‘What is truth?’ asked Pontius Pilate more than 2,000 years ago, but according to the Gospel of John, he did not wait for the answer. While the religious text of John presents a Christian answer to truth-seeking, contemporary philosophical interrogations of truth render more questions than answers. What does is mean when we say that someone is ‘telling the truth’? Can there be more than one truth? Can two people make contradictory statements and still tell the ‘truth’ from a different perspective? How do we differentiate between truths and falsehoods and who gets to decide?
Objectives of this lesson
- Understand the complexities associated with defining Truth,
- Identify the role of perspective and its implications for truth-making
- Recognize different philosophical approaches to truth,
- Formulate a position on the meaning of truth using terms and concepts from the lesson
Truth & Power – Foucault
An important element in a conversation about truth is the relationship between truth-making and power. Michel Foucault, a 20th century French philosopher, shaped modern understandings of power by leading us away from focusing on those who wield power (ie dictators) and away from the structures of power (ie governments) by arguing that ‘power is everywhere’, diffused and embodied in discourse, knowledge and ‘regimes of truth’ (Foucault 1991; Rabinow 1991). What he means by this is that power shapes our social and cultural systems, it frames the way we view the world, it is embedded in the words and language that we use, it has penetrated power has infiltrated every aspect of our lives in a way that cultivates our idea of reality and truth. Because of this, Foucault challenges the notion of Truth which is a major theme in Foucault’s work, particularly in the context of the relationship between truth-making and power, knowledge and the ‘subject’ (one who lacks power).
Foucault argues that truth is an event which takes place in history. It is something that ‘happens’, and is produced by various techniques rather than something that already exists and is simply waiting to be discovered. Foucault defines ‘regimes of truth’ as the historically specific mechanisms which produce discourses which function as true in particular times and places. For example, the old adage ‘history is written by victors,’ reflects the relationship between winners and the right to write stories about the past. We can assume that if the British won the American Revolutionary War or if Germany won World War II that the histories we read about those events would have been written very differently and this would affect our understanding of the past.
In his book, The Birth of Biopolitcs (Foucault 1978-79, p. 20; 18), Foucault argues that Truth is a political function of the intellectual and that “truth isn’t outside power, or deprived of power.’ On the contrary, truth “is produced by virtue of multiple constraints [a]nd it induces regulated effects of power”. This is to say that “each society has its regime of truth”, and by this he means that:
- “the types of discourse [society] harbors and causes to function as true”;
- “the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true from false statements” and “the way in which each is sanctioned”;
- “the techniques and procedures which are valorised for obtaining truth”;
- “the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (Foucault 1976, p. 112; 13).
In this line of reasoning, for example, how do we evaluate truthfulness to the statement, ‘I am not the child’s parent’? We must: (1) identify the historical discourse that establishes the nature of a parent-child relationship (ie is it biological and/or social?), (2) Identify any mechanisms in place to distinguish what is and is not parentage (ie familial relations, fostering arrangements, biological associations) and consider the ways each mechanism is sanctioned or granted authority (ie legal, religious, etc.), (3) determine how to valorize or test the statement according to 1 and 2 (ie DNA analysis, history of actions by the parent and child, amount of time spent together, etc.), and lastly (4) recognize the status of those who have established the criteria laid out so far; who gets to decide on 1-3 and what gives them that right over others to do so?
According to Foucault, 1-4 is “a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and functioning of statements”; it is linked “by a circular relation to systems of power which produce it and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which redirect it”. This is what constitute a “politics of truth” (Foucault 1976, pp. 113-114; 14); truth is created by power, truth and power justify each other, and truth maintains the power that creates it.
Foucault uses the term ‘power/knowledge’ to signify that power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and ‘truth’: ‘Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true’ (Foucault, in Rabinow 1991).
Foucault’s truth and power framework shapes his discourse on topics such as mental ‘illness’, Science, Knowledge, and schooling. In Madness and Civilization (1961) Foucault challenges the notion of insanity by investigating the historical relationship between power structures and the asylum as an instrument of power. In the Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) Foucault interrogates the history of power and the production of ideas to to present knowledge, the archive of what we know, as a product of historical events. In The Order of Things (1966) Foucault outlines the historical construction of the Sciences …. Foucault’s deconstructivist analysis launched what is known as the Post-Modern philosophical approach which aims to dismantle our assumptions about what we think we know. If what we think, know, feel and believe is a product of history and our experiences, then how can we determine what is true and what is simply a matter of perspective?
Perspective is a point of view relative to positioning. In culture and society, a person’s perspective is shape by their social positioning and the associations created through the personal experiences of the individual, their lens. A person’s lens is as unique as a fingerprint.
The term perspectivism was initially coined by Friedrich Neitzsche and refers to a philosophical view that all ideas are positioned from a particular perspective and that there are many possible conceptual schemes where the judgement of truth can be made. While this implies that there can me multiple renditions of ‘truth,’ it does not necessarily mean that all renditions are equally valid.
Perspectivism is illustrated in The Blind Men and the Elephant, a famous Indian parable that tells the story of six blind sojourners that encounter an elephant in their life journeys. Blindness represents human limitations in the capacity to see from all perspectives. Each blind man in the parable draws a different and very conflicting conclusions about the nature of the elephant.
Here is John Godfrey Saxe’s (1816-1887) version of Blind Men and the Elephant:
It was six men of Indostan, To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant, (Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation, Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach’d the Elephant, And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side, At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant, Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk, Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp? To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant, Is very like a spear!”
The Third approach’d the animal, And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands, Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant, Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand, And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like, Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,-
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant, Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most; Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant, Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun, About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail, That fell within his scope,
“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant, Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan, Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion, Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!
This video is a contemporary version of the parable:
The Blind Men and the Elephant parable is used today to highlight the problem with ideas about absolute truth or exclusive religious claims. By recognizing the limitations of a single point of view, it aims to encourage us to consider the perspectives of those who are different from us while validating and legitimizing the perspectives of those who are disempowered and therefore left out of the construction of ‘truth.’
Relativism is the idea that ideas are relative to differences in perception and consideration, and because of this, there is no universal or objective truth. Each point of view has its own truth. There are many different forms of relativism. Truth relativism is a doctrine that there are no absolute truths. Moral Relativism refers to moral principles and ethics related to ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Cultural relativism is the principle of regarding the beliefs, values, and practices of a culture from the viewpoint of that culture itself. Originating in the work of Franz Boas in the early 20th century, cultural relativism influenced research in the social sciences such as Anthropology and Sociology as a means to avoid judging another culture by the standards of one’s own culture, a practice referred to as ethnocentrism.
Relativist perspectives have received considerable criticism, particularly from the likes of Modernists such as Noam Chomsky in the context of human rights and social justice. Modernists argue that ‘justice’ and ‘truth’ have meaning and value independent of power, and by undermining the notion of a universal acceptance of certain aspects of right and wrong, we inadvertently excuse atrocities such as genocide, slavery, child sex abuse, etc. In the 1970s, famous modernist Noam Chomsky engaged in a legendary philosophical shootout with Michel Foucault on the topic of relativism, human nature, and power. To watch the famous hour long debate click here. A recent commentary by Chomsky (after Foucault’s death) is below.
In the context of the Blind Men and the Elephant, anti-relativists argue that while each blind man has a limited perspective on the elephant, that does not mean that the elephant is not there. Critics contest that the goal is not to deny that the elephant/truth does not exist, but that we must aim to collectively learn about the elephant/truth in its totality; and this requires sharing our experiences, perspectives and points of view.
The Humanities provide the opportunity to learn and share our unique ideas, perspectives, and experiences from a collective point of view that has accumulated throughout history and across cultures. Each piece of art, a lyric in a song, a line in a poem, representation in art, or a new philosophical idea represents a different facet of the elephant of humanity which represents the embodiment of our shared human experience. Studying the Humanities takes us closer to exploring the totality of what it means to be human.
- Truth: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- ‘Foucault: Power is everywhere’ by Powercube.net
- ‘What is Truth?’ Bertrand Russell
- Critiquing Cultural Relativism
For Discussion: What is Truth? Is there such a thing? Does believing make it true? Is there such a thing as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ and if so, who gets to decide? What experiences shape your lens and the ways you formulate truth? Use terms and concepts from this lesson to formulate a 250 word essay expressing your ideas about truth, perspective, and relativism and produce a visual representation of your ideas. Again, the visual representation is just right-brain practice, dont worry about the outcome. To allay anxiety, if you are having any, I included mine. Here I used a river to represent ‘reality’ as something that flows and changes over an eyeball to represent perspective. You should already know why the elephant is there. The lashes of the eyeball are labelled with things that cloud or shape our lens: bias, media, religion, prejudice, propaganda, education, friends, power, hallucinations, lies, denial, information, etc.
When you complete the discussion, go the the Representation lesson.