The Catholic Thing
On “Knowing” and “Making” the Truth Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 29 April 2014

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Often I asked students: “What is the first thing required for making a chair?” The answer is not wood or a saw. The first thing is to “know” what a chair is. Our knowledge of a chair remains valid whether we make one or not. But if we have all the material and tools needed to make a chair, no chair will result unless we first know what a chair is. In addition, we must decide actually to make one. Every “made” chair is particular: a this chair, not that chair.

Next suppose that we do know what a chair is. We proceed to make one. What is the “truth” proper to the chair? Briefly, it is whether the chair as made is what we, as its maker, intended to make. The chair that someone now sits on is the embodiment of the idea or form of the chair that someone had in mind.

In this sense, we are better or worse craftsmen according to whether our idea of a chair was a good one and whether we crafted it in the material of which it is made. In this sense, I can talk of “making” the “truth” that is now found in the chair as made. It corresponds to what I “intended” to make.

Imagine, however, that I am not the craftsman who made the chair, but just someone who happened to see it. I identify it as a chair and as this particular chair, made of walnut wood. I can now be said to “know” the chair because I have correctly judged this object before me to be a chair. The “truth” is in my intellect affirming what it is.

I judge that this is a chair that actually exists. My mind corresponds to what is there. I now possess not only myself, but myself knowing something not myself, this chair. Thus, we first have a “practical” knowledge or “truth” that affirms that the chair is what the craftsman had in mind when he made it. We also simply know the truth that the chair exists. This truth is called “theoretical.” It just knows. It does not “do” anything. It neither makes it nor sits on it. It is content with knowing what is.

     Chair by Gursan Ergil made of antique walnut

Why bring this seemingly obvious matter up? Our minds evidently have the power simply to know what is, but also, on occasion, to do or make something with the things we know. We are aware that myriads of things are there to know. We also are aware of some curious drive in us to want to know these existing things, as if somehow we were intended to know them. But if we were “intended” to know them, we did not put this intentionality in ourselves. It was already there. Isn’t that strange?

We find out, moreover, that we have words to designate this thing or that. When we “name” a thing, no matter in what language, we call it to the attention of everyone who understands our word. The difference between truthfulness and lying has to do with whether we intend to speak to one another of the reality we name, the reality that is there. To lie to someone else means to deny proper exchange of truth between two people.

Let us now suppose that we deny that there is any discoverable “truth” in things, that our words do not designate a reality that simply exists, waiting for us to name it. The first thing that happens is that we are suddenly locked up within ourselves. No connection exists between what we say and what is. A universe in which no “what-ness” exists in things is said to “free” us. We are no longer “bound” by a reality that might have an origin in a maker who intended this thing to be this thing and not that thing.

If it is “true” that no “truth” is found, why is this statement “true”? Why do we have a mind “capable of knowing all things,” as Aristotle put it, if there is nothing to know, if there is no “truth” in things? If the only way that I can be “free” is to deny any “truth,” that leaves only me. To free myself radically, in this way, I have rid myself of the “truth.” I am left with myself emptied of all that is not myself.

Yet I still want to know each thing, what it is. I do not want the knowledge of myself to deprive me of all that is. Perhaps freedom consists in affirming a “made” reality, not in denying it. We are makers having been made. We are knowers before things to be known. From the freedom to empty the world of “truth” follows the necessity of knowing ourselves as the only “good.” Surely this is the ultimate boredom.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is CatholicThe Modern AgePolitical Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Readingand Reasonable Pleasures.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, April 29, 2014
It was the great Etienne Gilson who famously said, "Idealists think; Realist know."
written by schm0e, April 29, 2014
But why did you choose that particular chair to accompany this piece?
written by Brad Miner, April 29, 2014
@schm0e: I'm the one who chooses the illustrations for TCT columns. I chose the photo of that walnut chair because I think it's pretty.
written by Rich in MN, April 29, 2014
Among Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, it seems to me that the quality of Goodness is really the one driving the bus. Satan figured out that all he need do is replace the driver with the addict's lie -- that "goodness" which brings me ephemeral pleasure, that "goodness" which is acquiring what I crave, that "goodness" which is attaining the object of my most primal desires -- and then both Truth and Beauty have little hope of influencing the conversation. Instead, with the cheap paintbrush of "goodness," we will create through raw social and political power the mirages we call "truth" and "beauty" -- the coarse, fallacious caricatures of Truth and Beauty.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, April 30, 2014
Truth, Goodness and Beauty are simply Being itself, as known, desired and admired."
written by Howard, May 05, 2014
Of course, proponents of "same-sex marriage" will insist that they are MAKING a relationship, and they make the truth regarding what it is. The counter argument is that we did not make ourselves (which seemed obvious to me as a child, but seems very controversial today!), and what has always been called marriage is dependent on the truth about ourselves, which we can only recognize.

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