Ishall be travelling in what follows a somewhat winding road, and so here is my central thesis. If there is no truth, there is no injustice. Stated less simplistically, if truth is wholly relativized or internalized to particular discourses or language games or social practices, there is no injustice. The victims and protesters of any putative injustice are deprived of their last and often best weapon, that of telling what really happened. They can only tell their story, which is something else. Morally and politically, therefore, anything goes.footnote

I begin with two snatches from Primo Levi, for they delineate the space in which I shall want to situate myself. In Moments of Reprieve Levi explains why he would not write too freely about a close friend while this friend was alive: finding oneself with another, even more favourable, image than one’s own self-image can be painful. Reflecting on the plurality of possible images of a person Levi writes: ‘What the “true” image of each of us may be is a meaningless question.’ In The Drowned and the Saved, on the other hand, Levi recounts an episode in which a schoolboy lays out for him an escape plan which would have liberated him from Auschwitz had he but managed to think of it. In a trivial way the episode illustrates, Levi says, ‘the gap that exists and grows wider every year between things as they were down there and things as they are represented by the current imagination . . .’footnote1

Such is the space in which I place myself. There is not just one true image of a person or description of an event or state of affairs. Different angles of vision and personal beliefs, different political, cultural or other purposes, different linguistic and conceptual frameworks, will shape and colour the content of any description or narrative, yielding a plurality of possible representations of whatever is the subject at hand. Yet there is, for all that, a way things were down there, a reality constraining the range of adequate description, interpretation and explanation.

Now, thanks principally to postmodernist currents, there is abroad these days a regrettable intellectual influence, or so I view it anyway, a radical relativism that would block this last kind of judgement. I mean, as I shall throughout, a cognitive, and not a moral, relativism. That is what I shall be engaging with in the present essay: with cognitive relativism, in the form it assumes in the writings of Richard Rorty. There is an initial difficulty with this, however. Like many relativists, Rorty is in the habit of denying that he is one. I shall follow Hilary Putnam in his brisk way with this apparent difficulty. As Putnam has put it:

I shall count a philosopher as a cultural relativist for our purposes if I have not been able to find anyone who can explain to me why he isn’t a cultural relativist. Thus I count Richard Rorty as a cultural relativist because his explicit formulations are relativist ones . . . footnote2

I believe Putnam is right on this point, but more about that in due course.

Rorty’s politics are not my politics. Still, there is a set of overlapping values here. It is a familiar theme: liberalism and socialism, the common heritage of the Enlightenment, the path or the paths, painful, disputed, obscure, towards a feasible utopia. Precisely that shared heritage of aims and problems prompts the question for me of whether justice—or freedom, democracy, minimizing needless suffering—could be served by cognitive-relativist viewpoints. Saying this should suffice to make clear, too, that my primary terrain will be neither philosophy of language nor philosophy of science, more suitable domains, it might be thought, for tackling the issue of truth. It will be rather political philosophy, broadly construed: as taking in, that is to say, the concerns also of history, social theory, ethics. As it is, I stick my neck out somewhat. But if more justification is needed for choosing the terrain I have chosen than that this is the one of most pressing interest to me, then here that justification is. Rorty (not to speak of others of similar mind) himself brings his relativizing discourse on to the same terrain. And there cannot be, in any case, an exclusive disciplinary domain or philosophical discourse on the question of truth. It is too important to be monopolized by anybody.