The Meaning of Truth

There are many different approaches of truth in philosophy. There is talk about truth in formal logic, but also in the art of interpretation: hermeneutics. I learnt about  truth as ‘truth-value’ in an undergraduate course about Wittgenstein. And in the introduction to logic, of course. It included the possibility to make a table of possible truth-values for a proposition. So that one could make visible under what conditions it would be true or untrue. Pure logic, it had become clear to me in my second year, was esoteric in the sense that only a few people could really work with it and value its benefits. Most people, when confronted with pure logical reasoning, asked for application. Logical positivists, I learnt, had become very popular because they seemed to promise such an application. Immediate experience could testify to the truth or untruth of any proposition.

At the same time during my education I learnt all the problems that go along with such an approach. One cannot talk about immediate experience. As soon as one talks, it is mediated, through language, and therefore proves nothing – except whether our language is useful to communicate. This is not the same. Like in, say, the language of a religion to which you do not adhere. Imagine that you are an atheist, and you observe Christians talking about salvation, the body of Christ, sin, etcetera. To you what they say is complete untruth – but still you observe that they can meaningfully communicate with each other, and that their words function in a way that it inspires their morality, that they form a community, perform rituals, and so on. The same could be true for scientists – when one observes them like they are a tribe (as Latour did), who communicate with words that are meaningful to them.

So what is truth then? It was later, as a graduate student, that I started to read Gadamer, the ‘father’ of modern hermeneutics – which aims to explain how communication through language works. He dug into tradition: how meanings are handed down through history, and change bit by bit, so that we can never reconstruct the ‘original’ truth. Still, he holds on to truth, when he speaks of the ‘Vorgriff der Volkommenheit’. When we interprete something, when we try to understand it, as provisional as our understanding may be – we cannot do so unless we presuppose that we can know the thing completely. This hunch of completeness leads our interpretation so to speak. This comes very close to the pragmatist conception of truth that I was taught by my professor of ‘anglo-saxon’ philosophy. He spoke of the idea, proposed by the pragmatist philosopher Peirce, that truth is something elusive, as knowledge is a function of the dynamics of human life. Elusive, but not unimportant, for we reach for it, and we should suppose that we progress towards it without end.

In both views, truth is a regulative idea, one could say – something, a value, that we cannot understand in itself, and can never reach completely, but that is necessary to give direction to the search for knowledge and understanding. Just like justice, or beauty, or honesty. We know what these myterious values mean, although we never experienced their full presence. Like an abused child, who can know how love should be like. A clumsy person that knows how things really should be done. Or a weak fighter who in her imagination knows how to hit the enemy in the right place.

Besides the logical, hermeneutical and pragmatist approaches to truth, there is still another one: the existential one. In life, we experience truth and untruth. Not as correspondence between propositions and facts, not as a regulative idea, but as ‘what is right’. True is something said or done that is appropriate to the situation, true to oneself and responding to real needs of others. One can live the truth or think the truth by dismantling false consciousness, figthing inauthenticity, hearing the needs of the time and of one’s fellow earthlings. This is not vague or idealistic nonsense. It is very concrete, when applied in one’s work and life. In philosophy it means not going for answers that fit nicely in some accepted theory, but asking critical questions about the theory first, and if necessary, accepting that one has to work without any clear theoretical frame. I see examples of this kind of work, and am impressed by them.

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3 comments
  1. Hi Angela, Your quest for truth is commendable ! But we must respect the dictum of the founder of organized thought, Socrates, that before any discussion, there should be an agreement on the terms used. What do you mean by truth ? Is that the millions of truths that you experience in your day to day life, like the black dog on the street, the mountain at the outskirt of your city, the undeniable truth of real ecstasy in your sexual encounter with your beloved ? You want a definition of such category of truth ?

    Beneath the multiple layers of such millions of truths, there is a realm of the ultimate cause, that was behind you being the truth seeker, ( the entity if the truth seeker, the self) and how and why you seek truth, and how and why these multiple layers of truth impress you, and at the same time confuse you as to what is the real and ultimate one.

    Logical definitions of truth are based on theories; theories based on relations that have already been witnessed as real, or truthful. Such already experienced relations manufacture a realm of ‘sense’ in your mind, and man falsely attribute this realm of sense as the realm of reason and logic. Fact is that the realm of reason is an entirely different,and not yet recognized one.

    I would be glad to share with you my search of 3-4 decades after truth and reality, and of course knowing what man’s faculty of reason is. Kindly share my blog links: http://anatomyofrealities.blogspot.in/, and http://philosopherskorner.blogspot.in/

    • Thanks, Abraham, for sharing your thoughts related to my blog. For me, truth does not only concern the relation between a knower and a known, a person and the worlds, or whatever you would want to call the terms. If one doesn’t look into the social, political, cultural and historical conditions for understanding and knowing, one will miss what truth is about.

  2. Exactly Angela…when one does look at the social,political, and historical aspects of knowing and understanding, it will naturally lead to the central question of the ‘entity’ who seeks truth ! Is he/she merely seek truth from the stand point of a historical and social entity – an ego- ? Or, is he/she seek truth from the stand point of an entity unrelated to history,society etc, but as his/her unique reality in existence ? Entities originate only by relating to some or other canvas, or some of other subjective ‘other’ entities or realities.
    I would like to share with you another blog that deals with the question of entity who think, seek truth and interact with others, at link: http://anatomyofrealities.blogspot.in/2013/08/thinking-understanding-it-as-internal.html

    warm regards…

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