Tag Archives: 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.



To those who regularly read my posts, I almost feel the need to make an excuse, for I have not published a word for 42 whole days, which never happened before since I started this blog. But then, I never promised to write every week, although that was my silent aim. Also, no one complained. Of course I took a holiday from work and occupied myself with non-philosophical things more. I occupied myself with what is called ‘redecoration’, but actually it consisted of un-decoration. I finally removed ‘decorative’ additions its former owner felt the basically rectangular concrete house needed. Additions which I not only thought ugly, but which bothered me on a daily basis. A Victorian house can have rich decorative features. It needs them. But a second half of the twentieth century serial house is betrayed by them. It must be my preoccupation with truth and truthfulness which drove me to spend the whole summer stripping walls and removing other clutter, before adding some simple paint to fresh plaster.

Now my never absent self critical observation asks me often if this need for what I call truthfulness, this being bothered by false dressing up of houses and other things, reflects just a failure to deal with the muddiness of life – or rather expresses a worthy desire for what is right. This same kind of reflections formed the background of the second thing which occupied me the whole summer – the ever increasing conflicts everywhere in the world, which transgressed seemingly clear spheres of interest. Western jihadi’s fighting in Syria and Iraq, an old man from my country whose mother had helped jews to escape nazi persecution, and who now lost relatives in Gaza due to Israeli bombing. World wide attention for another unarmed man shot in Ferguson by the police – whose reason of existence should be to protect people. Politically aware intellectuals weighing their views on Putin and the Ukrainian regime. On Obama – is he too hesitant to let the US army play a part in one of those conflicts far away, or not enough?

Those are only the most obvious conflicts. There are so much more. In some people are killed without arms – like in the one of the richer countries against the poorer ones – whose casualties are mostly dying in the seas, having embarked unfit boats that should bring them to a better life. Well, when stripping walls, and listening to the news while doing so, I got more and more perplexed by the growing desinformation going on. Not just on the internet, not only in heated twitter-debates by believers in some cause – but on all the actual serious news channels themselves. Some more critical than others. Disagreeing, or conflicting, among each other (which is no surprise, if you know that I watch and follow news from several countries and backgrounds). Sometimes getting the impression that even the truthfull journalist must be misled by some tactical information games played on higher levels. I had to think again of Victor Klemperer, reading whose diaries during the nazi regime and early Eastern Germany filled most of last year’s free time. He was so intensely preoccuppied by documenting what he saw and heard – troubled by this dilemma: that one can never understand history, for when you are in the midst of things, you cannot abstract and see what’s happening, and after the fact, you can never fully recover what happened. The curse not only of complexity, but still more so of propaganda.

Now we are again in the midst of things, large reshuffles in global power distributions seem to take place, or are at least prepared. But it is impossible to really understand what’s happening. As the intentional misinformation is – either part of the power struggles themselves, or a manner to cover up aspects of those power struggles. Some things should not come to light – so that those who will get a greater share in manipulating the world after the struggles are over will not appear as cruel, cunning or uncivilized. To mend the situation somewhat – that is, to find my way through the shrubbery of misinformation – I have been reading books in large amounts last year. In larger amounts than before. As they form my only defense against being misled too easily (although one can never trust to have gained a view that’s really clear on all points), I read books that try to interpret, reconstruct, criticize ‘conquerer’s’ histories and philosophies, conquerer’s science, social ideas and projects, conquerer’s medicine and policing. Conquerer’s progress. And the piles of books to read are still growing around me. They do not make me nervous (like that I would not have enough time), I am enjoying myself over their presence in the uncluttered house, for they promise further uncluttering of the mind.



IMG_1999Recently my blog was named, as a compliment by one of my readers, ‘catholic’, meaning it to display a very broad field of interest. I liked that, although I wondered whether the central questions of my endeavour were coming across also. Just a week later at work, in an assesment of my research, the adjective ‘hyperdiverse’ was used. That was not a compliment, but meant to indicate a serious problem with respect to my chances of publishing in refereed journals and of acquiring external funding. I did not like that assessment, but it made me think harder why the central questions of my research were not directly clear.

I thought I would have to do something about that, and my first impulse was to initiate another book project, to write down what drives my work as a philosopher – both blogging and writing academically. Perhaps it might add some weight if I would succeed in publishing a book in English, as publications in local languages get you less ‘points’ in output measurement. On the other hand, I already wrote five books, and it might be clear what my concerns are to one who would have read them all. Which is rare, as most people think that their subjects are very… diverse. Perhaps the most manifesto-like work I published was the 2006 essay ‘Wat is waar?’ (see picture). If I would rewrite it more elaborately, I would give it the title of this post – and that gives an indication of the major interests of my research.

Why truthfulness and delusion? The postmodern, deconstructive, feminist and hermeneutic books that I read made me to think hard about epistemology and ontology. Seeing that all knowledge is situated, historically, culturally, ethnically and with respect to gender – however never made me a relativist. Although knowledge is situated, and also motivated by an urge for power and control, a claim to it only makes sense in so far as it’s contents can be made understandable, and of potential use to others. Still the question of truth and falsity is in play. But why bring it under the header of truthfulness and delusion? The reason for the shift from the one pair to the other has to do more with the things I saw happening around me in society, locally and globally. I saw so many struggles – power struggles, in the political, the religious and the scientific arenas. Interconnected also. And I saw that the scientific and academic search for knowledge was never free from those struggles, but played its role in them, consciously or unconsciously.

My conclusion? Truth makes no sense but understood as truthfulness. It is not something we can find in a serene, objective, Platonic heaven, unspoiled by human interests. It can therefore only be related to a certain human quality – that of being true to oneself and to others. Falsity is neither an objective category, free from human needs and strivings. It only makes real sense as delusion – being untrue to oneself and to others. Bending research data to get a ‘better outcome’, fighting for a religious dogma that you don’t understand yourself, moving with party interests for a temporary benefit – are all instances of delusion. Whether one likes it or not, in the end we can only anchor truth in a human potential – that of being real, living with others in a truthful manner. Being real does not make diversity obsolete, nor does it make conflict something in the past. Instead it recognizes diversity, and friction, as a necessary given – since truthfulness is always personal, and related to specific relations, places, traditions, ideas, in which one lives. It does not ask us to rise above our specific situatedness, but to recognize it, and critically investigate it’s worth as well as it’s limits – which is the only way to prevent living in the delusion that I am allowed to grasp power over others in the name of some universal ‘truth’.

My own specific situatedness as a thinker is most importantly determined by my being raised and educated as an heir of ‘Western’ culture, ‘enjoying’ the benefits of Western power, with all its accompanying adjectives, like ‘modern’, ‘secular’, ‘scientific’ – but also ‘Christian’, ‘humanist’ and more. This situatedness made me research the ethics of science and education. It made me take an interest in science & religion as the field which is critical to that dogma of modernity which seperated those fields of human knowledge. It made me read African philosophy and African American studies, as they both challenge the given self-image of the ‘Western’ world. Longer ago it made me study Spinoza, as his work goes into science, religion and politics in their interrelatedness too. Write on the hermeneutics of nature, which challenges the divorce of science and narration as ways to know. And on the spirits of modernity, to not forget our Western unconscious drives. Yes, my work is diverse, it is also very focused in it’s aim – to research and criticize conditioning that blinds.