Tuesday, July 28, 2009

An historian on truth

Historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s short book Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed is a witty guide through how people down the ages have understood the concept of truth.

Partly he is concerned with broad social understandings and partly with how thinkers (mainly philosophers) have understood truth. Fernandez-Armesto is not a philosopher and one can quibble with his rendition of the thought of particular thinkers or doctrines. Though his comments are often striking:
the pious, poetic mind of Plato, who thought too well of thoughts to believe they could be of human devising (p84).
Of course, the other way to think of that is it shows how little Plato tended to think of most people (Aristotle is much more people-friendly).

Nevertheless, Truth is an excellent starting point for the general trends, and different ways, of understanding truth. Fernandez-Armesto does this, as he says, by concentrating on the various truth-finding techniques adopted at different times and places (p.5). He brings a certain robust common sense to the discussion, such as in his demolition of the children=primitives metaphor (pp16-17) or his discussion of how Uzbek villages played patent games with the patronising researchers they were dealing with (pp91ff). He notes how important feeling has been to common understandings of truth (pp26ff) and tend, if anything, to err on the side of coherence (pp30ff).

He has a nice turn of phrase (the discussion of mysticism—pp40ff—is entitled Once More With Feeling: how truth-feelings work). He discusses oracles as being seen as direct avenues to a truth-world we cannot normally reach (pp54ff), the common reliance on authority (such as Pius IX, in 1864, forbidding Catholics to be liberals [p.74]). The types of social elites which elevate the power of reason to find truth:
Reason favours a master-class distinguished by education and mental prowess, not exceptional sensibility, visionary clairvoyance, riches or physical might (p.85).
Reason also tends to come after, and subvert, truths you feel and truths you are told.
While at some pains to dismiss notions that Western thought was peculiarly logical, Fernandez-Armesto still (with caveats) accepts that the Greek achievement was exceptional (pp96ff). He carefully distinguishes truth-though-the-senses from science, even though they are obviously closely related (pp124ff). He also notes that what is clearly at the very least is proto-science—careful attention to evidence and inference from the same—can be seen even in pre-literate societies (pp.128ff). He suggests that science parts company from magic when the concern becomes to understand nature itself, rather than as an instrument of control (pp140ff). Science becomes a powerful metaphysic when folk stop seeing action in nature as purposive, so any explanations that do not get at alleged underlying purposes are not persuasive (p.144ff).

The big breakthrough strikes me as being when science stops being something that seeks to explain what technology can do and becomes something that can actually lead directly to new observations and new technology. A point reached first by Western civilisation, in the C16th and C17th. That then came to displace purposive/consciousness-saturated view of the universe as a way of understanding how things work—nowadays, even creationists pretend to be scientific: that’s what Intelligent Design is all about. (The question of what things mean—mythos rather than logos in Karen Armstrong’s terms—remains a rather different, and much more contested. matter.)

The last part of the book is about, as Chapter 5 is entitled, The Death of Conviction, the growth of scepticism about truth. How truth-through-senses overwhelmed truth one feels and truth one is told—at least in elite discourse—resulting in a undermining of the concept of truth itself. (Which, after all, cannot be justified in terms of the senses.) A result Fernandez-Armesto regards as an intellectual and cultural disaster:
Without confidence in the concept of truth, listeners are disarmed against lies (p.165).
It is no longer a matter of defending truth from scepticism but of rescuing it from what scepticism has wrought.

Fernandez-Armesto regards the triumph of scepticism as beginning with Descartes and the doctrine that self-discovery (cogito ergo sum) is the basis for constructing knowledge “from the ground up” because doubt is the demon to be defeated. Kant critiqued Descartes, dethroning Reason but replacing it with Intuition—hardly a genuine escape from Subjectivism. Particularly given his notion that we do not actually apprehend the real world.

My old philosophy teacher said of Kant that he asked powerful questions: questions that, once confronted, are hard to stop considering, but no-one can ever remember his answers.

Existentialism and Pragmatism just continued Subjectivism in new forms, even more destructive of truth. In the latter case, this is particularly clear in the work of Richard Rorty.

As the physical universe that science revealed became stranger and stranger, the sense of uncertainty became greater and greater (pp181ff). Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle elevated the effect of science having undermined truth other than through the senses, and then undermining the senses themselves, even further. Along came Kurt Godel, who demolished any concept of a complete system.

Strangeness, uncertainty and incompleteness: all from logic and science: a bit of a problem for confidence in truth.

Scepticism about language on the grounds of the indeterminacy of meaning, particularly as a way of conveying truth, becomes a natural move. Once you are there, confidence in objectivity—even as something to be aspired to—cannot be sustained (pp.196ff). Truth—the sense that some claims are wrong and the other right—can be a disturbing thing in a “global village” of many cultures and religions. Blessed become the relativists, for theirs in the way of multicultural peace (p.206).

Fernandez-Armesto is at pains to point out there is little new in relativism. Indeterminacy of meaning was a hot topic among Socrates and the boys. Particularly in responding to Protagoras’s claim that:
Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not.
It is the loss of cultural confidence that makes such scepticism powerful (pp168 et al).

Fernandez-Armesto outlines the three currently popular ways of trying to escape from Protagoras: to find life after doubt. First (the one he has least respect for), fundamentalism—seeking authority in texts. Second, looking to oriental traditions to find truths impervious to the corrosions of Western thought, epitomised by the success of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Third, applying the technical resources of philosophers.

The notion that texts—with all their difficulties of translation, contradiction and interpretation—are solutions he just thinks patently silly. The notion that oriental thought is in some special, superior, category he has not much more time for. The range of perspectives and doctrines one finds in Chinese and Indian philosophy are, he argues, much the same as in Western philosophy. He is not a relativist, and he is certainly not a relativist about the implications of arguments and doctrines.

As for the technical responses of philosophers, they start in the midst of doubt that the general public does not share, so fail to resonate (pp216ff). Davidson’s
truth ought to imply something about reality
may be daring to contemporary philosophers, but surely strikes most lay folk as hopelessly insipid. Lay folk see truth as a declaration of what is (if you doubt that, consider the role of perjury in court proceedings): modern philosophy sees it as a property of an expression. The reality question (what is) and the truth question (what does it mean to say what is) are separated.

To rescue truth from relativisation, three ways have been proposed (pp216ff): correspondence (a proposition is true if it fulfils the conditions for being true), coherence (a proposition fits in the network of propositions) and consensus (what enough folk agree is true). Fernandez-Armesto dismisses the first as ending up in banality, tautology or both. The second ends up without anything outside itself to test its claims. The third to a community of understanding—intrasubjectivity as a substitute for objectivity: but whose intrasubjectivity? When is the required threshold reached? (And that threshold is justified how exactly?)

In his conclusion (pp222ff), Fernandez-Armesto notes that the four truth-finding methods—the truth you feel, the truth you are told, reason and sense-perception—have always been around, they just fluctuate back and forth in importance. And the successful criticisms have been made from within those techniques. He agrees with the relativists that truth-telling techniques and the concept of truth underlying them do change from time to time. With subjectivists that individuals have no guarantee of the authenticity of assertions. With deconstructionists about the limitations of language—that meaning is never quite trapped by words, that
the gap between terms and the realities they are meant to refer to seems to stretch beyond our power to span it.
But changes in truth are
oscillations within a single system for The truth-quest is always the same: the unwavering search for signs to match reality.
We cannot see things from no point of view, but we can imaginatively enter into other points of view and can build at least some level of objectivity from that. While using language to deny its power is self-contradictory, just as any repudiation of truth is. Language is not cut off from reality, because it is part of it.
Whenever we get an intimation of truth – whether we feel it, listen for it, sense it or think it out for ourselves – we should expect it to talk to us and we should be able to try, if we like, to express it for others.
Which hardly solves all the problems of truth, but at least expresses confidence they can be dealt with.

I am inherently friendly to the notion that examining the history of a problem is a useful way of proceeding to understanding it. Having some longstanding philosophical intuitions and thoughts pertinent to what Fernandez-Armesto is grappling with, and being very sympathetic to his broad concerns, I very much enjoyed his clearly-written study and found reading it intellectually stimulating and fruitful.


  1. (('p' is true in L) iff p) -- Tarski

    the rest is verbage.


  2. So, nothing can be partially true?