with her radically non-epistemic position, or, if she intends to explain such a connection by recurring to realism, appealing to a reality in itself which guarantees such a connection, but which confronts the difficulty that Wittgenstein already pointed out -- and that is manifested precisely by Tarski's equivalence -- namely: «the limit of language is shown by the impossibility of describing the fact that corresponds to the proposition (...) without repeating the same proposition.»FootNote 78 Precisely because it is not possible to have access to facts independently of the language in which we describe them, we cannot have, from the epistemic standpoint, a concept of «reality» (or of «that which is the case») other than the one which is equivalent to our «knowledge»: the connection between «truth» and «knowledge» explains the concept of «reality» and not conversely.
Now, the defenders of such an epistemic position seem to have two options that are equally unsatisfactory: either, given their radically epistemic perspective, they renounce to the concept of «reality» reducing it to that of «knowledge», thus falling into the relativism that consists in declaring any candidate to «knowledge» (or justified belief) to be true, that is, accepting as many «realities» as there are sets of «knolwedges»FootNote 79, or, if they insist in explaining the concept of «reality» from the connection between «knowledge» and «truth», they must appeal to an emphatic concept of «knowledge» that is as suspiciously metaphysical as it is antifallibilistFootNote 80. Such a concept of one true knowledge (or the Peircean idealization of an «ultimate opinion») -- which, as such, cannot be conceived as fallible -- remains as inaccessible to our beliefs as the «reality in itself» of the defenders of a correspondence theory of truth, as Davidson made clear in his critique of the epistemic conception of truth as «rational acceptability under ideal conditions»: «One suspects that, if the conditions under which someone is ideally justified in asserting something were spelled out, it would be apparent either that those conditions allow the possibility of error or that they are so ideal as to make no use of the intended connection with human abilities.»FootNote 81 It seems, then, that the defenders of an epistemic position are not better off than the realists when faced with the dilemma that Wellmer correctly characterized as the «antinomy of truth»FootNote 82: either one tries to defend the absolute (or normative) sense of the concept of truth, thereby appealing to metaphysical theses, or one criticizes such an absolutism in virtue of its metaphysical character, but one thereby incurrs in an inconsistent relativism.
These types of difficulties are no doubt the sort of thing that have made some authors, like Davidson,FootNote 83 consider that the concept of truth is effectively captured by the equivalence formulated by Tarski -- the «Convention T» -- not in the sense that its use is merely «disquotational», but rather in the sense that Tarski's formula expresses a previous meaning of truth which every speaker understands intuitively -- i.e., that a proposition is true if it expresses what is the caseFootNote 84 -- and whose clarity cannot be increased by any attempt to reduce that central concept to any other one. The concept of truth must be considered to be primitive (or undefinable). Taking this position into account, the dilemma seems to offer, again, two possibilities: either one holds on to the realistic meaning of such a concept, thereby paying the price of not being able to give a philosophical account of it (that is, holding on to its undefinability, and avoiding metaphysical assertions); or one can explore along epistemic lines the connection of this concept with our practices of justifying beliefs, thereby renouncing any account of its realistic meaning -- and paying the price of having to appeal to a justified knowledge which, in order to preserve the absolute validity of truth, has to be conceived as infallible.
When the issue is put this way, and if one persists in the attempt of giving a philosophical explanation of the concept of truth, it seems most reasonable to seek a third way that would give an account of the different intuitions that stand out in each of these perspectives, while avoiding the bad alternative between triviality and antifallibilism. In what follows I will try to sketch an argumentative strategy through which it may be possible to articulate a way out of such dilemmas. One can describe the attempt in this way: the eminently realist meaning of our intuitive concept of truth is effectively captured by Tarski's equivalence precisely because it expresses the indissoluble connection between «truth» and «reality»: the statement p is true if, and only if, it is the case that p; but this merely semantic explanation of the meaning of the concept of truth turns out to be philosophically trivial. Now, this triviality, as such, probably has less to do with the questionableness of the expressed content -- which can hardly be denied -- than with the perspective adopted in order to give an account of such a content. Put otherwise, it may be that from the epistemic standpoint adopted by those who want to give a philosophically relevant explanation of the concept of truth, that is, one that connects this concept to our «knowledge», such explanation of the realist sense of the triviality far from being itself trivial would give the key to resolve the dilemmas that emerge when one tries to reduce the concept of truth to a merely epistemic concept. The required explanation would adopt an epistemic perspective that allows to explain the connection between «truth» and «knowledge», and from which it is also possible to account for the concept of «reality» without appealing to metaphysical suppositions -- that is, without falling into the epistemic realism of a theory of correspondence that postulates a reality «in itself».
In my opinion, such a perspective can be found in the formal pragmatics espoused by Habermas in his theory of communicative rationality. In the reconstruction that such a theory gives of the normative presuppositions inherent in the processes of communication, one can also find an explanation of the concept of «reality» that is carried out in strictly formal terms and therefore permits the difficult combination which I mentioned above: to avoid completely the supposition of a world in itself as guarantor of the validity of our knowledge and yet to conserve the normative (counterfactual) sense that such a supposition implies and that permits an account both of the fallibilist intuition regarding the permanent revisability of our knowledge and of the absolute validity that we attribute to truth. I am referring to the formal-pragmatic concept of a shared objective world that Habermas introduces in the Theory of Communicative Action as a inevitable presupposition of communication (as well as of the discursive practice of questioning and revising our validity claims).
Nonetheless, Habermas does not bring into play such a supposition when he accounts for the concept of «truth»; on the contrary, his discursive interpretation of rational acceptability seems to require him to conceive of truth as a merely epistemic concept (that is, reducing it to the concept of «rational acceptability under ideal conditions»). In order to defend the possibility of giving an account of the concepts of «truth», «knowledge» and «reality», without reducing them into each other, I will try to show how it is possible, within the discursive framework of rational acceptability developed by Habermas, to account for the realist sense of the concept of truth -- appealing thereby to the formal-pragmatic supposition of one objective world -- and, further, how this account allows us to give up the supposition inherent in the epistemic conception of truth, namely, that of a true knowledge (or an «ultimate opinion»), which is as metaphysical as it is incompatible with fallibilism.
The pragmatic perspective from which Habermas tries to clarify the meaning of the concept of truthFootNote 85 is what allows him to show the insufficiencies of the attempt to explain such a concept without situating it in the context of the practices of revision of our knowledge. In fact, if one considers only the «disquotational» use of the predicate «true», then one inevitably reaches the conclusion that saying that «p is true» does not add anything to the mere assertion «p»; this observation leads to the conclusion, suggested by Ramsey's redundancy theoryFootNote 86, that such a predicate is logically superfluous -- and, therefore, that a theory of truth is also superfluous, as suggested by deflationists. If, on the contrary, one adopts a pragmatic perspective, that is, if one considers in what context we use such a predicate, the difference between both things becomes evident: to add «is true» (or «is false») to assertions ceases to be superfluous -- as Habermas rightly shows -- as soon as we situate ourselves in the context of putting into question such assertions since, in such a context, the truth claim, which is undoubtedly already implicit in the assertion, becomes explicit through remarks of the type «p is true/is false» precisely in order to indicate the controversial character or the need for justification of these assertions. Such remarks point out the need for an explicit thematization (in a «discourse») of the truth claim of the problematized assertion in order to analyze the degree of justification of the same. From this perspective one can see the other uses of the predicate «true» over and above the «disquotational» use: we can call these uses, following RortyFootNote 87, the «endorsing use» and the «cautionary use» of such a predicate -- that is, the role played by such a predicate as a warning or reserve in regard to the possibility that our assertions may turn out to be unjustified or, even though they seem to be justified, may turn out not to be true. By analyzing these uses it becomes evident that such a predicate not only is not superfluous but, above all, its use is internally related to the epistemic processes of revision of our knowledge.
From this perspective it is understandable that the discursive theory of truth grounds itself in a formal-pragmatic analysis of the cognitive use of language, specifically of the constative speech acts, since, even though that about which we say that it is true or false are statements, these, taken by themselves, merely express possible states of affairs. For a statement to be true, though, the expressed state of affairs must be a fact. Habermas remarks in his article «Wahrheitstheorien» that «we call statements true or false in relation to the states of affairs that are expressed or reproduced in them. (...) To each statement we can assign a state of affairs, but a statement is true if and only if it reproduces a real state of affairs or a fact -- and not if it presents a state of affairs as if it were a fact». (WT,p.128) For this reason, Habermas considers that only when a statement «is placed in relation with the external reality of that which can be observed» through an assertion does this statement actually remain tied to the validity claim «truth» -- a claim that such a statement «in as much as it is a non-situated sentence, a mere grammatical construction, neither requires nor can satisfy.»FootNote 88 To this extent, the meaning of the predicate «true» is correctly interpreted only if one understands it as a validity claim that we attach to statements when we assert them. Now, that someone asserts a statement means, at the same time, that they believe or know that such a statement is true; in this sense, the statements which may be true or false, express beliefs that, if they are true, can be considered «knowledge». For this reason, the validity claim «truth» that we link to our statements becomes explicit (through remarks of the type «p is true/is false») in the context of putting into question and revising our knowledge.
These methodological considerations are reflected in the three theses with which Habermas characterizes the discursive theory of truth in his article «Theories of Truth»:
First thesis. We call truth the validity claim that we attach to the constative speech acts. A statement is true when the validity claim of the speech acts with which (...) we assert that statement is justified.
Second thesis. Questions of truth are posed only when validity claims are problematized (...) For this reason, in discourses in which hypothetical validity claims are examined, the remarks concerning the truth of statements are not redundant.
Third thesis. (...) Whether a state of affairs is the case or is not the case, is not decided by the evidence of experiences, but by the result of an argumentation. The idea of truth can only be developed with reference to the discursive cashing in of validity claims. (WT, pp.135-136)
The second thesis expresses the intuition, which is undoubtedly justified, that truth cannot be considered as «radically non-epistemic»: «true» is a predicate that we attribute to our beliefs; in this sense, there exists an internal connection between truth and knowledge. This point, in turn, justifies the third thesis, that is, the consideration that only an explanation of the function of such a predicate in the praxis of testing and revising our knowledge can exhaustively account for the meaning of this predicate without leading us to the conclusion either that the predicate is completely superfluous -- in the sense of a theory of redundancy -- or that any attempt to explain it makes no sense -- as the deflationists hold -- or is not possible -- as DavidsonFootNote 89 concludes.
The first thesis, though, contains the nucleus of an epistemic interpretation of the concept of truth because it affirms not only that there is an internal connection between truth and knowledge -- in as far as the candidates for truth and falsity are our beliefs -- but also makes the decisive step that leads to the epistemical conception of truth characteristic of discursive theory, since this thesis allows Habermas to reformulate the necessary and sufficient condition for truth stated at the start -- namely, that «a statement is true if and only if it reproduces a real state of affairs or a fact» -- in such a way that it is now possible to claim that «the truth condition of statements is the potential agreement of everyone else (...) The truth of a proposition means the promise to reach a rational consensus over what is said.» (WT, p.137) In order to evaluate the justification of such an epistemic conception of truth -- in which truth does not depend on what is the case but rather on the rational acceptability of what is said -- one must analyze in detail the argumentation that lies at the basis of such a thesis.
The connection between assertability and truth that is expressed in the thesis at issue is justified by the following reflection: «truth is a validity claim that we attach to statements when we assert them (...) In asserting something I make the claim that the statement that I assert is true. This claim I can make with reason or without reason.» (WT, p.129) From this follows, as Habermas subsequently points out, that «the assertions can be neither true nor false, but rather they are justified or not justified.» (ibid., my emphasis) This is undoubtedly correct, because the justification or rational acceptability of assertions indeed does not only depend on the truth of the corresponding statement. When I assert something I do not only make the claim that what is asserted is true but also that I know that it is true and that, when they are called for, I could give reasons that support my belief in the truth of such a statement. As traditionally stated,FootNote 90 the necessary and sufficient conditions for establishing that someone knows something are the following ones: S knows that P if and only if
- (1) S believes that P
- (2) P is true, and
- (3) S is justified in believing that P.
The irreducibilityFootNote 91 of these three conditions is evident: that my statement is de facto true (2) does not mean that I must know what is expressed in it, that is, that I can give reasons for my belief in it, and therefore that this statement is justified or rationally acceptable (3). On the other hand, it is not sufficient that I have good reasonsFootNote 92 that support my belief in such a statement (3) for it to be true (2).
If we keep this in mind, the first thesis stated by Habermas, i.e. that «a statement is true when the validity claim of the speech acts with which (...) we assert this statement is justified», is either trivial or false. If the truth condition of the statement is that its assertion is justified, in the sense that it can be considered a «knowledge», then the thesis is trivial because, keeping in mind the justification conditions of something as «knowledge», with such a thesis we would only be asserting that the condition under which such a statement is true is that, among other conditions, it is true. Nevertheless, if what one is asserting as truth condition of the statement is that the corresponding assertion is justified in the sense that there are good reasons that support it (i.e. that the statement is rationally acceptable), then the thesis is false. The truth of the statement cannot depend on the justifiability (or rational acceptability) of the assertion, that is, the condition (2) cannot be reduced to the condition (3), as claimed by all epistemic theories of truth. That such a reduction is what the three theses imply is manifest in the conclusion that Habermas draws from them, which I have already mentioned, namely: that «the truth condition of statements is the potential agreement of everyone else (...) The truth of a proposition means the promise of reaching a rational consensus over what is said.» (WT, p.137)
An essential difference that forbids the identification of the truth of the statement with the rational acceptability of the assertion is rooted in the unconditional validity that we suppose in the former but not in the latter. This difference appears clearly in two characteristic traits of the functioning of the concept of «truth» that PutnamFootNote 93 has correctly emphasized in his criticism of Dummett, namely: the binary functioning of the opposition true/false in contrast to the gradual functioning of the concept of justification or rational acceptability, and -- derived from this -- the fixed character that we attribute to truth in contrast to justification, that is, the fact that we consider truth to be a property that statements cannot lose.
Indeed, the unconditional validity that we attribute to truth is internally connected to the binary functioning of the opposition true/false because such functioning can be reconstructed as the expression of the following trivial condition: that «if a statement is true, it cannot be false at the same time». If to this condition we add the fixed character that we attribute to this property, it becomes clear that when we affirm the truth of a statement we are necessarily supposing something more than its rational acceptability, namely, that it will not turn out to be false.
This absence of analogy between the concept of truth and that of rational acceptability has also been emphasized by Wellmer, in his critique of the discursive theory of truthFootNote 94, when he insists on the «'plus' that the idea of truth contains with respect to everything that we may claim in each case to be well-grounded knowledge for us» (WB, p.340). The reason for such a fundamental absence of analogy is due, in Wellmer's opinion, to the fact that «a good grounding cannot guarantee by itself the anticipation of a future accreditation that is contained in truth claims» (ibid.) Precisely the fact that such an anticipation, inherent in the unconditional validity of truth, is absent in what is rationally acceptable allows for the conversion of truth into that instance which makes us aware of the essential fallibility of all knowledge: «truth is a regulative idea not in the sense that it refers to the telos -- which may not be attainable -- of the end of a pursuit of truth, of a definitive consensus, or of a `final' language, but rather in the critical sense whereby we maintain with regard to all knowledge, all rational consensus, and even with regard to our agreement in language, a permanent reserve.» (ibid.) Here it is clear what is at stake if one accepts the identification between «truth» and «rational acceptability» proposed by the defenders of the epistemic perspective; as Wellmer says: «fallibilism is, so to speak, the explanation of the difference between assertability and truth.» (WB, p.342)
In order to render plausible this point of view in contrast to the epistemic conception of truth one would have to show, through an analysis of the «plus» that truth contains with regard to rational acceptability, that it is possible to account for the unconditional validity of truth without appealing to the counterfactual supposition of a definitive consensus or an infallible «knowledge»; and this -- as I will try to show in what follows -- is only possible if one breaks with the interpretation of truth as an epistemic concept.
The defenders of the epistemic perspective try to preserve the unconditional validity of truth following the stretegy proposed by Putnam and Habermas, that is, by equating truth not with the factical acceptability but with the «rational acceptability under ideal conditions». This implies that the «anticipation of a future accreditation», pointed out by Wellmer, is interpreted as a counterfactual supposition of an epistemic kind; or, stated otherwise, as an epistemic promise of accreditation. Such an interpretation is explicitly made by Dummett in his article «What is a Theory of Meaning? (II)»FootNote 95 when he states that «an assertion is a kind of gamble that the speaker will not be proved wrong.» (p.126, my emphasis) Even Wellmer himself seems to interpret such an anticipation, inherent in the normative sense of the concept of truth, in epistemic terms when he remarks in his article «Wahrheit, Kontingenz, Moderne» that «whenever we raise truth claims based on good arguments and convincing evidences we presuppose the epistemic conditions given here and now to be ideal ones in the following sense: we presuppose that in the future there will not emerge arguments or evidences that put into question our truth claim (....) to be confident that the arguments are good ones and the evidences convincing means to exclude the possibility that these will become problematic in the passage of time.» (WKM, p.163, my emphasis)
As we can see, this strategy of interpreting the commitment implied in our assertion that a statement is true -- i.e., that it will not turn out false -- in the sense of an epistemic promise of accreditation, forces us to suppose, if only in counterfactual terms, an emphatic concept of «knowledge», that is, implies the exclusion of a possible fallibility of such knowledge. From this perspective, then, there seems to be a lack of justification for the fallibilistic intuition that Wellmer appeals to in order to account for the specific meaning of the concept of truth in contrast to that of rational acceptability -- that is, its function as permanent reserve with regard to the essential fallibility of our knowledge. This conclusion is inevitable if we consider the general strategy inherent in the epistemic perspective.
In order to transmit the normative sense of the concept of truth to what is rationally acceptable under ideal conditions, one has to reinterpret the trivial condition, mentioned above, in such a way that it will be valid to say «if a statement is rationally acceptable under ideal conditions it cannot be false at the same time». In this sense, Putnam states: «the supposition that even an `ideal' theory can really be false seems to collapse into pure unintelligibility».FootNote 96 Given that the absolute validity of truth now has to be derived from the absolute validity of what is rationally acceptable, this implies the presupposition of a consensus over what is rationally acceptable that, given such a validity, must be seen as definitive or unrevisable. This obligates, in turn, to presuppose counterfactually not only the rational justification of our knowledge but also the possibility of reaching an absolutely grounded consensus -- grounded on a knowledge which is, therefore, absolute. In other words, it presupposes the possibility of a definitive cashing in of the truth claim raised in regard to such a knowledge. The attempt to explain the concept of «truth» in epistemic terms, that is, by placing it exclusively in relation to the concept of «knowledge», forces one to conceive the latter nolens volens as equally endowed with unconditional validity, and thus as infallible. Such strategy must necessarily fail the moment that it tries to explain the fallibilistic intuition to which Wellmer himself appealed, that is, when it tries to explain how the concept of truth makes compatible the unconditionality inherent in its validity with its function of fallibilistic reserve with regard to the validity that we attribute to our knowledge.
Keeping in mind the above, it seems clear that any attempt to articulate an alternative would require a different interpretation of the unconditional validity of truth, or, put otherwise, would have to show that the commitment acquired by the speaker in asserting that a statement is true -- namely: that it will not be false -- is not correctly interpreted if one understands it as an epistemic anticipation of accreditation. Now, in order to achieve such an epistemic neutrality it would be necessary to appeal to a concept other than «knowledge». For this reason, the explanation in non-epistemic terms of such a normative commitment -- which I will try to render plausible in what follows -- is based on a realist strategy to the extent that it corresponds to the attempt of deriving the unconditional validity of truth not from its connection to the concept of «knowledge» but from its connection to the concept of «reality».
As we saw previously, the commitment acquired by the speaker in asserting that a statement not only is rationally acceptable but is also true manifests itself in that the speaker inevitably must suppose that in the future such a statement will also not turn out to be false. Such a commitment obviously proceeds from the binary functioning of the opposition true/false: to assert that a statement is true implies a commitment that such a statement is not false -- given that it cannot be both things at once. Now, precisely because of this, such a commitment does not imply any evaluation of the quality of the reasons that support the assertion of the statement, that is, it cannot be understood as an epistemic anticipation (of my incorregibility) but exclusively as a condition of a logical nature, namely, that the statement will not turn out to be false, if it is true. This condition, as such, only commits, in a strict sense, to the recognition that the statement either is true or is false, and, thus, that the testing of the reasons supporting such a statement will have to be directed toward the exclusion of one of the two possibilities. Such a supposition is too modest for it to contain an epistemic promise of future accreditation, since the epistemic sense inherent in the supposition not only does not imply an irrevisability of my beliefs but what it actually anticipates is the obligation to revise the acceptability of contrary beliefs: if the statement turns out to be false, if the reasons submitted for examination make this manifest, I will not be able to continue asserting that it is true (or that it used to be true). In any case, if I were to continue affirming that it is true -- in spite of my inability to give reasons for its rational acceptability -- we would find ourselves in the situation pointed out at the beginning: no one would accept that such a statement amounts to «knowledge».
Indeed, given that «knowledge» has as its necessary condition «truth», it does inherit, in a certain sense, the unconditional character of the latter; this inheritance is shown by the absolute character of the opposition knowledge/error. Now, such an opposition also cannot be understood in the sense of an emphatic concept of non-fallible knowledge, that is, our claim to knowledge cannot be interpreted as connected to an anticipation of incorregibility -- as Dummett and Wellmer suggested. In the same way that anticipating that if the statement is true then it cannot be false at the same time, means anticipating a condition and not the satisfaction of one of the two possibilities (except as a mere forecast of subjective probability), so in the case of the opposition knowledge/error, anticipating that if I know something then I cannot be wrong at the same time about it, means a commitment to that excluding condition and not the anticipation of the satisfaction of one of the two possibilities. Such a condition only implies the exclusion of the possibility that both things -- that I know and that I am wrong -- can turn out to be valid simultaneously, but it does not anticipate a situation in which I could not be wrong. That if I know something I cannot be wrong does not mean that there is a situation in which it is impossible for me to be wrong, i.e. in which my belief would be necessarily certain, but only that it is impossible for there to be a situation in which I know something and at the same time I am mistaken. From this one can deduce only that there are possible situations in which I am not mistaken, in which de facto my belief satisfies the conditions mentioned previously -- i.e. that the belief is justified and is true -- and that such situations are, by definition, the only ones that count as «knowledge». If we keep this in mind we cannot say, in a strict sense, that «an assertion is a kind of gamble that the speaker will not be proved wrong» -- as Dummett asserted -- nor can we say that it implies the anticipation that «in the future there will be no pertinent counterarguments» (ED, p.83) -- as Wellmer affirmed -- but only that, if there are such counterarguments, if the speaker really turns out to be wrong, then she will obviously have to retract her claim to «knowledge».FootNote 97 The epistemic consequences of the excluding condition inherent in the opposition true/false -- namely, that our statement either is true or is false -- more than implying any incorregibility seem to be, in fact, clearly fallibilistic.
In order to explain why the concept of «truth» is tied to such a binary condition, or, put otherwise, why the absolute validity that we suppose of truth forces us to accept such an excluding condition, one has to keep in mind the internal connection between the concept of «truth» and that of «reality». Since only with the supposition of one objective world can one understand why a statement must be true or false and, along with this, why the search for a rational justification of the statement must adopt precisely the form of excluding one of the two cases. This intuition of tertium non datur inherent in the concept of «reality» -- that is, inherent in the absolute character of the opposition «is the case/is not the case» from which depends the truth or falsity of the statement -- is precisely the intuition that cannot be extracted from any epistemic concept of rational acceptability (among other things because there are contexts of rational justification that work in a different way for example, those in which we do not suppose an unconditional validity to our beliefs, like in the case of ethical convictions relative to what is good for me).
For this reason, even though from an epistemic point of view we cannot understand reality other than as «the correlate of the totality of true statements» (TKH, p.125-26) -- that is, as the set of all facts expressed by true statements -- there is a formal aspect inherent in the concept of «reality» that is not exhausted in its epistemical correlate: the absolute, non-relativizable character that we associate to this concept and that is manifest in our binary, non-gradual, use of the opposition real/unrealFootNote 98. Such a formal component of our intuitive understanding of the concept -- undoubtedly non-epistemic -- of «reality» becomes manifest in the form of an essential and inevitable supposition of our practices of revising our beliefs, namely, the counterfactual supposition of one objective world. Such a supposition brings with it the principle of bivalence which is subjacent to the binary use of the opposition true/false and is responsible for the validity, transcendent of every context, that we attribute to truth. Only because truth is conceived as depending exclusively on what is the case can it preserve its unconditional validity with respect to any epistemic criterion whatsoever of rational acceptability and, vice versa, only because these criteria are necessarily dependent on a non-epistemic instance are they inevitably conceived (without exception) as, in principle, fallible. The internal relation between the concept of «truth» and the concept of «reality» is, for that reason, what permits to combine the unconditional validity that we attribute to truth with the application to instances, to beliefs which are more or less justified, whose validity can never be unconditional. In this sense, the transcendence of every context that we suppose to the validity of truth -- because of its dependency on one reality, on one objective world -- is nothing other than the correlate of our fallibilistic understanding in relation to all knowledge.
Precisely such a formal explanation of the concept of «reality» in these terms can be found in Habermas's Theory of Communicative Action when he points out that: «validity claims are in principle susceptible to critique because they are based on formal concepts of world. They presuppose an identical world for all possible observers or a world that is intersubjectively shared by all members of a group, and this in an abstract form, that is, disconnected from all concrete contents.» (TKH, 1, p.82) The merely formal, counterfactual presupposition of one objective world, identical for all observers, appealed to by the transcendence of every context inherent in the unconditional validity of truth, does not imply, therefore, an epistemic access to any «world-in-itself»FootNote 99 but is simply the other side of our fallibilistic intuition about the revisability of our knowledge; it is simply -- as Habermas himself points out -- the supposition that allows the speakers «not to pre-judge, with regard to content, the relation between language and reality, between the means of communication and that about which there is communication. Under the presupposition of formal concepts of world and universal validity claims, the contents of the linguistic picture of the world must remain separate from the order itself that is supposed to the world.» (ibid.) The reflexive capacity that lies under this fallibilistic renunciation -- which permits us to consider our beliefs as distinct «from the order itself that is supposed to the world» but dependent on it -- could not be obtained without that normative «plus» that the concept of truth possesses with regard to that of justification (or rational acceptability) thanks to its ultimate realistic sense, that is, to its internal connection to the concept of «reality».
If one keeps in mind this explanation of the concept of «reality» in formal-pragmatic terms -- which, evidently, manages to avoid any metaphysical interpretation of the concept -- it seems clear that the discourse theory of rational acceptability developed by Habermas does not depend on the anti-realist turn which is proper to the epistemic conception of truth, because by recurring to such a concept -- which is already at our disposal in the theory of communicative rationalityFootNote 100 -- it is possible to avoid the two problematical traits of every epistemic conception: on one side, the renunciation to give an account of the realist sense of such a concept, either by eliminating it or substituting for it the concept of «rational acceptability under ideal conditions»; and, on the other side, the recourse to an emphatic concept of infallible knowledge in order to preserve the unconditional validity of truth.
To insist in the realist sense of the concept of truth, that is, to maintain -- as Habermas himself does at the beginning of his article «Wahrheitstheorien» -- that the only necessary and sufficient condition of the truth of a statement p is that it be the case that p, loses its triviality precisely when one situates such a condition in the context of an explanation of rational acceptability, that is, when one explains the function of fallibilistic reserve that such a normative supposition carries out in the context of testing and revising the rational acceptability that we attribute to our beliefs -- by making us conscious of the permanent possibility of having to revise these beliefs, or the criteria of acceptability that support them, in relation to a reality that is logically independent from them.
In its turn, this fallibilistic consequence shows that keeping the connection between «truth» and «reality» further allows us to elude a prolematical recourse to an emphatic concept of «knowledge», that is, a knowledge that, in order to maintain the unconditional validity of truth, must be conceived as infallible: if one brings back such unconditional validity to the internal connection between «truth» and «reality» it is possible to explain the connection between «truth» and «knowledge» without recourse to any supposition of incorregibility.FootNote 101
CSIC (Madrid) & Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois)