The Problem of Truth and the Truth of the Problem
Olavo de Carvalho
May 20, 1999
I. Radical Questioning
§ 1. Of satisfied frivolity
Quid est veritas? This is the most serious and the most frivolous of questions, depending on the intention of the one who asks it. Some admit that the meaning and the value of human life depend on the existence of an eminently certain and reliable truth, which may serve as a measurement to verify the validity of our thoughts. Others think that life may perfectly well proceed without any truth and without any foundation. Among the latter could probably be found good old Pontius Pilate. When he exclaimed "What is truth?", he was not exactly asking a question, but rather expressing, with a shrug, his little disposition to ask that question seriously. The prospect of there not being any truth — which would drive into despair those who judge that life needs it to justify itself — was for Pilate a relief and a consolation, a guarantee that he could go on living without any concerns. Some wager on the existence of truth and cherchent en gémissant. Others turn their backs and wash their hands of the matter. The verbal formula through which they express themselves is the same: Quid est veritas? But in the difference of their nuances lies all the distance that goes from tragic to comic.
The frivolous or comic school is widely dominant nowadays, be it in the universities, be it in culture at large. Even those who seek to believe in an effective truth surround it with all sorts of limits and obstacles, for example by reducing it to the kind of partial and provisional truth that is given to us by some of the experimental sciences. Others stick to faith, saying that truth exists, but that it is above our understanding.
In any debate on the problem of truth these days, the agenda consists almost invariably in rehashing the observations made by philosophers, from Pyrrho to Richard Rorty, on the limits of human knowledge. These limits, taken as a whole, make up a formidable mountain of obstacles to any will to know the truth. And this mountain is an ever growing one, with a peak that gets farther and farther out of reach the more we climb it. From the half-witted objections of the Pyrrhonic school against the validity of knowledge acquired through the senses, to the enormously complex constructions with which Psychoanalysis denies the priority of conscience, or Gramsci reduces all truth to the expression of ideologies that succeed themselves through History, a lot has evolved in the machine that inoculates disappointment in the truth-seeker. It causes no surprise that many of the builders of this machine, as they add a new piece to it, instead of regretting the consequent increase in human impotence, display on their lips a smile similar to Pilate’s. The inexistence of truth – or the impossibility of knowing it – is comforting for them. We shall see ahead what are the deeper reasons for this strange satisfaction.
§ 2. Provisional definition of truth
For the moment, let us leave those creatures aside, and pose the question of truth on our behalf. As we do not yet know whether truth exists nor what it affirms, we have to resort to a provisional definition that will enable us to start the investigation without prejudging its outcome. To comply with such a requirement, this provisional definition has to express the mere intentional meaning of the word, as it appears even in the mouth of those who deny the existence of any truth; because in order to deny the existence of something it is necessary to understand the meaning of the word that designates it.
So I say that truth – the truth whose existence we are still not sure of, the truth whose existence and consistence will be the object of our investigation, as it was of many other investigations that came before us – is the permanent and universal cognitive foundation of the validity of judgements. If we say, for example, that the sole foundation of the validity of our judgements is their utility, we deny the existence of a cognitive foundation. That is, we deny the existence of truth through the denial of one of the elements that makes up its definition. The same happens if we say that all valid judgements are founded on faith. If we state, however, that there are no valid judgements of any kind, then we deny the existence of any foundation, cognitive or not. If we state that judgements are valid only for a specific time and location, we deny that the foundation may be permanent. If we state that judgements are only valid subjectively to the one who utters them, we deny that the foundation may be universal. If we say that the foundation of the validity of judgements belongs only to formal logic, without ever being able to reach the real objects mentioned in the judgement, we deny that this foundation has any cognitive meaning.
All these denials of truth presuppose the definition of truth as the permanent and universal cognitive foundation of the validity of judgements. Likewise, if we say that truth exists, that it is knowable, that based upon it we can build valid knowledge, we will not have added or subtracted anything from that definition, but only stated that the object defined in it does exist. Our provisional definition, as it is therefore consistent with the two totally opposed currents of opinion that dispute the question, constitutes a superior and neutral ground from which the investigation may start without any prejudices and with all honesty and rigor.
§ 3. Is the radical questioning of truth possible?
We start thus from a consensus. The next step of the investigation consists in asking whether truth, as defined, can or cannot be the object of radical questioning. By ‘radical questioning’ I mean that kind of questioning that, admitting ex hypothesi the inexistence of its object — as for example it was done many times with the existence of God, of innate ideas, or of the exterior world — leads to a conclusion that may be favorable to the inexistence or to the existence of its object.
The radical questioner of God, of innate ideas, or of the exterior world may question them because he positions himself, from the outset, outside of the divine, innate or worldly ground, i.e., he reasons as if God, or innate ideas, or the exterior world did not exist. As his investigation unfolds, he will either come to the conclusion that his premise is absurd — admitting therefore the existence of that whose inexistence he had postulated —, or inversely he will come to the conclusion that the premise holds perfectly well and that what was supposed to be inexistent indeed does not exist.
The most classical example of this method is Descartes’. He presupposes the inexistence of the exterior world, of what is acquired by the senses, of his own body, etc. And he continues reasoning along this line until he finds a limit — the cogito ergo sum — that forces him to retreat and to admit the existence of all he had initially denied.
Radical questioning is the hardest test to which philosophy can submit any idea or being that might exist.
What we should then ask, right after obtaining a formal definition of truth, is whether the truth so defined may be the object of radical questioning. As surprising as it may be to many, the answer is a flat no. The truth cannot be the object of radical questioning.
No investigation about the truth, as radical as it may be, can take as a premise the inexistence of any permanent and universal cognitive foundation of the validity of judgements and then continue to reason in a manner consistent with this premise until reaching some positive or negative result. And it cannot do so for a very simple reason: the affirmation of the absolute inexistence of any permanent and universal cognitive foundation of the validity of judgements would constitute, itself, the permanent and universal cognitive foundation of subsequent judgements made along the same line of investigation. The investigation would be paralysed as soon as formulated.
Let us briefly examine some of the classic strategies for the denial of truth to which the questioner could resort in order to escape from this cul-de-sac.
We may try for example the pragmatist strategy. It states that the validity of judgements rests on its practical utility, consequently assuming that the foundation of such validity is not of a cognitive nature. If we said that the inexistence of a permanent and universal cognitive foundation of the validity of judgements is not itself a permanent and universal cognitive foundation, but only a practical foundation, either this practical foundation would have to be permanent and universal, or it would only be partial and provisional.
In the first hypothesis, we would have two problems: on the one hand we would stumble upon the paradox of a universal utility, that is, of something that might usefully serve all practical ends, even the most contradictory. It would be the universal means for all ends or, more precisely, the universal panacea. On the other, we should ask whether the belief in this panacea would have, in turn, a cognitive foundation or whether it would only be a practical utility, and so on infinitely.
In the second hypothesis — i.e., if the questioner admits that the affirmation of the inexistence of truth is only a partial and provisional foundation for the validity of subsequent judgements — there would always remain the unshakable possibility that other permanent and universal cognitive foundations might subsist outside the ground so delimited, capable of validating an infinity of other judgements. The investigation could thus proceed indefinitely, jumping from one provisional foundation to another, without ever being able to found itself on its own premise, that is, on the radical inexistence of truth.
Let us then try a second strategy, subjective relativism. It proclaims, as did Protagoras, that "man is the measure of all things", what is currently interpreted as meaning "to each his own". In other words, what is true is true only from the point of view of the one who thinks it is true, and it may be false from the point of view of everyone else. Can this statement provide the basis for a radical questioning of truth, in such a way that the denial of the existence of a permanent and universal cognitive foundation of the validity of judgements does not become itself the permanent and universal cognitive foundation that supports the validity of subsequent judgements in the same line of investigation? Saying it in a simpler way: can relativism deny the existence of judgements that are valid for all men without this very denial becoming a valid judgement for all men? To do it, relativism would have to deny the universality of this denial, what would amount to admitting the existence of one, or some, or an infinity of judgements that are valid for all men. So relativism itself would turn out to be relative. By stating that some judgements are not valid for all men — which implies that others may be —relativism would end up becoming a platitude without any philosophical meaning. Subjective relativism cannot achieve a radical questioning of truth, as pragmatism also could not.
Could historicism then do it? Historicism declares that all truth is but the expression of a temporal, limited world view. Men think this or that not because this or that imposes itself as a universal and permanent obligatory truth, but only because it imposes itself in a specific place and for a limited period of time. But can historicism avoid that the statement of these limits becomes itself the permanent and universal cognitive foundation of the validity of judgements? In order to avoid that, it would be necessary to admit that there may be some foundation that denies the very statement of those limits. But if that foundation exists; then there is a truth whose validity is unlimited by space and time, a truth whose validity escapes from historic conditioning. And therefore historicism would be reduced to the miserable realization that some foundations of validity are historically conditioned while others are not, not even being able to apply this distinction to concrete cases without thereby affirming the invalidity of the historical principle taken as a universal rule.
I will spare the reader the enumeration of all the possible subterfuges and their detailed refutation. He can do that himself as an exercise if he so wishes and I even encourage him to do so. In any case, as many times as he tries them, he will always return to the same point: it is not possible to deny the existence of a universal and permanent cognitive foundation of the validity of judgements, under any pretext, without this denial and its respective pretext becoming themselves a universal and permanent cognitive foundation of the validity of judgements. And thus it voids the next denial through which it would proceed the investigation, if it only could. In short, truth, as we defined it, cannot be the object of radical questioning. Neither can the possibility of knowing it. Once we deny that it is possible to know a permanent and universal cognitive foundation of the validity of judgements, either this very impossibility becomes such a foundation, thereby admitting its own lack of any foundation; or else, in order to avoid this embarrassing situation we should limit ourselves to stating that some judgements do not have any foundation while others probably do, a statement that lies within the means of any school kid.
Not being capable of hitting its target, the enemy of the truth is therefore eternally doomed to biting the edges, without ever reaching the vital center of what he wishes to destroy. He will now deny one truth, then another, now with one pretext, then with another, varying his strategies and the directions of his attack. But he will never be able to free himself from his fate: each denial of a truth will be the affirmation of another; and that denial as well as this affirmation will always result in the affirmation of truth as such, i.e., of the effective existence of some permanent and universal cognitive foundation of the validity of judgements.
This also explains the continuous, unlimited and irrepressible proliferation of the denials of truth and their total incapacity of suppressing from the face of the Earth the belief in the existence of truth, the belief in the possibility of knowing the truth, the belief in the actual and full possession of a truth capable of providing a permanent and universal cognitive foundation for the validity of judgements.
That is why the number and variety of the attacks to the truth, from Pyrrho to Richard Rorty, greatly exceed the number and the variety of the defenses that formally present themselves as such. That is because these very attacks, however their authors deplore it, always end up turning themselves into defenses and praise for the truth. Thereby, they do not only reduce the workload of the apologist of truth, but also enliven what they wished to lay to rest and honor what they wished to humiliate.
This is also the reason why the beginner, impressed by the variety and continuity of charges against the truth that are observed in the history of philosophy — nowadays in a notably increasing speed — swiftly adheres to skepticism, so that he will not feel as belonging to an isolated and weakened minority. But as he proceeds with his studies, he overcomes that first impression based only in apparent quantity. He is then no longer able to maintain that position as he realizes that the strength does not rest in the number of those who deny the truth, as impressive as they may seem, but rather in the quality of the happy few who serenely affirm it.
II. The truth is not a property of judgements
§ 1. Truth and truthfulness
The impossibility of radical questioning that we verified in the preceding chapter leads us to the conclusion that the truth may only be attacked by parts, and that each denial of a part reaffirms the validity of the whole. Said in another manner, what may be questioned are truths. "The" truth cannot be questioned and indeed never was, except in words, that is, by the pretending of a denial that ends up being an affirmation of truth.
But this takes us a step ahead in the investigation. A venerable tradition, initiated by Aristotle, affirms that truth is in the judgements, that it is a property of judgements. Some judgements "possess" the truth while others do not. The first ones are called true judgements, the second ones, false judgements. Therefore the set of true judgements is a subset of the set of possible judgements. Possible judgements, in turn, constitute a subset of the set of the human cognitive acts; these are a subset of the set of the mental acts, which are a subset of the set of human acts, and so forth. Therefore, the territory of truth is a small detached area inside a vast world of thoughts, acts and beings.
Is this really possible? How could truth be the foundation of the validity of all judgements and at the same time a property of some of them in particular? Isn’t that a blatant contradiction or at least a problem?
To come to terms with it and solve the problem, it is necessary that we agree in a distinction between truth and truthfulness. Truth is the permanent and universal cognitive foundation of the validity of judgements. Truthfulness is a quality observed in some judgements, according to which their validity has a permanent and universal cognitive foundation.
Once we understand that, it becomes evident that the truth is a founding condition for truthfulness, not the opposite. If there was no permanent and universal cognitive foundation of the validity of judgements, no judgement could have a permanent and universal cognitive foundation. However, if one particular judgement possesses this foundation, nothing in the world can establish that it is the only one to possess it, i.e., that the existence of the foundation depends of the existence of this particular judgement. Yet this particular judgement could not exist and be true if there existed no truth. The truth is thus logically prior to truthfulness and constitutes its foundation.
Still, being the foundation of truthfulness, truth is also the foundation of untruthfulness, because false judgements are only false insofar as they may be truthfully disproved, be it through their simple denial — itself truthful — be it through the affirmation of a contrary truthful judgement.
Being the foundation not only of the truthfulness of true judgements, but also of the untruthfulness of false judgements, truth must be present in both, while truthfulness is only present in the true judgements and cannot be present in false ones. Thus, the territory of truth is not identical to the set of possible true judgements, but encompasses it together with the set of the possible false ones.
§ 2. Is the foundation of all judgements a judgement?
Must the truth, foundation of all judgements, necessarily be a judgement? Can only a judgement be the foundation of another judgement? The answer is yes and no. Yes, if by foundation we mean, restrictively and conventionally, the premise upon which the proof of a judgement is founded. But a premise states something about something, and what it states is not a judgement but rather its object. Let me say, for example, that turtles have shells. I found this judgement upon the definitions of turtle and shell, which are judgements. But I found these definitions upon the observation — which is not a judgement — of turtles and shells, which are not judgements either. Should not that observation also be true, by apprehending traces which are truly present in true objects? Or should I resort to the subterfuge according to which the observation must only be exact, the concept of "true" not being applicable to it ? But then what is the meaning of "exact" in this case, if not that which informs me nothing more nor less of what I truly observed in what an object truly showed? Moreover, is it an authentic exactitude or just its simulacrum? There is no way out: either there is truth in the observation itself or it cannot be exact, correct, adequate, sufficient, nor have any other quality that recommends it except if this quality be true.
So the foundation of the truthfulness of a judgement rests not only in the truthfulness of the judgements that work as its premises but — in the case of judgements concerning objects of experience — also in the truth of the data wherefrom I extracted such premises and in the truth of what I know about such data from experience.
Furthermore, if the foundation of judgements had to be always itself a judgement, the primary foundation of all judgements would be a judgement destitute of any foundation. Taken to this cul-de-sac, Aristotle affirmed that the knowledge of the first principles is immediate and intuitive. But he meant only that these principles had no proof, not that they were devoid of any foundation. The principle of identity, for example, thus expressed in the judgement A = A, does not have behind it any judgement that may work as a premise to its demonstration. But it has an objective foundation in the ontological identity of each being to itself, which is not a judgement. What can be known intuitively is this ontological identity and not the judgement A = A, that only manifests it. So the intuition of the first logic principle does not take the form of a judgement, but rather that of an immediate evidence which, in itself, is not a judgement. There cannot be a judgement unless this immediate evidence is transformed by signs into a verbum mentis. That is, into a conscious agreement which – not yet being a proposition, an affirmation in words – is not anymore just the pure and simple intuition, but rather its mental reflex and therefore a derivative and secondary cognitive act, not a primary one.
So if the territory of logic premises begins with judgements that affirm the first principles, that territory is very far from encompassing all the field of cognitive foundations that extends itself into the realm of intuitive perception, be it of the objects of experience, be it of the first principles.
The falsity of the image of truth as a small detached zone in the vast territory of possible judgements becomes thus evident. Rather, it is all judgements, true and false, that are but a modest spot in the immense territory of truth.
III. Where is the truth?
§ 1. Truth as a realm
So we have come to understand that truth, being the criterion for the validity of judgements, cannot be an immanent property of these very judgements. Neither can it be something totally external to the judgements which would evaluate them from the outside, because this evaluation would in turn be a judgement. If I say "the chicken has laid an egg", where can the truth of this judgement be? In the judgement itself, independently from the chicken, or in the chicken, independently from the judgement? The absurdity of the first hypothesis led Spinoza to proclaim the inanity of the judgements that arise from experience, which are never valid or invalid in themselves and always depend on something external. For him, a true judgement would have to be true in itself, independently from everything else. As, for example, A = A does not depend on what is A or on any other external verification. But the identity of A to A lies not only in the judgement that affirms it, but also in the consistency of A, whatever A may be. There is no purely logic judgement that can be true or false in itself without reference to the object of the judgement. Even a judgement that refers only to itself unfolds into a judgement that affirms something and into a judgement about which something is affirmed, and one is certainly not the other. Affirming that a judgement is true in itself cannot mean a total alienation of the "world" that is supposed by the very possibility of enunciating a judgement. Fleeing to the realm of formal identity does not solve the problem at all. Should we then say, along with an old tradition, that truth is in the relation between judgement and object? Now, this relationship is stated through a judgement that in turn must have a relation with its object – the original relation between judgement and object – and so on infinitely.
The other hypothesis, that the truth of the judgement "the chicken has laid an egg" is to be found in the chicken, independently from the judgement, would take us to equally insurmountable difficulties. It would amount to saying that the truth of the judgement does not depend on the judgement being made. That is, that once the chicken has laid an egg, the judgement that affirms it is true even though it does not exist as a judgement. Edmund Husserl would subscribe to this view without winking: the truth of a judgement is a question of pure logic that has nothing to do with the merely empiric question of a specific judgement being made by someone one day. The confusion between the sphere of the truth of judgements and the sphere of their psychological production did indeed a lot of harm to philosophy, and Husserl has definitely clarified that confusion. But if the chicken laid an egg and nobody said anything about it, truth in this case is not in the judgement, but rather in the fact. The judgement that has not yet been made cannot be true or false, it can only have the possibility to be true or false. Being true that the chicken laid an egg, the judgement that affirms it will be true if formulated, while the truth of the fact is already given by the appearance of the egg.
But if the truth of the judgement "the chicken laid an egg" is neither in the judgement independently from the chicken, nor in the chicken independently from the judgement, not even in the relation between chicken and judgement, where after all can it be?
We have just seen that, independently from the judgements that affirm them, or from any judgements that might be made about them, the objects they refer to may also be true or false. "The chicken laid an egg" is opposed to "the chicken did not lay an egg", independently from somebody saying so or not. There is identity and contradiction in the real world, independently from the judgement which affirms or denies anything about it, and even before this judgement is made. In other words that lead to the same result: truth exists in reality and not only in judgements, or it could not exist in judgements at all. There is truth in the fact that the chicken laid an egg, there is truth in the judgement that affirms it, and there is also truth in the relation between the judgement and the fact, as well as in the judgement that affirms this relationship: the truth thus cannot be "in" the fact, nor "in" the judgement, nor "in" the relation, but it has to be in all three of them.
Furthermore, if it is in the three of them, it must also be somewhere else, unless we admit that a single fact and the judgement that affirms it, and the relation that connects both of them, may be true even if everything else is false. But this "everything else" that is not contained neither in the fact, nor in the judgement, nor in the relationship, necessarily includes the very existence of facts, as well as of logic principles implied in the judgement and in the relationship. If there are no facts and logic principles, a chicken will uselessly lay eggs in the realm of the non-fact, and a relation between fact and judgement will uselessly be sought in the realm of illogicality. Hence, the truth of a single fact, of a single judgement, and of their relationship, imply the existence of truth as a realm that at once encompasses and transcends facts, judgements and relationships.
Searching for truth in the fact, or in the judgement, or in the relations between them, is like searching for space in bodies, in their measurements, and in the distance from one body to another. As space is not in the bodies, nor in their measurements, nor in their distances – but rather bodies, measurements and distances are in the space – likewise, truth is not in facts, nor in judgements, nor in their relations, but they are all in the truth, or they are not anywhere. And even this "not being anywhere", if it means anything and is not only a flatus vocis, must be in the truth.
Truth is not a property of facts, judgements, or relationships. It is the realm within which facts, judgements and relations occur.
§ 2. Is the truth an a priori form of knowledge?
At this point, the kantian temptation is practically unavoidable. As a condition for the possibility of facts, judgements and relationships, the truth is effectively an a priori condition. But is it an a priori condition for the existence of these three things or only for the "knowledge" we can have of them?
This problem is solved in a simple and brutal way: if we say that the truth is an a priori form of knowledge and intend this statement to be true, then knowledge must be in the truth and not truth in the knowledge, because what is a priori cannot be immanent to something which it itself determines. To be an a priori condition of knowledge, truth must necessarily be an a priori condition of something else that is not knowledge, but rather its object. Knowledge, like facts, judgements and relationships, is within the realm of truth and that is so independently of knowledge being considered exclusively in its eidetic content or as a fact. The truth of what is known, the truth of the knower, and the truth of knowing are all aspects of truth, and truth is not an aspect of any of them.
After all there is no kantian way out. Either knowledge is in the truth or it is not anywhere at all.