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

Since graduate school at least, I’ve believed (and occasionally argued) that truth is best thought of as a property of reflections on or about the world–a characteristic of statements, arguments, or even works of art. This is hardly an original claim: Ludwig Wittgenstein, W.V.O. Quine, and many others have made more eloquent arguments for this notion than I ever will. 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.)

If I’m right, then “truth” is best thought of not as the name of some such desirable yet dangerous thing. Rather, “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 presumably 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 it a bit.

If you claim to have the latter (i.e. THE truth), you are almost certainly mistaken. And if you ever expect someone else to tell THE truth to you, you are likely misguided–and almost certain 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.

Though it sounds a bit funny to say it this way, the state of affairs itself–just how the world actually is–doesn’t even 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.

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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