What Is Truth?
An overview of the philosophy of truth.
Posted Aug 23, 2018
[Article updated on 17 June 2019.]
Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. –Thoreau
Truth tends to lead to successful action. In that much, truth has instrumental value. But truth also has intrinsic value. Given the choice between a life of limitless pleasure as a brain in a vat and a genuine human life along with all its pain and suffering, most people opt for the latter.
In Plato’s Cratylus, on the philosophy of language, Socrates says that aletheia (Greek, ‘truth’) is a compression of the phrase ‘a wandering that is divine.’ Since Plato, many thinkers have spoken of truth and God in the same breath, and truth has also been linked with concepts such as justice, power, and freedom. According to John the Apostle, Jesus said to the Jews: ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’
Today, God may be dying, but what about truth? Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, claimed that ‘truth isn’t truth,’ while Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counselor, presented the public with what she called ‘alternative facts.’ Over in the U.K. in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, Michael Gove, then Minister of Justice and Lord Chancellor, opined that people ‘have had enough of experts.’
Following his defeat at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Mark Antony heard a rumor that Cleopatra had committed suicide and, in consequence, stabbed himself in the abdomen—only to discover that Cleopatra herself had been responsible for spreading the rumor. He later died in her arms. ‘Fake news’ is nothing new, but in our internet age it has spread like a disease, swinging elections, fomenting social unrest, undermining institutions, and diverting political capital away from health, education, and good government. Initially, ‘fake news’ referred to false news with large scale popular traction, although Trump seems to have broadened the definition to include any news that is unfavorable to him.
Those who are alarmed, or who despair, might take some comfort in the words of Søren Kierkegaard:
Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion—and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion… while truth again reverts to a new minority.
One way to understand truth is simply to look at its opposite, or opposites, namely, lies and bullsh*t. Lies differ from bullsh*t in that the liar must track the truth in order to conceal it, whereas the bullsh*tter has no regard or sensitivity for the truth or even for what his or her audience believes. In the words of Harry Frankfurt:
Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullsh*tter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullsh*t is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
Truth is a property not so much of thoughts and ideas but more properly of beliefs and assertions. But to believe or assert something is not enough to make it true, or else the claim that ‘to believe something makes it true’ would be just as true as the claim that ‘to believe something does not make it true.’ For centuries, philosophers have agreed that thought or language is true if it corresponds to an independent reality. For Aristotle, ‘to say that what is is, and what is not is not, is true.’ For Avicenna, truth is ‘what corresponds in the mind to what is outside it.’ And for Aquinas, it is ‘the adequation of things and the intellect’ (adæquatio rei et intellectus). Unfortunately for this so-called correspondence theory of truth, the mind does not perceive reality as it is, but only as it can, filtering, distorting, and interpreting it. In modern times, it has been argued that truth is constructed by social and cultural processes, to say nothing of individual desires and dispositions. Michel Foucault famously spoke, not of truth or truths, but of ‘regimes of truth.’ Categories and constructs concerning, for example, race, sexuality, and mental disorder may not reflect biological let alone metaphysical realities.
According to the coherence theory of truth, a thing is more likely to be true if it fits comfortably into a large and coherent system of beliefs. It remains that the system could be a giant fiction, entirely detached from reality, but this becomes increasingly unlikely as we investigate, curate, and add to its components—assuming, and it is quite an assumption, that we are operating in good faith, with truth, rather than self-preservation or -aggrandizement, as our aim. Thus conceived, truth is not a property, or merely a property, but an attitude, a way of being in the world. Martin Heidegger appears to take this idea further still:
'Truth' is not a feature of correct propositions which are asserted of an 'object' by a human 'subject' and then are 'valid' somewhere, in what sphere we know not. Rather, truth is disclosure of beings through which an openness essentially unfolds. All human comportment and bearing are exposed in its open region.
All the better if we can actually do something useful with our system and its components. According to the pragmatic theory of truth, truth leads to successful action; therefore, successful action is an indicator of truth. Clearly, we could not have sent a rocket to the moon if our science had been wide off the mark. For William James, the truth is ‘only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in the way of our behaving.’ If something works, it may well be true; if it doesn’t, it most probably isn’t. But what if something works for me but not for you? Is that thing then true for me but not for you? For Nietzsche, who made himself the natural ally of two-penny tyrants, truth is power, and power truth: ‘The falseness of a judgment is not necessarily an objection to a judgment … The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-breeding …’ Short-term or long-term, Freddy, and at what cost?
That a thing fits into a system, or leads to successful action, may suggest that it is true, but does not tell us much about what truth actually is, while the correspondence theory of truth is so thin as to be almost or entirely tautological. And perhaps for a reason. It has been argued that to say that ‘X is true’ is merely to say that X, and therefore that truth is an empty predicate. Truth is not a real property of things. Rather, it is a feature of language used to emphasize, agree, or hypothesize, or for stylistic purposes. For example, it can be used to explicate the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility: ‘Everything that the pope says is true.’ But this is merely shorthand for saying that if the Pope says A, then it is the case that A; and if he says B, then B.
For some thinkers, something can only be true or false if it is open to verification, at least in theory if not also in practice. The truth of something lies at the end of our inquiry into that thing. But as our inquiry can have no end, the truth of something can never be more than our best opinion of that thing. If best opinion is all that we can have or hope for, then best opinion is as good as truth, and truth is a redundant concept. But—as I argue in my new book, Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking—best opinion is only best because, at least on average, it is closest to the truth, which, as well as instrumental value, has deep intrinsic value.
Some Practical Advice
A reader once emailed me to ask, ‘how can I know when I am lying to myself’?
And this was my reply.
By its very nature self-deception is hard to distinguish from the truth—whether our internal, emotional truth or the external truth. One has to develop and trust one’s instinct: what does it feel like to react in the way that I’m reacting? Does it feel calm, considered, and nuanced, or shallow and knee-jerk? Am I taking the welfare of others into consideration, or is it just all about me? Am I satisfied with, even proud of, my self-conquering effort, or am I left feeling small, anxious, or ashamed?
Self-deception doesn’t ‘add up’ in the grand scheme of things and can easily be brought down by even superficial questioning. As with a jigsaw, try to look at the bigger picture of your life and see how the thought or reaction might fit in. Did you react from a position of strength or vulnerability? What would the person you most respect think? What would Socrates or the Dalai Lama think? Talk to other people and gather their opinions. If they disagree with you, does that make you feel angry, upset, or defensive? The coherence of your reaction speaks volumes about the character of your motives.
Finally, truth is constructive and adaptive, while lies are destructive and self-defeating. So how useful is a self-deceptive thought or reaction going to be for you? Are you just covering up an irrational fear, or helping to create a solid foundation for the future? Are you empowering yourself to fulfill your highest potential, or depriving yourself of opportunities for growth and creating further problems down the line? Is the cycle simply going to repeat itself, or will the truth, at last, make you free?
Bible, John 8:32 (KJV).
Rudy Giuliani during a Meet the Pressinterview on August 18, 2018, discussing the fear that Donald Trump could ‘get trapped into perjury’ under special-counsel questioning.
Kellyanne Conway during a Meet the Pressinterview on January 22, 2017, defending Sean Spicer’s false statement about the attendance numbers at Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Michael Gove during an interview with Faisal Islam on Sky News, June 3, 2016.
Søren Kierkegaard (1850), The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard, 5, 3, 128.
Harry Frankfurt (2005), The Importance of Bullsh*t, The Importance of What We Care About.
Aristotle, Metaphysics, IV, vii.
Avicenna, Kitab Al-Shifa The Book of Healing, I, viii.
Aquinas (1485), Summa Theologiae I, 16, 1, and De Veritate1, 1.
Martin Heidegger (1943), On the Essence of Truth. Trans. John Sallis.
William James (1909), The Meaning of Truth, Preface.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1886), Beyond Good and Evil, 333.