Truth and truths

Truth and truths

It was early in my philosophy major at Barnard College when a professor returned a paper of mine, to which he had given a less than stellar grade, with the comment, “By now you should know better than to write ‘truth’ with a capital T.”

I sure didn’t know better.  At the time, I was a fervent armchair follower of Mahatma Gandhi who had written (perhaps in Young India):

“Previously I said that God is Truth.

Now I have a new message:

Truth is God!”

Gandhi had even titled his autobiography, Experiments with Truth.  I didn’t know what I thought truth was.  But I’d become a philosophy major partly to find out.

Among the concentration camp survivor trial testimonies I’ve read, there was one, from a protestant pastor, that stood out in my memory.

Rebuking the Nazi official who’d just reminded him that he was now the father and arbiter over life and death for the prisoners, the pastor said:

            “Your father is in the World of Truth!  And he sees everything that you are doing now!”

People like Gandhi and the protestant pastor were using the word “truth” with a capital T. Was that just because they hadn’t taken philosophy 101?

Lately I’ve finished reading two immensely long biographies of philosophers who helped to define the field in the 20th-century English-speaking world and beyond: Ludwig Wittgenstein and Frank Ramsey.  The books were interesting partly because the two giants were in conversation with each other.  Ramsey died young, on January 19th, 1930 at the age of 26.  Wittgenstein lived another 21 years, dying in 1951 at the age of 62 and may have done the work (in Philosophical Investigations) for which he’s still an influence because Ramsey convinced him that his earlier approach (in the Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus) was wrong.

Ramsey’s disagreement with the early Wittgenstein concerned the nature of truth.  Both men wanted to line up what one can say with how things are: language with reality. The early Wittgenstein thought this was best accomplished by being very selective about what (philosophically) you were allowed to say and – across the distance between the speaker and the objective world – what would count as a fact about reality.   If you weren’t voicing an atomic proposition to describe an atomic fact, you’d best be silent.

Ramsey disagreed.  Silence wouldn’t get the job of being human done.  The whole vague and complex man or woman was the one doing the saying and the doing.  They would have to meet the outside world halfway, using whatever unfinished understandings of the world they could muster.   

Ramsey thought you had to assume that the experiences you were having, as shown by the senses and understandings you had, were trustworthy.  At least until you learned otherwise.  If scientific explanations included entities beyond direct experience — postulated entities like electrons – you were entitled to trust the methods of particular sciences so long as they brought success in action.  Just as you were authorized to revise postulates or method if and when either failed to deliver expected results.

So you didn’t get ideal certainties of the kind desired by the early Wittgenstein, but you got a world in which you could live and work.

It’s clear that each man is aiming at the best account he can get – of truths, not Truth.

I wouldn’t want to live in a world without Gandhi or that protestant pastor.  But neither would I want a world without Wittgenstein and Ramsey slogging it out with their competing accounts of the truths delivered by the sciences and ordinary experience.

Is there any way of bridging the two sorts of truth?  What kind of bridge would that be? 

What comes to me is this:  for both sorts of men, the linking bridge is just this:

Not lying.

For the philosophers at work on questions of epistemology – what we can know – they need to work earnestly and at the top of their capacities.  They must try each to do his best on behalf of the view each thinks most likely to be right.  And each must be prepared to give up his view if it meets some refuting instance.

For the one who is trying to make the world of action approximate to “the World of Truth,” a different kind of honesty is summoned forth.  That person must set herself in opposition to whatever lie has floated into that person’s human world – the world of real people.

In my experience, there has been a call to fight against any particular falsification that, as I put it, “has my name on it.”  If I try to evade the call to oppose and expose that particular lie, I’ll no longer be … who I say I am.

So there are truths (in the plural) that concern what things are … and there is also Truth (in the singular) that concerns who I am.

For the sake of clarity, one shouldn’t confuse the first kind of truth (of the what and the how) with the second kind of truth —

of the who.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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