Philosophical Truth

Many people, if not most, look on literary taste as an elegant accomplishment, by acquiring which they will complete themselves, and make themselves finally fit as members of a correct society. They are secretly ashamed of their ignorance of literature, in the same way as they would be ashamed of their ignorance of etiquette at a high entertainment, or of their inability to ride a horse if suddenly called upon to do so. There are certain things that a man ought to know, or to know about, and literature is one of them: such is their idea.

– Arnold Bennett, Literary Taste: How to Form It With Detailed Instructions

When we read the above passage we notice right off the bat and from our vantage point how different the situation of literary taste, much less the need to ‘fit as members of a correct society’, has changed. Arnold Bennett was speaking to a particular well defined reader, a member of the upper classes within England who had both the money and the leisure time to afford such pursuits as literary taste. Yet, as Bennett reminds us, “[p]eople who regard literary taste simply as an accomplishment, and literature simply as a distraction, will never truly succeed either in acquiring the accomplishment or in using it half-acquired as a distraction; though the one is the most perfect of distractions, and though the other is unsurpassed by any other accomplishment in elegance or in power to impress the universal snobbery of civilised mankind”.1

For Bennett literature, instead of being an accessory, is the fundamental sine qua non of complete living. What if we replaced this statement with philosophy rather than literature: is philosophy the fundamental sine qua non of complete living? What is philosophy for us? Is it a matter of taste? Is it something else? How do you define philosophy? Is it instead the pursuit of truth? And what is truth?

For Nietzsche truth is a “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins”.2 For Nietzsche truth is the Naked Emperor whose only authority is our blind allegiance.

Is truth something tangible, something attached to objects, things and persons? Or do we construct truth, build representations that can be stamped or impressed on these otherwise innocuous objects, things, persons?  Plato theorized that  Ideas make up the constitutive nature of existence, and such a hypothesis “presupposes the interpretation of truth as aletheia,”., truth as the “unconealment,” or the revelation, of Being. Within Plato’s thought, truth and Being shared an intimate bond.

Most contemporary philosophers no longer ask the question “What is truth?”, but instead ask the question “What is the nature of truth?” That little addition or qualification of the question with the insertion of nature changes the whole conception of the question as well as the answer and or solution one might discover or construct to solve it. What is happening here is that Plato was describing an ontological question in which at least for him truth and the real ‘shared an intimate bond’. Of course Plato was speaking of Ideas. In fact he was a realist of Ideas and rejected the materialist view of the universe as presented by such philosophical forbears as Democritus and his atomistic parsing of reality into a finite set of atomistic entities. He even went so far in rejecting Democritus and his theory of atoms that he simply erased Democritus from his work altogether by never mentioning his name or theories in his works ever.

In our time truth took another turn, now most philosophers no longer ask the ontological question of “What is truth?”, they take truth as given, and the question to be answered concerns its nature. In answering this question, each theory makes the notion of truth part of a more thoroughgoing metaphysics or epistemological pursuit. From Aristotle through Aquinas and the scholastics the Platonic heritage of truth was seen within a correspondence theory of truth: the idea that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to the world and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) that world

During the early twentieth century G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell would reject the Platonic correspondence theory of truth as being Idealist through and through and countered it with an identity theory of truth. According to the identity theory, a true proposition is identical to a fact. Specifically, in Moore and Russell’s hands, the theory begins with propositions, understood as the objects of beliefs and other propositional attitudes. Propositions are what are believed, and give the contents of beliefs. They are also, according to this theory, the primary bearers of truth. When a proposition is true, it is identical to a fact, and a belief in that proposition is correct.3

The key to this new alternate view of truth is the simple notion that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined by its relations to other statements rather than its relation to the world. It is with this that the Linguistic Turn we’ve all come to know began in earnest. No longer would we look to Ideas and their correspondence to real objects in the world, but instead truth was to be found in an epistemological questioning of the statements themselves in relation to each other. The idea that every truth-bearer (sentence or proposition) is true or false is what is termed as bivalence: the semantic principle (or law) of bivalence states that every declarative sentence expressing a proposition (of a theory under inspection) has exactly one truth value, either true or false. A logic satisfying this principle is called a two-valued logic or bivalent logic. 4

The rejection of this bivalent theory in our own time is associated with anti-realism.  As Michael Dummett himself has noted, it might be construed as a descendant—perhaps very distant—of idealism. If idealism is the most drastic form of rejection of the independence of mind and world, Dummettian anti-realism is a more modest form, which sees epistemology imprinted in the world, rather than the wholesale embedding of world into mind. 5

Other forms of philosophical truth in pragmatism, pluralism, deflationism, etc. could also be brought into this quest for the nature of truth. Yet, they are in some ways either modifications, slight swerves, or minimalist solutions that battle for or against the realist/anti-realist traditions in modern philosophy. So I will not take the time to pursue this line of inquiry.

In the sciences this realist and anti-realist debate take on a different hue. A scientific realist view of truth explains to us that there does in fact exist certain unobservable entities both in the mind and the world. But there are also things that one can, under favourable circumstances, perceive with one’s unaided senses. Let us call them “observables”, though this is to privilege vision over the other senses for the sake of terminological convenience. Unobservables, then, are things one cannot perceive with one’s unaided senses, and this category divides into two subcategories. Some unobservables are nonetheless detectable through the use of instruments with which one hopes to “extend” one’s senses, and others are simply undetectable. These distinctions are important, because major controversies about how to interpret the claims of the sciences revolve around them.6

For certain hard liner anti-realists “unobservable” entities such as electrons or genes, which are not detectable with human senses do not exist and are not part of the real world. A modified version of this has been termed instrumentalism, a non-realist theory which  takes a purely agnostic view towards the existence of unobservable entities: unobservable entity X serves simply as an instrument to aid in the success of theory Y. We need not determine the existence or non-existence of X. Some scientific anti-realists argue further, however, and deny that unobservables exist even as non-truth conditioned instruments.7

In the opposite camp the realist advocates a correspondence theory and have been associated in the history of philosophy as ontological realists; that is, they believe that there is a world external to the minds of all humans. This is in contrast to metaphysical idealists who hold that everything that exists is, in the end, just an idea in some mind. However, it is not strictly necessary that a correspondence theory be married to ontological realism. It is possible to hold, for example, that the facts of the world determine which statements are true and to also hold that the world (and its facts) is but a collection of ideas in the mind of some supreme being. 8

So who is right? It seems that truth is not something we can actually pin down, but is a human invention that partisans of philosophy will probably never totally agree on, but that working scientists have long ago rejected in favor of scientific practice and work. Yet, even scientists have to decide whether they will work on the real world, or choose to model the real world in a computer – a simulated world. So even here the battle for truth is a matter of learning, taste, and temperament it seems.

As Bennett speaking of the difference between reading and knowing what one has read once said “There are certain philosophical works which, once they are mastered, seem to have performed an operation for cataract, so that he who was blind, having read them, henceforward sees cause and effect working in and out everywhere. To use another figure, they leave stamped on the brain a chart of the entire province of knowledge”. Flamboyant, bloated rhetoric to be sure, but the notion of a trace or pattern being impressed on the physical brain that provides us a representation of knowledge makes one ponder the possibilities. But then one has to turn the knife on ‘trace’ and ‘pattern’: are these too blind metaphors for the Idea? Or, are we seeing something else? Once again we seem to have a lack of information and truth, a circular world of words leading nowhere beyond their own strange signs, hiding more than they reveal. How does the proposition of representations either impressed or not on the physical brain resolve itself using bivalent logic? Do any of these other theories of truth answer this question? Or is this the wrong question to ask? Do we need to reconceptualize the question? Could we say it with things rather than words? How would we do that? If words are as blind to the processes of the brain as we are then the very lack of information to support this quest is doomed from the beginning. What to do?

We always seem to be cut off from the thing we would like to understand. Some philosophers invent gaps to explain this, others try to destroy the gaps in our knowledge through epistemological reconceptualizations, and still others situate themselves in the gap between ontology and epistemology like some Hercules of the mindworlds trying to pull Scylla and Charydis together in some unified vision or parallax view. None have yet realized that nothing is given neither the  ground or the groundlessness, that truth is not something that resides in things nor is it something that resides in propositional statements. The scientists on the other hand no longer puzzle over the words and arguments about truth, instead they perform the necessary work and labor of truth every day of their lives, and that seems to provide truths in ways we have yet as philosophers begun to appreciate or even acknowledge.

Maybe this moves us away from ‘truth’ and into that problem solving world of heuristics:

Heuristic ( Greek: “Εὑρίσκω”, “find” or “discover”) refers to experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery that give a solution which is not guaranteed to be optimal. Where the exhaustive search is impractical, heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution via mental shortcuts to ease the cognitive load of making a decision. Examples of this method include using a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, stereotyping, or common sense.

But that would be another post….

1. Bennett, Arnold (2011-03-24). Literary Taste: How to Form It With Detailed Instructions for Collecting a Complete Library of English Literature (Kindle Locations 37-39).  . Kindle Edition.
2. Walter Kaufmann’s translation, appearing in The Portable Nietzsche, 1976 edition. Viking Press.
3. Glanzberg, Michael, “Truth”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta
4. Principle of bivalence Wikipedia
5. Dummett, Michael, 1978, Truth and Other Enigmas, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
6. Anjan Chakravartty. A Metaphysics for Scientific Realism: Knowing the Unobservable (Kindle Locations 129-132). Kindle Edition.
7. Anti-Realism (Wikidpedia)
8. Correspondence Theory of Truth (Wikipedia)

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