When Saint Augustine set out to explain the phenomenon of time he found it surprisingly difficult. Everyone understands what “time” is don’t they? Yet he was soon forced to remark: “If you do not ask me what time is, I know it; if you ask me, I do not know.” Most of the big philosophical chestnuts are the same. In fact it is a useful rule to make in life – if you think you know something, understand it through and through, then it would pay to think again because you are most certainly mistaken.
Take the issue of “Truth” for example. Everyone knows what “truth” is until they are asked to explain it. Or “Meaning”. Think about “Meaning” for a moment or two and if you are not immediately in a muddle – you should be. Or Music. What on earth is music? Why do we do it? Why does it send us into raptures? Does music mean anything? If so – how does it mean it? And quantum physics? The discursive worlds created by physicists are so bizarre it is hard even to think the ideas they are struggling to express. To grapple with these notions you are obliged to “suspend disbelief” and cooperate almost as if you after entering a fictional world – which, of course – you are. So how does the fictional world of discourse relate to what we so glibly call “reality”. “Reality” is another concept that is enough to make your head spin. We exist in a world that, for the most part, we tend to agree upon, but at another level, a discursive level, we create (or “understand” might be another way of putting it) that world according to our own human frames of reference. Probably a creature from another planet would describe the experience of its “reality” in an entirely different way. Another way of understanding it might be to explain our frames of reference as “ways of seeing”. A creature from another planet would probably have a different “way of seeing” or understanding the surroundings in which it found itself.
Douglas Adams presented an interesting and entertaining fictional rendition of this confusion in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He explores the disjunction between frames of reference. When the earthling Arthur Dent muses to himself : “I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my lifestyle” he was overheard by interstellar Vl’hurg speakers. Unfortunately they understand that phrase to be the most dreadful insult imaginable. Hence they found themselves obliged to declare war on the G’Gugvuntts. The war went on for a few thousand years and decimated their entire galaxy. When the confusion was finally sorted and all parties understood the origin of the misunderstanding they decided to join forces and seek retribution by invading a planet in the Milky Way: the planet Earth. However, due to a major miscalculation of scale their entire invading force was swallowed by a small Scotty dog. There is a lesson in that for all of us. Likewise “If a lion could speak” said Wittgenstein “we would not understand him.” His way of seeing would be very different from our human way of seeing. He would notice different things, smell, hear and taste different things.
The more pressing question though is: how do we understand ourselves? Deciding between truth or falsity is a discursive technique that allows us to talk about the world of experience. Truth only exists in discourse. It is not out there rattling around in the world independent of the human mind. Truth is a judgement call. To confer over anything at all, even to commune with oneself we somehow use what philosophers call “symbolic Form”. That means we understand and use signs and symbols, words and meanings to represent to ourselves the world and states of affairs in that world.
Not only do we need a means of symbolising “things” that exist in the world, but also we need to be able to represent those symbols to ourselves and to one another. We need to be able to manipulate iterable symbols and, also, we need a whole lexicon with which to consider our actions within that world of objects. Our relationships, our passions and our scruples all require symbols in order that we may contemplate them. Indeed, with out this ability – the ability to abstract and use symbols to represent concepts and ideas (as well as actions and things) – we could not have our complex understanding of time. Without symbolic form in ideas and language we would be condemned to life in the present – or in the “here and now” so to speak. We would not be able to understand “yesterday” and “tomorrow”. We would not be able to hold an abstract image in our minds and entertain notions about situations other than the immediate, present circumstances of our experience. Like time, truth is a skill and a concept that can only arise because of the facility we have with symbolic form – with ways of seeing and representing those ways of seeing to ourselves and between one an other.
There are three main philosophical accounts of truth and they are very difficult to talk about in isolation because they are imbricated. The theories themselves are “ways of seeing” used to consider the world, symbolic forms and concepts from slightly different aspects. One which concentrates on accuracy: the correspondence theory of truth. The second which concentrates on communicability and iterability: the coherence theory of truth and the third which deals with functionality and practicality: the Pragmatic theory of truth. First: the correspondence theory of truth states that the truth or falsity of a statement concerns how that statement relates to the world; and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) that world. “The moon is made of green cheese” is a statement that does not correspond accurately to the way the world is. This idea comes to us from at least as far back as Plato who suggested that a good starting point might be to suggest that: “that speech which says things as they are is true, and that which says them as they are not is false. (Cratylus 385B) So to use the symbolic form of speech to represent the world in a way that seems to be accurate is, on this account, to speak the truth.
However Socrates was aware that the great problem for the correspondence theory is how words and statements can possibly adequately correspond to (be like) things in the world. How do we manage to use thoughts and symbols to discuss the world? How does symbolic form work? According to Aristotle, somehow, our thoughts are likenesses of the things or facts in the world; but, he asked himself, how do those thoughts get to be translated into words and symbols? Indeed, are thoughts themselves “symbols”?
Hence the Ancients had identified the three aspects to the problem that we still grapple with today: the thoughts and images in our heads, the words that somehow represent those thoughts, and, finally, the actual things in the world, states of affairs and actions that the thoughts and words refer to. However it happens – it seems to work. We can relate those immaterial thoughts to words and thence to the material things that, by convention, they are used to represent.