On The Nature Of Truth — Part Four
‘’True’ and ‘false’ belong to those determinate notions which are held to be inert and wholly separate essences, one here and one there, each standing fixed and isolated from the other, with which it has nothing in common. Against this view it must be maintained that truth is not a minted coin that can be given and pocketed ready-made. Nor is there such a thing as the false, any more than there is something evil. The evil and the false, to be sure, are not as bad as the devil, for in the devil they are even made into a particular subjective agent; as the false and the evil, they are mere universals, though each has its own essence as against the other’.
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), The Phenomenology of Spirit, para. 39.
Truth, as I argued in Part Three, and drawing in particular upon the coherence theory of truth as precisely and elegantly formulated by Harold H. Joachim, (1868–1938), is in its essential nature conceivability and systematic coherence, both of which in effect amount to the same thing. Science itself is a clear-cut analytical project incorporating the employment of reason in reconstructing (the scientific method is characterised by repeatability, the possibility thereof) the systematic coherence of a significant whole. I did point out in Part Two, however, that theories of truth such as those presented by William James, pragmatic theory, Jordan Peterson, Darwinian theory, Bret Weinstein, metaphoric theory, are in essence merely disguised correspondence theories, which is to say, what is true is what corresponds to the facts; the aforementioned theories just have odd ideas about what facts are. It may equally be objected, however, that the coherence theory of truth also lapses back into the correspondence theory of truth, whereby science is true insofar as its system of demonstrations reconstructs, which is to say, repeats or corresponds to, the systematic coherence which is the truth as a character of that which is real; that is to say, truth is whatever corresponds to the facts, but in this case the facts are whatever (notions, propositions etc.) grants reality its particular character through their systematic coherence (with other notions, propositions etc.).
I would maintain that in matters appertaining to the nature of truth, there are really only two positions, correspondence or coherence; just as on the question of the nature of morality there is only consequentialism or deontologism (apart perhaps from moral nihilism, but adopting a position of nihilism as far as the nature of truth is concerned would be a self-contradictory absurdity). The coherence theory of truth most certainly is not a disguised correspondence theory. However, though conceivability is a matter of degree, which, if the coherence theory of truth is correct, would imply that truth is also a matter of degree, an explanation must be forthcoming as to how referring to the manner by which such degrees are to be estimated can thereby yield the ideal of perfect conceivability and of perfect truth.
It can be demonstrated how the coherence theory of truth is not a correspondence theory through comparing and contrasting the theory with two widely discussed and alternate views, both very different from the coherence theory here proposed, though it is somewhat easy to be misled by mere surface resemblances:
1. René Descartes, (1596–1650), asserted as a principle for any person searching after truth: ‘affirm nothing as true except that which [you] could clearly and distinctly perceive’. This does presuppose a particular theory of knowledge; that which we grasp as intuitively self-evident, which is to say, the content of an intuition, is a simple idea or rather, as Descartes sometimes otherwise expresses it, a simple proposition; and the simplicity of the idea or proposition does not preclude inner differences and divergences, it is just a necessary immediate.
It might well be the case that a significant whole can find expression in other forms and at other levels than that of a formal procedure of reason and argument; it might be expressed in the form of ethical, aesthetic, or spiritual ideals. But the significant whole in its character as truth is most adequately expressed at the level of reflective thinking, particularly in the form of the science or philosophy of the form itself; for such a science is the explicit analysis and the reconstruction and repetition through the operation of reason of the inner organization, the systematic coherence, the cohesion of two elements or two constituent ideas. The Cartesian self-evident datum that is designated as a simple idea or a simple proposition is a hypothetical judgement formulated such that the antecedent immediately necessitates the consequent, whereas the consequent need not reciprocally implicate the antecedent.
Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, which is to say, if there is self-consciousness, then there is existence; but it is not necessarily the case that if there is existence, then there is self-consciousness. Similarly, 2 + 2 = 4, which is to say, if 2 is to be added to 2, then necessarily there is a 4; but it is not necessarily the case that if there is a 4 there is the mode of addition 2 + 2; there may be a 4 because of the mode of addition 3 + 1.
The elements in the content of an intuition cohere by the immediate necessity which connects consequent to antecedent in such a kind of hypothetical judgement, but the content as a whole is grasped intuitively, or immediately, as an indubitable self-evident datum. Such self-evident indubitable truths constitute the foundation on which the structure of scientific and philosophical knowledge is constructed; they are the principles from which the whole system of demonstrated and demonstrable truth necessarily has to be derived; and the mediate truths are arrived at from the immediate self-evident data by a deductive process.
The Cartesian ideal of knowledge is thereby a coherent system of truths, where each truth is grasped in its logical place; the immediate is the foundation, and the mediate truths are necessarily dependent upon the immediate; and every truth in such an ideal system is a cohesion of different elements united by a logical network; and every truth is true in itself absolutely and unalterably; and this system is, so to speak, a network of chains of propositions. The links in each chain form a continuous sequence from its first link, following with uninterrupted logical coherence from a self-evident datum, a simple proposition apprehended intuitively. Every subsequently derived link is grasped by the intellect as the necessary consequent of a link or links intuited as indubitable truths, and itself is manifest as an indubitable truth.
The analogy of a chain may be applicable for a depiction of Descartes’ theory; but the coherence theory of truth here proposed is committed to a radically different view of the systematization of knowledge; the notion of a continuous chain of propositions is a distortion of the notion of coherence or conceivability that characterizes truth. For the ideal of knowledge is a system of truth and not of truths; coherence is not an externally acquired attribute of a proposition; nor is it an attribute that propositions can acquire through the syntactical manner by which they are bound together, while at the same time retaining the truth possessed in isolation and unchanged. As noted previously, Cartesian indubitable truth, that is, ideally certain knowledge, is typified in the intuitive grasp of the immediately cohering elements of a simple proposition, but such a content is really far removed from the ideal that it could only be thought of as truth in a very limited sense; it amounts to the smallest, most abstracted and now disfigured fragment of knowledge as it is ripped away from the dynamic whole that endowed it with its significance in the first place. Rather, the quintessential realization of the ideal of certain knowledge is to be found, not in an isolated intuition, but in the organized significant whole of a systematic science.
2. The second view with which to contrast the coherence-theory of truth may be regarded as a corollary of the first, though the two views may not historically be so related, is this. If there are certain judgements indubitably true, then such judgements constitute the matter of knowledge; and in the progress of thought a form is imposed upon such matter that configures it without altering it. Truth is connected to truth until the configuration constitutes a network of chains of truths which is the system of ideally complete knowledge; and the configuration under which the infinitely diverse matter of knowledge is ordered is the universal configuration of all thinking. As Joachim put it: ‘It is the characteristic grey of formal consistency, which any and every thinking monotonously paints over all its materials to stamp them as its own. For false materials, as well as true, may be painted with the royal colour, but the result cannot be true without this arrangement, which is thus a sine qua non of a negative condition of truth’.
The observance of such a condition is validity, and the totally true must of course in addition be valid, but the valid can also be false; validity may preserve the truth, from a starting point that is true; formal consistency in itself does not; this helps brings to light why the term coherency is to be preferred to that of consistency, the latter being such an ambiguous term. If I support the football team Newcastle United (as I do despite the fact that they never win anything, not since the 1960s anyway) this week, and next week I support Chelsea, I am being inconsistent. But I am not being illogical. Or if we prefer the term consistency it is to be remembered that we can be consistent in our error, and consistent in our lying, though the latter requires a good memory; and I can be consistent in being a bad person. Truth, however, requires for its apprehension and expression the same consistency of thought and purpose that is to be expressed in the action of a person that is morally good. The consistent, in brief, need be neither true nor good; but the good and the true must be consistent.
Which is not to say that the true and the good are somehow related, as William James supposed they were; he characterized truthfulness as a species of the good; if something is true it is trustworthy and reliable and will remain so in every conceivable situation:
‘Let me now say only this, that truth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and co-ordinate with it. The true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons’.
Interestingly, Joachim also assumed such a relationship:
‘The truth requires for its apprehension and utterance the same consistency of thought and purpose, which must also be expressed in the action of the morally good man. The consistent, in short, need be neither true nor good; but the good and the true must be consistent’.
A very odd view. What is true is not up to me. What is good is up to me; or if it is not that requires a separate argument.
Formal logical consistency acknowledges the necessity of analysing and grasping the unity necessary for thinking to understand itself; but it errs in considering such unity as an abstract common characteristic, for this deprives the actual processes of thinking of their concrete differences; such an error leads to a conception of thinking as a lifeless and completed product instead of a living and moving process; it fails to conceive of a universal except as one element along with others in particular; a failure that amounts to the negation of all universals; or a failure to conceive of a whole except as the sum of its parts; a failure that is the denial of unity and of the individual character that properly belongs to that which develops and lives.
And this answers William James, proponent of the pragmatic theory of truth, and his objection to the coherence theory; which he associates, correctly, with idealism; or the intellectualist conception of truth, as he puts it:
‘But the great assumption of the intellectualists is that truth means essentially an inert static relation. When you’ve got your true idea of anything, there’s an end of the matter. You’re in possession; you know; you have fulfilled your thinking destiny. You are where you ought to be mentally; you have obeyed your categorical imperative; and nothing more need follow on that climax of your rational destiny’.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Formal logic assumes that the essential nature of thought is to be found in an abstractly self-identical form; in a tautologous self-consistency, where the self has no diversity of content in which a genuine consistency could be manifested, or where diversity of content is cast aside as mere irrelevant material. But the essential nature of thought is a concrete unity, a living individuality. Thought is a form, which moves and expands, and exhibits its consistent character precisely in those ordered articulations of its structure which formal logic impotently dismisses as mere materials. Systematic coherence in which we are looking for the nature of truth, must not be confused with the consistency of formal logic. A piece of thinking might be free from self-contradiction, might be consistent and valid as the formal logician understands those terms, and yet it might fail to exhibit that systematic coherence which is truth.
To return the Hegel quote with which I began, for you may have been wondering why in a discussion of the nature of truth and falsity the devil was invoked, but this is an important passage concerning the dynamic nature of truth. In formal logic the true and the false may be assigned values, zero and one; and logical circuits can be set up to function on the basis of those two values. This is clearly neither truth or falsehood in a broader more all-encompassing sense; the nature of truth cannot be encapsulated by the numerical value 1. But Hegel has in his sights neither a logical approach to the matter, nor the correspondence theory of truth. It is important to clarify something concerning the latter; the correspondence theory of truth in itself is not worthless; a statement expressing a state of affairs is true if and only if it corresponds to that state of affairs. ‘The cat sat on the mat’ is true if and only if there is a cat and it is sitting on a mat. That in itself is fair enough, but the value of it resides within a very narrow circumscribed range; it is unable to take into account the very manner by which it operates. What predisposes us towards it? From whence does it acquire its meaning?
The nature of truth, whatever that is we would expect it to comply with whatever the nature of the human spirit is, in truth. There is a bigger concept of truth, a bigger experience of truth, a more encompassing notion of truth, than merely truth as a property of propositions. In philosophy truth and falsity are not simply universals, concepts; rather, there is something dynamic about the relationship between truth and falsity. And there is also something reflexive; if we think of truth as something to be found through that door over there, so to speak, and falsity is something to be found through that other door over there, we can ask, is that true? And then we have interjected truth into that wall we have erected between them. Where we thought truth was, through the truth door, is not where truth actually is; and so truth is more than we envisaged… does this not demonstrate that here in engaging with truth we are engaging in a dynamic process?
And so we may come to reflect upon our original way of thinking about truth; is it false? Are we thereby moving forwards towards a greater truth from a greater falsity? Which raises the further question as to how falsity exists in relation to truth; paradoxes ensue, as they have a habit of so doing in philosophy … can there be more truth than falsity? As Hegel said, truth is not a ready-made minted coin; philosophical truth, which really is the truth that matters, necessarily requires that we do some work. And as for the Devil, well, there we have the epitome of evil, but he is so because he is a subject with agency, with intentions; he brings with him meaning, he despoils meaning; he is not an empty inert passive universal that is available to us to reflect upon; his personhood is out there. (I could declare here that I have resisted the temptation to conclude this part with the assertion that the truth is out there …. but I eschew apophasis).
‘And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths’.
- Shakespeare, ‘Macbeth’, Act 1, Scene3.
To be continued….