November 10, 2008

What prevails is truth

It is central to the idea of a liberal society that, in respect to words as opposed to deeds, persuasion as opposed to force, anything goes. This openmindedness should not be fostered because, as Scripture teaches, Truth is great and will prevail, nor because, as Milton suggests, Truth will always win in a free and open encounter. It should be fostered for its own sake. A liberal society is one which is content to call "true" whatever the upshot of such encounters turns out to be.

-- Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (emphasis his).

But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is truth.

-- O'Brien, in Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

... Rorty's devoting a chapter of his book to Orwell and O'Brien does not change the fact that there is not much daylight between Rorty's position and O'Brien's. We get the limiting effect of words vs. deeds, persuasion vs. force; but there are all kinds of words and persuasion.

What the two positions indubitably share is that in neither of them does truth inhere "in the individual mind." From the position of the individual, it is not much more reassuring to know that truth exists only in the mind of the Liberal Society than that it exists only in the mind of the Party.