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Two Concepts of Truth

by Hubertus Fremerey

Prefatory remark

Sometimes a theme seems to be "in the air". While I had my overall concept of the following essay ready and was working on the details, there appeared two other essays with related content in Philosophy Pathways: One on 'Arguments Beyond Reason' by Jeff Meyerhoff in PW Issue 95, the other on 'Philosophy — Rigorous Science or Intuitive Thought: A Critique of Mind by John Searle' by Richard Schain in PW Issue 97. But both only partially overlap with my own essay, so I leave it as it was originally.

A hint: The guiding argument here is not any theory of the NATURE of truth, nor anything on neurology or epistemology. The guiding argument is the fact that the primary concern of man is NOT recognition but ACTION. To put it a bit paradoxically: "The meaning of truth is not so much 'facts and theories', but what to make of them — good acting". Thus my approach to the problem of truth is an instrumental one in the Socratic sense — which goes beyond mere pragmatism. We humans look for meaning in a world where we try to do meaningful things. And this defines the meaning of what we call "truth". On the meaning of truth in Socrates I owe some good hints to Daoud Khashaba, as I gratefully acknowledge.

Two concepts of truth

For some typical expositions of the modern philosophical concepts of truth have a look into the entries in the IEP Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( or into the SEOP Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( However, both entries — and similar ones in other modern philosophical dictionaries — are incomplete and miss much of what we usually call truth in human intercourse and self-understanding.

What about religious truth as when Jesus (in John 14,6) says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." The proof of the "truth" of Jesus is in following in his steps and not in any scientific "proof" or disproof of whether he really was the son of God etc. To try to "prove" or to disprove the value of religious utterances by methods of science or analytical philosophy is as meaningless as to try to "prove" or to disprove the greatness of a work of art or of music or literature by physical means.

Or what about a "personal" truth as in the case of Kierkegaard when he writes: "The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die... What is truth but to live for an idea?" (Journal 1 A 75, dated August 1st, l835). This outcry again cannot be answered by logic or by "scientific methods".

Or what about truth in the arts as when Nietzsche admired Bizet's Carmen (1875) as a true tragedy, while he despised Wagner's Parsifal (1882) as a lie — not because Parsifal is Christian while Carmen is pagan, but because Parsifal is only pretending to be Christian while Carmen is pagan in an honest way. Nietzsche never despised Bach for being Christian.

Of course one could dismiss all three forms of truth — the religious, the personal, and the creative truth — as not being forms of "real" truth at all but only "personal convictions". But I think that truth is one of those great concepts — like justice, freedom, human dignity, love, the good — that are too important to be left to modern philosophers. Modern philosophers tend to reduce such concepts to logico-scientific ones, which they definitely are not. Those concepts are meant to give orientation to human common and personal understanding and striving, they make up the spiritual world we live in. Thus to debate them away and call them nonsense by some allegedly logical or "scientific" standard is an act of intellectual crime that misses the very nature of human orientation in the world.

There is provable truth as in math and logic and in the physical sciences, and there is "proven" truth as in a friendship or other interpersonal relation, and there is "spiritual" truth as in art and religion. They all have their right in themselves and should be handled with great respect and care.

An incomplete list of fields concerning truth:

* epistemology, theories of science and methodologies
* logics and formal languages, mathematics
* knowing and experiences, error and critical evaluation
* conceptualizing, language*games, meaning and understanding by conventions
* theory, ideology, worldview, perspectivism
* closed and open models of interpreting the world, ultrastability (Popper)
* religion, superstition, pseudo*science, esoterics, sects
* extrasensory and paranormal experiences, dreams and fancies
* madness and mental sanity, collective madness, ethno*psychoanalysis
* crimes, deviation and labeling (Foucault)
* communication and agreement, "common sense"
* "progress" in knowledge and insight (Piaget, Kohlberg), "wisdom"
* hermeneutics, rhetoric, intent, literary criticism (Gadamer, Ricoeur)
* languages of art and of mysticism

All the above are related to the general theme of "knowing the true nature of things and the true state of the world". What we try to find out is the realm of errors and lies and misunderstandings to be separated from truth. But at the same time we try to protect the realm of "meaningful and useful" fancies and dreams. We try to fight the weeds without doing harm to the flowers. But often they are both at the same time as in the case of poppies and bindweed and many others.

What I am fighting against is not rational arguing or scientific methodology, being a physicist myself. What I fight is a predominance, even a monopolizing of technical arguments in much of modern philosophical thinking on the nature of truth.

To understand the core of the argument one may start not from truth but from its three counterparts, which are (1) errors, (2) misunderstandings, and (3) lies and self-deceptions. These three different forms of "un-truth" we know from daily experience. And by experience we know three important fallacies: "Fallacy of consensus", "fallacy of evidence", and "fallacy of plausibility", which means: "What all agree to, need no be the case; what is 'evident', need not be the case; what is 'plausible', need not be the case." These experiences motivated the search for truth and Socrates may be called the godfather of this search, while Descartes and Hume and Kant and Wittgenstein may have been his most famous followers.

None of the great philosophers and metaphysicians was unaware of the problem of truth, but Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud merely saw this in a different light. Instead of studying a logical problem they hinted at a practical one: Why is it, that people often are not so much interested in uncovering the truth but in suppressing, rejecting, and evading it?

This was the great theme of "lebensphilosophie" which has taken seriously the fact that thinking and truth in humans is not of interest in itself but is of interest in the service of life and as a result of this is always ambivalent: While "nothing is more practical than a good theory", any moral agent needs hope and self-assuredness instead of melancholic doubts to get along in life. False dreams and hopes may be the driving force behind great deeds while "the truth" may be paralyzing and discouraging. By this argument Nietzsche chided Socrates as being not helpful with his destructive attitude to all forms of self-assuredness. But Socrates made people think on what it means to use concepts.

Man is often labelled "the thinking animal", "homo sapiens". But man is as much a practical and creative and dreaming animal, a "homo faber" and "homo creativus", and as such is asking for some good argument to guide his plans and deeds. And as a moral agent, man is not just seeking truth but is seeking goals and values and ways — and the arguments and strength and encouragement to keep to those goals and to go those ways.

To err is not only a scientific or technical problem caused by applying some false formulas or data or some false logical thinking. We often feel that we erred in our way of treating other people, or in our decisions on some important steps or directions in our life. Then we may feel ashamed or full of remorse even if nobody else is accusing us. This insistent feeling of being wrong, of having chosen a wrong way, of having failed our ideal standards, does not indicate an error that could be assessed in the logico-scientific way. Yet the very concept of error is meaningless even in such cases without the concept of truth. By this we see a very old and venerable concept of truth again which is quite different from the logico-scientific sort of truth. Because of this I will henceforth keep apart two quite different concepts of truth as "moral-spiritual truth" or TM on the one side and "logico-scientific truth" or TL on the other. The third variety of truth I will call "artistic truth" or TA, which makes the artist or architect or musician or entertainer or novelist etc. sense whether they have failed some idea of a good and "true" work of art.

The important difference of TL when compared to TM and TA can bee seen as follows: TL is a truth about "objective facts" of logic, mathematics, physics and events. TM and TA are not on facts but on values and goals and ways. Because of this most philosophers today don't speak of truth in the cases of TM and TA anyway, but I think they should. I am not falling victim to "naturalistic fallacy" here! I am just saying that to err includes by necessity the possible alternative of being right — or at least of being "more near to the truth". You just cannot speak of error or failure in a moral or artistic context without the idea of some alternative "more near to truth" that you failed to realize. This of course is a central idea of Plato and Aristotle.

But, as Aristotle already said: You need not assume an objective and eternal truth to explain the meaning of moral or artistic failure. As we all know, ideals may change dependent on culture and history, and we know that the notions of better and worse do not necessarily include the notions of best and worst. For instance, we have good and less good works of art and music, but no best work. But even granting all this not many people would ever subscribe to the idea that "anything goes". And this is a strange fact I try to understand. It's a real philosophical problem and cannot be dismissed as a mere matter of taste and left to the psychologist. It's a matter of orientation and evaluation.

To put the problem in a different light: "Why are people fighting — even offering their lives like Socrates, Jesus, Bruno, Luther and many other dissidents — to defend a truth which, in a strictly scientific sense, does not even exist?" What value are those martyrs defending with their lives? They all FEEL that it is a truth, but we have to understand what sort of truth it is.

Man is not — like the animals — bound to nature by instincts. He is free to frame a picture of the world around him. This is a great leap forward in evolution, since it enables imagination. By imagination and fantasy you become independent of the "here and now", since you can build a model of what is removed in time (tomorrow, yesterday) or in space ("other worlds" beyond the horizon). But if you can model "real" reality in this way, you have the means to model all sorts of "fictitious realities" too. Thus while in the first line to be able to build models of the world is of the greatest practical usefulness for hunting and building houses and traps and strategies etc. (all this requires imagination of what could and should be or happen!), this ability is as good for dreaming and "making sense of the world you live in." From this it doesn't matter too much whether you build cathedrals of stone or of words and thoughts.

It's not a Christian thing: Remember the great visions of Marx and Lenin, who too changed the world according to their visions. Their visions were as misleading in most respects as were the visions of the religions. But people need to have such visions to do great works — either to build cathedrals, or to transform societies, or to land a man on the Moon or Mars and for this develop the spaceships needed. Without our dreams there would be not much of value. We would be mere "intelligent cattle".

And there is a paradox: You just can't be intelligent and still be like cattle. If you are intelligent you have fantasy, and if you have fantasy you will think of strange and distant and never seen worlds to be discovered and conquered or to be built by yourself and your children and grandchildren. This in fact is my theme: How should the world be like, the world designed and formed by ourselves at this time, so that from looking backward in the year 3000 our descendants could call it great and admirable and a testimony of our true intelligence and not call it a failure and a shame? But by what standard? If "anything goes" there would be none whatsoever. And that's our problem.

The answer to this cannot come from the sciences. The architect will not ask the buildings-engineer how the new building should be like. The buildings-engineer can only tell the architect what is feasible, not what is "good". The "truth" of the artist and architect is quite different from the truth of the engineer. But this does not mean that "anything goes". A good or even great architecture is quite different from a bad or boring one. To find the good solution from the countless possible solutions is the problem of the artist and of the moral agent. In this they are asking for "truth".

The fundamental problem of ANY thinking being — even of a thinking robot, if ever such a thing will exist — is TO MAKE GOOD USE OF ITS FREEDOM OF CHOICE. Because to think includes by necessity to have countless options open for you to choose from. Thus you have to find out which option to pick — and why. And NO SCIENCE EVER WILL TELL YOU. Because picking an option is applying some values and preferences, and science by its very nature is on facts and by this is value-free. This establishing of values — and not only consolation and hope — is one of the main justifications of any religion. You can try to do without of course, but then you typically will have the values of the Nazis or of the communists or the hedonists. I have doubts that this is preferable. To expect that only nice and reasonable and caring "secular humanists" will take over is naive.

What great authors of novels and of theology and philosophy always try to make us aware of are those many ways of erring in a moral and spiritual sense, those many pitfalls of vanity and self-deceit and false arguments and false expectations that always spoil our deeds and plans. To err in a moral or spiritual sense is not to err in a scientific sense but the error is in effect like a moral and mental corruption and illness, weakening and sometimes even destroying us personally — and sometimes whole societies as in the cases of Fascism and Stalinism and even in cases of religious fundamentalisms.

This was the great theme of Nietzsche and of Freud and their followers: How people spoil their life and that of other people by false fears and false dreams and false intentions that all do not fit with "reality". But this is not different from religious advice as, for instance, from the Buddha or from Jesus.

I think the core of all great religions is NOT fear of some projection of the "ubervater" ['over-father', ed.], but is "angst" in a disturbing world. On this I think Freud was wrong. Well, in older religions the fear of the "ubervater" may have been a dominant feeling, but in the "renewed" religion of the Buddha and of Jesus and Muhammad the dominant theme is "overcoming angst". What the Buddha said, and what Jesus said was: "I will lead you out of darkness and error, you can overcome angst and get out into the freedom and into the light." Socrates did not go that far, but at least into the same direction. Thus it was a matter of truth and not going astray.

And from this we see why removing all religions would not be a good idea: What humans fear most — and have to fear most — is not the demons and superstitions, but is man himself, his errors, his vileness, his stupidity and vanity. What people fear is anarchy. To do away with religion may be getting rid of an allegedly suppressive and fearful "ubervater", but then the gangsters rush in to take his place. The fearful king and "ubervater" was at the same time seen as the power upholding peace and law and order. This explains why even Hitler and Stalin, Mao and Chomeini were seen and acclaimed as godlike liberators from chaos and the villains.

But of course those "Great Helmsmen" in fact were great seducers and liars, not true leaders. They led their peoples into darkness, not into the light, into hate and fear, not into freedom. Thus we see once more this central theme of lying and moral error which is so different from any mere scientific error. This was what Jesus had on his mind when he said "I am the way, the truth, and the life."

Moral and spiritual truth has two different while deeply connected aspects: One is "clarity" and light, the other is "soundness" and reliability. If you build your house on false assumptions, your house will fall down in due time. As I said above, the main objective of any great religion is not so much to uncover the hidden truth as to uncover the hidden lie — even that of agnosticism. We should be careful here. It is very important to see the difference of "sinning against the traditions of the community" and "sinning against the spiritual inner truth." Both forms of "sinning" are very different and often conflicting. Socrates and Jesus were both put to death (and Luther was declared outlaw) because they were "sinning against the traditions of the community" in the view of the authorities, but they did so to defend "the spiritual inner truth" of the community. Their charge was that "the traditions of the community" were held up by "sinning against the spiritual inner truth." This charge is similar to that of those dissidents fighting Fascisms and Stalinisms and Christian or Islamic fundamentalisms in the name of the inherent ideals of those movements, ideals that have been corrupted by arrogance and fear, and by an obsession with power, purity and control.

Any great religious or idealist conviction is as much a stabilizing as a revolutionary creed. Matthew 10, 34-39 is a harsh and rebellious saying, and in a similar mood modern theology in the words of Karl Barth (1886-1968) has put it thus (not verbally, but the gist of it): "Don't ask how God is pleasing and servicing you. Ask how you can please and service God!" A religion is quite a challenge and not just a means "to keep people in moral order." A great religion is a fundamental critique of human conduct, not just urging mere "good behaviour". It is questioning the usual way of seeing things, not just a "superstition". It is giving hope and strength in an absurd world, not just offering "false dreams". Well, 90 per cent of religious practice may be of the less good sort, but the essence is not.

I would not deny that all the bad effects of religion — urging mere good behaviour and conformity, replacing solid knowledge and wisdom by "superstition" and causing "false dreams" and being "opium of the masses" — are of practical importance. And this applies with political religions like nationalism, racism, fascism and communism etc. likewise. But we never should forget that a-religious thinking is at least as ambivalent. What in fact is the difference between slaying poor heathen in the name of God and slaying poor Jews and capitalists in the name of "human progress"? The evil is not in religion itself but in human stupidity and fear and vileness.

Thus once more: "The main objective of any great religion is not so much to uncover the hidden truth as to uncover the hidden lie." Which of course are but the two sides of the same problem. The important point to be seen is: "Reasonable" behaviour can be as full of hidden lies as "religious" behaviour! The great danger of all modern "scientism" and "naturalism" is to blur this fact. The Nazis and the Stalinists thought themselves quite "reasonable". They were killing in the name of reason. They were proud to suppress their feelings of pity and respect in the name of reason and assumed good results. What did analytical philosophy do to tell us what went wrong?

All true spiritual thinkers — as for instance Dostoevsky or Soloviev or Bernanos — clearly saw this difference of being "reasonable" and being "good". And they saw the hidden lies in most pious people too — as clear and even clearer as Nietzsche or Freud ever did. Truth and lie in this sense are very difficult problems, evading all mere "scientific" approaches. We should become aware of this fact again.

The search for truth is like the search for the Holy Grail. A human life is not a technical problem but a spiritual one. When the followers of Jesus asked him "Master, where shall we go?" they were asking for guidance in a spiritual wilderness. Even positivist philosophy is often a method to evade the confrontation with truth and lie by splitting logical hairs like the pharisees and scribes, and by this means stay comfortable.

The Greek word for wisdom — sophia — and the Jewish word for wisdom both meant "to know what is right", and this comprised both aspects, the scientific-factual and the moral one. To be right in the moral sense just meant to be reasonable and to know your limits and God's word. This was one world of "universal truth", whether in the Greek or in the Hebrew or in any other — Buddhist, Christian, Islamist etc. — understanding. This unity has been lost somewhere in the lifetime of Kant, but many people want to have it back. What we are asking for today and with growing urgency is a new reading of what to call "good" and "sensible" as different from merely being "technically and scientifically effective". We don't need a philosophy for cattle-breeders and wellness-clubs.

The primary meaning of "being true" is to be "sound, sane, consistent, reliable, sensible, honest, sincere, proven" as opposed to being "unsound, insane, unreliable, absurd, dishonest, insincere, and pretending." We humans are living in a world of thinking and inventive moral agents, not in a world of provable facts and theories. We have to find a way to go and to act.

I am not opposed to modern analytical criticism per se. In the same way as modern concepts of art have destroyed all former conventions on what art is, modern analytical criticism destroyed all former conventions of what philosophy is. But modern art, by destroying outlived conventions, much widened our understanding of what art can be. So we have to ask whether modern philosophy, by destroying outlived conventions in philosophical thinking, is as much widening and enriching our understanding of what philosophy can be. Our modern concept of truth should not become scholastic and hair-splitting but mind expanding. It should allow us to see farther into the universe of reality than we ever before dared or imagined to see.

Truth, justice, and beauty are but three of the great guiding ideas of mankind, comparing what is to what should be, "for now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face." The common and fundamental meaning of truth, justice, and beauty is "characterizing a state of affairs we can agree to". This state — and not some solution to a formula — is the goal of our eternal quest for truth as thinking beings. My objection to positivism, logicism and naturalism is not that they are "wrong" but that they are sterile and reducing the great human quest for truth to a mere thoughtless method of accounting. The problem for humans as moral agents is not scientific truth but reason, humanity, and meaning.

We live in a fragmented world of many different "multicultural" opinions, and being open to learn from other people's view makes the strength of modernity. To find the truth is our common human endeavour. But it's only in part a scientific endeavour. It's more like a competent audience judging the arguments of the philosophers and artists and practitioners and scientists and theologians suggesting solutions for our problems. Who is this audience? The whole of humankind!

© Hubertus Fremerey 2005