According to the Oxford American Dictionary, a truth is “a fact or belief that is accepted as true.” That’s simple enough, but also a bit circuitous. After all, how much do we really learn by saying that a “truth” is something that’s “true”? Isn’t that a bit like saying that a “life” is something that’s “lived,” or that a “work of art” is something that’s “worked artistically”? Like many a John Lennon lyric, it seems mildly wise for a moment but melts away to nothing once you think about it.
If that’s the best you can do for “truth,” OAD, then at least tell us what “true” means.
Flipping back a page in the same big book, we find that “true” means “in accordance with fact or reality.” According to a simple aggregation of the definitions, then, a truth would be “a fact or belief that is accepted as in accordance with fact or reality.”
This leaves us with a small problem of “fact”: to define a truth as “a fact that is accepted as in accordance with fact” seems hardly more helpful than saying a truth is something that’s true. (Truths are facts that are factual, while facts are things that are true.) Luckily, if we subtract the fact from each side of the equation, we’re left with something somewhat more workable …
A truth is a belief that is accepted as in accordance with reality.
It’s the sort of definition only a linguist could love, but it’s a start.
There are three things I like about it:
- It focuses on truths, not “The Truth.” I do not know “The Truth,” if by that you mean the universal plan, the natural order of things, the laws of all being and becoming, or whatever. I don’t think anyone else knows it, either. But I’m absolutely sure that I don’t. What I’m talking about here are things that accord with reality, not The Thing Through Which Reality Can Be Accorded–or however you would choose to define the ineffable ground of all being.
- It envisions truth as fundamentally about the fit between reality and a particular vision of it. Where the definition says “belief,” I think it could also say “statement” or “proposition” or (what the hell?) “work of art” and still work. The point is that truth happens when efforts to depict, describe, or otherwise mentally grapple with reality actually enable us to take hold of it in some meaningful way.
- It implies that truths should be communicable. In the definition, the accord between reality and belief “is accepted”–and presumably the person doing the accepting isn’t the person doing the initial believing (since saying someone “accepts” what they themselves already “believe” would, again, be akin to saying that truths are truthful). I would go so far as to say that truths not only must be communicable, but that their defining property–the aforementioned fit between vision and reality–is closely related to their use within actual efforts to communicate.
I’ll have lots more to say about this subsequently, but for now, let’s add it all up. For our purposes here …
Truths are statements, descriptions, depictions, or other efforts to grapple with reality that actually enable us to grasp it more completely or fully–to better understand, to do productive work, to organize chaos, to disclose possibility, and so on. They are grounded in facts, though they may extend beyond them, and they are widely accepted–which implies that they are communicable between and among people.
Of course, there’s a great deal more to be said about them. But that’s one good reason for launching this blog.
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