Truth

Yes, for we fight for more than Love or Pleasure; there is Truth. Truth counts, Truth does count. (E.M. Forster, A Room with a View)

Truth is a relationship between our representations and the world. We represent the world in language, pictures, and signs. When they correctly represent the world, they are said to be true. Sometimes people use the word Truth (often with the capital ‘T’) to talk about the objectively real features of reality that we aim at representing and that make our representations true.

Is truth in us or in the world?

The simplest way of understanding truth is as correspondence. A representation is true if it matches, or corresponds, to reality. The model here is the simple relationship we can see between a picture and the object it pictures. Of course, this model works only when we have access to both the object itself and the picture so we can check to see the correspondence or matching of the one to the other. Once philosophers recognized that whenever we see an object (at least with our senses) we are really representing it, it became hard to see how we could check the correspondence of our ideas to the world as it really was outside of our representations. The idea of correspondence becomes problematic if we believe we have no access to objects except through representations.

Another view of truth, which tries to address this problem, is coherence. When I check a portrait of a person against the actual person to see if it is a likeness, I am checking one representation (the painting) against another (my visual representation of the person when I see them). If I can never get outside of my representations to check against reality as it is in itself, when no one is looking, then truth is a matter of how my representations cohere amongst each other, not of how they relate to the world outside of my representations.

But this seems to ignore the very “truthiness’ of our original conception of truth (to borrow a recent phrase whose satirical use arises from our awareness of the problems with contemporary understandings of the term). We want out representations to be really true, not just true in my version of reality. It is clear us in this post-modern era that wherever we go, there we are: that we cannot step outside of our representations and that our very act of thinking itself alters the reality we attempt to know. Whenever we try to find the Truth, we always find ourselves in the way and discover that we are looking at merely another representation or construction of reality, instead of the real thing. Nonetheless, even if we cannot find a way to think about reality without having us there thinking about it, we still can conceive of, and yearn for, a reality beyond our representations as the ideal towards which they tend.

The very idea of representation itself, becomes incoherent without an object outside of the representation towards which it is directed. The artist who aims at no truth outside of them is merely creating, not representing. But how can you create something with symbols and representations unless they are about something besides themselves?

Even in this era, where “truthiness” has replaced truth, where truth can seem to have to do more with how something is said, and by whom, and for what purposes, than it does with what is said; even in the post-modern world, we only care about what is said because we want it to be True. Truth still does count, if only because we cannot do without it without doing in our own representations.