View Full Version : Truth vs Pragmatism in Oedipus The King.

05-13-2011, 04:36 PM
I have a couple of questions concerning this play , I would really appreciate any idea from you that could help me understand more.
I always thought that the play is essentially about the value of truth in our life.
Whenever Oedipus tries to find the truth he is faced by those who questions the utility of truth and his goal . I think the most effective line among many lines is when the shepherd told Oedipus " why to know truth when truth is only pain!"
Isn't that Pragmatism?
I made some research about it and I found that there are many branches for it and many philosophers .
If I wanna look for a philosopher who speaks of the issue concerning the play which one should I read ?
I read that the kind of truth Oedipus is looking for is facts so is this empiricism vs pragmatism ??

05-15-2011, 03:38 PM
caddy, I am not an expert on Pragmatism (the "school" of philosophy, with William James, Dewey, etc.), although I have in the past listened to one lecture about it, and skimmed over some pages here and there. Even worse, I haven't read the Sophocles play (although I know some of the basics of the plot). SO, I didn't want to answer this question. However, I might have something interesting to say, and so I will reluctantly post something in response since no one else has, knowing full well that someone who knows more might next swoop down and point out how I'm getting something completely wrong.

From my limited exposure to Pragmatism, my instinct is to say that the shepherd's sentiment "why to know truth when truth is only pain!" is not representative of Pragmatism. There is something pragmatic about it maybe (if we ignore the long and drawn-out pains that one might suffer from while living in ignorance) but I think it is sort of a warning about how ugly and painful this particular truth is in this play. There might be philosophical implications, but I don't think they would generally reflect the approach(es) of the Pragmatists.

I think one facet of Pragmatist ethics (and now I'm just going on my skimming of Wikipedia, mostly...) would be that things can get complicated, and that dogma isn't useful. Which means that the shepherd's statement would probably not get support as a philosophical position. However, I don't think any Pragmatist would simply say that the shepherd was automatically wrong, without looking at the particular case.

Anyhow, I think the key thing to keep in mind is that the Pragmatists have the word "pragmatic" in their label because of their opinion about being anti-dogmatic, and being empirical, etc. Darwin is the sort of guy with the sort of approach that Pragmatists liked. They think that humans should be open to the fact that some evidence might appear that would make their current views invalid (ie. people can be wrong about things!). Theories should be dependent on and reflect what happens in the real world of experience, with the scientific approach being the basic method going forward, as much as possible. That sort of thing, that sort of Pragmatism.

In the particular case of Oedipus, well, I think that Sophocles is just pointing out that Oedipus is about to learn some terrible news, and that the truth is going to be unbearable for him. For me, I think the fact that his father and mother selfishly threw him away as an infant, makes the self-blinding into an over-reaction. Again, I haven't read the play, but I think the story here is more about how oracles work (they might even be blind, but they can still "see" the truth or something), and how fate can't be avoided. Still, Oedipus blinds himself, I guess because he doesn't want to see reality anymore or something. The shepherd might have been pragmatic, but Oedipus' action is certainly not pragmatic. So there might be something there about pragmaticism, of course--but not necessarily about Pragmaticism, I don't think.

It might also be a key point to the play that Creon was more "pragmatic" as King. But I don't think these things carry over to the philosophy of Pragmatism to any useful degree. The *general* idea that truth should not be pursued because it might (or will) bring pain is a pretty dangerous idea to get behind, I think--it could be used to justify ignorance about abuse, and to legitimize and/or sustain unfair power structures. In a particular case, it might be pragmatic, but I don't think that looking at Pragmatism as a philosophy is an obvious next step after seeing this quotation from this play. In my opinion, it isn't really a good example of what the Pragmatists were concerned with, or why the word "pragmatic" is associated with them. The whole play is based on prophecies, for example, and is a fictional lesson about Fate--and so I wouldn't think that Pragmatists would take it very seriously as a philosophical work (although they probably wouldn't outright and automatically reject the idea that some truths might be too terrible to know in some certain cases, either--but I couldn't say for sure, and there might very well be some disagreement among different Pragmatists).

In ethics, Pragmatists might be interested in finding a way to do experiments about whether something is right or wrong, or they might be interested in how much information a person needs or can expect to get (and how imperfect ethics can be, and how there are many different ways of looking at things), and there would probably be an acknowledgement that any arguments or rules that they suggest are just "tools" to aid in discussion and description (not dogmatic and completely accurate statements about the real world). I think the same sorts of concerns would apply to a consideration of "truth".

You asked for some specific reading recommendations, but I am unable to help in that regard. However here's a link (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dewey-moral/) that looked interesting to me--it's a sort of encyclopedia entry about John Dewey's moral philosophy, and maybe reading over the fourth section or something would be a quick way to get an idea of what a particular Pragmatist is like. Also, looking over the Wikipedia entry for Pragmatism could be useful, too, and it mentions some of the "important" works by Pragmatists. Maybe someone else could point to particular books or essay, as well...