You Can’t Handle the Truth. (Really, You Can’t.)

No matter how good your measure of a thing may be, it is still not the thing itself. And there are always other ways to measure the same thing, some of which may be as accurate as yours–or more accurate for different purposes, or less accurate but more appropriate for a given audience, etc. It follows that your measure may be true, but it is never THE truth.

Previously on this blog, I’ve argued that truth is a property of reflections on or about the world–of statements, arguments, even works of art. This is hardly an original claim: Ludwig Wittgenstein, W.V.O. Quine, and many others have long since made more specific and eloquent arguments for this notion (or one like it) than I will ever make. Still, the idea is central to my own thinking about how our efforts to use language can both illuminate and obfuscate. So it’s worth reflecting on it a bit.

First, note that this claim entails that truth is not some THING that exists out in the world on its own, though it is often invoked as if it were. (Picture Tom Cruise shouting, “I want the truth!” and Jack Nicholson replying, “You can’t handle the truth!”–as if the truth were some desirable yet dangerous object Jack has hidden beneath his uniform.) Instead, “truth” is just a term we use to describe particular statements, propositions, stories, or representations–specifically, the ones that are accurate enough to consistently enable us to grapple successfully  with the world.

Working under this definition, I don’t think it can reasonably be disputed that some statements, propositions, sentences, etc. are true and that others are untrue: some statements help us make sense of how things really are; some don’t. And it’s a short leap from there to say that there are truths and untruths.

But note that, in terms of the language used, there really is a leap involved. Specifically,  it’s a leap from adjective to noun, from the descriptive “true” to the nominal “truth.” And this leap can lead to all sorts of confusion–most notably, the confusion of a particular true description, statement, proposition, or other representation with THE truth–with that mysterious “thing” Jack Nicholson has hidden beneath his uniform. To claim to have the former (a true account) is typically just to claim to have a set of symbols or signs that enable you to better understand and/or interact with reality: it is always, in some sense, to claim to have an accurate measure of the thing in question. To claim to have the latter (THE truth) is to claim to have a set of symbols or signs that just IS reality (or that, at any rate, expresses the very essence of reality).

This is such an important point that it’s worth dwelling on a bit.

If you claim to have the latter (i.e. THE truth), you are mistaken. And if you ever expect someone else to tell it to you, you are misguided–and likely to be disappointed, deceived, or both. Why? Because there is never only one possible way to accurately describe a particular state of affairs–and, again, truth is a property of the description, not of the state of affairs itself. The state of affairs itself–just how the world actually is–doesn’t need to be true. The state of affairs is the thing being measured, not the measure of the thing. And the question of truth is a question about the measure of the thing.

No matter how good your measure of a thing may be, it is still not the thing itself. And there are always other ways to measure the same thing, some of which may be as accurate as yours–or more accurate for different purposes, or less accurate but more appropriate for a given audience, etc. To claim that your measure, your account, your accurate version of events is THE truth rather than one truth among a possible multitude gains you nothing, from an epistemic perspective, and may well foreclose the opportunity to see the thing more fully and in a variety of different lights.

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3 thoughts on “You Can’t Handle the Truth. (Really, You Can’t.)

  1. Pingback: Your Mind is a Nonfiction Writer – Truths & Wonders

  2. Pingback: What You’re Hearing Is Less than The Truth – Truths & Wonders

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