How to Think About Truth

The following is an excerpt from How to Think About the Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization by Mortimer J Adler.

It was Adler, a philosopher, educator and author, and Robert Maynard Hutchins who founded the Great Books of the Western World Program.  And while the Great Books series debates many Great Ideas of our time, it was long before 9/11 and Adler had passed the June prior. The idea presented here, “The Great Idea of Truth” might be something worth considering.  Certainly a title “How To Think …”about anything seems a bit presumptuous, but taking some time to consider a perspective and knowing the difference between what is truth and what is true in a particular case seems fitting.

“Today we are going to consider The Great Idea of Truth.  As beauty is connected in our minds with art, as goodness is connected in our minds with the character of men and their action, so truth is connected with the pursuit of knowledge, with all the attempts that men make to know in science, in philosophy, in religion.  All earnest and serious efforts at inquiry comprise the pursuit of truth.

I’m sure you’ve heard people say, ” I would like to know the truth about that.”  I wonder if you’ve stopped to think how redundant that expression is, “to know the truth.”  Because the very meaning of the phrase “to know” is to have in one’s mind the truth about the object one is trying to know.  It is perfectly obvious-is it not?-that “false knowledge” is impossible.  It wouldn’t be knowledge if it were false.  And “true knowledge” is redundant.  To know is to have the truth.  And those who doubt man’s ability to possess the truth about anything.

Now, skepticism is just one of the attitudes that men take toward the problem of the pursuit of truth.  There are others.  Let me summarize for you quickly some basic oppositions in the attitudes that men take toward truth.  First is this attitude that I have just mentioned, skepticism.  The skeptic thinks that there is nothing true or false, or that everything is equally true and false, that we simply don’t have the knowledge or possess the truth.

The opposite position here is taken by those who think that men can inquire and can succeed in inquiry and can come to have some grasp of the truth about things.  For example, let me read you what Freud says against the skeptic.  He speaks of the skeptic or skeptics as nihlists who slay that there is no such thing as truth or that it is only the product of our own needs or desires.  They make it absolutely immaterial what views we accept.  All of them are equally true or false.  And no one has the right to accuse anyone else of error.  And Freud comments on this: “If it were really a matter of indifference what we believe, then we might just as well build our bridges of cardboard as of stone, or inject a tenth of gram of morphine into a patient instead of a hundreth, or take teargas as a narcotic instead of ether; but the intellectual anarchists themselves”-here Freud is calling the skeptic an intellectual anarchist-”but the intellectual anarchists themselves would strongly repudiate any such practical applications of their theory.”

Another attitude toward the truth is relativism.  And according to this view, some things that are true for you are false for me, and what may be true for me is false for you, and what was once true in some other period of history or in some other culture is no longer true.  Against this position of the relativity of truth to individuals or cultures, there is the opposite view that truth is objective, not subjective and relative, that is absolute and immutable, always and everywhere the same for all men.

Then there is the pragmatic attitude toward truth which says that truth consists in those ideas or those thoughts of ours which bear practical fruit in action, that truth consists in the things which work.  Truth is what works in the way of our thinking.  And as against this emphasis on action and practical results as the measure of truth; there are those who say that such practical verification in action or experience is not needed at all for man’s having a grasp of the truth.

Now the problems raised by these basic oppositions that I’v just summarized for you are in one way easy and in one way hard.  There are two distinct questions here that are often confused.  One is the question, ” What is truth?” a question that calls for the definition of truth.  And the other question is a question-listen-not “What is truth?” but “What is true in a particular case?” or “What is true?”  It is a question that calls upon us to say whether this statement is true or that statement is false, and to state the criteria or the standards but which we judge that a given statement is either true or false.”