The Anxiety of Truth

{Editor’s Note: Quiddity has a new author! Beginning with the following post, CiRCE journeyman and Magnet School English Teacher, David Wright, will make regular contributions to Quiddity, enriching our conversation. You’ll see why I asked him to join us in the next minute:}

The Anxiety of Truth

David M. Wright

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

– Emily Dickinson

I spent most of the third week of February at the CiRCE Institute. Our time together consisted of rigorous contemplation, discussion, and reflection. The experience was immensely enriching, and, I must admit, somewhat unsettling. Throughout the week, I became metacognitively aware that I was in a state of mental, psychic, and emotional unrest. Why did I feel this way? Why was I slightly nervous at dinner when each twelve-hour day was finished?

My conclusion and thesis for this essay:  truth (aletheia) can be unsettling. Ok. So that might sound a little trite, like saying “the sky is blue.” But in fact, the nature of truth is paradoxical and multi-layered. Similarly, upon reflection, we know the sky really isn’t blue. The phrase belies its depth.

The central paradox with aletheia is that it is at once simple, yet also universal, indelible, ineffable, and eternal. Maybe then, I felt unsettled during the week because truth is simply too radiant and too superb for my feeble, darkened apprehension. It is “too bright for our infirm delight.” Here, the insecurity stems from the relationship between the perceiver and the perceived. As one who continually desires to understand, I sometimes ask, Why me? I am too imperfect. Bearing the torch for truth is a task too large for my capabilities.

Yet, as Aristotle says, “All men by nature desire to know.” Our nature, then, demands that we quest, so we might as well honor her, take up the knapsack of books, and continue to walk this rather frightening road. Or simply, as Socrates might suggest, take up the knapsack of ideas, the realm where the true philosopher lives. Deeply ambivalent about the written word, he believed books offer pale reflections of the truth.[1] But in either case, the point here: adhere and seek.

And then of course there is the fact that we wrestled for hours with truthful ideas. The ideas are grandiose, full, and expansive. They, in many ways, transport. In short, tangle with them and it can feel like you’re wearing a parachute in a hurricane—feet on the ground no more. Here are some of the ideas we discussed: Propriety. The cultivation of human faculties. Attentive perception. Conceptualization. Re-presenting nature back to God. Rightly ordering the soul. Language. Reason. Will. The self. Freedom. Education as the seat of the soul—to name a few gusts from the eye.

Since this essay is a reflection on truth, I shall briefly present some of the uses and perceptions of aletheia in history.

In the Homeric texts, the term aletheia appears primarily in verbs of expression. This concerns the authenticity of what is said between people. Additionally, the Homeric notion of aletheia involves giving a full, complete, and accurate account. For example, in the Iliad Book 10, the Trojan Dolon attempts to sneak into the Achaean camp and is caught by Odysseus and Diomedes. Odysseus calls him to account, “Come, tell me the truth now, point by point.”[2] Similarly, we see this in the nineteenth book of the Odyssey, “Shall lay the clear truth naked to your view.”[3] Again, in the fourteenth book of the Iliad, “What, thou has vow’d; that with all / truth thou wilt bestow on me.”[4] As is evident, the primary context for aletheia appears in that of stories and speeches. The essential notion that I wish to emphasize here is that in Homer truth involves fullness in communication, an inclusion of all realities that pertain to accurately conveying the truth. In short, it is a candid verbal account which leaves nothing out.

Continuing with a look at the Pre-Socratic understanding, Thucydides’ idea of truth encompasses the accurate connection of language to the world. This means matching words to reality, logos to kosmos. Additionally, for Thucidydides, aletheia contains a strong connotation of visual imagery, or unconcealedness. We see here that truth involves a right correspondence and also visual metaphors.

Viewed as such, truth has everything to do with words matching nature, words representing objects faithfully. And what is fundamental to this representation? What ensures that this correspondence results in truth? The essence of truthful correspondence is propriety—which means to know a thing and to treat it according to its nature. The purpose of propriety is to honor the nature of a thing.[5] It is the suitability of the name to the named. “Propriety is a matter of imitation… To imitate rightly I must know (see or perceive) the nature of the thing I wish to imitate.”[6]

Of course this construct of truth expands concentrically through nature from the center point of perfect, pure Truth: the Logos, the Word; the Archetype of propriety; the unity and fullness of all things; the perfect concord of matter and spirit; the divine expression of the Father. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). As well: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

Plato’s perspective on aletheia is expressed most vividly in his Theaetetus dialogue.[7] Here Socrates concludes that knowledge is true belief that has been given an account of. In other words, truth involves two fundamental components: belief and support. Hence, one must truly believe the proposition by holding to a belief that adheres to one’s conscience and reason, and then possess good support, justification, and logic for that belief. Additionally of course, throughout many of his dialogues, Plato viewed truth as that which belonged to the timeless and immaterial realm.

Aristotl, in his Metaphysics, arrived at a similar definition of truth to that of Thucydides. His oft-quoted definition: “To say of something which is that it is not, or to say of something which is not that it is, is false. However, to say of something which is that it is, or of something which is not that it is not, is true.”

Again, we see that truth involves what we say corresponding to the facts of reality. I appreciate the Philosopher Mom’s way of saying this, “Aristotle’s account of truth… is that reality imprints itself on the human mind, revealing intelligible truths. Because his mind corresponds directly to reality, man is capable of knowing its essence.[8]

So, the classical idea of truth contains three aspects. One, words must correspond to nature, but nature has priority over language and culture. Two, truth is a unity between language and nature, while falsehood is a discrepancy between them. And three, words and language are signs that symbolize truth. Therefore, they must suitably and appropriately represent the truth. In addition, because words are signs, they are subordinate to the objects of nature which they symbolize.

The Medieval understanding of truth (veritas) derived primarily from St. Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas and retains this perspective: Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus—“truth is the adequation of the intellect to the thing.” A continuity in perception of truth existed between the classical world and the Middle Ages, in large part from Aquinas’s incorporation of Aristotle. Unfortunately, this continuity was radically altered with the Enlightenment and Kant. But for the medievals, truth involved not only the adequation of the intellect to the thing, but a rightness or rectitude (rectitudo) that something is as it ought to be, that it does that for which it was made.[9]

For the purposes of this essay, we shall hop over the “Enlightenment”—which in regard to truth and several other regressions may be more accurately termed the Dark Ages—and land at Kierkegaard. For truth is his starting point. “Can the truth be learned?” is the opening line of his Philosophical Fragments. After working through Plato’s Meno, Kierkegaard reflects on Socrates’ notion of inner truth and recollection: a person cannot seek what he knows, but also cannot seek what he does not know because he wouldn’t know what he is supposed to seek.[10] Consequently, for Socrates, learning and seeking are actually recollecting. And the teacher guides this process. “Thus the ignorant person needs to be reminded in order, by himself, to call to mind what he knows. The truth is not introduced into him, but was in him.”[11] This is an appropriate beginning for Kierkegaard in his Fragments, but far from the end. He builds upon this to the Christian experience of acquiring truth through grace.

Kierkegaard constructs this in complex, precise fashion, but I will relay it simply. For Socrates, the teacher leads the student to realize his own ignorance (untruth) and to then discover the truth or light which is in him. The teacher is the occasion, but the student must discover his own untruth himself. For Kierkegaard, the teacher is actually God, who acts as the occasion and prompts the learner to realize that he is untruth, and that he is untruth through his own fault (sin); and then God gives him the truth.[12] Kierkegaard puts it this way, “…a new presupposition: the consciousness of sin, and a new decision: the moment; and a new teacher: the god in time.”[13]

Finally, even though Pilate and the post-moderns are fond of asking, “What is truth?”—we see that it is quite easy to define:  asserting what is when it is, and asserting what is not when it is not. However, determining whether a statement is true or false can be the hard part. And to this question, there are generally three kinds of answers: one, some statements are self-evidently true, such as “The whole is greater than the part”[14]; two, some statements are true because they can be tested by experience and observations; and three, some statements, while neither self-evidently true nor empirically verifiable, are probably true based on reason, authority, or consensus, etc. So, defining truth is easy, knowing whether a statement is true or false is harder, and pursuing the truth is the most difficult.[15] This brings us back, full circle, to the anxiety of truth.

In conclusion, the aforementioned provide fruitful landing pads for a reflection on truth. And at the center of all things we find the Trinity, for God is Truth. The contact point is the Logos, Truth made flesh, guided by the Holy Spirit “…when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). From Socrates and Kierkegaard, the understanding of fallen humans as untruth resonates with Emily Dickinson’s poem and my anxiety with truth. Yes, I believe that the truth shall make us free (John 8:32), but I also suspect that the anxiety lies therein. We don’t always wish to be free; the prison of the flesh is what we are used to. (The title of Doris Lessing’s book The Prisons We Choose to Live Inside comes to mind here.) As untruth, our contact with Truth will inevitably contain some strain. And that contact will encompasses a process. After all, we remain in a degree of untruth in this life even while we are aware of it, and even while we pursue and acquire the truth. According to Kierkegaard, God reveals our untruth to us then gives us the truth. Yes, the revelation of our untruth is a radical point in our lives—“the Truth’s superb surprise”—but our acquisition of the truth happens by a process of sanctification through grace and by the perilous pursuit of truth, working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), for, as Dickinson ends her poem, “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—”


[1] Erich Segal, The Dialogues of Plato. (New York: Bantam, 1986) xiv-xv.

[2] Homer, The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. (London: Penguin, 1990) 289.

[3] Chapman, George. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Translated by George Chapman. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1903) 484.

[4] Ibid, 172.

[5] Poignantly expressed by Buck Holler in an e-mail 2/23/10.

[6] Buck Holler, same e-mail 2/23/10.

[7] http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/theatu.html Dialogue translated by Benjamin Jowett.

[8] http://philosophermoms.blogspot.com/ “Nietzsche vs. Aristotle: What is Truth?” June 28, 2007.

[9] http://formalontology.it

[10] Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments. Ed. And Trans. by Howard V. Hong and Enda H. Hong. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985) 10.

[11] Ibid, 10.

[12] Ibid, 15.

[13] Ibid. 111.

[14] Mortimer J. Adler, Great Ideas from the Great Books. (New York: Washington Square Press, 1961) 4.

[15] Ibid, 5.

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6 Responses

  1. Thanks, Thomas.
    I decided toward the end of the writing process to leave Heidegger out of my essay. Though I was on the fence about it.
    Writing about truth in two thousand words is a bit like analyzing a few grains of sand from a sea shore. So much has to be left out.
    Nonetheless, I have a few misgivings about Heidegger. For the purposes of this essay, I was not comfortable with Heidegger’s project of deconstructing 2,500 years of a (supposed) historical misunderstanding of truth. I don’t think correspondence theory ought to be done away with per se. Although Heidegger does seem right to free Aristotle from our possible misinterpretation of Aristotle’s idea of truth as correspondence. I trust Heidegger’s conclusion after reading Aristotle for two decades!
    I am also a little uncomfortable with the fact that Heidegger was so heavily influenced by Neitzsche (though he was by Kierkegaard, too). And that Heidegger then so influenced the movements of existentialism, post-structuralism, and deconstructionism. But this is just an inclination…
    And finally, according to Heidegger, philosophers have supposedly never really dealt with being or what being is. But even the phrase “asserting what is when it is, and asserting what is not when it is not.” This seems to have something to do with being inherent in it. Is being not what is? And non-being what is not?
    But as you suggest, via Aristotle and Heidegger, a kind of fusion takes place– between the soul and what it understands. A kind of oneness happens, or “truth is a full actuality of a form within the mind.” I like it.
    It seems to me that this is an elevated idea of truth, or an idea of truth at another level (spiritual?). I do appreciate this understanding, though I had a tough time trying to fit it into the logos of my essay.
    Through your response about Heidegger, I was prompted to click to your page and read your insightful article on the difference between information and knowledge. The idea in that essay seems to closely relate you are suggesting here! (And what a great essay:) Derivative truth might be more akin to information and our acquisition of it, while actual truth (as revealed by Aristotle/Heidegger,etc.) is akin to knowledge– a kind of oneness, a cyclical process between question answer and back to question. I love this idea… though this might be the Romantic in me…
    One last thing. In my essay, I was somewhat opting for a common sense epistemology, or a common sense idea of truth. I think this fits well with the correspondence notion. I’m not really sure I understand “in the act of understanding the soul actually becomes what it understands and is the highest actuality of the thing understood.” But even though I may not fully understand it, I like it. It is mystical. There is much to reflect upon. Thanks again.

    • I share some of your concerns about Heidegger. I only mention him because he was an excellent reader of Aristotle and ably defends him from the correspondence theory of truth. I thought you might have had him in mind in the essay, since he talks quite a bit about truth as aletheia.

      Other than the paragraph I quoted, I didn’t actually read your essay as defending a correspondence theory of truth, because while you did say language is true insofar as it says what is, this seems to point to truth as a more basic phenomenon tied up with being rather than a 1:1 correspondence between words and objects. That is, when language reveals beings as the sort of beings they are, this need not lead to believing that words simply signify objects. Instead, one might say language is true because it participates in the unveiling of things.

      The correspondence theory is tied to a sort of Kantian subject-object distinction. That is, the term signifies an idea in the mind, and that idea corresponds with the object in reality. Thus, when I see a table, I don’t see the table as it is in itself, rather, I see a table as it is represented in my consciousness, and insofar as my consciences mirrors reality, my perception is true.

      The tradition you argue from takes a different approach. For Aristotle, the highest reality of a thing is its form. When we take in the form of the thing, this doesn’t mean that an image comes to be in our mind that corresponds to the thing in reality (that is, that you have two things that relate to one another). Instead, in the act of understanding, the thing understood (say the table) becomes most actual. At this point, there is no distinction between the form of the table in reality and in the mind; it is the same thing.

      This is possible because Mind is not separate from reality; Mind is what makes things real. The Prime Mover is pure mind, and the forms of things are already actual in the Prime Mover’s understanding. Aristotle argues that we participate directly in Mind (which has already constituted reality) in the exercise of our intellect. In understanding a thing, we are united both with the highest reality of that thing, and with the divine mind. The three are indistinguishable in the act of understanding.

      To put it another way, in understanding we participate directly and are united with that Reality which holds all finite realities in existence, and in which finite realities have their existence; or in the words of Scripture, that in which we live, move, and have our being. Language is true because it flows out of this union.

      That’s a lot of Aristotelian terminology; hopefully it’s somewhat clear.

      • David and Thomas,

        Thank you. What leaps out to me as I read your explanations is the awful destructiveness of language that doesn’t “flow out of this union.”

        How was Aristotle able to see so deeply into things?

      • Excellent, Thomas. Very helpful.
        “Instead, one might say language is true because it participates in the unveiling of things.” This, along with your closing paragraph, were high points among many.
        Thank you–

        • Thomas and David,

          Can we say that we can consider truth two ways: one, in regard to truth as a thing in itself and two, in regard to a truth of a proposition?

          So then a proposition is true if it corresponds to truth.

          And truth is reality drawn into the soul.

          Does that work or is it too simplistic?

  2. “‘What is truth?’—we see that it is quite easy to define: asserting what is when it is, and asserting what is not when it is not.”

    It seems to me this is only derivatively truth. I think Heidegger was right to defend Aristotle from the oft-heard notion that for Aristotle truth is correspondence between a concept and it’s object in the introduction to Being and Time. Indeed, for Aristotle, in the act of understanding the soul actually becomes what it understands and is the highest actuality of the thing understood, which makes any “correspondence” between a concept or a word and the thing signified impossible. All of which is to say that the fundamental phenomenon of truth cannot be captured by any correspondence theory, and cannot be defined so summarily. Truth is the full actuality of a form within the mind.

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