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.