I try to re-read The Confessions (the one by St. Augustine, not the one by Rousseau) every Lent. Since it is that time of year again, and since I am rather weary of the usual quotidian static, I thought I would avert my gaze from the armed camp on the Potomac and say a word or two about my reading. In a famous passage of Book XI of that deep and magisterial book, Augustine asks a simple but apparently imponderable question: “What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is,” he says, “provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled.”
It is hard to read that passage without experiencing a shock of recognition.
There is a basic sense in which, like St. Augustine, we all know what time is. As Einstein once observed, time is “what the clock measures.” Any yet it is impossible not to feel that that answer, though correct, is somehow insufficient to the awesome reality of time—assuming, that is, that time is or has a reality and is not, as some philosophers have insisted, an illusion we contribute to make experience comprehensible.
When Plato described time as “the moving image of eternity,” his formulation was more poetic than Einstein’s, but not necessarily more satisfactory. The fact is that time, like many basic concepts, names an idea we are perfectly familiar with but that we may not be able to explain.
Consider the concept of truth.
There is an important sense in which we all know what truth is. We just couldn’t get along in the world if we didn’t. But being able to apply a concept in daily life does not necessarily mean we can define it. Or that we really understand it.
Medieval philosophers defined truth as “adaequatio intellectus et rei”: a “correspondence between thought and thing.”
That sounds impressive, especially in Latin, and it has a certain intuitive appeal. When we utter a true proposition—“2 + 2 = 4,” say, or “Snow is white”—we can see that there is a correspondence between our judgment and the state of affairs it names.
But what, exactly, is the nature of that “correspondence”?
It takes only a moment’s thought to realize that defining truth as a “correspondence between thought and thing” is like Einstein’s sly definition of time as that which the clock measures. It may be correct, but it somehow just doesn’t go far enough.
How much farther is it possible to go?
Anyone who takes a look at the history of philosophy will find that a disturbing question. A lot of papyrus has been darkened trying to answer that question. How much illumination has all that carefully placed ink produced?
Well, it has produced a number of useful distinctions. One of the things that makes formulating a satisfactory definition of truth so hard is that we use the word in so many different senses.
The 17th-century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz distinguished usefully between “truths of reason” and “truths of fact.” This distinction underscores the difference between contingent matters of fact—things that simply happen to be one way or another, e.g., “The sun is shining”—and things that are necessarily true, e.g., “all bachelors are unmarried” or “X cannot be both true and not true at the same time and in the same respect.”
It is easy to see the difference between straightforward empirical truths and logical truths summed up in things like the principle of noncontradiction.
But how much closer does that bring us to an understanding of truth? Part of the problem is that the question of truth always carries with it an implicit challenge: how do you know?
The question of truth is like the license plates in the state of Missouri, which brag about being the “Show me state.” How can you justify your judgment if someone asks you?
There have been plenty of answers to this question. But the multiplicity of answers shows that we are dealing with a multiplicity of questions. Picking the correct strategy depends on the kind of truth claim being advanced.
The more general answers to the question “What is truth?” tend to be elegant—and pretty empty. “Truth,” the philosopher Schopenhauer said in one typical formulation, “is the reference of a judgment to something outside that stands as its ground.”
It seems ungrateful to complain. After all, Schopenhauer was quite accurate. And in his defense, he goes on to say a lot of interesting things about different ways that proposition might be “populated.”
And yet, and yet . . .
In the Gospel of St. John, we read that “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” However we decide to understand that, it is clearly a very different sort of thing from the kind of truth involved in the statement “Snow is white” or “2 + 2 = 4.” Presumably, the strategies involved in deciding whether it is true are very different as well.
Or consider the 19th-century Danish philosopher Kierkegaard. Rebelling against the pretensions of German idealism and its claim to have achieved “Absolute Knowledge,” Kierkegaard declared that “truth is subjectivity.”
Inured to believing that, whatever truth is, it has something to do with getting beyond our subjective point of view, most of us will agree that Kierkegaard’s polemic at least has the virtue of novelty.
But even if subjectivity is truth, the problem of justification, of knowing what to answer when some asks you to explain, remains as pressing as it ever was. The history of speculation about truth has prominently included what we might call a school of impatience that, instead of trying to solve the problem, has endeavored to dismiss it.
All the varieties of skepticism belong to the school of impatience, as do pragmatists like the American psychologist/philosopher William James who defined truth as “what works.” (The 20th-century Australian philosopher David Stove spoke in this context of “the American philosophical tradition of self-indulgence, or to give it its usual name, pragmatism.”)
The school of impatience tends to flourish in cynical ages, and so it is not surprising that it is immensely popular in our own age.
Today, many educated people are deeply impressed by thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, who defined truth as “a moveable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms,” and concluded that to tell the truth was merely “to lie according to a well-established convention.”
It is pretty easy to show that Nietzsche’s brash formulation is incoherent. One cannot, after all, make sense of a “lie” without presupposing a standard of truthfulness in the light of which a lie can be recognized as a lie.
But Nietzsche’s fundamental appeal, I believe, is emotional, not intellectual. People are impressed less by Nietzsche’s arguments than by his daring adversarial stance.
There is something discomfiting about confronting basic questions to which one has no, or only inadequate, answers. Faced with the question “What is truth?” it is much easier to behave as Pontius Pilate did and just wash one’s hands.
Easier, but not finally more satisfying. The school of impatience has the advantage of distracting us from questions we may not be able to answer.
But it has the great disadvantage of distracting us from questions that continue to matter, whether or not we can answer them.