True/False & What Else? I: Brutal Facticity, Research Time, 05/08/2016

When I worked in the academy, one question I largely stayed away from was the one that’s probably the most stereotypical question in philosophy – What is truth?

Except for the occasional uncertain remark or request for clarification, I’d steer clear of these conversations and let the fists fly otherwise. It’s not that I didn’t find the question interesting – it’s one of the most provocative and evocative lines of thought in the whole tradition. 

From Hannibal, a brilliant television show that I haven't
seen enough of. This was from an image search of the
phrase "nature of truth," and was part of an article on
the American obsession with true crime stories.
But what makes that question – What is truth? – interesting is exactly what made me steer clear of so many discussions of it. There isn’t really a univocal answer. No simple response that would settle the debate entirely. No way one or a few people could be right and everyone else wrong.

Yet most debates in philosophy departments tended to unfold along these lines. Especially regarding the nature of truth. I think the reason why tends to be cultural. Most of the discussions I experienced about this problem were with Analytic-leaning theorists of knowledge. 

All bright people, and some of whom remain good friends. But the field itself I consider too focussed on finding simple answers. Or right answers. Or answers at all.

Popularly, we often think of truth as a very simple matter. What are the facts? What happened? But knowledge is more complicated than facticity, whether some body is what it’s said to be, or whether some event unfolded as you understand it. Truth isn’t just correspondence, and while a lot of folks in the professional academy accept this, they’re in a minority when you take all people into account.

Here's how I’m coming to think about this. Put it down to a division over the character of knowledge. Is knowledge primarily mental or social? Mental – essentially a property or possession of an individual, a relationship of thought with the world. Social – emerging from communication, institutions, and relationships. I lean more toward knowledge being primarily social.*

* Maybe it’s the fact that my institutional home for philosophical writing is now largely at the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. Funny suspicion, is all. 

Of course, thought is involved in knowledge. But what knowledge is relies primarily on relations and communications – thinkers in interaction.

Not a universal imperative.
Now, this makes knowledge way more complicated as an aspect of human existence. I mean, it is a very complicated aspect of human existence, and we shouldn’t presume that the simplest account you can make of something is going to be the most truthful one.

What matters is whether how you understand something is adequate to its existence. If it’s complex, you’ll need a complex conception. I sound a little like a correspondence theorist of truth here, but I’m not talking about truth – I’m talking for the moment about understanding.**

** Cheeky monkey, I know.

But I understand why you can prefer to lean toward the easier answers and clean lines of correspondence-style theories of what truth is and how truth works. When you accept the social character of knowledge, it can be disquieting too. 

Accepting any pluralism into your theory of knowledge can sometimes signal that pluralism is absolute – that the peace activist and the white supremacist or the doctor and the anti-vaxxer are on equal footing. Now, this isn’t the case. But making the case requires more than simply the declaration that one is true and the other isn’t.

Facticity isn't brute. 

At the moment, I’m reading some Louis Althusser, and he’s one of the many folks whose ideas helped develop our conceptions of knowledge as a social phenomenon. For Utopias, I think the most important element of his thinking on this issue is his theory of ideology. 

The next few posts will expand some of the thoughts I’ve had on it lately. Needless to say, I don’t pitch my reflections as the final word – just a few more contributions to the theory of truth, falsity, and lies. . . . To Be Continued

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