Truth Decay

In the introduction to The Examined Life, Stanley Rosen explains why philosophy cannot be reduced to science.  I have no great desire to reduce philosophy to science, indeed I am not inclined to join any kind of disciplinary border patrol, but the argument that Rosen advances is astonishing:


If the love of truth is the desire for completeness or happiness, then a purely scientific conception of philosophy is at odds with human life.  For who could honestly claim that scientific knowledge alone is both the necessary and sufficient prerequisite for happiness.

Let’s start at the end: philosophy, we are told, cannot be reduced to science because scientific knowledge is not a necessary and sufficient condition for happiness.  To make any sense, this statement must rest on the following: in a proper conception of philosophy, philosophical knowledge is the indispensable and universal key to happiness.   This is breathtaking arrogance even for an academic…I mean, when is the last time you read such a claim in a math or Spanish textbook?  This delusion of grandeur seems to be an occupational hazard of philosophers, and I suppose that it is, like most religious doctrines, harmless as long as nobody actually believes it.

But mostly I wanted to talk about the first sentence…what is this “love of truth” of which Rosen speaks?  The rather sloppy equation with a desire for completeness or happiness is no help; almost anything we do that is not wildly self-destructive is motivated by a desire for completeness or happiness.

Since the love of truth is here being used as a synonym for philosophy, we could look for evidence in the behavior of philosophers.  I have only known one professor of philosophy well, and I would say that he was motivated primarily by the desire to kick your ass in an argument.  Socrates strikes me the same way—I confess I am not immune to such impulses myself, but I wouldn’t confuse them with a love of truth.

Cheap shots aside, do you really love truth?  Where would it belong in a list of typical human desires:  I love my daughter, I love my dog, I love spooning, I love pizza, I love the Green Bay Packers?  If anything, I am tempted to say that many of my siblings love falsehood, but I think that what they really love is fabrication, the spinning of ideas and scenarios that are, shall we say, truth-neutral.

There is also (as I think Aristotle noted) a fairly universal pleasure in learning, in making and sharing knowledge, which to me is closely related to the above love of fabrication, in that both involve the pleasure of mental exercise.  The truth-value of the propositions concerned is secondary.

The Greek word for truth is aletheia, which contains the negative prefix a- and the word Lethe, thus truth as the opposite of forgetting.  If you know anyone who suffers from memory loss, you can imagine how one might come to love un-forgetting; the love of truth, in this meaning, would be the love of attachment to the world and to your own history in it.

The Middle English ancestor of truth often had a meaning more like troth, that is, the honoring of pledges, being true to one’s word.  In this sense, a love of truth would be a love of trust, of not being played by others.  I can certainly relate to this desire, which can sometimes run head-long into the love of fabrication.  Another meaning survives in the word trig, or true as in carpentry. There is a basic human impulse toward order and pattern, a pleasure in making the world conform to the neat patterns in our heads or, equally, in rowing up our ideas so that they conform enough to the world to make it somewhat understandable and predictable.

I rather doubt that any of these conceptions of truth are what Rosen has in mind, but I find it possible to relate them to my experience in a way that I cannot do with “truth” tout court.  How the different meanings are weighted in your life, and what kinds of pursuit might gratify them, are left as an exercise for the reader.

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