by Lambert Zuidervaart (August 26, 2014)
“Philosophy begins with the demand
that truth and goodness coincide.”
—Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought, 203
Susan Neiman’s book tells a gripping new story about how modern philosophy took shape. Philosophers usually say questions about knowledge have driven philosophy from Descartes onward: What can we know? How can we know it? How certain can we be about what we claim to know? Granted, worries about knowledge are significant in the history of modern philosophy, Neiman says. Yet the larger story—the story that undergirds philosophy’s epistemological concerns—is a modern struggle to come to terms with evil: Why do people suffer? Why do they inflict suffering on others? How can we make sense of a world where suffering is rampant? Moreover, such questions, and closely related ones about the meaning of life and our place in the universe, have motivated philosophy from the very beginning. Contemporary philosophy neglects them to its own detriment.
This suggests, in turn, that knowledge, conduct, and imagination have closer connections than the standard story allows. We might, like Kant, distinguish three central questions in philosophy: What can we know? What must we do? What may we hope? But we should remember that these distinct questions belong together. We cannot separate true knowledge from right action and proper hope. If action and hope are interlaced ways to resist evil and pursue what is good, then we can say that, at bottom, truth and goodness intersect.
Surprisingly, this understanding of philosophy resonates with what Jesus says about himself when Thomas asks, We don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way? Jesus replies: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6a). In other words, to truly know me is to follow me in hope—Thomas, you know the way. Here, too, truth and goodness intersect, not in a professional philosophy, but in a true way of life.
Most philosophers today, including many Christians, would think Jesus' using the word “truth” to describe himself has little to do with “truth” as philosophers define it. They might argue long and hard about how to define truth and why truth is important. But they would regard Jesus’ use of “truth” as irrelevant to their debates. Many of these same philosophers tell the standard story about modern philosophy, where questions about knowledge predominate—even philosophers who reject a preoccupation with knowledge. If, however, truth and goodness intersect, then the words of Jesus might be relevant to philosophical debates about truth. For Jesus suggests that the truth of knowledge is intimately interwoven with right action and proper hope. To know the truth, we must walk on the right path and head in the promised direction.
It is one thing to say Jesus’ words might be relevant and quite another to show in detail what this would imply for debates about truth in contemporary philosophy. Showing this is a provocative challenge for reformational scholars today, a challenge my colleagues and I took up in our Truth Matters book, and one I will continue to address in a new book on the idea of truth.
The challenge has two sides. One side has to do with what truth is. For the most part, contemporary philosophers agree that truth is propositional: truth in the strict sense is something only propositions or assertions can have. They disagree about what makes a proposition true and how to understand such truth. Simplifying, one can say that a proposition is the content of a declarative sentence. For example, when I say or write “The cat is on the mat” (a standard example in these discussions), I assert the proposition that the cat is on the mat. Is this proposition true or false? Why? How?
This common restriction of truth to propositions limits what can count as true knowledge. The restriction makes it extremely difficult to explain how the arts can be ways of truly knowing ourselves and the world we inhabit, as I have argued in my book Artistic Truth. It encourages very narrow views about the truth of religious experience and of sacred scriptures, as we can see in debates about how to interpret the first three chapters of Genesis. It also makes the words of Jesus about himself seem irrelevant for a philosophical theory of truth: since Jesus is not a proposition, when he calls himself “the truth,” his usage of “truth” appears to fall outside the scope of truth as philosophers define it.
The other side to our challenge concerns whether and why truth is important. Like goodness, truth has been a central topic of Western philosophy throughout its history. So it might puzzle you to learn that a number of prominent contemporary philosophers doubt the importance of truth. They have various reasons for this. Some think claims about truth are simply a cover for power struggles. Others assert that having true beliefs can lead to worse consequences than not having them or having false beliefs. Still others claim that calling a proposition true simply means that we consider it justifiable in a specific context. In any case, truth is not what it was cracked up to be, and philosophers should get over their traditional preoccupation with truth.
Needless to say, this contemporary tendency to deflate the value of truth poses a challenge for anyone who thinks truth and goodness intersect. It also reflects and reinforces broader trends in Western society, where people increasingly doubt whether it is either possible or necessary to pursue truth. Perhaps, for example, “truthiness” (the appearance of truth) is all we need. The long-term practical fall-out of such skepticism about the value of truth is not hard to foresee: scientists and other scholars will not need to worry whether their theories and findings are true; citizens will not expect their political leaders to tell the truth; and truth will not be an important consideration in the media and in our courts of law.
Contemporary skepticism about the value of truth feeds on the restriction of truth to propositions. By detaching questions of truth from questions of goodness, and by narrowing the scope of truth to what can be stated in propositional form, philosophers have turned the concept of truth into such thin gruel that it can no longer nourish substantive concerns. Why, then, would truth be important?
The only viable alternative, it seems to me, is to propose a much more robust idea of truth, one in which the correctness of propositions is just one mode of truth, albeit an important one, and in which questions of truth intersect questions of goodness. In the end, truth is not simply something we can state but something we inhabit and live out. It is in doing the truth—in being true to our word, being true to others, and truly doing what love requires—that we know what is true, including what is propositionally true.
Reformational philosophers have always aimed to align their theories with “the way, and the truth, and the life.” We also have wanted to bring about an “inner reformation” of scholarship, in conversation with the leading thinkers of our time. To do both of these with respect to the idea of truth is a provocative challenge of our age. We need to show in convincing detail that truth and goodness intersect.