Truth: an initial stab at the thing

knife-stuck-table-black-background-60407940On campus we are having a series of discussions under the title of “facticity.” No, it’s not a headlong plunge into German idealism and the impossible task of capturing the brute “thatness” of what experience coughs up. Instead, it is about (and ultimately against) a perniciously widespread notion that agents can believe whatever they want, and enlist any old set of “facts” to support those beliefs. In short, there are no “alternative facts”; there are just facts, and though they may be difficult to discover, and tricky to work into a theory, they are stubborn and unforgiving things, and not up for negotiation.

The vast majority of the participants and audience have no background in philosophy, so I often find myself pressing my lips together tightly while others breeze obliviously past distinctions I want to make and low-hanging counterexamples. For it is a worthwhile discussion to have, even (or especially) outside of a rigorous philosophical context. Truth is for everyone, I want to say, and they need to find their own ways to make it their own. I pop in here and again where I think I have something useful to say.

I have wanted to supply some sort of easy-going, introductory account of truth for participants and attendees to read, but so far have had no luck in finding one. So, faute de mieux, I’ll try to offer one myself –


For starters, there’s nothing so easy to define as truth. Aristotle put it most economically: When I say of what is, that it is, and say of what is not, that it is not, then I speak the truth. Truth, then, is a matter of putting into words how things really are. This is a perfectly good workaday definition of truth, the one we use most commonly when we are trying to find the truth of the matter: we are looking for the best description or explanation of how things really are.

But truth is like money: it’s one thing to define the concept, and another matter entirely to get as much of it as you can. How can we tell when something we say is true? Aristotle’s definition would suggest that we listen to a string of words, and then we take a peek at the world to see if that’s how things really are. But taking a peek at the world turns out to be a tricky business. All we ever see are events, and we can’t see events except from some perspective, through the lens of some interpretation, under certain lighting conditions, and so on. Events are flavored by our own preconceptions and circumstances. Moreover, usually the “truths” we are interested in go beyond the facts: they state generalities, or causal relationships, or matters from the past or future, and so a mere collection of facts is not enough, even if we could see them clearly.

The fancy term for claiming that facts are flavored by the condition of the observer is the “theory-ladenness of observation.” The fancy term for claiming that the truths we are interested in go beyond the mere facts is the “underdetermination of theory by the facts.” When observations are theory-laden, and when theories are underdetermined – which is basically all the time – there is plenty of room for all kinds of unwelcome garbage to flow in. Theories come to be shaped by class, economics, prejudice, politics, and personality – nasty features of the human experience which, on the whole, tend to cloud our visions of what’s true.

I’ll give the briefest sketch of an example. In the 17th century, a bunch of Brits were arguing about whether there could be a vacuum, a space empty of all matter. Robert Boyle and his pals thought they could produce a vacuum with their new-fangled air pump. They would place a mouse or a lit candle under a bell jar, turn on the pump, and watch the mouse die and the flame go out. But Thomas Hobbes did not believe the space in the jar was empty. If it were, then there would be a nothing that had a determinate size and shape, and that was metaphysically ridiculous. Instead, Hobbes believed, what Boyle’s air pump showed was that there is some further material substance which slips in through tiny pores in the glass, and which is insufficient for supporting the life of mouse or candle.

Hobbes’s worry was that Boyle & Co. were making themselves out to be experts of invisible things (i.e., vacua). But England had recently suffered a terrible civil war, fought mainly on religious grounds, between two opposing teams of experts on invisible things. Not good, thought Hobbes; let’s rather stick to tangible things. Boyle, on the other hand, was helping to found a scientific institution, the Royal Society of London, which would consist of Scientific Experts who could Float Free from Politics and Engage in Disinterested Inquiry into Truth. Such experts, one might expect, would discover truths which even kings must recognize. That’s what Hobbes feared, as he believed that challenges to authority almost always result in war.

Anyway, what this sketch of an example (and it’s only a sketch; the longer story is more complicated) is meant to show is that usually humans don’t transition smoothly from observed facts to scientific theory. There are many ingredients in the mix, and most of them complicate things considerably.

This leads me to another dimension of truth, the affective one. Socially, when we insist that some claim is true, or that something is a fact, we are really saying: “Don’t argue about this with me; this is not up for negotiation.” This is a truth, this is a fact: the fricatives themselves (f, ct, th) disclose the threat hidden in our meaning. “Fact” means “do not f*ck with me.” Apart from the important intellectual work of figuring out the process by which facts support or fail to support theories, we need to be aware of the affective dimension of truth, or how claims to truth operate as billy-clubs by which we assert dominance over others. Indeed, this may be a big part of why the controversy over facts vs. “alternative” facts causes such dramatic rises in people’s temperatures: it is not just truth that is at stake, but power, and dominance.

But it would be the highest folly to believe that the affective dimension of truth is all there is to truth. And it must be admitted that, in some quarters of the university, under the aegis of Foucault, people who should know better have succumbed to this folly. Yes, there can be no doubt that claims to truth have been used to put people in their place, so to speak. But one cannot make this claim and at the same time insist that that’s all there is to truth – unless they think of themselves as using this claim just to put people in their place. As hard as they may be to discover and describe, there are facts, and reality is not merely constructed out of human relations and conflicts, though these complications surely play important roles. Getting to the truth may be hard, and even at times impossible, but this is not to say that anything goes. Some things go, and others do not; the task of discerning between the two is what should keep all of us busy.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Historical episodes, Items of the academy / learning, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Truth: an initial stab at the thing

  1. Alex says:

    How would you handle an objection based on your earlier post? Something like: “science is historical. Doing history to human thought makes paradigms seem mutable and ultimate objective substructures the accidents of particular historical situations. So, for a cheesy example, Aristotle’s concept of aletheia is trapped not only in a linguistic world (having something to do with the history of a myth about Lethe) but also the result of Stagira’s history of being occupied by bumbling, alternative-fact-spewing tyrannical idiots (Cleon). Thus, his view is not merely a Claim, but an interesting moment of resistance against a long history of demagoguery… Of course Aristotle’s thinking might very well be conditioned by his psychology and history AND true universally for all time. But which is more interesting? Do they conflict, or complement?

    Taking Conway’s “Alternative facts” statement in context as well: some TV claptrap which resonated as the result of a psychological past (particularly of uneducated white males) in a moment of American time. We know the administration’s motive for this claim (greed, power) and how their drives relate to history. She is not suggesting “alternative fact” as a Proposition To Be Discussed; she is ending discussion to move on with a corporate, white nationalist project. It’s just smoke and tripwire.

    Of course, you’re right that what we should be doing is the opposite. But that takes spinal fortitude (“fact = don’t f*ck with me”). The New Republicans would have to argue against people like Conway, and end their bizarre scheme of kissing Trump’s toes in order to get what they want. God’s sake, it takes brain cancer to make them step up.


  2. Huenemann says:

    Thanks for the illustration with Aristotle. But as I think through it, I can’t help but think: is that what happened? or Wow, I didn’t know that was going on behind the philosophical scene. Either way, I seem to be thinking of truth as correspondence, so I tend to think the historical background does not drain his claim of all validity. (I nearly said “truthiness”, but then threw up a little in my mouth.) But you are right: whether the history of the idea and validity of the idea complement one another or are at odds is the vital question.


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