Nietzsche’s Theory of Truth

“Supposing truth to be a woman,” Nietzsche famously asserted in the opening of his classic work Beyond Good and Evil.  For just as the “dogmatists” fail to understand women, says Nietzsche, so they fail to understand truth.[1]  Perhaps nothing has been more influential in shaping post-modern thought than the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche; but how does one classify Nietzsche’s theory of truth?  Is he a strict pragmatist, does he hold to a coherence theory, or can he be placed in any category at all?  This paper seeks to define and explain Nietzsche’s theory of truth while defending a correspondence view.  To accomplish this task it will (1) summarize the major theories of truth within traditional Philosophical thought, (2) determine Nietzsche’s theory of truth by comparing his thought to other truth theories, and (3) explain the problems with Nietzsche’s theory which necessitate its rejection. 

Philosophical Theories of Truth

Until the 20th century philosophers subscribed to two primary theories of truth: correspondence and coherence.  However, due to growing problems in epistemology, linguistics, and other areas of study, the number of truth theories significantly increased.[2]  Today, there are a plethora of theories crowding the philosophical scene.  In the interest of time and space only a selection of these theories will be surveyed.

The Correspondence Theory of Truth

The correspondence theory of truth is often traced to Plato’s classic works Theaetetus and Sophist, and has a long list of adherents, including: Aristotle, the Stoics, various medieval philosophers, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Moore, and Russell.[3]  However, it can be argued that correspondence was assumed by writers predating the works of Plato.  For instance, William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland argue that the Bible, while not explicitly articulating a correspondence theory of truth, “regularly presupposes” such a theory.[4]  Therefore, it can safely be said that the correspondence theory of truth, “is both the commonsense view and the classic position embraced by virtually all philosophers until the nineteenth century.[5]

In its most basic form, the correspondence theory states that, “a proposition is true just in case it corresponds to facts or the world.”[6]  In other words, a proposition is true if, and only if, it “corresponds” to reality.  Thus, it presupposes realism; that truth is absolute or objective; that, “people discover truth, they do not create it, and [that] a claim is made true or false in some way or another by reality itself, totally independent of whether the claim is accepted by anyone.”[7]  In this system man is not the, “measure of all things,” as Protagoras famously stated; but asserts there is a concrete reality which can be discovered and understood by man.   

The Coherence Theory of Truth

 In the 19th century a new theory of truth began to take shape.  Espoused by the continental rationalists, J. G. Fichte, G. W. F. Hegel, F. H. Bradley, and other well known thinkers, the coherence theory approached truth from a completely different angle.  Contrary to the pre-modern view of correspondence, the coherence theory was predicated on antirealism and nominilism.   Nominilism rejects the existence of “universals” or “forms” and says that only concrete particulars exist.[8]  Thus, discovering the truth of a proposition was relegated to the realm of epistemology; more specifically rationalism.

 Simply put, the coherence theory states that, “a true proposition is one that belongs to some designated coherent set of propositions.”[9]  However, these propositions or “beliefs” do not necessarily have anything to do with reality.[10]  Thus, one’s system of belief could be the product of their imagination, and this would not be a problem; what matters is whether it is coherent. 

By “coherent” it is generally meant:  “(1) [that] each member of the set [i.e. proposition] is consistent with any subset of the others and (2) [that] each is implied (inductively if not deductively) by all of the others taken as premises.”[11]  Essentially, a coherence theory of truth is a circular chain of propositions which may or may not actually represent reality.  In addition, it must contain no contradictions within itself, that is, each proposition within one’s belief system must entail the other.  However, this is not to say that one’s “coherent” system of belief will not contradict another’s.  In this sense, truth is relative, varying from person to person, because it is not based upon any absolute standard; rather, it is based upon the coherence or consistency of one’s thought.     

The Pragmatic Theory of Truth

From the mid-19th century and into the 20th the pragmatic theory of truth also began to take shape.  Like the coherence theory, pragmatism is predicated upon nominilism and antirealism.  Early proponents of this view include, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey.[12]  Currently, the most notable adherents are Hilary Putnam and Richard Rorty.”[13]

The pragmatic theory is quite simple to understand, “[it] implies that a belief P is true if and only if P works or is useful to have.  P is true just in case P exhibits certain values for those who accept it.”[14]  In this sense the pragmatic theory of truth is very practical; built upon utility, as opposed to objectivity.  It is also relativistic, “Pragmatism . . . must be formulated relativistically, since whether it is useful to believe a proposition evidently varies from one believer to another.”[15] 

Postmodern Theories of Truth

Postmodern Theories of truth can be broken down into three basic categories:  Phenomenological, Structural, and Pragmatic.[16]  Do to the constraints of this paper, only a broad survey will be made about postmodernisms overall view of truth; there will not be an in-depth presentation of each of these theories.  However, it is difficult to confine the movement to any one set of truth theories anyways.  A postmodern philosopher may also utilize coherence or pragmatic theories of truth, or some modified form of them, if he so desires.[17]  That being the case, it is difficult to describe attributes of postmodern thought with any level of certainty. 

What can be said with certainty is that postmodernists reject the correspondence theory of truth.[18]  In their view, “truth is relative to a linguistic community that shares the same narrative.”  In other words, truth is determined by one’s community (i.e. culture, language, social environment).  This may be represented by any one of the afore mentioned theories, as long as they are consistent with a subjective view of reality. 

Like the coherent and pragmatic theories, postmodern theories are built upon antirealism and nominalism.  Even more foundational, is their rejection of absolutes or dichotomous thinking.  Dichotomous thinking occurs when, “someone divides a range of phenomena into two groups and goes on to claim that one is better than the other.”[19]  Examples of dichotomous thinking include distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong, or true and false.

Nietzsche’s Theory of Truth

Now that the primary theories of truth have been defined, we can properly asses Nietzsche’s interpretation of truth.  Whether it is possible to ascribe to Nietzsche a specific theory of truth remains to be seen; for, in his own writings he “vacillates between the denial of truth and its affirmation.”[20]  However, for the sake of clarity, it must be attempted.  Consequentially, this section will attempt to synthesize Nietzsche’s thought with each theory of truth; eliminating each one that fails to adequately conform to his views. 

Nietzsche and the Correspondence Theory

Traditionally, interpreters ascribed to Nietzsche the classic view of truth as “correspondence to reality,” believing that his own views were true in a correspondence sense.[21]  There are several important advocates of this interpretation; however, only two will be examined in this paper:  Kaufmann and Wilcox. 

“Kaufmann’s strategy . . . [was] . . . to show that the contradiction in Nietzsche’s position is merely apparent, that Nietzsche does not deny the existence of truth, and that he does not put forward any metaphysical theories.”[22]  He argued that Nietzsche did not reject the existence of empirical truth but merely certain interpretations of it.  For instance, Kaufmann explained Nietzsche’s apparent denial of truth, “as a denial of . . . [the] eternal world of the Platonic forms or the Kantian thing-in-itself.”[23]  Further, he argued that Nietzsche only denied metaphysical statements of truth, but acknowledged the existence of empirical truth.  For instance, Kaufmann maintained that Nietzsche’s own doctrines of “eternal recurrence” and “will to power” were put forth as “empirical truths.”[24]   

Kaufmann’s interpretation was later advanced, with slight modifications, by John T. Wilcox.  Like Kaufmann, Wilcox recognized the apparent contradiction in Nietzsche’s thought, namely that it appeared as though Nietzsche both affirmed and denied the existence of truth.  To address this problem, Wilcox had to make a distinction between the type of truth that Nietzsche rejected and the type of truth that Nietzsche affirmed.   

Whether or not there is a contradiction depends upon whether “truth” is used in the same sense when Nietzsche writes in these two ways, upon whether the “truth” whose possibility he rejects is the same “truth” that he criticizes the Christian for refusing to face.  And it is fairly clear that they are not the same.  Nietzsche rejects transcendent truth; but he believes in perspectival truth and hopes for a kind of man who can live in that truth.[25]   

Wilcox, like Kaufmann, maintained that Nietzsche primarily rejected “metaphysical truths” but accepted the existence of empirical truth.  However, he hastened to point out that the type of empirical truth Nietzsche accepted did not have the “status” that Kant maintained for science.  Thus, Nietzsche rejected the type of empirical truth, founded upon a priori knowledge, which Kant attempted to prove, believing, instead, that empirical truth was grounded in the individual.[26] 

            According to Wilcox, Nietzsche’s brand of truth was, “this-worldly, fallible, hypothetical, perspectival, value-laden, historically developed, and simplifying truth.”[27]  In other words, truth was based upon reality, and the reality was that truth was interpreted differently by each individual’s senses.  In his mind, Wilcox saw no contradiction between Nietzsche’s “advocacy” of perspectival truth and his rejection of absolute or “transcendent” truth.[28]

Recently, however, Maudemarie Clark challenged the traditional interpretation of Nietzsche’s theory of truth.  Clark notes, “if one interprets will to power . . . in traditional terms – as straightforward claims about the nature of reality, as claims that are supposed to correspond to reality – it seems implausible to deny their metaphysical character.”[29]  In other words, to accept this interpretation of Nietzsche’s theory leads one into contradictory thinking. 

To argue that Nietzsche rejected metaphysical truths but also to maintain that he accepted certain “empirical truths” which “correspond to reality” is to ignore the problem of absolutes.  That is, to ignore that fact that metaphysical truths are generally considered “absolute” or “universal” truths about the nature of reality.  If Nietzsche believes that certain empirical truths “correspond to reality” he, by definition, accepts that an absolute “reality” exists.[30]  This would make him a metaphysical realist, in which case he would maintain that both universals and particulars exist. 

Nietzsche, however, is clearly not a metaphysical realist

Indeed, what compels us to assume there exists any essential antithesis between ‘true’ and ‘false’?  Is it not enough to suppose grades of apparentness and as it were lighter and darker shades and tones of appearance . . . why could the world which is of any concern to us – not be fiction?[31]

  For, as both Kaufmann and Wilcox affirm, he denies the existence of metaphysical truths and by doing this rejects the notion of universals.  Hence, to accept this interpretation of Nietzsche is untenable. 

Nietzsche and Coherent/Pragmatic Theories of Truth

  If Nietzsche’s theory of truth is not based upon correspondence, then perhaps a coherent or pragmatic theory best describes his thought.  After all, both of these theories are based upon antirealism and nominalism which are compatible with his worldview.  However, these are not the only two conditions which must be met in order to establish his theory of truth. 

Of the two systems, it is harder to argue that Nietzsche held to a coherent theory of truth.  As we have seen, there is debate as to whether or not Nietzsche’s view of truth is “coherent” at all; seeing as how he appears to, “make claims to metaphysical truth while at the same time rejecting all such claims.”[32]  Hence, it seems more profitable to examine the pragmatic theory of truth.

As was established above, the pragmatic theory states that a belief is true if, and only if, it “works” or is useful to the individual.[33]  In a sense, the pragmatist view of truth is not unlike the utilitarian’s view of morality.  A utilitarian gages what is right or wrong on the amount of pleasure or pain an action might confer upon him and those around him.  Similarly, the pragmatist gages truth on the usefulness of a proposition.  In other words, if an idea “works” or seems useful to an individual it is true, but if it fails to achieve the desired result, it is false.  Thus, truth, for the pragmatist, is based upon utility; not objectivity. 

On a surface level this theory might seem to be compatible with Nietzsche because of its focus on the individual.  However, there are grave problems with this interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought.  Namely, the fact that Nietzsche despised utilitarianism,

This way of reasoning smells of the mob, which sees in bad behavior only its disagreeable consequences and actually judges ‘it is stupid to act badly’; while it takes ‘good’ without further ado to be identical with ‘useful and pleasant’.  In the case of every utilitarian morality one may conjecture in advance a similar origin and follow one’s nose . . .[34] 

Nietzsche challenged the idea that “usefulness” or “pleasantness” was equivalent to what was good or right, because what was useful or pleasant was determined by society.  Hence, utilitarianism was a form of the “herd” mentality of which he despised.

Similarly, pragmatism, with its assertion that truth is what “works” or “is useful to procuring happiness” carries with it the potential for “mob” mentality.  For, one is inevitably tied to a community, a culture which defines one’s ideas of happiness or usefulness.  One could conceivably believe that something is useful because everyone else believes it to be useful. 

Beyond this, however, lies a more serious objection, “why couldn’t a false belief make us happier than a true one?”[35]  Why couldn’t “untruth” be what works or what is useful to the individual?  “Nietzsche, in fact, insisted repeatedly that knowledge of the truth may conflict with the satisfaction of practical interests.”[36] 

Hence, upon a closer examination, the pragmatic theory of truth, despite its predication of antirealism and nominalism, and his semi-commitment to individualism, does not seem to be the perfect fit.  Of all the theories of truth, Nietzsche’s theory must fall somewhere within the realm of post-modern thought.

Nietzsche and Post-Modern Theories of Truth

  Post modern theories of truth completely reject the idea of absolute truth or objective reality.  As was noted above, post-modern theories of truth also reject dichotomous thinking, which makes distinctions between contrasting ideas (i.e. good/bad, right/wrong, truth/falsity).  Having abolished dichotomous thinking and having rejected the notion of absolute or objective reality, post-modern theories of truth, in the end, place truth upon the individual.  What is right or wrong, good or bad, true or untrue is ultimately a matter of one’s perspective. 

In his book, Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche ponders, “What really is it in us that wants ‘the truth’. . . why not rather untruth?  And uncertainty?  Even ignorance?”[37]  At the core of his philosophy is a deep and unbending skepticism.  Nietzsche questions our need for absolute truth by challenging its very existence.  Throughout all of his writings, he attempts to break down distinctions between right and wrong or truth and falsity, denying that such distinctions are valid . . . 

It is quite clear that the world is not good and not bad (to say nothing of its being the best or the worst), and that the terms “good” and ‘bad” have only significance with respect to man, and indeed perhaps, they are not justified even here in the way they are usually employed.[38]    

Upon reflection, one cannot help but notice that Nietzsche’s mode of thinking is entirely consistent with post-modern theories of truth. 

His emphasis on the perspective of the individual in interpreting reality is another key aspect of Nietzsche’s thought.  He believed that, “the essence of man-the sole form of cognitive life with which we are acquainted—has emerged in the course of universal becoming as a unique way of interpreting being.”[39]    In other words, the way in which man apprehends the world, by means of sense perception, is the consequence of the his intellect.  Thus, concluded Nietzsche, “every single kind of intellect must have its own way of understanding the world.”[40]  Consequentially, individualism, in the realm of truth and morality, is a key component of post-modern thought. 

Structuralist’s recognize that there are multiple truths (ways of viewing the world), and believe that truth is ultimately about power.[41]  This too, is compatible with Nietzsche; especially his doctrine of the “superman” and the idea of “will to power.”  It also fits well with his conception of a great philosopher; one who is a “free-spirit,” able to place himself beyond good and evil and create his own values.[42]

     While it may not be possible to attach Nietzsche’s view of truth to any one post-modern theory, it is apparent that Nietzsche’s theory of truth is best understood in light of post-modern ideology.  Everything from his rejection of absolute truth to his concept of the “superman” fits nicely within the post-modern framework. 

The Problem with Nietzsche’s Theory of Truth

This paper seeks to defend a correspondence theory of truth against Nietzsche’s post-modern critiques.  Instead of building a case for the correspondence theory as a defense, it will cut straight at the heart of Nietzsche’s philosophy, placing correspondence on the offensive line.  Now that Nietzsche’s theory of truth has been properly defined, this task will be much easier to accomplish.     

Nietzsche’s theory suffers from the same ailment that all post-modern theories of truth do: it is self refuting.  If absolute truth does not exist, if all perspectives and all interpretations of the world are equally valid, then truth is an empty term.  If truth is everything, then it is nothing; but this is precisely what Nietzsche’s rejection of dichotomous thinking accomplishes.  It bypasses the fundamental rules of logic; rendering any statement of value superfluous.

Although Nietzsche, and other post-modern thinkers still use the term “truth”, as if it carried with it some existential value, by their own definition truth does not exist.  Truth, by its very nature, is absolute; otherwise it is no truth at all.  Hence, by rejecting absolutes they reject truth and here in lies the problem:  their rejection of absolutes is itself an absolute.  Consider carefully, the proposition; “there is no truth.” For, is it not, in and of itself, a statement of truth?  Is not, such a proposition, itself and absolute statement about reality?

How, then, can anyone seriously consider such a problematic theory of truth?  A truth theory that rejects truth!  This is pure and unadulterated nonsense!  I summit that any system that fails to acknowledge the existence of objective reality or absolute truth is unlivable.  One can believe such nonsense in a theoretical realm, far removed from the day to day happenings of life, but in the real world, one must operate in accordance with a correspondence theory of truth.  All other systems simply break down.

               Conclusion

Upon examining most of the major theories of truth it becomes clear that Nietzsche is best described as a post-modern thinker.  His rejection of absolute truth and dichotomous thinking, and his aversion to metaphysical realism all play a major role in making this distinction.  However, it seems that no existing philosophical theory of truth perfectly aligns with Nietzsche’s thought.  So, in this sense, in can be said, that Nietzsche was truly an original thinker; far removed from the theorizing of his own day. 

Ultimately, despite attempts to claim otherwise, Nietzsche’s theory is a complete rejection of the correspondence theory of truth, and as such, is subject to enormous flaws.  In spite of his brilliance as a writer and thinker, Nietzsche’s theory of truth is inconsistent and contradictory; and consequentially must be rejected.   

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Clark, Maudemarie. Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Clive, Geoffrey, ed. The Philosophy of Nietzsche. New York: Meridian, 1996.

Jaspers, Karl. Nietzsche. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1965.

Kirkham, Richard L. Theories of Truth. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995.

Lanier, Anderson R. “Nietzsche on Truth, Illusion, and Redemption.” European Journal of Philosophy 13 (Aug 2005): 185-225.

Mitchell, Craig Vincent. Charts of Philosophy and Philosophers. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.

Moreland, J. P., William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

Schmitt, Frederick F. Truth: A Primer. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.

Wilcox, John T. Truth and Value in Nietzsche. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1974.

 


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 31.

[2] Craig Vincent Mitchell, Charts of Philosophy and Philosophers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 21.

[3] Frederick F. Schmitt, Truth: A Primer (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), 145.

[4] J. P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003), 131-132.

[5] Ibid.,132.

[6] Schmitt, 145.

[7] Moreland, 132.

[8] Mitchell, 7,10.

[9] Schmitt, 103.

[10] Mitchell, 22.

[11] Richard L. Kirkham, Theories of Truth (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 104.

[12] Schmitt, 77.

[13] Moreland, 144.

[14] Ibid., 144.

[15] Schmitt, 79.

[16] Mitchell, 23.

[17] Moreland, 146.

[18] Ibid., 146.

[19] Ibid., 146.

[20] Anderson R. Lanier, “Nietzsche on Truth, Illusion, and Redemption,” European Journal of Philosophy 13 (Aug 2005): 185.

[21] Maudemarie Clark, Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 5.

[22] Ibid., 5.

[23] Ibid., 5.

[24] Ibid., 5.

[25] John T. Wilcox, Truth and Value in Nietzsche (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1974), 155.

[26] Ibid., 156.

[27] Ibid., 156.

[28] Ibid., 156.

[29] Clark, 6.

[30] Ibid., 40.

[31]  Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 65-66.

[32] Clark, 4.

[33] Moreland, 144.

[34] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 113.

[35] Clark, 32.

[36] Ibid., 32.

[37] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 33.

[38] Geoffrey Clive, ed., The Philosophy of Nietzsche (New York: Meridian, 1996), 498.

[39] Karl Jaspers, Nietzsche (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1965), 185.

[40] Ibid., 185.

[41] Mitchell, 23.

[42] This is the primary theme of his book, Beyond Good and Evil.

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9 thoughts on “Nietzsche’s Theory of Truth

  1. So truth is the corresponding relation of a proposition to reality. Thus, man is not the measure of truth. Despite this, truth is only possible based on two things: “reality” and the proposition. Yet the proposition pre-supposes complex language, and thus a creature capable of complex language. So while man may not be the necessary for truth, something like man (in his linguistic capacity, anyway) is.

    Further, if truth is the correspondance between a proposition and “reality”, then what are we to make of Jesus’ statement “I am the truth”? Is he a proposition which corresponds to reality? Not only does the identification of truth with a man threaten your assertion that man is not the measure of reality, it doesn’t seem to fit with any correspondance theory.

    I have a number of other problems with your paper. Phenomenology should not be classified under post-modernism as it pre-dates it; and is not a philosophy or a philosophical position. Further, “post-modernism” is a term of convenience which most of those who are often identified with it reject. Even with regard to theories of truth, “post-modern” positions vary so widely that rejecting “post-modernism” requires a large, complex, thorough book if it wants to avoid being merely a straw-man argument.

    Your argument Nietzsche’s view of truth is self-refuting is fundamentally flawed as well. It does not follow that if Nietzsche rejects “absolute truth” all perspective are equally valid. In fact, Nietzsche argues that all views are not valid, and that truth, while indispinsable, should be held insofar as it results from creative life-forces and enhances such creativity. This doesn’t make truth an empty term, and in fact Nietzsche spills alot of ink explaining different aspects of his notion of “truth.” At the point when you say “If truth is everything, then it is nothing” I lose you. It neither constitutes a legitimate interpretation of Nietzsche or a cogent argument.

    In the end you simply end up asserting your own position: that truth must be absolute, from which follows the tautological assumption that if truth is not absolute it is not truth. And while it is true that the statement “there is no truth” may be an absolute (there are arguments against this), this is not Nietzsche’s position.

  2. Hey Thomas,

    Thanks for your reply; I shall do my best to respond.

    In order for one to hold a correspondence view of truth one must also believe in an objective reality; that reality exist apart from man. In other words, reality exists even if I do not. It is not dependent upon me. Accordingly, it is not “necessary,” as you claim, that something like man or a complex language exist in order for truth to exist. Truth is what corresponds to reality, and reality does not depend upon the existence of an observer. Thus, even without the existence of complex language to communicate truth, truth would still exist. Complex-language is simply an expression of what actually exists.

    As to Jesus referring to himself as being, “the way, and the truth, and the life,” (John 14:6 NASB the verse that inspired the name of my blog), this in no way “threatens” my “assertion that man is not the measure of reality.” Nor does it conflict with a correspondence theory of truth. Jesus is God. He is the logos, the word that became flesh (John 1). He is the underlying reason and force behind all existence. He defines reality, he sustains reality. In this sense Jesus is the truth. We are not talking about any common man here; we are talking about the “God-man;” the incarnation. Thus, truth is not decided by man or dependent upon man for its existence. It is dependent upon God.

    As to your qualms with me classifying a Phenomenological Theory of truth as being a Post-modern theory of truth, you should check out my source for this statement: Mitchell, Craig Vincent. Charts of Philosophy and Philosophers. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007. Dr. Mitchell is actually one of my professors, and a brilliant one at that.

    Concerning post-modernism, I was not attempting to reject post-modernism in its entirety. My thesis states that I was attempting to defend a correspondence theory of truth by, “explain[ing] the problems with Nietzsche’s theory [of truth] which necessitate its rejection.” I agree with you; one could write an entire book refuting post-modernism. I’m actually working on a book with several other Southwestern students that refutes the emergent church movement’s attempt to merge Post-modern thought with Christianity.

    Any theory of truth which rejects the notion that truth is absolute is fundamentally flawed. To say that truth is subjective, dependent upon the individuals perspective, ultimately makes no sense, and says nothing about the nature or character of truth. In such a system all perspectives by definition are equally valid. But, what if I believe that your subjective view of truth is wrong? What if I claim that truth is absolute (as in fact I am doing)? According to this view my beliefs are equally valid and hence, equally “true.” Suddenly the subjective view of truth logically breaks down. Both assertions cannot be true. It cannot be true that truth is absolute and that truth is subjective. Both of our perspectives cannot be correct. Somebody is right and somebody is wrong. But wait! If somebody is right and somebody is wrong, then truth is absolute.

    The subjectivist definition of truth, by embracing all perspectives as equally valid, destroys any meaning or value in the concept of truth. You can’t define something as meaning everything. This is what I mean when I say, “if truth is everything then it is nothing.” To define something as being “whatever you think it is” is not a definition. So, to define truth as, “whatever you think it is” is to say nothing about the actual nature of truth. It is to leave truth without any definition, any value, or any meaning. The moment you do attaching meaning or value to the concept of truth you are speaking of truth in terms of absolutes. Truth either exists or it doesn’t exist. If it exists it is absolute.

  3. Thanks for addressing this issue. I’m not sure I agree with all of Thomas’s criticisms, but there are a few things here you probably need to address more fully.

    First, you say that correspondence theory of truth “presupposes realism”. To bolster this assertion, you list “Aristotle, the Stoics, various medieval philosophers, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Moore, and Russell.” While most of these thinkers could be identified as realists, I don’t think you could say that about Hume. In addition, one of the most famous champions of the correspondence theory of truth is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who I think you could fairly describe as a nominalist, not a realist. In fact, the whole system of modern logic–which assumes a correspondence theory of truth and which Russell had the largest hand in (with some help from Wittgenstein)–assumes a nominalistic view of universals.

    Second, you define realism as the idea that “that truth is absolute or objective.” That is not the definition of realism. Realism is the philosophical doctrine that words refer to universal ideas or “essences” that exist either, as Plato argued, in a heavenly realm, or, as Aristotle and the Thomist tradition hold, in things themselves. Nominalism is the idea that words are mere labels and do not refer to any existing essences.

    I think it would be fair to say that realism implies that truth is absolute or objective, but it remains to be argued whether realism implies the correpondence theory of truth. In fact, your argument will have to take account of the fact that realism spawned the system of traditional logic which, in addition to taking account of truth in propositions, also has a great deal of emphasis on basic intuition and the direct, pre-propositional apprehension of ideas, which could be considered another kind of “truth”. It will also have to take account of why the nominalistic system of propositional logic assumes the correspondence theory of truth exclusively. This state of affairs seems inconsistent with your thesis.

    Also, and I think this goes to Thomas’s criticism, you do seem to lump several theories under “postmodernism” and dismiss them all in one fell swoop. You admit that you cannot deal with them adequately at the beginning of the section, but it still seems as if you dismiss them too easily. The result is that anyone who takes a view of truth as “aletheia”, as many ancient Greek thinkers did, and as many phenomonologists such as Heidegger do, will feel ill used here. There are many Catholic existentialists could also be included here. I think that is where Thomas is coming from. Their criticism here will be that aletheia is at least as consistent with realism as the correspondence theory of truth.

    There are a few other issues, such as the fact that nominalistic thinking is rampant among protestants (just take note, for instance, of the wide and uncritical use of modern propositional logic among protestants). Also, in your terminology, you frequently use the terms “true” and “valid” interchangeably. I think most readers will know what you mean, but be cognizant that, in logic, ‘truth’ is customarily used in reference to propositions, not arguments, and ‘validity’ in reference to arguments, not propositions.

    I don’t mean to be overcritical here. I’m glad you are addressing this issue, and I hope you continue to pursue it. But I think it is a lot more complicated than a lot of evangelical thinkers want to admit, and most evangelical treatments of it tend to make the issue more simple than it really is.

  4. Hey Martin,

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

    You can check my source for the list of correspondence adherents: Schmitt, Frederick F. Truth: A Primer. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995 (pg. 145). Dr. Schmitt’s book is one of a small handful of books that survey theories of truth I could find in my school’s library. He cites Hume as holding a correspondence theory of truth. I can understand why you would question this, because of his extreme skepticism, but I think it is possible (while admittedly strange) to hold to a correspondence theory of truth yet doubt that we can ever know the truth.

    I’d like to learn more about Ludwig Wittgenstein, he sounds like an interesting fellow. Thanks for letting me know about him.

    Thank you for correcting my mistaken definition of realism. I’m not sure why I wrote it that way; I think I mixed two separate thoughts together. If you read my reply to Thomas, you’ll see that I agree with you.

    I don’t believe that realism necessarily implies the correspondence theory of truth; rather, I believe that realism is a necessary condition for one to hold a correspondence theory of truth. The difference between these two statements is important.

    Due to the constraints of my paper, I could not spend a sufficient amount of time examining each and every “flavor” of post-modern truth theories. So, I had to deal with the common themes that run throughout post-modern thought in general. As you say, I do admit to this in my paper. Like I said to Thomas, this paper was not intended to be a comprehensive refutation of post-modernism or of Nietzsche’s thought. However, I do think I presented the basic tenets of post-modern theories of truth fairly.

    Thanks again for your criticism of my use of the terms “truth” and “validity.” You are, in fact, correct in your analysis. I need to be more careful about that in the future.

    Thanks for reading my paper and for all your comments.

  5. “Jesus is God. He is the logos, the word that became flesh (John 1). He is the underlying reason and force behind all existence. He defines reality, he sustains reality. In this sense Jesus is the truth. We are not talking about any common man here; we are talking about the ‘God-man;’ the incarnation.”

    While Jesus may not be an ordinary man, he nevertheless was a man as much as you or I. If Jesus is the truth, then the truth is a man. Consequently, if Jesus (a man) did not exist, the truth would not exist either. In this sense, truth depends on a particular human being, and, by extension, in some way on his humanity. The only way to divide the close relation of truth and human being is to say that it was inessential for Christ that he be incarnated as a man. This would then distinguish the second person of the trinity from Christ the man, and these, I think, are dangerous waters. But this belongs to theology, not to philosophy.

    The philosophical significance for our discussion of the truth of the Logos lies in the identification of the truth with something other than a proposition or its correspondance to real events. This means that while corresponding propositions may be true, they are not the only thing that constitutes truth, and therefore the view of truth as simply the correspondance of a statement to objective reality is — at least — incomplete.

    If I get around to reading Charts of Philosophy and Philosophers I will, but there’s a bit of a waiting list. But, as a factual matter, phenomenology cannot be subsumed under post-modernism. It predates it, and in many cases, phenomenologists are quite opposed to “post-modernism” in every sense of the word. Husserl, Heidegger, Rahner, Pope John Paul II (in his theological works), Maurice Merleu-Ponty, Hubert Dreyfus, and Gabriel Marcel all utilize phenomenology but fall well outside the post-modernist category.

    “Any theory of truth which rejects the notion that truth is absolute is fundamentally flawed. To say that truth is subjective, dependent upon the individuals perspective, ultimately makes no sense, and says nothing about the nature or character of truth. In such a system all perspectives by definition are equally valid. But, what if I believe that your subjective view of truth is wrong? What if I claim that truth is absolute (as in fact I am doing)? According to this view my beliefs are equally valid and hence, equally “true.” Suddenly the subjective view of truth logically breaks down. Both assertions cannot be true. It cannot be true that truth is absolute and that truth is subjective. Both of our perspectives cannot be correct. Somebody is right and somebody is wrong. But wait! If somebody is right and somebody is wrong, then truth is absolute.”

    I think this is vague as to what the “absolute” nature of truth is. Logical-positivists (which you seem to be strongly influenced by) tend to mean truth finds its absolute nature in universal validity, in the statement applying in every case to every observer. No post-modern philosopher I am aware of denies that statements can be true in this sense; analytic statements are held to be universally valid.

    The problem with this “universal validity” theory of truth is that it locates truth solely in the proposition, and as we already saw, Jesus’ claim to be the truth means that a Christian cannot accept the totality of truth to be contained in statements. But even the non-Christian, if he is a good philosopher, must reject correspondance theory as complete. For one thing, it is difficult to say how a word could ever correlate in any real sense to an object. In fact, I believe it could be argued that without a full-blown explanation for how certain phonetic symbols could have any real relation to things, the correspondance theory leads directly to nominalism.

    According to correspondance theory a great distance would have to lie between poetry and truth. Can a person really be a flower? A feeling an eagle? Metaphor, analogy, and narrative lose their relation to truth under correspondance theory.

    These objections don’t really get at the heart of the issue though. Through the whole discussion, we haven’t really said what “truth” is itself. We mean something very different when we say Jesus is the truth than we do when we say a statement is true. The ambiguity of the word must be eliminated in order to have a serious discussion. This means we cannot explain truth without diverting our attention to related concepts or philosophical positions. We must elucidate what truth means for us in every-day pre-reflective life. We must clear what obscures the truth and see it as it is in itself. In other words, we must see the original phenomena of truth; like it or not, we must engage in phenomenology.

    The best treatment of this is in Heidegger’s Being and Time. I encourage you to read it, but its not the type of book you can simply pick up and understand. The key is finding a good teacher who knows it. I’ll just give a brief outline of what he says (which is insuffient).

    Truth is aletheia. Aletheia is the original unveiling of something as something: it is the disclosure of a being. A statements truth lies before logic in the way it is disclosive. That means, when Darth Vader says “Luke I am your father”, the statement is primarily true insofar as it reveals to Luke his father as his father. Here, statements do correspond to reality, but this correspondance is dependant on the prior revelatory capacity of language.

    Truth comes before language. Every person is already in the truth as far as they are the kind of being that can engage with other beings and see them as what they are. The aletheic “theory” (it’s not really a theory) of truth gives the proper place to poetry. The poetry of Psalms discloses the relation between God and his nation in a way that a discursive theological work could never do. Primordial truth comes more easily to religion than philosophy as truth consists in revelation.

    Heidegger’s treatment of truth goes far deeper than the correspondance theory, and in fact subsumes correspondance theory under it. It explains the truth of correspondance theory in a way that is actually far more suited to ontology and even religion.

  6. Hey Thomas,

    Your assertion that Jesus was a man, while being true, has no bearing on the conversation. In your first post you said,

    “truth is only possible based on two things: “reality” and the proposition. Yet the proposition pre-supposes complex language, and thus a creature capable of complex language. So while man may not be the necessary for truth, something like man (in his linguistic capacity, anyway) is . . . Further, if truth is the correspondance between a proposition and “reality”, then what are we to make of Jesus’ statement “I am the truth”? Is he a proposition which corresponds to reality? Not only does the identification of truth with a man threaten your assertion that man is not the measure of reality, it doesn’t seem to fit with any correspondance theory.”

    My response to this is the same as it was in my last post. According to the Correspondence Theory of Truth reality exists independent from the observer. Hence, reality is not a product of man’s perception, but rather, man’s perception is the product of reality. We hear, taste, see, smell, and feel reality. Even if man or, “something like man (in his linguistic capacity),” did not exist, reality still exists. We do not determine what is real, we experience it.

    Paul says this about Jesus, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible . . . all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17) So, any identification of truth with Jesus is NOT in any way shape or form the same as identifying truth with man or, “something like man (in his linguistic capacity).” Jesus is the creator and sustainer of reality. You and I and anything “man like” are not.

    I never intended you to read Charts of Philosophy and Philosophers (although it’s a very helpful book). I merely wanted to point out that your challenge to my paper is actually a challenge to my source, which was written by a professional philosopher with six degrees. So, your qualms with categorizing “phenomenological theories of truth” under post-modernism is not with me it’s with Dr. Craig Mitchell.

    I’ve never argued that, “the totality of truth . . . [is] . . . contained in statements.” The correspondence theory of truth does not argue this either. However, if one does not believe in God and yet holds to a correspondence theory of truth I can see that it might lead that way. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus is the truth and that he is the creator and sustainer of reality. I believe that the correspondence theory of truth is the only theory that fits with the Christian worldview.

    I see no reason why metaphorical language and poetry are incompatible with a correspondence theory of truth. Furthermore, the correspondence theory of truth, as I have already shown, is predicated upon realism not nominalism, so it can’t lead to nominalism.

    I’m not sure why you think I haven’t defined what truth is. I hold to a correspondence theory of truth, hence, truth is what corresponds to reality.

    Thanks for suggesting Heidegger’s book Being and Time. It’s actually on my list of books I need to read. If I understand your summery of Heidegger correctly, he is not arguing against the correspondence theory of truth; he is expanding on it. Since the correspondence theory is predicated on realism it is not simply about statements and propositions. As I said earlier, true statements and propositions correspond to reality, and reality exists independent from statements and propositions (and those who make them). This seems compatible with your assertion that, “Truth comes before language.”

  7. I listen to a lot of Peter Kreeft (www.peterkreeft.com) and he is a philosopher at Boston College…and an author of many books on it and theology. I am by no means other than just hanging on to the edge of all this ‘talk’ but…I like it and I’d like to understand it more (I think our societies are going over the cliff…frankly; and if I’m going over with them…or because of them…then I’d at least like to know why I’m taking the plunge!).

    What you could all do in your talks to grab in those like me who are on the fringe of managing all these terms and thoughts etc etc is to make EXAMPLES in real life to where this makes application.

    In fact (saying “in fact” has begun to bother me having delved into this philosophy and thought) someone who would write a book explaining philosophic language and such in layman’s terms and using examples metaphors, slimily, and etc would probably do well.

    Thanks

  8. Hello Gordon,

    I also enjoy reading Peter Kreeft; he’s a wonderful writer and a great communicator. If you’re new to Philosophy you may want to check out his amazing logic textbook entitled Socratic Logic. I’ve found it very helpful.

    At first Philosophy (like so many disciplines) can seem intimidating and confusing. This is primarily because the vocabulary and terminology is unfamiliar. Half the battle is learning the vocab. Once you learn the terms Philosophy gets a whole lot easier.

    I’ve found the following books and websites to be helpful in this: The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, and Charts of Philosophy and Philosophers.
    I hope this helps! Thanks for your comment!
    Josh

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