What Is Truth?

TIME magazine’s cover for the April 3 issue posed the provocative question, “Is Truth Dead?” It followed up with the corollary article, “Can Trump Handle the Truth,” which itemized all the untruths emerging from Trump’s allegations and tweets, and floating around in his administration.

By contrast, Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times, after the “shocking defeat” of Hillary Clinton (who the Times predicted shortly before the election to have a 90-plus percent chance of winning) apologized sotto voce for alleged bias in its coverage of the 2016 presidential election. He assured readers of the “Newspaper of Record” that:

We aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor.

Having rededicated itself to honesty, the newspaper is currently sending out advertisements for subscriptions to college students and others, emphasizing that the Times is the place where they can get real truth – i.e., “all the news that’s fit to print.”

But it’s going to be difficult. The TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes on March 26 interviewed professional purveyors of “fake news” who boasted of the immense profits they have made from advertisements, as their often outrageous news “scoops” proliferate exponentially in Facebook and other social media. 60 Minutes noted that the most avid consumers, contrary to expectations, are not the “less educated,” but the college-educated public, who happen to be overwhelmingly political liberals.

But the renewed attention to truth is welcome, and at least may result in some new insights or “rededications.”

Philosophers for several millennia have tried to pinpoint the nature of truth. Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers have emphasized that truth involves a correspondence of the mind to reality. This theory, dubbed “realism,” focuses on the human power of abstraction of generalities from particulars – e.g., developing the concept, “flower” from experience of geraniums and roses, and the concept of “living things” from experience of flora and fauna, and then making proper judgments.

But in the 18th century, Immanuel Kant brought to a head the Cartesian emphasis on subjectivity by theorizing that the things we know have to correspond to mental categories that result from the laws of logic. For example, our logic distinguishes particular propositions from universal propositions, so we have to think in terms of “some,” “all,” “totalities,” etc.

Kant also prided himself on waking up from a “dogmatic slumber” caused by David Hume. Hume thought that causality was just a contingent result of our experience of B or C happening after A, while Kant theorized that we must think in terms of causality because our logic contains hypothetical propositions (the “if A, → then B” type), so that we connect antecedents and conclusions.

Some philosophical successors of Kant, however, have been troubled by his split between subjectivity and reality in ethics and metaphysics. In the 19th century, G.W.F. Hegel tried to overcome that split. He emphasized that truth in its fullest sense brings both sides together – subject and object, consciousness and the “thing in itself,” rationality and nature.

For example, whereas Kant’s ethics involved a complete separation of duty (maxims that rational beings would want to be applied universally) from inclinations, Hegel thought true ethics is concerned with harmonizing our natural inclinations with consciousness of duties. And, in general, our effort should be to bring the ideal into harmony with the real. For instance, a true statesman is one who conforms to the concept of a statesman, and true art is art that conforms to the ideal of art.

Contemporary philosophers have developed a variety of theories about truth, but the above three approaches have been important watersheds; and some current developments seem to resonate with these three approaches:

  • The Politifact organization, whose findings and Truth-O-Meter ratings are widely published in newspapers and other media around the country, can be considered a movement towards realism, leading politicians and pundits to fear Politifact’s dreaded “liar, liar, pants on fire” rating.
  • Think tanks working at developing proper ideals for democracy, trade, immigration, foreign policy, etc., seem to be following in Kant’s steps, setting up ways of thinking about topical and often controversial subjects.
  • The contemporary philosophical interest in the best ways to interpret and apply the ideals and principles of the U.S. Constitution have an affinity with Hegel’s quest to bring ideals and factuality together.

A major problem in American politics is ideology – which leads news media to simply omit any news that they don’t like or agree with and to forget the basic rule they learned in journalism 101 – to distinguish between reporting and editorializing. This is difficult to do. The conscientious journalist must continually wend his way between multiple “isms” – globalism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, liberalism, feminism, neo-conservatism, relativism, scientism. . . .And the list goes on.

Similar problems, which can also related to ideology, have emerged in the Catholic Church. The days of Fr. Leonard Feeney’s “No salvation outside the Church” are largely behind us. Now we have “the great embrace” of Islam as a “religion of peace,” over and over again, in spite of centuries of contrary evidence and incidents around the world. And strict adherence to Church laws regarding marriage, divorce, communion, etc. is “Pharisaical.” Do these “anti-Pharisee” critics really think the 613 Jewish laws are simply in the same category as the Ten Commandments and the six laws of the Catholic Church?

The most important of the natural laws, according to Aquinas, is the law that rational creatures should seek and honor the truth. At present, the truth seems to be honored often in its breach. We are surrounded by so much ideology and so many nostrums and “settled science” (not to mention manufactured “fake news”) that we have extra motivation to seek out the truth.

Just possibly, the New York Times may not be the best place to start.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.