Interpreting Truth


“And isn't it a bad thing to be deceived about the truth, and a good thing to know what the truth is?  For I assume that by knowing the truth you mean knowing things as they really are.  What is at issue is the conversion of the mind from the twilight of error to the truth, that climb up into the real world which we shall call true philosophy.”


We all see reality through the prism of our individual make up and identity, as well as the customs and beliefs of our society. Culture drives how we come to think of things, from where the actual words we use came from to the meaning we ascribe to them today based on collective and personal interpretation.

The word truth means several things, including conformity to fact or reality, which is subjective, conformity to rule, which is made by us, fidelity or constancy, which is a judgement we make, and the actual state of things as stipulated in a legal contract, which is also something we decide and agree upon.

Each definition traces its roots to a theory of truth—the major theories are grouped in three main buckets: substantive, minimalist, and pluralist. As per a recent poll of professional philosophers, the most prevalent school of thought accepts or leans towards correspondence theories.

Tracing its roots to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, correspondence theories of truth stress a relationship between thoughts or statements on one hand, and things or objects on the other. The assumption is that truth is a matter of accurately copying what is known as “objective reality” and then representing it in thoughts, words, and other symbols.

In 1943, German philosopher Martin Heidegger ascribed the original meaning and essence of “Truth” to the Ancient Greece unconcealment, as in the Greek term “Aletheia,” the revealing or bringing of what was previously hidden into the open. Truth as correctness is a later derivation from the concept's original essence, a development Heidegger traces to the Latin term “Veritas.”

Heidegger thus reveals what we consider truth by illustrating how the nature of truth is possible only when founded in material truth as verifiable through intellect. He says:

A statement is true if what it means and says is in accordance with the matter about which the statement is made. Here too we say, “It is in accord.” Now, though, it is not the matter that is in accord but rather the proposition.

The true, whether it be a matter or a proposition, is what accords, the accordant [das Stimmende]. Being true and truth here signify accord, and that in a double sense: on the one hand, the consonance [Einstimmigkeit] of a matter with what is supposed in advance regarding it and, on the other hand, the accordance of what is meant in the statement with the matter.

This dual character of the accord is brought to light by the traditional definition of truth: veritas est adaequati o rei et intellectus. This can be taken to mean: truth is the correspondence [Angleichungl of the matter to knowledge. But it can also be taken as saying: truth is the correspondence of knowledge to the matter.

But he also says object and intellect are not one and the same, and we need to refer to the notion of individual freedom to understand the correctness of something. The idea of freedom is why truth is important to us. In a short think piece On Truth American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt talks about “the value and importance of truth,” and a reason why we should care about it. 

We live in an age when many seem to think truth is not worth much; Frankfurt cites publicists and politicians among those “with a cavalier attitude toward truth.” More worrisome is that best-selling authors and prize-winning journalists have also joined the ranks of “the shameless antagonists of common sense:”

[…] there is a clear difference between getting things right and getting them wrong, and thus a clear difference between the true and the false.

While context may be subjective:

Surely it is apparent, however, that in large part we select the objects that we desire, that we love, and to which we commit ourselves, because of what we believe about them — for instance, that they will increase our wealth or protect our health, or that they will serve our interests in some other way.

Hence the truth or falsity of the factual statements on which we rely in explaining or validating our choice of goals and our commitment is inescapably relevant to the rationality of our attitudes and our choices.

In On Dialogue, physicist David Bohm explains that the discovering the truth is part of the process of thinking and talking about what has meaning to us. When we share no meaning, we cannot connect. So the way to get to connection is through conversation and making sense of things together.

Says Bohm, “in science, or anywhere, you usually have to go through a period where you're not getting anywhere while you're exploring.” But if we share our frustrations along with the discoveries we make and thoughts and assumptions we form around what we find, then we have a good starting point:

you have to watch out for the notion of truth. Dialogue may not be concerned directly with truth—it may arrive at truth, but it is concerned with meaning. If the meaning is incoherent you will never arrive at truth. You may think, “my meaning is coherent and somebody else's isn't,” but then we'll never have meaning shared. You will have the “truth” for yourself and for your own group, whatever consolation that is. But we will continue to have conflict.

The idea of dialogue is in some way foreign to the way we structure science today, “science is predicated on the concept that science is arriving at truth—at a unique truth.” This is something science has in common with religion, says Bohm. In fact, it has mostly replaced it, which explains the exclusion of dialogue among scientists along similar lines as religious doctrines exclude each other. Each has its own definition of truth, each is in a sense convinced it is the sole source.

He quotes scientist Max Planck who said, “New ideas don't win, really. What happens is that old scientists die and new ones come along with new ideas.” Even if scientists wanted to collaborate, as they seem to in principle, it is the aim that makes it difficult. Because the aim is truth, that they are going to get truth. Because of the assumption that we can know it all.

Bohm says:

that may not be a valid assumption, because thought is abstraction, which inherently implies limitation. The whole is too much. There is no way through which thought can get hold of the whole, because thought only abstracts; it limits and defines. And the past from which thought draws contains only a certain limited amount. The present is not constrained in thought; thus, an analysis cannot actually cover the moment of analysis.

Hence why our obsession with analysis means we're constantly attempting to look through the rear-view mirror and by doing so miss the terrain right in front of us.

By missing what is right in front of us, we also miss the people who are part of it, their ideas and viewpoints, their experiences and thoughts. So we hold tight to the assumptions (in some cases based on what happened in the past) and miss the opportunity to make meaning through dialogue in the here and now. Conversation is a critical aspect of doing our best work.

The paradox of our age is that though we are all connected, our culture is highlighting and encouraging individual credit rather than collective contribution. This is encouraging the belief that each person is solely responsible for bringing light to the world, so to speak. But wisdom is often collective, the product of our culture, and truth is subject to interpretation based on the meaning we derive from standing on the shoulders of giants (those who came before us, all the way back to ancient sages).

We should not be afraid to recognize the contributions of others. Rather, we should learn to recognize them, so we can build on those ideas as countless writers, scientists, etc. have done to bring us to where we are.


[image Bosco dei Mostri (Monsters' Grove) in Bomarzo, Italy]