Apophatic philosophy.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal a couple weeks back, Crispin Sartwell, philosophy prof. at Dickinson College, and author of “Entanglements: A System of Philosophy” (State University of New York, 2017), says the following:

The nature of truth may be the hardest philosophical problem. It may even be strictly insoluble, because many theories of truth might be true according to themselves, which doesn’t mean they’re true. The answers philosophers have given through the millennia have been as various and as mutually incompatible as could readily be imagined.

Truth has been held, among other things, to be the correspondence of what we say to reality; to be a matter of the way a set of beliefs hang together; to be what we all agree about or would agree about in the long run; or to be, as William James said, “what works best in leading us” to solutions to our practical problems. Gigantic systems of metaphysics have been built on the foundation of truth — or on its dismissal as a delusory question, as trivial or redundant.

In the next breath though, he goes on to say: “Whatever truth may be, politicians have often been dishonest in various respects, and many or even all regimes engage in propaganda and fabrication of various sorts.”

You mean they have lied? Wouldn’t that also mean they have not been truthful?

I’m glad that Mr. Sartwell, against his own statements about the nature of truth and its knowability, is inconsistent.

As he goes on to admit, we, at times, at least know what truth is not.

And that, positively speaking, is the truth.

Crispin makes some good points in the article. He shows that persons from the current left and right in America demonstrate, even if tacitly, that they agree that:

  • “the coherence of their opponent’s worldview is irrelevant to its truth”
  • “truth cannot be a matter of social consensus”
  • “‘truth’ [cannot] mean merely what works, if by ‘works’ one means persuading people or guiding their behavior or opinions in some desirable direction”

In other words, truth is about more than the soft power of persuasion. That said, his mention of “desirable direction[s]” also reminds us that this issue is inextricably connected with wider issues of ethics as well (where we cannot escape putting forth some kind of real goal, or purpose, for human beings as a whole).*

His conclusion:

It’s a bizarre misapprehension, in short, that truth is disintegrating or in crisis. Fabrications do not undermine truth — they presuppose it. Lies can harm people, but they can’t harm truth itself. They conceptually depend on it. The right conclusion from all this isn’t that truth is disintegrating, but that truth is hard and intrusive, that it does not readily bend to human will or agreement or narrative. The power of the Russian intelligence services or a Sean Spicer press briefing is considerable, but it does not include the ability to bend the fabric of reality.

And we all look forward to learning more about the truth concerning all of that! In short, though the article is behind a pay wall, it is well worth reading (you can probably get it for free through your local library).



*From a past writing:

“As Americans, the teachings of William James have influenced us deeply as a people, and we are pragmatists all, fixated on the useful. This is not without good reason. In addition to James’ influential writings, one can observe that in the ancient world the idea of what was “good” often was closely associated with the idea of functioning well.

And yet – the question of how we might have wisdom to understand what is truly good is always at issue. After all, our goals are often remarkably narrow and short-sighted. We are apt to choose the path of least resistance – at least when it comes to this or that area of our lives. It is very easy to rationalize things as being good for us – or importantly, others – that, in the long run, turn out to be anything but. Many, filled with a sense of righteousness vs. the evils of the world, plunge boldly ahead, blind to their own ambitions, selfishness, and limitations. In short, many of us, in our bones, sense that it is good to think that what is really good is greater than what appears to “work” right now.

And of course, in the classical understanding of “the good,” it goes hand in hand with truth.”