Truth in the Western tradition

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 Björn Freter

I think — as my esteemed colleagues have also pointed out — it is not surprising that you are overwhelmed by those questions you discovered. They are indeed overwhelming. Being overwhelmed might even be a part of the human condition of a lot of human beings. Just consider of what Kant explains in the Preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason:

“Human reason has the peculiar fate in one species of its cognitions that it is burdened with questions which it cannot dismiss, since they are given to it as problems by the nature of reason itself, but which it also cannot answer, since they transcend every capacity of human reason. Reason falls into this perplexity through no fault of its own. It begins from principles whose use is unavoidable in the course of experience and at the same time sufficiently warranted by it. With these principles it rises (as its nature also requires) ever higher, to more remote conditions. But since it becomes aware in this way that its business must always remain incomplete because the questions never cease, reason sees itself necessitated to take refuge in principles that overstep all possible use in experience, and yet seem so unsuspicious that even ordinary common sense agrees with them. But it thereby falls into obscurity and contradictions, from which it can indeed surmise that it must somewhere be proceeding on the ground of hidden errors; but it cannot discover them, for the principles on which it is proceeding, since they surpass the bounds of all experience, no longer recognize any touchstone of experience. The battlefield of these endless controversies is called metaphysics.” (Critique of Pure Reason A vii sq.)

Kant points out that the human reason by its very own nature desires more than it can achieve. According to Kant the foundational problem is a self-misunderstanding of the human reason. It tries to solve its practical problems with its theoretical capacities, but these theoretical capacities are unable to answer the inevitable human questions. This is why Kant wrote a Critique of Pure (which means here: Theoretical) Reason: It is a book that wants to discipline the theoretical reason, it is a call to order, an attempt to discipline to human reason using human reason. That was Kant’s approach to react to pretty much the same feeling you have described. I think, it might be helpful, it may even be a relief, to understand that you came across a foundational problem of philosophy — at least within the Western philosophical tradition.

The Critique of Pure Reason is, within the Western philosophical canon, one of the most influential works; its influence is still distinctly noticeable in contemporary discussions of cognitive capabilities, be it in the philosophical, the psychological or neurological approaches. I would strongly recommend to get familiar with this book. As much as you might disagree with its results, as much it might offer you a great opportunity to get a profound introduction into the foundations of Western epistemology. (It is important to add that Kant is a highly problematic thinker, who has made many many racist, sexist, antisemitic, homophobic and more superiorist remarks and, so far, not enough research has been conducted to determine the influence of these superiorist thoughts on Kant’s philosophical thinking, including his epistemological thinking.)

I would like to add that another, additional question could be important for your further philosophical undertakings. Why do you think “that answering philosophical questions with logically sound, valid and truthful arguments that are without fallacies is most important”? What kind of security, infallibility, certainty are you looking for and, again, why? There might be — surprisingly — deeply existential motive to be found here, the desire to find calmness within all the insecurity of the world. It seems important to be aware of this existential basis, it might make you biased to find a result if there is an unknown strong desire to have to find a result!

Within Western philosophical tradition, to my understanding, this desire was mostly openly discussed in the schools of Hellenism, most of all in Epicurus. His clear goal of philosophy was to reduce fear, and, if I may simplify somewhat, according to him, that could be regard true which would help to reduce fear. Here we can find an example where the existential problem of being lost in the insecurities of the world started to dominate epistemological issues. Epicurus seemed to care little about what can be known or not, it was more important that a piece of knowledge has had a certain existential, in or, other words, a calming effect. There might be nothing wrong with that concept of truth, but it also might be important to be aware of our human existential desires lurking in the background. And, I guess, it is a good thing, even should one not know what to do with these desires, to be aware of them!

I wish you all the best for your philosophical journey!

2 thoughts on “Truth in the Western tradition

  1. Björn Freter,

    I would appreciate your direct answer to just this question:

    “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?” Thanks.

  2. Derek, I find your following question very interesting and very important. My congratulations to you for hitting upon this question.
    ” 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?”

    I am myself very interested in finding the answer to your question.

    Kant seems to think that knowing objective reality, hence objective truth, is not possible for humans.

    Kant wrote:

    Transcendental idealism

    Perhaps the central and most controversial thesis of the Critique of Pure Reason is that human beings experience only appearances, not things in themselves; and that space and time are only subjective forms of human intuition that would not subsist in themselves if one were to abstract from all subjective conditions of human intuition. Kant calls this thesis transcendental idealism.[7]

    One of his best summaries of it is arguably the following:

    We have therefore wanted to say that all our intuition is nothing but the representation of appearance; that the things that we intuit are not in themselves what we intuit them to be, nor are their relations so constituted in themselves as they appear to us; and that if we remove our own subject or even only the subjective constitution of the senses in general, then all constitution, all relations of objects in space and time, indeed space and time themselves would disappear, and as appearances they cannot exist in themselves, but only in us. What may be the case with objects in themselves and abstracted from all this receptivity of our sensibility remains entirely unknown to us. We are acquainted with nothing except our way of perceiving them, which is peculiar to us, and which therefore does not necessarily pertain to every being, though to be sure it
    pertains to every human being. We are concerned solely with this. Space and time are its pure forms, sensation in general its matter. We can cognize only the former a priori,
    i.e., prior to all actual perception, and they are therefore called pure intuition; the latter, however, is that in our cognition that is responsible for its being called a posteriori cognition, i.e., empirical intuition. The former adheres to our sensibility absolutely necessarily, whatever sort of sensations we may have; the latter can be very different.


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