But there is more to!: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” — Hamlet Act 1, scene 5

To be more truthful, I should have said “Its ‘True’ That All We Have is Useful Fictions” with the “True” in quotes. After all, those coming to this conclusion would not say they know it, but that they trust (weakly or more strongly) that it’s the case. Even though asserting that “authority is constructed and contextual,” for example, is likely to give the impression that people are saying they know that it is always true, that is, always the case.

Here is what I am getting at in the latest offering to folks on the ili listserve (found below the: +++ ) talking about my papers (challenging the idea that “authority is constructed and contextual”):

Modern philosophers nowadays really just talk about their “theories of truth.” We can’t just do that.

For example, librarian-philosopher Lane Wilkinson shared with me that “[s]emantic theories are quite common among philosophers who study logic, language, information, cognition, the mind, etc.” (he kindly linked me here, here, and here), and believes that “semantic theories of truth offer the best account of how we [can accurately describe objective reality].” (which he evidently does not think truth can be a synonym of).*

Modern philosophers might want to talk about theories of truth, but if truth is just a “linguistic concept,” and part of its definition is not that it is objective reality, what does knowledge as “justified true belief” mean? Knowledge is not only that which we choose to put into phrases and sentences, right? And this gets at my larger point: in general I think that moderns are rather misguided, being overly reductionistic, and that the ancients had better ideas (where philosophy deals with what it means to be human and how to live and does not kneecap the importance of the deepest metaphysical questions from the get-go).

Not classical philosophy

I will therefore offer here at this point my own, I think more helpful, theory:

Even among persons who are very secular, knowledge used to be justified true belief. Now, however, it has been gradually and increasingly transmorgifying into “knowledge,” that is “conceivable useful trust” – even among some who still say want to say its justified true belief.**

In sum, I think that focusing on “theories of truth” — which would seem to be at the expense of being concerned to live according to it — is a big mistake.


On to my email:

The assertion:

“’The Red Sox are a baseball team,’ ’I’m a library director, ‘Pluto is not a planet’” are all true” NOT “only because we agree that they are true” but because of the way that language works.”

“The way that language works.” Now we are getting somewhere! Let’s break this down.

Are we saying something like this?:

If truth is a linguistic concept, we can’t separate linguistics from human beings, and therefore, presumably, we might have a group or even, conceivably, a particular individual who see what Lane Wilkinson calls “objective reality” (this is what exists regardless of what we believe exists, and independent of whether we can grasp these things, describe them, be aware of them, etc.), or this or that facet of objective reality (thinking here of the illustration of the blind man and the elephant), more clearly than others. And then this group or person gestures or speaks or writes (communicates!) truth. Here, if we call rain a “social construct,” we *also* rightly note it, being something that is also trans-historical and largely trans-cultural! (why I would not, BTW, call rain a social construct) is an objective reality.

Is that what is meant by “the way that language works?”

If so, it would seem that in spite of Lane saying that I am setting up a straw man, he is nevertheless saying something that is roughly analogous. It’s just that what he calls “objective reality” I chose to call Truth (the whole elephant) and/or truth (parts of the elephant). Semantics.

Or, on the other hand, are we saying something like this?:

A spoken “language” (yes, I know this is a very fluid concept) can be considered to be like a given system of mathematics. Letters, words, and sentences are designed to describe, but each “language” — just like each math — has its inherent strengths and weaknesses. Since within a given “language” (i.e. English) the concept of “truth” has a place, we can accept it as a part of the way that people speak within the whole construct of the English language (kind of like a specific formula for a circle in a system of geometry). With that being said, just because there is a place for “truth” in the language-system we know as English, it does not mean that ultimately what we declare to be “true” actually is.

Is that what is meant by “the way that language works?”

Oh, be practical. Just method please.

If something like this is the case than Lane and I are saying very different things indeed. In other words, we now have a theory and are now dealing with “truth”. The matter is dealt with in a rather substantive way — and we are even able to say that we ultimately do believe in something like it (e.g. Lane’s “objective reality”) — but at the end of the day we nevertheless do not deal with what actually is true. In this system therefore, there seems to be a reduced incentive to seek, with others, what I and some others call truth/objective reality (real facts and real common ground: regarding what we find in “nature”, morality, etc.) or to be overly concerned about it (meh). Also less incentive to take a stand on the basis of principle (sometimes good, sometimes not…), struggle with certain kinds of questions that arise, and, correspondingly, make discoveries regarding those questions through discussion and debate.

Rather, the incentive shifts to valuing others who feel like us when it comes to doing what we want to do and, yes, think we should do in the world (we all can’t stop “shoulding” others – or worse!) – and using this or that “useful fiction” (and, question: what’s propaganda when no one can really know anything that is true?) to reach our goals. And here, Michael Gerson, in his article “The Tribal Truths that Set the Stage for Trump’s Lies,” is right (even if the article as a whole has not aged too well): stands are more likely to be taken based on group identity.

And now, consider this: Richard Rorty, the now deceased social constructivist philosopher extraordinaire, said that truth was what your peers let you get away with saying. No one is going to let you get away with saying that the moon is made of lime jello — if one actually had an incentive to say that! — but they might find other things to say that they think might be of material, social, and political benefit to them and their buddies, and that people will let them get away with.

Truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying. — “Neopragmatist” and social constructivist Richard Rorty,

Because, as anyone who has kids knows, human beings who want something really badly will try to wear you down.

What this means in practice is that when it comes to the ultimate issue of authority, absolutely everything is ultimately reduced to ad hominem argumentation, where the reliable/credible/competent scholars and/or wise men/women that one cites and lists are the ones to trust.

Truth is just a linguistic concept? All facts are socially constructed? And all this is because this is just “how language works”? I agree with Lane about “social epistemology” – in our lives, we cannot avoid trusting some persons and not others (and this, believe it or not, is a good thing)! But here folks, is the point: all of those sentences above are truth claims – and rather audacious ones at that. No ifs, ands, or buts.

Bruce Lincoln’s 1989 work hearkening of things to come….

Ask yourself – and others – what the reasons and evidence are for such bold assertions of what is the case. And then ask yourself: if we really believe this stuff, and that “facts” and “truth” are merely socially constructed, then what business do Americans have, for example, for criticizing China or Saudi Arabia for their own social constructions that have been around for centuries prior to 1776?

Again, as I say in the abstract to my RSR paper: “The assumption of a “social constructionist” frame for truth has serious implications for matters going well beyond libraries and their “information resources”.

I am interested in knowing just why some consider this to be a straw man argument.

(end email).



Images: True and Truth, Leigh Blackall: https://www.flickr.com/photos/leighblackall/19693376419 (CC BY 2.0);


*One person counters me here, saying the following:

“Well, I’m not sure I’d agree that truth IS objective reality. Rather, I’d say that truth is congruence with reality. A point (factual statement, hypothesis, argument, etc.) is true if it tallies with some aspect of reality.

There are many facets of reality that a point can be true to – to the material world (“Pluto is composed of rock,”) to a text (“Hamlet lives in Denmark” is not true to physical reality, but is true to Shakespeare’s play,) to a mathematical principle, to a moral principle, to an esthetic principle, to doctrine, to personal experience (“Licorice tastes nasty” is true for me but not for others,) etc.

We’re human and fallible, so we’ll never be able to say we know “the whole truth” about anything, but in various fields of study we have many methods – from close reading to symbolic logic to double-blind studies – for determining (as best we can) a point’s congruence with the aspects of reality that are relevant to that field.”

My response:

Come on, we don’t need to be philosophers. : ) I also am not saying that we can really know the full Truth, but simple truth. And insofar as we speak in accordance with what is objective reality, we speak truly and authoritatively.

If I say “I think so and so is guilty,” and you say “I wonder what the truth is?,” you are saying “I wonder what really happened? I wonder what the objective reality of the situation is?”

And, speaking more broadly, everything is about this but on a bigger scale: what happened? That, of course, affects the answer to your question: how should I live? Which informs our question: how should we librarians practice?

** My position, more specifically, is that all sentences are socially constructed and we can’t, to this or that degree, avoid speaking in accordance with truth (and hence, speaking authoritatively). Furthermore, much knowledge is also socially constructed as well, being that the word knowledge is inextricably tied up with our justified true belief , that is our knowing as human beings.

However passively or actively human beings receive aspects of objective reality/truth (see…the final section of my Christian Librarian paper), that does not mean, contra Bhaskar, that all knowledge, because it is “produced by means of antecedent social products,” is a “social product.” Smart phones and librarians and libraries are social products but the sun, the rain, food, water, children, and mothers, are not, strictly speaking, [human] social products, but trans-cultural and trans-historical objects we receive trans-existentially.

And often with thanks, even if we aren’t religious.

NOTE: The following sentence: “Furthermore, much knowledge is also socially constructed as well, being that the word knowledge is inextricably tied up with our justified true belief , that is our knowing as human beings,” has been corrected. It previously said that “all knowledge is also socially constructed.”  What I mean to say is that our knowledge is largely socially constructed/produced. There is knowledge, however, that we directly obtain from the world apart from other human beings, even though we are not islands.