On The Nature of Truth — Part Three

‘The True is the whole’.

- Georg Willhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), The Phenomenology of Spirit, para. 20.

Having addressed some of the problems associated with the correspondence theory of truth I shall now put forward and defend the coherence theory of truth, particularly as it features in the philosophical system of Hegel, for whom the truth is a living and developing whole. However we may characterise the nature of truth, the truth that we have as finite beings is incomplete; for not until the whole system of knowledge has attained completion can there be absolute truth; which is to say, the true is that which is true because it coheres within a system of other propositions and the true is that which is true in so far as it is a necessary constituent of a systematic whole. The coherence theory of truth has been elegantly formulated by Harold H. Joachim, (1868–1938), in The Nature of Truth, 1906, so I will begin there, though as we will see Joachim’s account has been attacked by William (pragmatic theory of truth) James, (1842–1910), and Bertrand (correspondence theory of truth) Russell, (1872–1970), both of whom refer to this particular text as exemplifying precisely what is mistaken with the coherence theory of truth.

If truth is an attribute of a systematic whole, (or truth just is the whole), then particular propositions can only be true in some kind of derivative or secondary sense; such propositions are partly true and partly false; for only the system of an all-encompassing set of propositions as a whole can correctly be regarded as true. Truth, we might say, is systematic coherence, and the essential nature of truth is thereby conceivability, which is just another term for systematic coherence. How so? you might well ask. Well, Joachim begins his account of the nature of truth and of the notion of coherence with this simple formulation: ‘Anything is true which can be conceived. It is true because, and in so far as, it can be conceived. Conceivability is the essential nature of truth’. But what does the term conceive actually mean? Let us look at some concrete cases to illustrate the type of thing that we can conceive, and that which we cannot. In William Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, the Moor explains how he was able to captivate an audience through the recounting of details of his past adventures:

Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,

Of moving accidents by flood and field

Of hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach,

Of being taken by the insolent foe

And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence

And portance in my travels’ history:

Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,

Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven

It was my hint to speak, — such was the process;

And of the Cannibals that each other eat,

The Anthropophagi and men whose heads

Do grow beneath their shoulders.

- Act 1, Scene 3.

Sebastian Münster, ‘Illustrations of monstrous humans from Cosmographia’, 1544.

The above engraving shows, from left to right, a monopod or sciapod, a female cyclops, conjoined twins, a blemmye, (a headless one of the kind that Othello refers to), and a cynocephaly. My point in showing these illustrations is to demonstrate an important distinction to be made between imaginability and conceivability. To conceive of a thing cannot mean to form a mental picture of that thing, or to image that thing; we can form a mental picture of whatever we please, within the laws of logic and mathematics. As Gottlob Frege, (1848–1925), put it:

‘Empirical propositions hold good of what is physically or psychologically actual, the truths of geometry govern all that is spatially intuitable, whether actual or product of our fancy. The wildest visions of delirium, the boldest inventions of legend and poetry, where animals speak and stars stand still, where men are turned to stones and trees turn into men, where the drowning haul themselves up out of swamps by their own topknots — all these remain, so long as they remain intuitable, still subject to the axioms of geometry. Conceptual thought alone can after a fashion shake off this yoke, when it assumes, say, a space of four dimensions or positive curvature. To study such conceptions is not useless by any means; but it is to leave the ground of intuition entirely behind. If we do make use of intuition even here, as an aid, it is still the same old intuition of Euclidean space, the only space of which we have any picture’.

‘Baron Munchausen pulls himself out of a mire by his own hair’, Oskar Herrfurth, c. 1934.

But is this the case? Can conception shake off Euclidean intuition and conceive of a round square? And further, ‘ideally certain knowledge (indubitable truth)’, Joachim points out, ‘is typified in the intuitive grasp of the immediately cohering elements of a ‘simple proposition’’; and then he adds: ‘such a content is for me so remote from the ideal as hardly to deserve the name of ‘truth’ at all’. It may seem apparent enough that the ‘antres vast and deserts idle’ of which Othello spoke were once inconceivable, (being in unexplored territory, their existence unknown), and a man with his head below his shoulders is conceivable. But the opposite is the case. It is the ‘antres vast and deserts idle’ that are conceivable, but a man with his head below his shoulders that is inconceivable

The example that Joachim gives is that of the Antipodes, seemingly once inconceivable, and a centaur, seemingly conceivable. It might well be the case that it is not so easy imaging people walking with their heads downwards; whereas imaging a horse with the head and shoulders of a man is simple enough. But this is irrelevant to the matter at hand. To conceive of something means to think out clearly and logically that something, to hold several constituent elements together in a necessary connection, a connection that is necessary because of the numerous contents of each constituent element. And that which is conceivable is that which is a significant whole; a whole that is endowed with meaning that is necessary for thought; a whole such that all its constituent elements relate to and implicate one another; a whole whose elements determine reciprocally each other’s presence as they feature in contributing to a singular specific and substantial meaning. Which is to say, while the elements cohere to constitute a significant whole, it is this whole that controls the reciprocal modification of its elements, in the same manner whereby the constituent means to an end are controlled by that end.

‘The Battle of the Centaurs’, Arnold Böcklin, 1873.

A centaur is thus inconceivable whereas the Antipodes are conceivable. The elements that constitute the centaur decline to enter into such reciprocal modifications; they clash either with each other or with some of the constitutive elements in a wider sphere of experience, a larger significant whole, within which the centaur struggles to attain a position; the creature that is half man, half horse, may well on the face of it suffice as an acceptable figure for brisk movement, let us grant, but coherence is at once threatened were we to raise the matter of how his insides might be regulated; that is to say, how his internal organs might be structured, or adapted, or how they might function. One might suppose that the animal kingdom would be the natural place in which to locate the centaur, but persist however much you like in your endeavour to locate this quadrupedal being there and you will most assuredly import contradiction and disorientation into that particular significant whole; at the very least insofar as it appears to us in the light of our present knowledge and understanding of physiology and anatomy.

But as for the existence of the Antipodes the matter is quite different. Within the science of astronomy, considered as a significant whole, the Antipodes occupy their necessary position insofar as that whole is conceived; the science of astronomy is a coherent setting forth of a puzzle for which the Antipodes comprise a necessary piece for the completion of all of the interconnections in the puzzle; they are conceivable in the sense that the thought of them is inescapable for any thinker for whom the earth and the solar system and the universe beyond are to possess any significance. Conceivability just is systematic coherence, it just is the determining characteristic of a significant whole.

And philosophy herself, considered as a system of reasoned knowledge, is the most adequate and the most explicit and the most wonderful expression of the systematic coherence of a significant whole. And every constituent element of her significant whole participates in this distinguishing quality to a greater or to a lesser extent, which is to say, it is more or less conceivable, commensurate with the significant whole; and the determinate inner joints and connections of the significant whole shine forth to a greater or lesser extent more evidently through that selfsame constituent element; or relative to the manner through which the constituent element in disclosing itself thereby discloses to a greater or lesser extent the lucidity and completeness of the other constituent elements in their reciprocal modification.

‘La philosophie personnifiée’, Jean Colombe, (c. 1430 — c. 1493).

Now this does of course raise issues concerning the customary distinction between necessary and contingent truths; the criterion of a necessary truth may on occasion be negatively formulated in terms of the inconceivability of its opposite; such a formulation has to be abandoned if we accept the formulation of the coherence theory of truth in terms of conceivability. And further, it is a commonly asserted in contemporary philosophy that there are certain predicates which, though they are in fact empty, they have a null extension, they have it merely as a matter of contingent fact and not as a matter of any sort of necessity. This thought too has to be put to one side. As Saul Kripke, (1940 — ), has pointed out, concerning the matter of the existence or otherwise of unicorns:

‘So it is said that though we have all found out that there are no unicorns, of course there might have been unicorns. Under certain circumstances there would have been unicorns. And this is an example of something I think is not the case. Perhaps … the truth should not be put in terms of saying that it is necessary that there should be no unicorns, but just that we can’t say under what circumstances there would have been unicorns. Further, I think that even if archaeologists or geologists were to discover tomorrow some fossils conclusively showing the existence of animals in the past satisfying everything we know about unicorns from the myth of the unicorn, that would not show that there were unicorns’.

Arnold Böcklin, ‘The Silence of the Woods’, 1885.

We can image a unicorn, though a unicorn, like a centaur, is inconceivable. My concern here is with the nature of truth, not the criteria of truth, that is to say, that something which is other than the truth in itself, but through which we are to recognize the truth. If truth is present such presence may be inferred via the manifestation of particular characteristics that emerge while Truth does her work in opposing falsehoods, but my concern here is rather with her nature, and the nature of truth is primarily that of conceivability and systematic coherence.

Time Unveiling Truth, Jean-François de Troy, 1730

To be continued….



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