What is Truth?

Derek asked:

I am 16 years old and teaching myself philosophy. I plan on becoming an cognitive experimental psychologist. I am currently developing my own philosophical thoughts and beliefs. I strongly believe that answering philosophical questions with logically sound, valid and truthful arguments that are without fallacies is most important. I got overwhelmed by attempting to answer a question of mine a few weeks back. Are human beings capable of knowing objective truth through our subjective experiences and if so, how much and what objective truth are we able to know? Any insight that you may have would be very appreciated because I do not even know how to begin to answer the question. I do not even know if it can be answered. Thank you for your time. It is much appreciated.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Let us suppose that in 10 years time you have become a cadet of cognitive experimental psychology. By that stage you will have read a great deal of the literature on the subject matter, including many opinions on the question of objective truth.

Now take note of the words I just used: “many opinions”. This should already tell you something of vital importance to your quest. First, that truth is the opposite of lies; second that truth doubles up for ‘fact’; and third that scientific and philosophical proofs (aka ‘truths’) depend on the presuppositions (i.e. unquestioned principles) from which a demonstration starts. Having outlined this much, however, you also need to deal with certain psychological aspects of truth — e.g. the ‘revealed truths’ of religion are firmly believed by millions of people, including many deep thinkers who would not take kindly to a criticism that they hold kindergarten beliefs. Further, in your designated field, there are opportunities for delving into the truth about oneself, which is often a question of how much truth a person can sustain in themselves about themselves.

Finally, the etymology of the word tells us something interesting as well — it comes from the old German ‘treu’, for which the Latin-derived synonym is ‘loyal’, as in a bond of trust. This, ultimately, reveals the wisdom of language which I would like to put into a neat capsule for you: All truth is subjective. Otherwise truth would be an objective condition that permits universal verification. Therefore, also: all truth is intersubjective, as the concept of truth is not solipsistic, but ultimately the expression of a judgement which concerns persons and their relations to each other. Hence “Pontius Pilatus said, ‘What is truth?’ and would not wait for answer.” Truth, like justice and beauty, is in the eye of the beholders.

This is why many thinkers who have wrestled with the concept of truth eventually come around to substituting ‘wisdom’ for it. This is not what a young person wants to hear, because wisdom is the result (if at all) of much experience and deep insight into the human condition. So it seems to me that I must preach patience to a 16-year-old bent on intellectual conquest! Nevertheless I hope that the above is a useful guide on the point of your departure into a huge and largely unknown terrain.

One thought on “What is Truth?

  1. A note added on the question on “truth” by James. Jurgen Lawrenz hinted at the fact that “true” means “trustworthy”. That is not only a German idea but a Jewish one: To call God “true” means to call him trustworthy, reliable. Thus Luther used both translations of “emet” — true and trustworthy.

    The Greek concept of truth is very different, because the Greeks did not think of a trustworthy person but of the laws of logics and nature that seem reliable in themselves like the mathematical and logical theorems. So once emore “Athens and Jerusalem”. Heidegger stressed the fact that “a-letheia” means “that which is uncovered”. From this follows a debate on the question whether truth is “uncovered” or “constructed/ invented”.

    I could have hinted at A.J. Ayer “Language, Truth, and Logic”. But I am not sure that this is the right stuff for a teenie. But perhaps he should read this one:


    Still one of the best intros to philosophy – even for a teenie.


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