Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Truth as Having Three Aspects

“Truth as having Three Aspects”

Tom Leddy, Annual Philosophy Conference, San Jose State, May 3, 2008

My own interest in truth as a concept (and not as a goal) comes by way of my interest in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, although much that I have to say about truth comes from my reading of some of my favorite philosophers, Plato, Nietzsche, James and Heidegger. But before I go into that I want to say one little thing about debates over the nature of truth.  One of the oddest things about such debates, and I imagine someone somewhere has already noted this (Rick [Tieszen] says it has been discussed in the philosophy of mathematics), is that whatever you are doing when you present a theory of truth you are claiming that your theory is true, and in claiming your theory is true, you must, to be consistent, be claiming that it meets the standards set by your theory of truth.  So this is a paradox of truth, that any theory of truth is going to be self-confirming if self-consistent.  For example, someone who believes in the pragmatist theory of truth is not going to think his or her theory of truth is true primarily according to the correspondence theory of truth.  Not only that, he/she will think it true according to the specific version of the pragmatist theory he/she is offering.  If not, then he/she is being inconsistent.  In short, your theory of truth is going to be judged true because it fits whatever theory of truth you are actually presenting.  You are going to assume your theory of truth in the very act of evaluating it.  On the face of it then, based on this paradox, the whole project of a theory of truth seems hopelessly circular.  It isn’t just circular in the relatively innocuous way in which some theories in aesthetics are circular.  These theories are circular because they include the word "art" in their definition of art.  One might always argue that such a circularity is merely apparent and that the second appearance of the term art is eliminable in some way.  But whenever you present a theory of truth you are presenting it as true and hence as meeting your theory of truth.  So unlike circularity in theories of art, theories of truth will always be circular.  To get a picture of what I am talking about imagine any theory of truth stated in sentence form with quote marks around it and followed by the two words “is true” and then consider replacing the word “true” in this second instance with the theory of truth itself, i.e. the supposed definition of truth, and you will see something very much like what happens when you get a circular definition of a term, a kind of endless regress.  I don’t know how to resolve this question, so like most people, I’ll just ignore it.

What interests me the most about truth is whether and to what extent the theories of truth that have been offered mainly to satisfy needs in other domains in philosophy actually apply or apply in the same way to the domain of aesthetics and philosophy of art.  On the face of it there would seem to be a problem since many of the phenomena that would be dismissed outside of the world of art as simply false or cognitively meaningless are taken quite seriously within the world of art.  Fictions and metaphors are two examples.  The faculty of imagination is taken very seriously in the world of art, perhaps more so then in the worlds of science, history and philosophy.  OK I know that there are lots of exceptions (for example philosophers use science fiction examples), but this does seem to me to be roughly right.  A tricky aspect of this is that aestheticians, who are often philosophers first and art lovers second, often stand for philosophy and not for art in this matter and often insist on giving a certain primacy to concepts of truth that are perhaps more important for science, history or philosophy then for the arts.  So the question I would like to ask is whether truth is different in the arts, or put differently, whether there is a sense of “truth” that is more appropriate to the arts.  Any answer to this question would have broader implications for a theory of truth.  That is, an excellent theory of truth should cover all sorts of truth including the sorts that are most appropriate for the arts.

The most immediate question related to this that comes to mind is whether works of art have cognitive value.  It has often been argued that they do not.  It is claimed that visual arts do not usually assert true sentences and that even when they do, as when a sentence appears on a canvas or is spoken in a performance piece, the truth of these sentences has nothing to do with the value of the work, and thus has nothing to do with art as art.  I think that knowledge is more holistic than that.  If art can give us some greater understanding of the world, and I think that it can do that sometimes, then it also allows truth to emerge.  So even when an artwork does not give us true propositions it still has something to do with truth.  Another way to look at this is that people are not just artists or scientists or philosophers but have a little of each in them, and that when their knowledge increases in one area this is not unconnected with advances of knowledge in other areas.  That is, if a culture is an organic whole the gaining of truth is not to be limited to activities within science or science, history and philosophy.  I would add that if it is questionable that art gives us truth then it is almost equally questionable whether philosophy does.  Whatever truths philosophy can give us are, by the very nature of philosophy, not verifiable in scientific terms:  if they were then they would be scientific, not philosophical truths.  This is also the case for history, the truths of which are not based on verifiable experiments.  It the term “truth” is to be broad enough to include the truths of philosophy and history as well as those of science there is no reason in principle why it could not also be extended to art, or even for that matter to religion.

Anyway, from thinking about truth and art in this way I have come to think of truth in a pluralist way.  Shortly I am going to give a definition of truth, but before I do this I should say something about what I take philosophical definitions to do.  I see philosophical definitions as primarily directed to concepts that are essentially contested, that is, concepts over which there is a philosophical debate about the definition.  The concepts of triangle and water are not essentially contested.  There are not any ongoing debates over the essential nature of these things.  There is no philosophy of triangles or of water.  Essentially contested concepts give rise to competing “philosophy ofs” that thing.  Democracy, love, art, good, knowledge and true are all concepts of this sort. Contra Plato, Aristotle and many contemporary realists, there are no eternally and unchangingly true definitions of these concepts.  An argument against this form of realist would take longer than we have, but briefly, all proofs for such entities fail.  Nonetheless, it is still worthwhile to try to come up with a definition of such concepts and to engage in debates about those definitions.  Such definitions, their explication, and the debate that surrounds them help us to recalibrate our understanding of the world so as to better respond to changing conditions.  Philosophers tend to try to come up with a definitions of art, and such subconcepts of art as architecture, which are both uniquely right and eternally true.  However I prefer definitions like that of Robert Venturi for architecture.  Recognizing that every architect works with a definition of architecture in mind, and that every generation has its own definitions, Venturi consciously called his definition “our current definition.”  In a sense he was projecting a definition that he hoped would be true for his generation, and if not so, at least for his firm.  The definition of architecture that he provided was “shelter with symbols [or decoration] on it.”[1]  I will not now go into why this was such a powerful definition, or how it changed our everyday built world, although I will say that it formed one important basis for the entire style of postmodern architecture.  I am more interested in the characteristics of the definition as a definition.  These include that it was novel, not based on a dictionary meaning, and provided guidelines for how to produce good items of the type defined.  It had an evaluative dimension and a future-oriented one.  The power of this definition can be expressed in part by saying that it is true.  This would not be so, however, if the only theory of truth was the correspondence theory:  there is nothing which the phrase “architecture consists of shelter with symbols on it” that accurately matches something in reality.  Yet it does fit something; something more in the realm of potentiality than in that of actuality.  I think that most philosophical definitions are better seen as like Venturi’s definition than like definitions of triangle or water.  I would also suggest that art gives us truth in a similar way, that for example, Venturi’s actual architectural practice contained implicitly the truth of philosophically stated definition, and that the definition would be meaningless without the art practice context in which it occurred.

Truth is also an essentially contested concept perhaps every bit as much as democracy, art, and architecture.  Such concepts do not simply exhibit differences in people’s attitudes towards the subject matter in hand but also their general attitude towards life.  I suspect that different types of people are attracted to the correspondence, coherence, pragmatist and deflationary theories of truth.  If true, my own view of truth will probably only attract a certain type of person, only persons with theoretical commitments similar to mine.  My ideal however would be to provide a theory of truth, or more modestly a suggestion about how one ought to develop of theory of truth, which would work particularly well for our own time, for example in the way that Venturi’s theory of architecture worked for his own time.  But this is just to say that I hope my theory of truth meets my own standards of truth which, in turn, are, as I mentioned earlier, dependent on my theory of truth.   

My theory of truth (to use the simpler phrase) is pluralist.  My pluralism is of a special sort and should not be confused with relativism or with the idea that there are just distinct domains each with its own appropriate theory of truth.  As I see it, truth has three sides or aspects (I would consider candidates for a fourth or fifth side…I am not wedded to the number three).  These three sides are all in constant conflict with each other, each side receiving ascendency at different times in history in the process of reformulation to meet the needs of the place and time in which the theory is put forward.  My theory thus incorporates the essentially contested natured of the concept of truth, while at the same time being nothing more than just another offering in the contest over the nature of truth.  The conflict between these three sides is often fruitful, and I doubt that truth would be a lively or even a useful concept if this was not the case.  Nietzsche was the first, and perhaps the only philosopher, to define an essentially contested concept in terms of conflicting sides.  In The Birth of Tragedy he defined art in terms of the Apollonian/Dionysian duality.  Most definitions of concepts are in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions and I am not saying that Nietzsche’s definition of art could not be stated in this way.  But Nietzsche was unique in saying that the two key conditions of a concept are dynamically related to each other, that they can conflict, and that they can also be periodically reconciled.  He thought that the Apollonian and the Dionysian were reconciled in Greek tragedy and then again later in Wagnerian opera. Part of the reason why I think that viewing other essentially contested concepts in this way is that I believe Nietzsche’s approach was immensely useful in the domain of art.

So what are the three sides of truth?  The first has to do with one to one fit of elements between the candidate for truth and that to which it is said to be truth.  This covers the correspondence theory of truth, which is often expressed in terms of the formula “”Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white.  But my view of this aspect of truth goes a bit beyond the correspondence theory because it does not limit the candidate for truth to sentences.  No one doubts that it is often useful to speak of sentences as being true to the facts or of beliefs as corresponding to reality.  One could even state non-scientific, non-mathematical truths in terms of the traditional truth formula, i.e. “the sentence “Art is an Apollonian/Dionysian duality” is true if and only if Art is an Apollonian/Dionysian duality.”  However, as we shall see, this formula does not capture the other two aspects of truth.   As I said above, this aspect of truth is not limited to sentences.  It also includes any situation in which there is a good one-to-one fit or match between two things, for example when we say that we have “trued” the spokes on a bicycle.  This is the precision or accuracy aspect of truth.  When applied to representations such as sentences and pictures it entails that the true item must be an accurate copy of the original.  For example we can speak picture as being true to its subject in that it copies the subject well.  A portrait of someone can be spoken of as being true in this sense although often the truth of a portrait also reflects some other aspects of truth, as for example when it is not only accurate but also captures something of the sitter’s essence.  This would take it into the last aspect of truth.  But first, let us turn to the second aspect of truth.  

This second aspect might initially be thought to be associated with pragmatism.  But Peirce’s definition of truth in terms of  “concordance of an abstract statement with the ideal limit towards which endless investigation would tend to bring scientific belief” would fit the first aspect of truth better.  Peirce was still working with a correspondence theory but he was at least heading in another direction by way of emphasizing process and future orientation.  I don’t like the phrase “pragmatist theory of truth” because it confuses Peirce’s and James’ theories.  The second aspect of truth is best expressed by James’ idea of truth which I see as a considerable advance of Peirce’s.  It is often not observed that James begins his discussion with the idea that truth is a matter of agreement.[2]  So he is not exactly disagreeing with the correspondence theory of truth, but he is taking the idea of agreement in a different direction.  In particular he rejects the idea that truth must be a matter of copying reality.  He also rejects the idea that truth is an inert, static relation. Rather, true ideas are ones that we can prove to be true, and their truth lies in the process of verification.  As he puts it, “Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.”  James understands this process as one of “agreeable leading” in which the ideas “remain in agreement.”  (In this he seems to have incorporated an aspect of the coherence theory of truth.)  For James, verification takes place in experience.  He also thought that one could not talk about truth without talking about the practical value of truth.  For example, when you are lost in the woods, thinking truly that there a house at the end of a path can be immensely important.  This would seem to some people to mean no more than that truths are useful.  But James believed that to say that something is useful because it is true means the same as to say it is true because it is useful.  Truth is a matter of experience, of going from one moment in experience to another that is more worthwhile.  A true thought is a leading that is worthwhile, a dipping into experience to make connections that are useful.  When we see the house at the end of the path the initial thought of the house is verified, made true.  This is what James meant when he said that truth is that which is good in the way of believing. 

James’ idea of truth seems consistent with the thought about truth that the 18th century Italian philosopher Giambatista Vico provided. Vico said that verum ipsum factum--"truth itself is constructed."  No one would deny that true sentences are constructed.  But the claim isn't that the bearer of truth is constructed.  Rather, truth itself is constructed.   I am not entirely happy with the construction metaphor.  It is not as though we take smaller elements, add them together, and get truth, a building-like entity.  But I do think there is some insight contained in the statement.  Truth wouldn't exist without the making activity of  intelligent beings.  This is also similar to Heidegger’s idea that truth is something that happens.  However, Heidegger’s idea enters more fully into the third aspect of truth. 

The third aspect of truth is the quality of heightened reality we experience when we believe we have captured the essence of something and the first two aspects have been or could be met.  It is exemplified in Venturi’s definition of architecture, but also in virtually any definition offered by a thinker in a philosophical contest over some essence or nature.  I think that Plato describes this aspect nicely, although in a tentative way, in his theory of truth as described in the section of The Republic traditionally called “the line.”  There, Plato describes the truth as something that comes from the sun, which in his story represents the Good, the very essence of the essences themselves.  In pursuit of the nature of the Good, which for Plato is the highest of the Forms, the true becomes manifest as a kind of light reveals the essences of things, what he considered to be the Forms.  As I my Socratic quest article, although I do not accept Plato’s Forms I do think that the Socratic search for essences is well worth the trouble and that trying to come up with definitions can be immensely fruitful, as in the case of Venturi’s definition.

This point may seem surprising to some, but I think that Plato and Heidegger totally agree on this point.  For Heidegger in his great essay The Origins of the Work of Art, Van Gogh’s painting lets truth emerge by revealing to us the equipmental nature of equipment, in this case a pair of shoes.  These shoes, it turns out, can only be understood existentially and phenomenologically in terms of the experience of the shoe-wearer in her interaction with her world and with the earth.  Heidegger’s idea that truth is unconcealment goes along with the notion that this aspect of truth is that in which the essential nature of a thing reveals itself in a vibrant and startling way. I would say that truth, when it happens deeply in this way, is emergent upon an activity, for example upon the activity of Van Gogh's painting, and then again, in a somewhat different way, upon the activity of Heidegger's interpretation of the painting, and then again, quite possibly in our interpretation of Heidegger.   Heidegger not only shows how art can be true but how a concept of truth limited to the accuracy aspect or even to the accuracy plus the pragmatic aspect would be incomplete.

Finally, I would argue that none of these aspects of truth are reducible to or replaceable by any of the others.  They are equally important sides to truth, what I call the sides of accuracy, usefulness, and radiance.  Moreover, only when truth has risen through these three stages that we get the final story about truth.  There is a ladder of truth just as there is a ladder of love in Plato’s Symposium, although unlike Plato I would not recommend discarding the first stage when we reach the last.  Accuracy could be filled out or completed in usefulness and ultimately in radiance.  But so too, radiance (e.g. the experience of sudden insight) can only be filled out or completed in usefulness and ultimately in accuracy.  Exclusive focus on one side of truth neglects its rich and full character and leads to difficulties, illusions and even sometimes to disaster.  For example if one were to just see truth in the last, Platonic/Heideggerian way without any attention to the accuracy or usefulness sides of truth then one might become immersed in harmful illusions as Plato and Heidegger themselves were when they pursued friendships with vicious dictators in the belief perhaps that good ends justify distasteful means.  To return to Nietzsche’s metaphor but in a different way I would say that truth combines and Apollonian and a Dionysian.  An overly mechanistic approach to truth that focuses on such concepts as accuracy, precision and correctly copying, fails in the same way that an overly Apollonian approach to art fails.  Truth also has a Dionysian side, a side that is entirely ignored when the truth about truth is summed up in a statement like “”Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white.”  

Truth is a triune concept, all sides in constant, necessary, often fruitful, and often harmful conflict.  One side regards one to one fit of elements between the candidate for truth (proposition, picture, etc.) and that to which it is said to be true. The second is best expressed by William James' idea that truth is that which is good in the way of believing.  The third is the quality of heightened reality we experience as when we believe we have captured the essence of something (e.g. conceptually or through art).  None of these is reducible to any of the others.

[1] Robert Venturi.  “Architecture as Decorated Shelter.”  Aesthetics:  A Reader in the Philosophy of the Arts.  2nd ed.  David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown eds.

[2]  William James.  “The Meaning of the word truth.”  Pragmatism:  The Classic Writings.  H. S. Thayer ed. (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 1982). 

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