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A Play on Truth


by David Foss

Do you think that truth is relative?

Well it depends upon what you mean by truth. I mean, in a trivial sense it’s true. Or I should say, truth is context sensitive.

What does that mean?

When I make a truth claim, I am submitting a particular claim for public review, in which a specific verificational analysis is made of that claim. The content of this analysis changes from time to time, and at the time I make my claim, the claim is in some sense tailored to the particular set of challenges belonging to the contemporary analysis. Truth claims five hundred years ago were subject to a different set of challenges, a distinct sort of analysis if you will, than truth claims today. To assert that truth now means the same as it did then is to treat as valid the subjection of archaic truth claims to modern analysis. To assert that truth now means something different could entail a number of different things.

Wouldn’t it just mean that you didn’t think such a claim ought or could be treated as a “real” truth claim?

Well, yes. But verificational analysis might still have some work to do. I could mean, in asserting that truth-for-Cicero is not “real” truth, that any modern verificational analysis of Cicero-truth would be meaningless or miss Cicero’s point. Or, I could mean that a limited verificational analysis can make sense, but that at some point it will appear that Cicero-truth is falsified (a Cicero-truth claim will fail some verification test). And such a failure should not be taken as fatal to Cicero-truth.

A sort of limited overlap in truth meanings?


Couldn’t we just try to resurrect archaic truth-semantics to properly test archaic truth claims?

I guess. But this seems to be a rather silly project. Why not simply construct a new semantics which verifies some archaic truth claim, if we are eager to see a world in which it is “true”? The project of re-constructing an archaic analysis is at its heart no different from such a constructivist project. The re-constructed model, after all, could not be tested (or verified) in any manner other than the same test of adequacy for an authentically constructed neo-analysis. At least with a neo-analysis we would be honest with ourselves about the nature of the new analysis.

So what’s the point of all this? I mean, how often are archaic truth claims resurrected for analysis? When most people talk about truth being relative, they mean something like the irreducibility (unverifiability?) of truth claims made in distinct cultures.

Too true, too true. Notice that the same sort of analysis of truth goes for cross-cultural translations as it does for temporal translations. Truth-semantics is context embedded. Even here, to assert that a Sioux-truth claim is still a truth claim, is to volunteer that claim for our truth-analysis. Even in our own cultural/linguistic context, there can be multiple truth-contexts, between which translation can be asserted or denied. Of course, this raises another issue. And a more troubling one at that.

What’s that?

Asserting a truth-claim can have two rather distinct purposes. It can be that we simply put forward such a claim for contemporary (local) analysis. But it could also mean that we are asserting some proposition which verificational analysis ought to conform with.

I don’t quite see what you’re saying.

If I assert that witch-craft is a medicine-practice, I could be asserting a number of distinct propositions. I could mean that the proposition “witch-craft is a medicine-practice” should be subjected to local truth-analysis: where we locate the conventional meanings of witch-craft (say, occult mysticism) and medicine-practice (say, the scientific-biological maintenance of human health), and analyze the degree to which such an equivocation is compliant with such meanings (here, it ain’t much). Or, I could mean that one term ought to be redefined or expanded in light of this equivocation (such that, for example, medicine-practice is expanded to simply mean “maintenance of human health”, so that “occult mysticism” could be tested for more general “health” effects). Or, I could mean that our truth-semantics, at the very least, should observe such an assertion as true (almost axiomatic), such that the meanings of witch-craft and of medicine-practice are both at least partially dependent upon the equivocation.

How does this third possibility threaten the verificational analysis?

Well, if we take the analysis itself (in part or whole), as the object of verificational enquiry, a novel assertion could be attempting to alter the actual shape of analysis. For example, the neo-truth claim “Hamlet killed Polonius” does not merely assert a truth about Hamlet and Polonius, but also comports a set of verifiability conditions which do not include the “fact” conditions of Hamlet’s and Polonius’ “real-world” existence. The assertion that “Hamlet killed Polonius” is not falsified by the assertion that “Polonius does not exist”, whereas the claim “Polonius is a my countryman” might be. Indeed, the battery of tests we would subject the claim “Hamlet killed Polonius” to, would include such context-establishing inquisitives as “Have the players enacted Hamlet’s brave ‘Mouse-trap’, meeting our King Claudius’ grave displeasure?” and “Does Ophelia yet live?”

Yes, but what has any of this to do with the shape of analysis?

We may take as “fact”, or more loosely as “true”, an assertion which cannot be subjected to scientific verifiability.

But this would simply be a new, or distinct, truth-context. I don’t see how it would impact upon scientific truth reasoning at all, except to say that there are other senses in which we would want to speak of truth.

Ah yes. But once we let the cat out, we will find it ever so difficult to get it back.


Whether we choose to see the two notions of truth as in tension is itself a constructive claim. Contemporary truth-claims are predominantly evaluated in the scientific or empiricist traditions, and alternative contexts must generally be made explicit if we wish to avoid scientific or empirical challenges. “Hamlet killed Polonius” is, from the standpoint of truth conditions, empirically meaningless (or worse: false), unless we somehow make clear that we are already embedded in a fictional world-play. But, if a similar claim, such as “If Hamlet killed Polonius, then the Moon is made of green cheese”, is asserted as clearly false, even though classical analysis would render it true (in this case, because the premise is “empirically” false), not only might the default context be the object of modification (here being whatever context appears the most “natural” location for the premise to reside, or be intelligibly evaluated), but the structure of material implication might itself be the object of modification. In the latter case, we might suppose that something of a relevance logic is at work.

This all seems rather distant from scientific reasoning in any case. I mean, if I claim that water boils at 100° C, the truth conditions hardly depend upon what Shakespeare, or anyone else, wrote about fictional characters.

Okay. You’re right, to a point. In science, it’s easier to see the slippery nature of “truth”, and even of “realism”, when we see what happens when two dissonant models or systems come into contention. Whether it be a disagreement between Newtonian and Einsteinian physicists, or between euclidean and phase-space geometers, or whenever the ground rules of analysis, the presuppositions, the implicit world-view, differs between two theorists who insist they are still referring to the same “world”. To call upon an example closer to scientific enquiry, we might wonder about the truth-conditions, or the verifiability parameters, of the assertion “the sum of the three acute angles of a triangle equals two right angles”.

Pretty uncontrovertible stuff.

Perhaps. But if we allow that a triangle is any polynomial of three sides, where each side is a straight line, we’re in for a surprise in geography.

How so?

The sum of the three interior angles of a triangle, where the sides of the triangle are measured using surveyors tools across any significant distance along the earth’s surface, will always be greater than 180°. Indeed, as the length of each side shrinks, we will approach 180°, as a mathematical limit; and as the length of each side expands, we will never measure a greater sum than 540°, again as the mathematical limit (where each angle approaches 180°).

But all of this is due to the fact that we are measuring along the surface of a globe. Those lines aren’t really straight at all, but curved. The degree of arc will tell us exactly how much more than 180° we should expect our sum to be. We aren’t dealing with a triangle anymore.

Well, I would say that we are. The reason will be clearer if we look to some more troubling results in astronomy. If there is any “natural”, or “real”, context in which straight lines are possible, one would expect that it would be in space. A straight line is just the absolute distance between two objects. And in space, that distance is traversed by light (if nothing can travel faster than light, one can conclude that light “marks” the “shortest” distance between two points). In a rather famous experiment, gravitational lensing was shown to displace the apparent location of stars around the Sun, thus showing that the shortest distance between any two points is anything but stable. Triangulating between three points in space, therefore, will not necessarily give you three interior angles whose sum is 180°, but will sometimes be smaller, and sometimes larger, depending upon the mass distribution between the three points.

Yes, but this would simply seem to show that “ideal” triangles aren’t out there in the real world.

Not quite. It shows that even where there is broad agreement over the parameters of meanings, in which we agree on the basis of asserting that something is a straight line, or that something else is a geometric shape, “funny” results can expose divergent “truth” definitions between conceptual systems. Whereas the Einsteinian assures us that the abandonment of Euclidean geometry is quite sensible, given the evidence, a classical geometer would agree with you that we are no longer speaking of “real” geometries, and a Newtonian would be utterly stumped. To the geometer who wants to save Euclidean space, we could presumably ask, “If this isn’t geometry, what is it?” Our Einsteinian certainly wants to ask of the data mathematical, and even geometric questions. But a Euclidean’s refusal to budge will mean that such questions would be meaningless, or at least hopelessly imprecise. So we leave behind Euclidean geometry, and join the more fashionable phase-space geometers, who generalize Euclidean results (analogously to Einstein’s reconceptualization of Newtonian Physics as a special case of his own) in a “broader” fabric of geometric analysis, where one “new” parameter of analysis is the “shape” of space.

Well, this is just asking for greater precision in our assertions, not distinct truth-conditions. In the evaluation of any proposition we must first determine a frame in which the proposition is satisfiable, and confine our analysis to such a frame.

This, then, would be truth-in-the-frame, and not truth-absolute.

[and here we end... for now]

Epistemology, Politics and Society
PHIL-783-01, Georgetown University
Spring 1992
(© David Foss, November 8, 1993)

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Last modified September 2, 1998

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