On The Nature of Truth — Part One

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant -

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind -

- Emily Dickinson, (1830–1886)

Truth, love, beauty, courage, justice, liberty, some of the noble and expansive albeit not so easily definable notions that we possess and that are capable of profoundly engaging the human spirit; so much so that for some they have even been established as ideal objectives for their very existence. But truth, alas, frequently culturally personified as a woman, has either been belittled and reduced and subsequently rendered a disservice because of a proper lack of respect that is her due, or worse, shamelessly abused and violated. Now the time is ripe for her deliverance, and such will be my intention in this series, commencing with parts one and two that aim to provide an overview of where things have gone so awry.

‘Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy’, François Lemoyne, 1737

In the history of philosophy there has been a trend towards a narrowing down of the notion of truth, whereby it is not so much a noble ideal to stir the heart and soul but rather truth is regarded as a property of statements; and then the question of truth is simply what it means to assert of a statement that it is true; it is thus implicitly assumed, or the prospect implicitly held, that whatever may stir the heart or the soul has not much to do with the truth of statements. It may be true that ‘true’ can apply to things as well as to statements, or beliefs; we can have a true friend, a philosopher such as myself can be a true philosopher. Plato, (428/427 BC — 424/423 BC), applied ‘true’, that which does not deceive, to reality, to things; most especially to what is knowable rather than to what is merely a matter of opinion. And in Plato’s system the supreme form, the form of the Good, confers the truth upon that which is known, analogously to the sun illuminating terrestrial objects. But Aristotle, (384 BC — 322 BC), precluded truth from things and restricted it to statements of the form of judgements; a judgement is true if it says, of what is, that it is, or says, of what is not, that it is not. And Syrianus, (? — c. 437 AD), contended that ‘nothing can be strictly true or false except assertion or denial’.

The Aristotlean definition of truth carried over into scholasticism as adequatio rerum et intellectus, ‘the agreement of the things and the intellect’. However, the notion that things, as well as statements, may be true or false prevailed in, for example, St. Augustine, (354 AD — 430 AD), who held that God is supremely true, or the truth, and God it is that confers upon other things such truth as they might possess. In the eighteenth century, truth became closely associated with the laws of thought, with logic that is. A true statement, more specifically, a proposition had to conform to the laws of thought, in particular the law of contradiction; that is to say, contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time. Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), stated that the ‘formal element of all truth consists in agreement with the laws of the understanding’.

It is worth our time deliberating upon definitions of truth that have been proposed by non-philosophers; for what at first may seem a departure from the ordinary notion of truth, (truth is that which is in accordance with the facts, or a true statement expresses a proposition that is in accordance with the facts), on closer inspection it will be found not be so. Radical notions of truth are not so radical as far as truth itself is concerned, however radical the associative ideas to such notions of truth may be. John Keats, (1795–1821), for instance, proposed a notion of imaginative truth, which he explained in a letter:

‘What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth — whether it existed before or not — for I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty. In a word, you may know my favourite speculation by my first book, and the little song I send in my last, which is a representation from the fancy of the probable mode of operating in these matters. The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, — he awoke and found it truth. I am more zealous in this affair because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning — and yet it must be. Can it be that even the greatest philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections? However it may be, O for a life of sensation rather than of thoughts! It is a ‘Vision in the form of Youth,’ a shadow of reality to come. And this consideration has further convinced me, — for it has come as auxiliary to another favourite speculation of mine, — that we shall enjoy ourselves hereafter by having what we called happiness on earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated. And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation, rather than hunger as you do after truth. Adam’s dream will do here, and seems to be a conviction that imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human life and its spiritual repetition’.

The reference to Adam’s dream that Keats makes here is to the following lines from John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ wherein is described the creation of Eve by God:

William Blake, ‘The Creation of Eve’, 1822

Mine eyes he closed, but open left the cell

Of fancy, my internal sight; by which,

Abstract as in a trance, methought I saw,

Though sleeping, where I lay, and saw the shape

Still glorious before whom awake I stood:

Who stooping opened my left side, and took

From thence a rib, with cordial spirits warm,

And life-blood streaming fresh; wide was the wound,

But suddenly with flesh filled up and healed:

The rib he formed and fashioned with his hands;

Under his forming hands a creature grew,

Man-like, but different sex; so lovely fair,

That what seemed fair in all the world, seemed now

Mean, or in her summed up, in her contained

And in her looks; which from that time infused

Sweetness into my heart, unfelt before,

And into all things from her air inspired

The spirit of love and amorous delight.

She disappeared, and left me dark; I waked

To find her, or for ever to deplore

Her loss, and other pleasures all abjure:

When out of hope, behold her, not far off,

Such as I saw her in my dream, adorned

With what all Earth or Heaven could bestow

To make her amiable.

Keats had written in the ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’, a definition of truth that at least appears to be far removed from a definition of the truth of statements; truth would seem not to be, on this view, what corresponds to the facts, but rather whatever the imagination embraces as beautiful. It is nonetheless consistently possible to hold to the view that truth is whatever accords with the facts and that truth just is beauty if reality is taken to be whatever is necessarily beautiful and whatever is beautiful is necessarily real. And thus while Keats is lauding the creative power of the imagination the cogency of defining truth in terms of truth of statements is tacitly acknowledged.

It may be objected that what we imagine need not be real, an objection stemming from our comprehension of truth in the ordinary sense of truth of statements, a definition Keats accepts through his very rebuttal of this objection; for what is imagined may not be real before it is imagined, regardless of any prior existence it may have obtained; by imagining it, it is thereby endowed with reality. And through the dream of Adam we see how the passions create beauty in its very essence, the imagination is the eye of the mind, a sense capable of perceiving a spiritual world. Just as we are able to acquire knowledge, which is to say, discover truths about physical reality through our senses, however many senses there may be in fact, so we gain knowledge about spiritual reality through imagination that may be considered as another sense. A distinction is thus drawn between knowledge that is immediately and directly available to us, and knowledge that is acquired indirectly by reasoning and inference; knowledge that is acquired by the senses and knowledge that is acquired by the intellect.

The relation between the spiritual world itself and the observer of the spiritual world appears to be conceived of as analogous to the physical world and the observer of the physical world; except that the imagination is capable of both perceiving the spiritual world and of creating it. But for all this the nature of truth itself remains substantially unaffected; for truths about the spiritual world depend upon the facts about the spiritual world, howsoever facts about the spiritual world are not facts until they are imagined. What is at issue here is not the nature of truth, but Keats’ views about the nature of reality, views which incline towards an obscuring of the usual distinction between what is, and what seems or is imagined to be; between what is true and what is imagined.

In the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, (1844–1900), who was not a systematic thinker, truth has no one meaning in his work. At one point he connects truth with woman as a metaphor for truth:

‘SUPPOSING that Truth is a woman — what then? Is there not ground for suspecting that all philosophers, in so far as they have been dogmatists, have failed to understand women — that the terrible seriousness and clumsy importunity with which they have usually paid their addresses to Truth, have been unskilled and unseemly methods for winning a woman? Certainly she has never allowed herself to be won; and at present every kind of dogma stands with sad and discouraged mien — IF, indeed, it stands at all! For there are scoffers who maintain that it has fallen, that all dogma lies on the ground — nay more, that it is at its last gasp’.

Franc Kavcic, ‘Socrates with a Disciple and (possibly) Diotima’, c. 1810

Truth, then, is not objective reality, but like a woman is open to interpretation and is to be approached with caution and successful attainment is certainly never guaranteed. Nietzsche stressed what he saw as the need we have both for truth and for illusion; for everything that is good and beautiful is dependant upon illusion. ‘Truthfulness, as the foundation of all compacts’, he said, ‘and the prerequisite for the survival of the human species, is a eudemonistic demand: it is imposed by the knowledge that the supreme welfare lies in illusion’. (Eudemonia, happiness, well-being, flourishing, brought about by exercising moral virtue, practical wisdom, and rationality). And so truth is taken to stand for some categorical power of knowledge, but our knowledge is of necessity characterised by inexactness, relatedness, partiality, and the categories of reason have their foundation in our biological needs as a species, the needs for safety, preservation, some control of our environment, rapid understanding through the picking up of signals, but to master reality we can only comprehend a certain amount of it; experience accumulates through the regularity of our perceptions and through knowledge of what is stable and consistent, discoverable and foreseeable; and yet, this line of thinking goes, we cannot presume that whatever happens to prove to be advantageous for the preservation of our particular species affords us with a proof of truth.

So Keats presented us with imaginative truth, and Nietzsche is presenting us with what may be termed quasi-Darwinian truth; our basic ways of thinking have evolved from the utility of being able to think in terms of identity as this assists us in the struggle for survival because it means that things in the environment can be identified and rapidly acted upon. To see everything in a perpetual state of flux, like Heraclitus, (c. 535 BC — 475 BC), would be at a considerable evolutionary disadvantage by comparison with an exact and precise vision; and that which determines the power of knowledge is not the degree of its truth but its quality as a condition of life. And yet, according to Nietzsche, and here the discussion of truth moves into psychological discourse, progress in knowledge of ourselves requires us to practice the truth while not dwelling in the realm of truth perpetually for such would be antithetical to life; truth is without metaphysical foundation, objects have being only within a particular perspective and an interpretive boundary; the very condition for the possibility of life is appearance and perspectival appraisal.

The story goes that throughout the most extended portion of evolutionary history the human mind not only survived but even flourished through the incorporation of a class of fundamental errors, ‘erroneous articles of faith’; for instance, that entities are such as they are immediately taken to be, that they are identifiable and persist through time; and only comparatively recently in the evolution of human life a preoccupation with truth appeared upon the scene; for a long period this latter was taken to be the most powerless and uncertain kind of knowledge owing to the fact that human beings discovered it to be difficult to accustom themselves to it; and upon life and knowledge coming into conflict, doubts and refutations were taken to be articulations of some kind of mental instability. And then a novel state of affairs arose in which the striving after truth and the searching after knowledge became acknowledged as answering forceful human needs. Thus it is that today’s thinker is ‘ the being in whom the drive to truth and those life-preserving errors are fighting their first battle’. The battle rages on for the very reason that such striving after the true has revealed itself itself to be a life-preserving and life-enhancing force; the genealogy of knowledge and the emergence of truth, together with the value placed upon it, is thus granted an evolutionary explanation; and in modern times the situation has developed whereby knowledge in itself is now an aspect of life.

The implications behind such reasoning over truth, that truth is inherently an anthropological notion, that the notion of truth is bereft of meaning outside of the conditions of human life, the conditions of preservation and development, that truth is to be conceived of in terms of a mode of existence and as something to will towards, has led to contemporary theorising by non-philosophers about truth that is merely a rehashing of Nietzsche in a way that makes little sense and no longer cultivates the proper respect for truth that one should expect. Biologist and evolutionary theorist Bret Weinstein, (1969 -), has a concept of metaphorical truth, Jordan Peterson, (1962 — ), that of Darwinian truth, (both to be discussed in part two). Ironic, particularly in the latter case, given his distaste for postmodernists and their playing fast and loose with the idea of truth, in itself a development from Nietzsche.

A quick overview of some postmodernist claims concerning truth. Richard Rorty, (1931–2007), shared Nietzsche’s view that truth has no metaphysical basis and rejected the correspondence theory of truth which implies that we can have a kind of direct access to reality through our senses or through our reason: ‘The way in which a blank takes on the form of a die which stamps it’, he said, ‘has no analogy to the relation between the truth of a sentence and the event which the sentence is about’. Philosophy is thus akin to literary criticism, just another form of conversation about our beliefs, useful because it can assist us to free up our imagination (I do not know if he knew about Keats and imaginative truth but the emphasis is similar, though perhaps he has in mind a specifically philosophical imagination) and so establish the conditions for a more pluralist society partaking of many diverse conversations and yet Lady Philosophy herself in no way stands upon the single enduring podium from which to pronounce forth upon judgements concerning knowledge claims that might emerge from other conversations.

The implications of such a view are clear enough. Not only is Lady Philosophy’s radiance diminished, there is a reduced view of science too; there can be no hard, well established facts of science, but rather merely ‘the hardness of previous agreements within a community’. Science is just another type of conversation, objective scientific knowledge is an illusion (although if Nietzsche is correct then we prefer scientific illusion to the truth for evolutionary reasons but illusion implies that there is a truth to be had, such is the mire this kind of thinking leads us into). Rorty was a postmodern pragmatist, (I will discuss pragmatic theories of truth in part two); it is of no concern whether science is objectively true or merely a social and cultural construct, (despite its ability to make accurate predictions, an inconvenient truth best left to one side if you are a postmodernist); all that is of concern is that ‘we persuade people to act differently than in the past’ by encouraging free and open ‘communities of inquiry’ in the search for ‘unforced agreements’.

Paul Feyerabend, (1924–1994), epistemological anarchist, also thought of science as a social, historical and cultural human activity, but goes further; science invents rather than discovers immutable laws of nature, and there are no especially privileged rules of methodology of a special utility, (despite the ability of science to make accurate predictions, it cannot be stressed enough), that govern either the growth of knowledge or the progress of science. The notion of the operation of science by rigid, universal rules is impractical, damaging, and deleterious to science itself. Again he favours pluralism, (a postmodernist value despite the fact that if there are no privileged conversations, no essential truths, there can be no privileged ethical conversation either, no universal value, in which, for instance it is permissible to condemn monism or homogeneity), in this case methodological pluralism. Anything goes so far as methodology is concerned. There is no settle method to science, it has no monopoly on truth, (despite its ability to make accurate predictions); science is ideological in its dogma, with some oppressive rather than liberating aspects; nor can we straightforwardly distinguish science from mythology, religion,or magic.

There is one fatal flaw behind such reasoning, if it may be so designated, that the discerning reader will immediately have picked up on. As I noted with Keats’ imaginative truth the nature of truth itself remains substantially unaffected; what is at issue is not the nature of truth, but Keats’ views about the nature of reality, about the facts; and the correspondence theory of truth still holds, it is tacitly acknowledged by Keats; truth is what accords with the facts, though the facts may be imaginary, if I may so put it. And with Rorty and Feyerabend, though they claim to reject the correspondence theory of truth they both unwittingly tacitly acknowledge it, truth is what corresponds with the facts but there is no fixed methodology, not even in science, the results of which can be said to correspond to the truth, there is no scientific theory that so corresponds. And yet there must be a truth to be had to make the claim that none of our theories correspond to it. The issue then is not one of the nature of truth but of theory and methodology and of their inadequacy to correspond to the truth whatever its true nature might be.

(Hint: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), spoke of ‘the true shape of truth’, which may sound rather odd but in this series I shall be presenting his theory of truth and arguing against correspondence theories in favour of coherentism). It is far from the point to object, as Feyerabend does, that scientific theories, rather than corresponding to the truth, are manifestations of a particular culture and hence non-objective, that one scientific paradigm supersedes another much like in comparative mythology a given myth is appropriated by another, that Galileo Galilei, (1564–1642), (according to Feyerabend anyway), relied on rhetoric and epistemological sleight of hand to support his heliocentric view of the world, that scientific laws fail to provide an objective model of the universe that explain it in its entirety. The problem there is the model, the methodology; and it is only a problem for those wedded to the belief that the truth is out there though it just so happens that our theorising fails to correspond with it.

‘… truth is truth

To the end of reckoning’.

- William Shakespeare, (1564 -1616), ‘Measure for Measure’, Act 5, Scene 1

To be continued …

‘Die Wahrheit kann warten: denn sie hat ein langes Leben vor sich’.

‘The truth can wait, for it lives a long life’.

- Arthur Schopenhauer, (1788–1860)

‘The Endearing Truth’, 1966, Rene Magritte

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David Proud

David Proud

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David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.