American philosopher Richard Rorty once famously theorized that truth is not discovered by science, but made by language. “Truth-with-a-capital-T — constructed?” you say. “Not existing in the great mysterious ether as some untouchable condition, but made by us?” I know, I know. I can already hear the rejection in your voice. And for good reason.
The idea runs completely against the Western view of the universe that holds there is some pure, ultimate state of reality the scientific method quests for and defends with crunchable numbers and physical laws. Heck, it runs against basic human instinct, in that our brains are born with an uncanny ability to detect patterns in the world and to apply these patterns in imaginings of the future, which makes us think the thing connecting the observed to the likely is some rule of nature — a truth. But Western thinking and neurological instinct aside, does Rorty’s theory hold water? Is “truth” the product of our minds, or is it, as the X-Files title card would have us believe, “out there” somewhere, lying in wait for our discovery? We aren’t, of course, going to reach some consensus on the matter right here and now in this blog post. But one thing we can do — as students, as future professors, as likely lifelong members in the club of frequent public communication — is think about what it means if Rorty was right (if what he said was true).
Rorty argues that the world is not true or false, but that descriptions of it are, and that since descriptions are not possible without language — which is 100% manmade — the true-ness and false-ness of the world must also be manmade. “[T]ruth is a property of linguistic entities, of sentences,” he writes in “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity”. I openly doubted this idea on the student wiki for my media theory class when we were assigned to read it, perhaps resorting to reductio ad absurdum when I made a point that seemed worthwhile at the time: “If the sky is blue, the sky is blue, right?” I wrote. “Our ability to understand and express the concept of colors or blueness or to devise the word ‘blue’ seems irrelevant.” Since then I’ve changed my tune, siding with the philosopher; but, as I’ve said, the important thing is not to take sides (which effectively says that one side is true and the other false), but to juxtapose Rorty with the foundational beliefs we all assume true as members of academia who value communication, emphasize empiricism, and often equate legitimacy of argument with beauty or efficiency of language.
We academics write our thoughts on class wikis, debate our positions in seminars, spout our opinions on blogs, write papers, peer review, analyze -isms and counter -isms an post -isms and pre -isms. Naturally, everything everyone does anywhere on the planet is rooted in a mix of personally and universally assumed truths, but as scholars, we place an especial premium on proving and disproving. Almost everything we do is predicated upon the belief, or at least the forced intellectual stance, that there is some truth to be discovered somewhere — something essential that connects the disciplines in “interdisciplinary” programs, that emotionally or psychologically inspired us to undertake our undergraduate majors in the first place. Indeed, most of the ink in academia is spilled in pointing out why the statements of others are false, Rorty himself noting that “anything can be made to look bad, important or unimportant, useful or useless, by being redescribed.” Not only is being contrarian easier than discovering a truth, it also implies there is a truth to be discovered.
In the end, discussing Rorty in the context of academia’s goals and methods results in a series of tricky questions: Would academia be better off dealing with relativities or with absolutes — with the laser-mindedness of goal orientation or with the freer rein of nixed foundationalism and perpetual gray areas? Is interdisciplinarity about unlocking the truths that connect disciplines, or is it about making intellectual alphabet soup that scrambles the letters? Does demonstrating how disparate disciplines can be connected inherently imply a search for truth, or can interdisciplinarity simply be a kumbaya-like effort on academia’s part to connect things that have been historically separated, if only for the sake of enjoying the connection? According to Rorty, there is no resolution. Any and all answers reflect our minds — not reality.