Ophelia Benson asks:
What does 'X works' mean? What does it mean to say that something 'works'?She's taking issue with those who counterpose the consideration of whether some belief or idea works to the question of whether or not it is true. I add my own sixpenceworth.
What I love about this argument - from pragmatists, postmodernists and others - is the way that its sponsors instantly seem to forget, when using it, what they themselves maintain so vehemently against those of us who remain attached to the distinction between true and false, cognitively better and cognitively worse, explanations which (albeit only provisionally and subject to the possibility of later being challenged and refuted) are powerful and explanations which are weak. For what they say is that truth is always relative to some framework or other of concepts and beliefs, that there is nothing independent of these frameworks by which to adjudicate between them, that (at the limit) there is no 'out-there' for beliefs and ideas to correspond to or not, or else none that we can gain access to except via our very beliefs - and so we have no firm ground of this sort on which to stand.
Yet, when you ask how they, who say this sort of thing, then manage to orient themselves between better and worse theories or outlooks or beliefs, it becomes a simple matter of what 'works', or of what, as Richard Rorty puts it, enables us to 'cope'. As if working and coping were just logically primitive notions, accessible to the mind in an immediate, untheorized way, and not themselves in need of a framework of concepts, assumptions and all the rest of it, concerning the various goals or purposes in play, what would most effectively achieve them, how best to understand the terrain on which they have come to be goals and purposes, whether they are well-chosen, and much else besides. In other words, exactly the same relativizing objections can be put against the putative criteria 'working' and 'coping' as the pragmatists and postmodernists urge against a realist-type notion of truth. Working and coping are not primitive givens. So if the relativizing objections succeed, you can forget about rational argument altogether. We're all just making rhetorical noises. It's a good thing, therefore, that they don't succeed - or, as we might also say, don't work.