Politics and Philosophy

Exploring Political Issues Through Philosophy


Truth in Social Issues

The Particular Nature  of Truth in Social Issues


John Connor



            It is on the basis of true witness that our actions are designed.

            Truth, a tricky business…but an assumed business.

            In debate and studies,  especially when of social issues, isn’t there a tendency to by-pass clear understanding of ‘truth’ and speak around truth as though there is some immediate, intuitive and universal understanding of what is truth – its nature, its infallibility?  Writers, including professional philosophers, quite naturally also show a tendency to assume the truth-value of their subject. Doesn’t every thought take for granted its own underlying supposition?   Yes, it is almost impossible to discuss a subject without supposing its truth-value.  Unfortunately, this tendency can stir up quite a few misunderstandings which can lead people to talk right past one another. This seems a crippling error when the subject is social justice. 

            Some statements seem so obviously true that there is an inclination to shuck them off as too ridiculous to ponder. For example, I can say: I pick up a stone from the ground.  Then add: is it not a true fact that there is a stone in my hand?  Such a statement of objective fact,[1] being blatantly obvious, might throw us off the mark as too silly to spend time with, but notice the trigger that makes the statement blatantly obvious.  We have an almost reflexive tendency to run the idea of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ together, blurred them as though one were synonymous with the other – fact makes truth obvious  This leaves truth as a value that hinges on fact.  This is automatically done countless times, because at first glance it would seem that what is ‘true’ is also a statement of fact – a true, objective fact?  Closer scrutiny shows that there is an important distinction to be made between truth and fact.  Truth has value while fact does not.  Fact simply is.  Value is what distinguished truth from fact and the blurring of the two has serious consequences for social justice. We tend to assume that fact has value rather than truth.

            To get a proper handle on this distinction between truth and fact let me return to the stone and ask a question that is not so obvious: Is the stone an objective fact, or is the stone merely an image-thing in my mind?  Consider the stone.  It seems clear enough that the stone possesses some kind of objectivity in my hand that is independent from the regarding of the stone in my hand. The stone was here before I picked it up and only became a thing in my mind when I set it in my hand. My contemplation of the stone began after the fact of the stone. It follows that how I regard the stone is very much a part of how I cognitively and subjectively organize the material objectivity of the stone.  This subjective and cognitive organization is itself a result of a whole host of events and activities that were never overtly intended to intersect with the stone.  The objectivity of the stone enters into my contemplation of it as an action secondary to the subjective organization of the contemplation.  So, to return to the problem: is it true or is it a fact that I hold a stone in my hand.  It appears that while both are correct the truth of the matter originates from a place different from that of the fact.  Truth seems a matter of the cognitive response to the stone in my hand? 

            I am aware that this fine hair splitting about a stone in my hand seems remote to issues of social justice.  But consider what the hair splitting implies:  this thing called ‘truth’ seems in some way dependent on how we have come to think about fact, while the material objectivity, the ‘fact,’ (in this case, the stone, in the case of this study, social justice), possesses a certain independence from our cognitive process.  This leads to a proposed general statement that truth is in a cognitive process separate from fact, and more than that, truth is a screen that filters objective fact. The implication is that truth is a thing in our heads, while fact is something largely unknown, except by truth, a thing distinct from fact.

            Before proceeding, I should point out that it appears that I am merely slipping into the old cliché of “Truth is relative.”  As there is always exists a certain validity to clichés this is correct, in a certain way.  But what is at issue here is not the cliché, but one of the issues that lies behind the cliché: why is truth relative?  It might well be that the world positions us in such a way as to nearly force truth to be relative – or I think more accurately, particular.  Truth might be relative, but only in a particular way.

            The way in which questions concerning truth and fact are framed by professional philosophers can be located in any basic book on epistemology (i.e., the study of knowledge) or truth[2] as the framing of the question does certainly provoke an issue of the relationship of truth to knowledge. For us non-professionals, moving about in our daily and practical routines the consequences of a distinction between truth and fact are for the most part hardly felt.  Without in any way impugning the importance of professional, detailed discussions, it would seem that to facilitate this particular study I must take the position that in actions such as the picking up of a stone we are allowed the shortcut of realizing that the stone will be recognized universally as a stone, that is, an objective fact – and never mind why. There is no particular truth value in the stone.  Other issues are not so pedestrian.  

            There are particular social situations where truth commands our actions and fact does not. These situations can run from making decisions as a participant on a jury to lying to the boss about why we are going to be absent from work tomorrow, from cheating at solitaire to killing another human being.  To be completely (and uncomfortably) on point, most of the actions of our lives directly concern truth just as they indirectly concern fact.  Closely observing legal proceedings will demonstrate that good criminal lawyers never forget this distinction between truth and fact.  With regard to nearly all our human and social issues, and our human contemplations of these issues, are we not mostly concerned with truth rather than with fact? This is a temperamental statement, so to get at the disposition of truth I need to employ a slightly different, if not entirely original, approach to the issue of truth.

            The phrase “this thing called truth” is used above casually, but deliberately, for ‘truth,’ in a similar sense as ‘fact,’ has a thing-like quality to it. At least ‘truth’ has this thing-like quality more than ‘certainty,’ which has the slippery feel of an abstraction.  As opposed to notions such as certainty, this thing-like feel to truth offers us the sensation of a handle to grasp the topic.  Unlike ‘certainty’, a ‘truth’ seems to offer something a little more ‘real,’ something of value that we can possess.  There is an irony here, since I have analyzed truth as a thing distinct from objective fact, yet truth seems to possess this quality of ‘graspability’ and ‘possessability,’ truth, and truth-value, must have some operational element in both the cognitive setting of the mind and the material objectivity[3] of the actual world.  A truth can always be linked to something independent of our individual cognition, either embodied in a reflection of material reality, as a glimpse into manifestation of relationships, or revealed in a disclosure of abstractions.  Yet at the same time it is we who do the reflecting, the disclosing, the manifesting, which are inner operations independent of the actual and social world.   

            ‘Certainty,’ which I offered above as contrast, can be traced to ‘truth’ as the portal to the actual ad social world.  The real value of truth is that truth is the bridge between the real world and the realm of certainty. Certainty, as opposed to truth, is therefore almost entirely a part of the cognitive world and forever removed from any immediate connection with the objective material world.  This accounts for the greater difficulty with ‘certainty.’  Truth, by contrast, is a connective process, as described above, cognitively organizing the material objectivity into “the thing called truth,” therefore providing ‘the thing’ with a truth-value, the ‘value’ portion of which can enter the realm of certainty.

            Truth having this thing-like feel to it also suggests something else – truth as property.[4]  In this way it is possible to think of truth as something like a universal possession,[5] a property available to all of humanity.  All humanity can possess truth, almost as though truth were something tactile as well as cognitive.  This has an appropriate ring to it.  Truth as a distillation and reorganization of the concrete world draws that world directly into the process of reasoning and through that process of reasoning infuses the objective fact with what it lacked before – the value of truth. This in no way defines exactly what truth is, but makes it plain that whatever truth is, it is a thing which, by its nature, is a property of value which is (or should be) universally available and shared by all.

            We need, however, to exercise some caution when using the term ‘universal property,’ and especially note that ‘universal,’ paradoxically, carries certain particular situational elements which are sometimes as odds with its universal nature.  A neutral subject, or objective fact, such as a ‘stone’ might be universally (if superficially) understood as a stone, but it has no value.  Of course this is different from saying the stone is in my hand, which raises a particular notion of truth as something distinct from the universal fact of the stone and is open to the possibility of value.  Value is not automatically transferred from the particular to the universal.  

            This can be demonstrated by the apparently innocuous and universal truth of the fact that “cats don’t grow on trees?”  The only difference between a stone and cats-growing-on-trees is that you can handle the first in the hand and the latter only in the mind.  Therein lays a pivotal point concerning the transference of truth-value.  At first glance the claim that “cats don’t grow on trees” might seem an utterly obvious true and factual statement under any circumstance.  It is universally true that cats simply do not grow on trees!  Is there anything biased or controversial about this claim?  It would seem not. It also seems to lack value, as does any fact, which would suggest that it somehow lacks truth value. 

            One influential philosopher (Wittgenstein) pointed out: we only know that it is true that cats do not grow on trees because we were taught this[6].  If we were never taught, or otherwise learned, what was a ‘cat’ or what was a ‘tree,’ we could not possibly know how ‘utterly obvious’ it was that ‘cats don’t grow on trees.’  This seems a silly suggestion and a waste of time, for in this reality where would such things as cats and trees not be learned from childhood?  Therefore, is not the example trite and the question moot? 

            The answer is that if one were to look up the word ‘cat’ in a traditional  Inuit dictionary it could not be found, for the Intuits have no word for ‘cat’ in their vocabulary.   Cats were not part of the traditional Intuits life’s experience, at least not before the coming of civilization (admittedly, dicey term).  Of the long list of things the Inuit value in their reality, cats simply to not appear, and therefore to teach an Inuit that cat’s don’t grow on trees is a pointless exercise.  As a consequence, without the word, (much less the value), and the experience that generated the word, it would be absurd to convince an Inuit of the obvious truth that cats don’t grow on trees.  The traditional Inuit’s external or objective world simply does not allow for the obviousness of the claim’s truth – that is, the Inuit’s internal, or subjective world, will not allow for the organization of the objective facts.  Fact and truth are not just at loggerheads.  In the particular case of the Inuit, fact has trumped truth.

            So, if there are exceptions to the ‘obvious truth’ that ‘cats don’t grow on trees’ what are we to make of statements centered about such concepts as good and evil, human rights, racial inequality, democracy and social justice?  It must be that ‘truths’ concerning social issues, either simply, or in great complexity, have come into our heads as something that been taught to us. This teaching, or the learning, that facilitates the internal organization of complex reality into ‘truth,’ is of course, particular – that is, our learning has integrated itself into our particular situation and assigned truth-value accordingly. This raises basic social, cultural, and above all, historical connotations for our ‘particularity.’  Therefore, how we would learn to cognitively organize for ‘truth’ in one time and place will impact our social relations in a completely different way in another. What constitutes a social issue in one particularity will be completely absent or misunderstood in another.  It follows that the degree to which we value what we are taught will also vary not only with time and place, but also with the individual’s ‘particularity’ within that time and place.  Like the Inuit, I might live in the same time and place as a physicist, but not be particularly placed so as to understand the ‘truth’ of, say, dark matter.  Truth is highly particular which makes its universality possible but not automatic, or even probable. This sense of truth-value being particular to time and place has obvious ramification for social issues.

            What does this suggest about truth-value in the social and political issues such as Natural Law, property rights, of ‘Justice as Fairness,’ of Civil Liberties, or for that matter, Human Rights, if like the notion of cats and trees, the truth value I place in Rights, Liberty, Law or Fairness is particular to my time, place, and the scope of knowledge available to me?   The basic certainty remains that truth, as an internal organization of the external world, seems to have a functional relationship not with fact, but with what we have been taught to value, or have learned to value. This becomes our particular subjectivity.  In this sense, value rather than fact is an integral part of that relationship between truth and the social issues that confront us.  Like the Inuit, what we know and value about this world is based on a whole host of things that are not tied to our objectivity, but rather to truth or the value that comes with truth.

            The truth of a matter clearly reflects ‘something’  about society and the issues bound to society, but that ‘something’ is a complicated interplay of what we value rather than objective facts. What we have learned (which is a reflection of value, but not precisely the same thing), when we learn it, the depth and scope of the learning, the intention of that learning, and the material reality at which that learning is directed, are all products of value and not of facts. This complexity is at the heart of the nature of the mirror that does the reflecting, our cognitive processes. If what we are taught to value, or learn to value, has any bearing on truth, as it certainly seems to have, this casts a shadow over any notion of truth as some pure and objective reflection of reality in some one-to-one correspondence – a correspondence which may hold better for pointless fact than for truth. 

            As it turns out, truth is often an ambivalent interplay between what we are taught to value – that actuality which is locked in the relationship with time and place – and the social issues that we witness through reflection, manifestation, or revealing, the independent issues we euphuistically call ‘facts.’  Truth is not relative, per se.  It is not my particular truth, but any truth that is not so much subjective to the cognitive process, as it is relative to the subjectivity of a particular objectivity.  The lack of consistency in truth-value is due less to objective factors than to individual factors, which is to say, the particularity of our position within objectivity in total.

            Individually, rather than socially, and as strange as this may sound, this relativity to objectivity ultimately results in individual truth-as-choice.  We choose what is truth-value from among the various presentations offered us through our social objectivity and based on our particular subjectivity. Truth eventually gains the status of relativity, that is, relative to our total objectivity when it becomes a truth-value.  This is a fancy way of saying that we choose the truth of social issues.

           We begin to feel that truth-value, in any universal sense, begins to recede, being replaced with a relative truth.  The sense of relativity is greatly governed by the interplay between our particular objectivity and particular subjectivity. These two particularities are constantly shifting, dissolving and reforming.  It is as if truth were a thing built on sand.  At first blush this appears to be a disaster.  On second glance, a disaster with a silver lining.  The sense of particular relativity we can control to a much greater extent than we can control the value from which it emerges.  I have the choice to change my subjectivity through altering my relationship to my objectivity, thus changing my truth and therefore changing my truth-value.

            The choice to change my subjectivity produces for me a special personal responsibility I will then have toward the shifting particularity of truth at it regards social issues.  Along with the realization of truth as choice comes a special realization that I am responsible for my relationship with social issues. This is my particularity. Therefore, not just choice enters the realm of truth, but also responsibility for social issues. 

            In other words, circumscribed by what I know of social issues – the foundational stricture of my particular situation – a kind of involuntary (often unconscious) bracketing goes on between my introduction to socially value and the way I have learned to socially observe (both elements of our particular subjectivity).  It is in that involuntary sense that there does exist a correspondence between what I have learned and how I assess the truth of social issues, between particularity and social value.   

            All-in-all, riding on the shifting platform of changing context I bear a great deal of responsibility for not just my relationship with truth, but for what is truth-value, and how that value plays out in my understanding of social issues. This seems a strange and awkward and frightening position, to say that the truth of social issues depends on our adopted values, which within the particularity of time and place is largely our choice.  This as it regards our objectivity and is therefore particular to our context.  Understanding this, the particularity of our situation, will have great impact on our reading of truth-value in social issues.    


[1] I use the term ‘objective’ throughout this paper to indicate the world of objects existing outside and independent of our internal cognitive processes. 

[2] For example, for a detailed summation of the subject, see Frederick Schmitt, Truth, A Primer,  Westview Press, (Boulder, 1995)

[3] For the professional philosopher, note that I am conspicuously avoiding terms like idealist and realist, or metaphysical and physical.

[4] The use of the word ‘property’ is merely a convenient descriptive noun that allows us to handle aspect of ‘truth’ with expediency.  There is no intent to imply ownership.

[5] For example, see Charles Fried, Right And Wrong, Harvard University Press, (Cambridge, 1978), especially the chapter: “On Lying.”

[6] Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty,  Harper Torchbook, (New York, 1972) p. 36 (sec. 282)



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