Wednesday, November 4, 2009


...the truth shall make you free... (Bible)

We take truth to be something that it is not; and many of our severest cultural problems arise from this confusion. It is in the understanding of truth that the ‘bewitchment’ of our minds by language is at its most dangerous. We consider it to be 1) something we can possess forever in a form of language; and 2) something definitive, final and absolute. The very idea of ‘absolute truth’, however, is a contradictio in adjecto, unless we consider the truth we create to be identical with all that was, is and will be. But we can’t and we don’t. Truth is a human creation. We know what we mean by ‘truth’ when the contrast with ‘falsehood’ is obvious, as for example if I say, in order to gain an advantage, that I have no money whereas my bank account is well furnished and I have no debts. The trouble is that from this obvious conception of truth, we extrapolate to a ‘true’ state of the universe that is accessible to us in sentences. When truth becomes something that a person will die for or – worse – kill for, then we know that the bewitchment of the mind by sentences has become complete.

Truth is a question of sentences or symbol strings in a language. This language insofar as it is rigorous is nowadays largely mathematical. We believe that a series of mathematical propositions can express all that is the case concerning a state of affairs. But mathematics is only the precisest form of expression that we have and it achieves its precision at considerable cost: by ignoring semantic imprecision. This means that it works by simplifying for semantics is a tricky business of levels or areas or overlaps of meaning. This means that what mathematics says is a simplification. This means that the truth of such a body of propositions is necessarily less than what it is supposed to be truth about. Reality is anyway always different from and more than our truth. How could it be otherwise? How different and how much more, we cannot tell; but what could be more different than these two: a bunch of sentences or symbol strings, and the rich pageant of reality? This means that such truth that we hold – if we hold it to be absolute – is false in proportion to what is left out. This means that our precisest truth, since it is partial truth, is always false. And since we do not know how much is left out, we do not know how false it is. We can know the extent of the truth or falsehood concerning statements about my financial position; but we will never know the extent of the truth or falsehood of statements about the universe as a whole. For even if our statements concerning the universe as a whole apparently correspond to the facts as we experience them, we can never know if we have all the facts. We can never know whether there are facts that are out of our range.

The notion that we could come up with the ultimate set of true sentences about the world as a whole is thus fundamentally misguided. If reality did not continue to present us with matters that are not dealt with in our truth, our truth would be identical and interchangeable with reality. But identity with reality is clearly a nonsensical notion since sentences are intrinsically and essentially different from reality. Midworld is not foreworld. Sentences are fixed patterns of sound or symbol, whereas reality is the given and is never the same from one moment to the next. Reality, moreover is not present in its entirety to our sensory-cognitive apparatus; whereas sentences, insofar as they are precise, hide nothing. Truth can thus never be true in the manner in which we want it to be true. There is no limit to the number of sentences to describe reality. The best conception of truth would seem therefore to be this: sentences that make some useful contact with reality and allow the transfer of meaning concerning reality without being empowered to pronounce themselves definitive. Truth is clearly always capable of becoming more true, i.e. possessing more contacts with a reality. Thus it is to be understood as an unattainable ideal and not a concrete possession. Such truth as we think we hold should be held very lightly.

Since truth can always be improved and since the seeker after it commits him or herself to it both as a possession and as a continuing search, knowledge of it bears far more similarities to faith than is commonly supposed, even to the point of being capable of becoming bigotry as religious belief often can. Truth is indissolubly linked with enduring but outdated ideas of divine knowledge. The truth we still seek is the truth we used to think of as the possession of the divine. I may be able to know all the facts of the matter concerning your financial position and to be able to compare this with your statements concerning the same. Since that sort of truth is available to us, we used to imagine by analogy, that God could know all the facts of the matter concerning the universe, past present and future. Then, when we pensioned God off, we continued to imagine that His knowledge was available to us. It is time we realised that such knowledge never existed, any more than the ego-God who held it ever existed.

The family resemblance between faith and rational knowledge of truth is obscured by the fact that in real faith certain elements that are distinct in the search for truth are left fused together. These elements, however, emerge separately as soon as the faith in question is rationally defended or attacked; and the desire to defend faith or to attack faith is one of the most potent sources of what is considered to be knowledge of the truth. Two of these elements are 1) a passion to understand and 2) the sceptical suspension of belief. These conflicting elements are both vital because although truth is highly prized, dogmatism is considered by the most honest minds to be worthless. Nevertheless an absolute conception of truth has been fostered for millennia in the western philosophical tradition. All of the major philosophers from Plato to those of the nineteenth century had the passion for truth; not all of them, regrettably, easily suspended belief. Some of them rushed to absolute conclusions to which they had no right. Some scientists then followed suit.

Plato, for whom the objects of knowledge, the Forms and the Form of the Good were intrinsically ineffable, nevertheless claimed the possibility of rational knowledge of these things that could be expressed in the language of men. Aristotle reasoned that the universe was the creative work of God, but then he proceeded to lose interest in the divinity and treat him as irrelevant to human knowledge, which in the view of the great man was rational and nearing completion in his own philosophy. The Medieval philosophers, too, while possessing a fine understanding of the ineffable nature of the essential ‘truths’ of Christianity, began to put reason if not on the same footing as faith, at least nearly there and created the climate in which reason could potentially supplant faith’s role in the quest for knowledge.

With the Renaissance and later, the Enlightenment, faith’s role in knowledge was reduced progressively and its importance eclipsed by loud and confident appeals to reason. Reason became the only route to knowledge and faith was demoted to a most inferior status in which, although a certain cognitive potential was recognised in it, this cognitive value was considered to be childish and inchoate, to be illuminated and clarified by reason. Faith was equated with credulity. For Hegel, there was a point in the evolution of human culture, not far in the future, at which the definitive truth about the entire universe would be ours to possess forever. But Hegel was as confused about the nature of reason as the ancients and allowed his confusion to efface the distinction between reasoning in language and the essential process of reality.

It was only with the works of the Romantic thinkers and later in the writings of thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche that signalled the definitive waning of the Enlightenment confidence in reason, that things began to change. The limits of reason were becoming all too evident. The ability of reason to impose a carapace upon thought and lead it into orthodoxy and dogmatism was becoming widely recognised.  Thus though the passion of the search for truth remained, the sceptical aspect of things, the suspension of belief began to dominate.

Truth in the works of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and later in those of the Existentialists and Wittgenstein, became increasingly separated from the structure of language and from the ability of language to convince on account of its formal properties. Truth became something that in Wittgenstein’s words, one would do better to keep silent about (“verschweigen”) rather than rushing confidently into noisy celebrations that this or that formulation had finally captured it forever. Deconstruction then finished the job; truth was unmasked as wishful or manipulative ideology, the tool of the power-hungry or the vain.

Thus scepticism and passion to know, while remaining prominent in the search for truth, led to a conception of it in which it became in a sense too valuable to be wrapped up in words. Just as the lover shrinks from a theoretical or mechanical explanation of his love for the beloved, so the searchers after truth recognised that their passion was never assuaged by this or that formulation, but that the formulations could only, again in Wittgenstein’s image, constitute a “ladder” to understanding, that would have to be discarded as soon as this understanding dawned. If they persisted in claiming absolute status for their verities, one pitied them for their lack of philosophical sophistication.

A further discussion of the nature of truth was conducted in psychological circles, particularly those influenced by psychoanalysis and the various schools spawned by Freudian theory. There, particularly in the works of the revisionists, truth was unmasked as potentially no more than the ego’s means of burnishing its own self-regard. Both the individual ego and the tribal ego are flattered by the thought of their being in possession of a definitive cultural good that other inferior individuals or tribes do not possess. The ego’s truth is linked with the sense of personal identity and personal accomplishment and for that reason it comes to be regarded by the ego in question is sacred. It is for this reason that all truth tends towards dogma. The ego believes that what appears self-evident to it is indeed self-evident absolutely. In many formulations of our truth, we cannot grasp how it could be false. The rational ego is thus the sole criterion of truth for reasons that are more expressive of limitation than authority, though the ego is prevented by its self-regard from seeing things that way.

The upshot of all this is to return to this thesis: truth is not what we think it to be. Our local, commonsense notions of truth and its difference from falsehood cannot be extrapolated to the universe at large or to the nature of reality by the observance of some method, be it logic, empiricism, maths or whatever, except as tentative model-building. There is, however, another conception of truth available to us that does not depend entirely upon dignifying sentences with some kind of equivalence to reality itself. This sort of truth, however, involves taking seriously the possibility of truth as a state of being and not a series of sentences, a kind of skill rather than an intellectual possession.


Truth, in the twentieth, and a fortiori in the twenty-first centuries is not one unitary thing with a single precise definition. On the one hand, there is pragmatic, contingent truth, the truthfulness of which is confirmed by the repeatable ‘experiment’ (‘if I do x, y will follow’) and by the fact that it produces real effects, that it works. On the other hand, truth has much more to do with a fundamental attitude and orientation than with formulation, or with the establishment of a definitive set of final propositions. Fundamentally, what we are seeking with our notion of truth is a close relationship between our mind and the structure of reality. Kierkegaard’s objections to Hegel are in this respect most instructive: Hegel believed that absolute truth was to be obtained by rational means alone and that religion and art were the childish gropings of the human race towards this rational absolute. Kierkegaard recognised that down that road lay dogmatism, mechanical rigidity and totalitarianism of the mind – the totalitarianism that had been present in Western thought at least since Plato and that was massively reinforced by belief in the monotheistic divinity. Kierkegaard recognised that knowledge and truth had far more to do with the relation of the mind to the unpredictable creative process that drives the entire cosmos, and humanity along with it, than with some form of words that claims to sum up the essence of all reality. He considered that to possess the truth, as a finite mind, was to be attuned to the creative activity of that intelligence that generated the universe at every moment of its existence. He recognised, too, that this relation could never be one of descriptive and explanatory propositions to a definable reality thus represented. The only possibility of a state of knowledge, for the human mind, was to be creatively aware of one’s role as part of the universal creative process. One could not say the truth but only be it through a leap of faith. To put it in its briefest terms, knowledge was not the possession of the truth, but the living of the truth by means of the mind’s throwing itself completely on the conviction that only in the complete commitment to a perpetual reliance on the ineffable activity of the absolute within the events of history could the mind possess anything like truth. This reliance was for Kierkegaard the essence of faith. Thus for him, faith combined, in equal quantities, the scepticism of the seeker for truth with the passion that motivates the search, and its difference from truth was less evident than for Hegel. In Kierkegaard, the scepticism became total and the passion too; we can never possess in propositional terms the definitive truth of the universe, but we can ‘embody’ it and thereby satisfy our passion, our love. This of course means giving up any notion that the ego is in control by means of its truth.

The search for ‘total’ understanding, as a possession, remains nevertheless a deeply human quest; and it is difficult to see how it could be satisfied if not in the establishment of some dynamic, indissoluble link between the individual mind and the nature of the world. The notion of its being satisfied in a final set of rationally coherent sentences is plain delusion.

Kierkegaard, the Christian, worked of course with some traditional Christian notions. In his work, the love of truth is inseparable from the love of God, since for him, God is the ultimate truth about the universe: He is its generator and its sustainer and the reason why it has the character it does have. Of course little can be maintained about such a God except that He generates the universe and therefore has to be trusted, however risky such trust may feel. The truth about the universe is therefore not found in the universe, as an object of possible experience, not in any set of sentences that one can pronounce about what is experienced in the language of men, but only in the absolute commitment to a reliance on the unseen, unheard, unknown source of all that is. Faith therefore in this view is an attitude of mind: the attitude of complete trust. Truth is the knowledge that one is, here and now, in the state of being nourished by the object of that trust.

It would seem that between the two possible extremes, between this kind of mystical, ineffable ‘being in the truth’ on the one hand, and the possession of the definitive set of propositions that may dogmatically be considered to be the final truth, although vulnerable to scepticism, on the other, there is only the local, contingent truth of pragmatism. The ineffable truth has no form, and on its own is sterile. The dogmatic truth allows for no increase in knowledge and is for that reason divorced from the world: unchanging truth in a changing world can not be true. The practical truth at least has the benefit of being of immediate value, however false it may become tomorrow; but the mind will always demand more than this. Thus any one conception of truth fails by its very nature to satisfy our requirements. It is perhaps only in the comprehension, the ‘taking together’ of all of the contrasting conceptions at once that these requirements can be satisfied. This is intellectual pluralism of the most extreme kind.

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