Thursday, July 20, 2006


D. R. Khashaba
[Firts published in Philosophy Pathways Issue No. 119]

There has recently been a craze for Truth. Books, articles, websites, weblogs, have been preaching the importance or necessity of 'truth'. The advocacy has been carried out with something like religious fanaticism — excusably, because its main incentive has been to counter an opposed religious position that seeks to bypass or transcend the claim of science to be the sole arbiter in deciding factual questions. Since, under the circumstances, any attempt to examine the claims of the friends of 'truth' exposes the daredevil who makes the attempt to the charge of standing in the camp of the religionists, I have to make clear at the ouset that I am as opposed to the religious camp as any empirical materialist. Kant put an end to theological pretences when he explained that theological claims can neither be validated by empirical methods nor justified by pure reasoning.

Permit me also to put forward two other preliminary remarks. The first is that I am not here dealing with the flurry of academic interest in the Theory of Truth. This is a subject I hope to come back to some other time. I expect that most of the advocates of 'truth' I mean to address in the present paper would lump the academic controversies raging about the definition of Truth with theological controversies and apologetics. My second preliminary remark is that while questioning the universal relevance of 'truth' I would emphasize the absolute importance and necessity of truthfulness and rationality, by which I mean sincerity, rejection of deception, above all self-deception, and unqualified submission to the jurisdiction of reason.

Well, then, what issue do I take with the advocates of Truth? It is, first, that they speak as if there were one clearly defined concept of 'truth', and, secondly, that they maintain or imply that that concept is equally relevant in all fields of human thought.

Suppose we take truth to be that quality which attaches to acceptable answers to meaningful questions. A trial jury, a historian, a doctor, a medical researcher, a physicist, a biologist, an economist, would seek answers to questions that are unlike to each other. The acceptable answers in each category are to be sought by applying distinct methodologies and have to satisfy different criteria. But they share one common character: they all relate to objective fact. And in all of these cases we can sensibly speak of truth, approximation to truth, or probability.

But let us look at other areas where I say the concept of truth is not only inapplicable but may be positively injurious. I will give three samples.

ONE: Debates surrounding such issues as euthanasia, abortion, security versus civil/human rights, etc., are being interminably conducted with crusading vehemence, to no avail. Why? To my mind the reason is that the opposing sides to such controversies believe that their position is susceptible of logical demonstration and rests on true propositions. If we realize that in such issues we deal with values that are only absolute and inviolable in the intelligible realm (the Platonic celestial sphere of Ideas) but which in our actual imperfect world will often clash, then we see that such issues cannot be resolved by pure logic, but only by a spirit of toleration, by giving due weight and consideration to the opposed values involved, by moving tentatively, by trial and error, towards a balance, shifting and adjustable. The adversaries in such controversies err gravely when each tries to prove one side right and the other side wrong. What each side should do is to make sure the values they defend are not overlooked or neglected while at the same time acknowledging the importance and necessity of the values on the other side. There is no call for Truth here, for in an imperfect world there can be no 'true' solutions to practical problems. What we need is sympathy and understanding and reasonableness.

TWO: When Socrates says that it is better to suffer injury than to perpetrate injury, this statement can neither be proved nor disproved; it cannot therefore be said to be true. Is it therefore meaningless? Is it mere rhetoric? My answer is a most decided No. It is meaningful because it expresses an attitude that generates in us a fuller life. Since this view has been central to all my writings, I do not find it necessary to expand on it here.

THREE: Spinoza in his great posthumous Ethics gives us a majestic system of interwoven concepts, forming an internally coherent ideal whole, an intelligible world in its own right. Spinoza, the mathematician, who came of age under the shadow of Descartes, prided himself on presenting his system ordine geometrico demonstrata. But nobody has ever believed that Spinoza's towering system has been proved true or could ever be proved true. I could have taken for my example Berkeley or Schopenhauer or Bradley or A. N. Whitehead — to pick up names at random. Are such metaphysical systems therefore valueless? Such philosophers wrong themselves and wrong their philosophies by making a claim to truth and by making a show of demonstration and proof. Indeed they have given the whole of philosophy a bad name by so doing. The value of such metaphysical systems resides in their creating imaginative conceptual worlds in which the givennesses of our experience and the mysteries of human life find meaning: not 'true' meaning but vital meaning or spiritual meaning if you will, the meaning we find in a sonata, a landscape painting, a poem. Hence I maintain that the truth-claim is as pernicious in what I term philosophy proper as it is in religion.

It is true that science also, especially in its highest reaches, creates imaginative conceptual systems that give intelligibility to phenomena, but there is an important difference. It is always with timidity that I even make mention of science because I claim no scientific knowledge. But let me venture to say that science is concerned with the objective: objectivity is the sine qua non of science. Hence I say that science has for its province the actual or, to use a phrase dear to empiricists, what is the case. There the value of Truth reigns supreme. Philosophy and poetry and art are concerned with our inner reality, and there, if we speak of truth, it is only in the sense of Shakespeare's 'to thine own self be true'.

So it seems that I have no quarrel with the Truth Party after all. My complaint is that in our enthusiasm for a Truth which is the hallmark of empirical knowledge we tend to overlook realities, experiences, and values which will not submit to the empirical tests required for obtaining the Truth Licence, while I, foolishly no doubt, believe that these unlicensed realities and values are what our ailing and suffering humanity most needs.

D. R. Khashaba
July 2006