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Untangling the concept of truth


To: Anthony K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Untangling the concept of truth
Date: 9th April 2008 11:06

Dear Anthony,

Thank you for your email of 27 March with your third essay for Possible World Machine entitled, 'Subsections of Truth: A brief overview'.

Thanks also for your email of a couple of days ago (apologies for the delay in my response) regarding the BA at Birkbeck.

Birkbeck College, as a constituent college of London University take students for the BA in Philosophy (including myself 1972-76!). These are known as 'internal students'.

However, Birkbeck are also responsible for administering the University of London 'external system' (aka 'external programme') which is the distance learning option. A number of my students are taking the Diploma in Philosophy and BA in Philosophy through the external system.

For more info see

The BA degree is exactly the same in both cases. However, for external students each of the modules is examined by a three hour paper (there will be an examination centre not too far from where you live).

On the basis of the work which you have done for me so far, I would advise against applying for the BA course as an external student. A better option for you would be to take the Diploma in Philosophy followed by the BA.

The Diploma requires four modules, including a special introductory module, while the BA requires ten modules. In other words, if you take the BA via the Diploma you have to do one extra module.

The special introductory module for the Diploma is based on the text 'Reading Philosophy' edited by Hornsby, Guttenplan and Janaway. This is an excellent course for developing your skill at philosophical reading and interpretation.

On the basis of the work you have shown be so far I believe that you could be successful in the Diploma and BA. However, you have a lot of ground to make up. The essays in the Pathways Essay archive are a guide to the standard you would have to achieve in order to obtain a 2/i ('upper second') degree, which around 60 per cent of British BA students achieve.

Essay on truth

It is clear from reading this essay that you have not really made any attempt to read up on contemporary debates and discussions concerning truth. The Pathways unit does not appear to have impacted on you in any way.

What you have said has an 'element of truth' in it (speaking colloquially) in that the notion of truth has multiple resonances which go beyond its strict definition. The question is how to untangle what is essential to the very concept of truth from the various things we associate with that concept or believe about the world.

Aristotle is credited with giving the definitive 'definition': to say that P when P obtains is to say something true. To say P when not-P obtains (or: when it is not the case that P obtains) is to say something false. End of definition.

I'm using the clumsy word 'obtains' but this can be removed. To say that Bush is President of the USA when Bush is President of the USA is to say something true. To say that Bush is the President of the USA when it is not the case that Bush is the President of the USA is to say something false. And so on, for every other statement that you could make: 'Rabbits have three ears', 'Paris is the capital of France', 'Geoffrey Klempner is a Martian', etc. etc.

It is as simple as that.

This applies to both written truth, spoken truth and believed truth - insofar as it is possible to put the belief into words.

This simple notion gets 'stretched' in various ways. Here are three examples which can be derived from your essay:

- Religious enlightenment/ vision. The statement, 'Christ rose from the dead' is either the simple truth or not. However, a person's conviction that, 'Christ gives meaning to my world' isn't something you can evaluate as simply 'true' or 'false'. This person lives in a different 'world' from the person for whom there is no room for 'Christ'. In other words, we are talking about a sense of 'what gives meaning' we are talking about an inexpressible truth which cannot be fitted into the mould of Aristotle's definition.

- Human knowledge. In science, theories are put forward and tested. The currently accepted theory is regarded as 'true'. However, there is a difference between what we *know* to be true and what *might* be true, although no-one is (yet) in a position to make a judgement about it. If I said, 'There are intelligent beings on other planets in our galaxy' I have said something that might be true, or it might be false.

- Personal tastes. You like Nachos, that is a matter of personal taste. Some times it is a very happy discovery that we have a taste for something (remember the first time you tried a Nacho). Sometimes we deceive ourselves into thinking we 'like' something, when in reality we have just been conned by advertising or are just trying to please others. So there is room for the simple notion of truth. You can't argue about personal taste. If I don't like Nachos then I am talking about me, and you are talking about you. However, I can challenge your claim to 'like' something, if I have reasons to believe that you don't really like it but are just kidding yourself.

Having said all this, we have hardly got started on the question, 'What is truth?'

In the Pathways unit, I contrast two views of truth, one (realism) which claims that truths 'exist' independently of human knowledge, while the other (anti-realism) claims that the notion of 'truths that can never be known' is somehow self-contradictory or meaningless.

I won't go over the material in the unit again. I suggest you re-read it, in combination with a contemporary introduction to philosophy which has a chapter on truth. Things you can look up, e.g. in Google, or in a philosophical encyclopaedia are:

- Correspondence theory of truth (closely associated with the 'realist' view of truth)

- Pragmatist theory of truth

- Coherence theory of truth

- Minimalist/ redundancy theories of truth.

You might have heard of some of these. The redundancy theory says that there is nothing to say about truth beyond Aristotle's definition. Everything else is just things we believe about truth, not part of its philosophical definition. Minimalism is similar to the redundancy theory, although it does not go so far as to claim that we could get along without any notion of truth.

All the best,