Historical Introduction to Philosophy/Truth, Objectivity, and Relativism

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Before we begin, it is prudent to go over the basic course procedures. The information provided is intended to give a basic outline of the main philosophical positions on the topic and give the student an idea of what to expect from and take out of the reading. Each philosopher will have a link to a website that will provide background information on their lives and summaries of their philosophical positions that should provide more help in understanding their works. The reading questions should be reviewed before reading the selection in order to help guide your focus, because most of these works are not easy to get through. As another note, some on the full text wesites for the readings are not the best translations, so purchasing a copy of the texts is often times inexpensive, and always reccomended. And of course, most importantly, have fun!

Knowledge and Truth[edit]

Before discussing the philosophical debate on truth, it is first important to briefly review the two general distinctions between types of knowledge. These distinctions are concerned with how knowledge comes to be known--either independently of experience, or based on experience. These distinctions are purely epistemological, and are “a priori” and “a posteriori” knowledge, respectively.

A Priori Knowledge From Latin meaning literally “from what comes before”, a priori knowledge is characterized by its independent relationship from experience, which includes, but is not limited to, innate knowledge. This type of knowledge is arrived at through thought and reason alone. Common examples include: 'All bachelors are unmarried men' and 'All triangles have three sides'. In both of these statements, you need not refer to any particular experiences to determine whether you know the statements are true--they are true by virtue of their meaning, an assessment that was arrived at through reason. A priori knowledge is philosophically linked to analytic thought mostly through the works of Kant, and later Quine. Analytic propositions are true by their meaning alone and do not rely on any fact about the world. The concept of necessary truth is also linked to a priori knowledge because the negation of a priori statements produce a contradiction on the basis of their meaning alone, which remains constant regardless of how the world may happen to be. A priori knowledge, for the sake of simplification, is therefore always true or false.

A Posteriori Knowledge From Latin meaning literally “from what comes after”, a posteriori knowledge is characterized by its dependence on both reason and experience. Common examples include: 'That bachelor is tall' and 'That triangle is red'. The truth of falsity of these statements cannot be determined without observing the actual, real-world state of the bachelor and the triangle. Of course, one must use reason to understand the correspondence of the meaning of bachelor and triangle to the things observed, but the essential meaning of the statements is not contingent upon this relationship. Like a priori is linked to analytic thought, a posteriori is linked to synthetic thought, in which truth is characterized by its meaning but also by the state of relevant facts about the world. Contingent truth is therefore also linked to a posteriori knowledge because the truth of the statement is dependant upon what the world is like, and this world need not be any particular way at all.

This distinction between types of truths in modern philosophy was first made clear by Gottfried Leibniz (1646 – 1716). Leibniz used the term “truth of reasoning” to refer to statements of truth based on reason, and the term “truth of fact” to refer to statements of truth based on empirical data.(1) This later influenced David Hume’s distinction between “relations of ideas” and “matters of fact.” Immanuel Kant later made the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements of truth that we are familiar with.(2)

These concepts will be revisited in discussions about that kinds of things can be true based on our ability to know them. For further reading on the distinctions, relevance, and examples of a priori and a posteriori knowledge, refer to the following links:
A Priori and A Posteriori
Analytic and Synthetic Statements

What is truth?[edit]

Epistemological concerns with truth are extensive to say the least. Generally, they can be characterized by their interrogation of what it means to know something is true, what sorts of things can be true, and what truth is. These questions are generally addressed by seeking the answer to one in order to explain the other. There are several theories that set out to determine what truth is by answering what sorts of things can be true and what knowing this truth means. The majority of these theories have enjoyed more extensive development in the twentieth century, but the Correspondence Theory of Truth attributes its development in the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle and both addresses and responds to key ideas about truth: justification and belief.

Socrates, largely in response to the empty wisdom the Sophists espoused, positioned wisdom, first and foremost, as the awareness of your own ignorance. By avoiding the unethical characterizations of knowledge of the self-serving Sophists, Socrates was able to connect his lack of and subsequent search for knowledge to virtue, the most important of all being arete (excellence). He believed that knowledge was innate, and by questioning in a form that would become famously known as the Socratic dialogues. He was also very careful to seperate knowledge from true belief, because truth requires some sort of justification for the belief.

Wow! Your first reading assignment! Before begining, it may be useful to read over some tips on reading and understanding philosophical texts. And now we begin.

Please read Plato's Meno, in which Socrates examines the nature of virtue, with these questions in mind:

1. What is the relationship between knowledge and virtue? 2. What is the difference between knowledge and true opinion?

Please prepare short (1 paragraph) responses to the questions with quotations from the text to support your answers.

Plato believed that knowledge was innate, making the search for such a matter of recollection of the knowledge your soul had when it was floating in the realm of the forms. This recall was triggered by the process of questioning similar to the Socratic method developed by his mentor. Like Socrates found knowledge of goodness necessary for virtue, Plato placed the Good as the highest form and the form in which all other forms participated in in varying degrees. Wisdom , then, was the recollection of the knowledge of Good in order to participate more in the form of Good.

Please read Plato's Republic with these questions in mind:

1. Why does Plato believe there are three distinct parts of the soul? 2. What does the Allegory of the Cave reveal about Plato's views on knowledge? What then can we infer about his views on the nature of truth?

Please prepare short (1 paragraph) responses to the questions with quotations from the text to support your answers.

Aristotle, being more scientifically inclined in his investigations of the nature of things, finds the highest good of human existence to act in our nature as rational beings and, well, be rational. He describes wisdom, therefore, as being able to rationalize about things in the world both in regards to practical actions and in finding happiness through virtue.

Oh, you will have more reading. Just wait.

Correspondence Theory of Truth[edit]

This theory explains truth by its relationship to the way the world is, stating that truth is determined by its correspondence to a fact that exists in the world. This theory is commonly associated with the positions of classical philosophy, but it is most famously established in Aristotle’s Metaphysics where he defines truth as “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”. This quote does not specifically establish the importance of the relationship between truth and the world, it does lay the foundations for the importance of relationships of what is. In his work Categories, Aristotle begins to flesh out the things that make statements true. Reading Assignment:

Please read Aristotle’s Categories with these questions in mind: 1. What support for the basic tenants of Correspondence Theory can you find in Categories? 2. Why is the definition of the word ‘is’ important to Aristotle?

Is that a fact?[edit]

Yes, the term fact has snuck its way into our discussion, and of course, it cannot be denied a grand entrance. A fact, insofar as The Correspondence Theory allows, facts can be mind-dependent or mind-independent entities (a priori or a posteriori knowledge). This becomes a problem because of the relationship between a proposition and a fact. “Mexico is south of the United States” is a proposition. And it is a fact. But it cannot be both without being circular and therefore fallacious, leading critics or Correspondence Theory to complain that facts are whatever true propositions must correspond to in order to be true.

Coherence Theories[edit]

Moving the justification of truth away from its specific relationship to the world, the Coherence Theories of Truth are characterized by their justification of a true proposition because of its relationship to other propositions. This theory evokes a more common-sense style approach to how we determine what is true--the process of determining truth is a recursive reference to what we already hold to be true in order to ascertain whether this new proposition is true, or more specifically, whether or not it coheres with our established beliefs.

What about belief?[edit]

Belief, roughly, is our attitude towards what we regard to be true or false. Linking what it is to be true with belief can, however, be quite problematic, because it allows for me to believe something and you to not believe something, which violates the law of non-contradiction, which always holds more philosophical weight than theories that violate it. The idea of belief, and the distinction of beliefs from knowledge will be further discussed with regard to Objective Knowledge.

Of Justification[edit]

Epistemological justifications for Coherence Theories suggest that we essentially cannot know if a proposition corresponds with the world because we cannot know what is beyond our own beliefs, but we can adequately ascertain whether or not something is consistent with our beliefs. There are of course several criticism to Coherence Theories of Justification, the principle one being that it does not necessarily follow that because a proposition cannot be known to correspond to reality that it does not correspond with reality.

The Problem of Justified True Belief[edit]

Truth and knowledge are intricately related because you must have knowledge of something to determine truth, and something must be true in order for it to be knowledge. Enter Justified True Belief, a traditional philosophical position on knowledge and truth that goes something like this: In order to know something, one must first believe that a proposition is true, because if you don't believe something you do not have knowledge of it. Secondly, this belief must be true, because you wouldn't believe it if it wasn't, and for reasons of a third element: justification. Justification is of course, a condition to ensure that belief is not just a matter of luck, but there are reasons for this belief. Philosophy diverges on what kinds of reasons fulfill this condition, but in general the belief should rationally follow from reliable evidence. This effectively sets up a conditional triumvirite in order to determine knowledge that reflexively relies on and determines truth.

Of course, this is perhaps too simplistic to be useful. There are cases where justification does not ensure that belief is not because of luck, known specifically as the Gettier Problem.

There's more.

Later Positions on Truth.[edit]

Augustine of Hippo enters God into the picture when it comes to defining truth, although not without reference to the methods of early philosophers. Here is a helpful outline provided by Wikipedia that explains Augustine's view of truth. And that's all the reading you have to do. For now.

1. Truth Exists:-It is self-defeating to deny the existence of truth. If someone claims that “Truth does not exist”, then we can counter by asking if the claim is True or False. If the claim is False, then Truth Exists, and if the claim is True, then Truth Exists.

2. Truth is Unchangeable:- It is impossible for truth to change. What is true today always has been and always will be true. All true propositions are immutable truths. Pragmatic views of truth that imply that what is true today may be false tomorrow are untrue. If truth changes, then pragmatism will be untrue tomorrow, if indeed it could ever be true.

3. Truth is Eternal:- By extension of its Unchangeable nature, Truth must be Eternal. Even if every created thing ceases to exist, Truth will continue to exist. But suppose someone asks, “What if truth itself should someday perish?” Then the truth that “Truth has perished” would still exist eternally. Any denial of the eternity of truth turns out to be an affirmation of its eternity.

4. Truth is Spiritual:- The existence of truth presupposes the existence of minds. Without a mind, truth could not exist. The object of knowledge is a meaningful thought which resides in one or more minds.

a. Truth is Not a function of Matter:- The existence of truth is incompatible with any materialistic view of man. Materialists believe that all thinking and reasoning is merely the result of the motion of particles in the brain. But one set of relative physical motions are not truer than another set. Therefore, if there is no mind, there can be no truth; and if there is no truth, materialism cannot be true. Truth cannot be a function of the position of material objects because if a thought was the result of some physical motion in the brain, no two persons could have the same thought. A physical motion is a fleeting event different from every other motion. Two persons could not have the same random motion, nor could one person have the same random motion twice.

b. Truth is Not a function of Time:-If thoughts were the result of physical motions in the brain, memory and communication would be impossible. We are able to recall the past because we have minds and not because of the motion of particles in our brains. Thus, if one is able to think the same thought twice, truth must be independent of time.

c. Truth is Not a function of Space:- Truth is independent of Space as well. Not only does truth defy time and matter; it defies space as well. For communication to be possible between two or more people, the identical truth must be in two or more minds at the same time. If, in opposition, anyone wished to deny that an immaterial idea can exist in two different minds at the same time, his denial must be conceived to exist in his own mind only; and since it has not registered in any other mind, it does not occur to us to refute it!

5. Truth is Superior to the human mind:-By its very nature, truth cannot be subjective and individualistic. Truth is immutable, but the human mind is changeable. Even though beliefs vary from one person to another, truth itself cannot change. Moreover, the human mind does not stand in judgment of truth; rather truth judges our reason. While we sometimes judge other human minds (as when we say, for example, that someone’s mind is not as keen as it should be), we do not judge truth. If truth and the human mind were equal, truth could not be eternal and immutable since the human mind is finite, mutable, and subject to error. Therefore, truth must transcend human reason; truth must be superior to any individual human mind as well as to the sum total of human minds. From this it follows that there must be a mind higher than the human mind in which truth resides.

6. Truth is God:-We have seen that Truth exists, is unchangeable, eternal, spiritual, and is superior to the human mind. But only God possesses these attributes. If we substitute the word “God” for the word “Truth” in the list of attributes, we see that:

God Exists- God is Unchangeable- God is Eternal- God is Spiritual- God is not a function of Space, Time or Matter- God is Superior to the human mind- These attributes apply equally to Truth and God, and only to Truth and God. Truth and God are identical. Truth and God are convertible. Truth is God. God is Truth.

No created thing possesses the attributes of Truth or God. There can be no True propositions about created entities, including numbers, geometric patterns or so called “laws” of science because they are all dependent on Space, Time or Matter. The only true propositions are about God. In other words, Knowing Truth is Knowing God. Truth is Knowledge of God.

Gottfried Leibniz defined truth as a proposition in which the predicate is contained in the subject. The predicate is what is claimed to be true, and the subject is that which the predicate claims truth about. When I propose that “I am a dog,” the subject of my proposition is me, and the predicate is am a dog. This happens to be false, because the predicate is not contained in the subject (there is no dog-ness in me). Leibniz argued that there must be a sufficient reason for why a thing is the way it is. This he called the principle of sufficient reason. Note that this does not directly imply determinism. If for every predicate there are predicates that together are sufficient for explaining it, as Leibniz argued, it does not necessarily follow that a certain collection of predicates was necessary to explain the predicate which they sufficiently explain.(1) To illustrate, Leibniz would argue that the events in Hitler’s life (perhaps being an insecure bully) were sufficient to explain his behavior as a leader. However, those events were not necessary to bring about Hitler’s behavior as a leader; he could have experienced very different things, and still have demonstrated the same behavior as a leader.

Knowledge and Objectivity[edit]

The relationship between knowledge and objectivity is essentially defined by our perception. In the most basic sense, knowledge is objective if it exists independent of the perceiver's perception of it. This statement is simple enough, but it implies within it complicated determinations about our abilities to perceive objects. If something were to be objective, it must exist independent of our awareness of it, whereas something is subjective if it relies on our perception in order to be, like colors only exist the way they do because they are seen. Subjective knowledge, then, refers only to knowledge of one’s own state, because that is the only knowledge that relies on our perception in order to be. The state of someone else, for instance, does not rely on our perceiving it, but in their own perception of it, and that perception alone. This affords subjective knowledge special epistemological status because it is the only form of immediate knowledge.

The Case for Objectivity[edit]

Plato, of course, believes that there is an objective reality, found in his theory of the Forms. These Forms are therefore the highest forms of knowledge because they exist in the most "real" way possible.

Aristotle, to be difficult, believes in what Plato what consider a subjective reality. He still believes in an idea of the Forms as essences of things and that these are the most objective reality, but rejects the idea that we can know anything (perfectly and objectively) that we don't know by experience, and we cannot experience the essences. Now what are these Forms, you ask? Well, read:

Plato's The Divided Line and Allegory of the Cave (yes, you have read this before, but now look at the idea of the Forms) A helpful site can be found here.

Aristotle's Metaphysics at evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/aristotle01.htm

You know what you are looking at in these readings (foundations for objectivity), and it is a lot of reading. No questions for this section.


Everyone has heard the phrase, "It's all relative" mumbled in a dismissive tone, and as far as most philosophical positions go, they are just as annoyed with things being "relative" as you are. Because "everything is relative" it is hard to even characterize the general posisiton on relativism except for a few general tenets: 1. Views or opinions (this inculdes moral and ethical positions) are relative to a certain perspective, and 2. There is no privlidged (or correct) perspective.

Relativism lends itself easily to criticism, because following its very own logic, the view that relativism is wrong is as valid of a viewpoint as the view that relativism is correct. This fruitless recursivity is perhaps what is most problematic about relativism because it does not encourage, in a real and meaningful way, the pursuit of knowledge because all possible knowledges are the same (including contradictory knowledges) and therefore there is no objective form of knowledge.

Relativism emerged with the Sophists, most famously with Protagoras, who was acknowledged by Plato in his dialogue, Protagoras at evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/plato_protagoras03.htm. Please read the selection and identify the characteristics of relativism you see atributed to Protagoras's arugments.

As philosophy progressed, relativistic thought persisted, although it did not begin to emerge as a powerful position until the 20th century.

But that is another class. Until then, here is an interesting site with rather compelling arguments for relativistic thought. Are you convinced? Please compose a short (2 page) essay arguing for or against all or some of the arguments for relativism.

And it's over. Congratulations!

Works Referenced:

1) Monadology

2) Types of Truth

3) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

4) The Philosophy Pages

5) Standford Enyclopedia of Philosophy

6) The Relativist

7) Wikipedia

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