I once was crazy, completely insane. Some would say that I still am.
Should I ever have been so bold as to analyze the arguments throughout history for and against the existence of God? The will to Truth had possessed me.
I had, in essence, sold my soul for Truth.
Panic? Crisis? Call it what you will.
Should I have spent my time doing something other than reading philosophy for hours on end for years? The abyss stares back.
Perhaps I should have trembled before God with fear and just continued my computer science studies. I would at least have become financially sound, right?
But I had to look into the abyss. Call it destiny.
Does it haunt me to this day? I was compelled to stare.
Not by my will, but by the will of God!
Truth be told, there is nobody to blame but my self.
Let me now put on an old tune that was first played back in 2008 by a tiny white hermit named Joshua Synon who was still a serious metaphysician – in an ironic sense at least.
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
– Walt Whitman
The History of an Error
By Joshua Synon
Man is the measure of all things – of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not.
And Plato said, “Let there be Truth,” and there was Truth. Man saw that the Truth was good, and he separated the Truth from the truth. Man called the Truth “Form,” and the truth he called “illusion.” Such is the spectacular deceit that marked the beginning of thousands of years of philosophical confusion. To the self-proclaimed Sophos that advocate the attribution of absolute value to that which is – to Truth – to apodictic certainty of noumena, I write with fear and trembling, but with utmost necessity. In the tradition of Pontius Pilate, may we ask, “What is Truth?”
In the above, I have used a capitalized ‘T’ in truth to signify absolute, unchangeable, objective truth arrived at through reason alone. The lower case ‘truth’ represents truths arrived at through subjective experience alone. What Western philosophy has embarked upon is a millennia surpassing dichotomy of essentially contradictory philosophical understandings of the world. One team argues that truth is objective in nature, that there are facts-in-themselves that exist independent of any observer (e.g. traditional theists), and these I will term objectivists (not to be confused with the doctrine of Ayn Rand). The other argues that truth is qualified by subjective experience, that there are indeed no facts-in-themselves – only perspectives, and these I will call subjectivists. On the metaphysical side there is a subtle, but significant, difference between the two: objectivists believe that we experience (or at least possibly can experience) the world as it is in-itself, while the subjectivist believes that there are only many different interpretations or perspectives possible. There have been many proponents for each side throughout the ages. What I would like to do is provide an explanation for this epic rift in Western philosophy and present an account as to why objectivism won out in the West until recent times.
In our present age most people share an objectivist point of view. Metaphysical objectivism is presumed to be common sense. Nobody doubts that there is an external world existing independently of oneself. People believe that when they die the world will continue along just as it had before. Certainly the scientific method would not work if this were not the case. Science today is on a search for the same objective Truth that Plato was so befriended to. The difference, however, lies in the fact that science evokes practical principles as opposed to abstract theoretical fantasies. It is my endeavor to convince the reader that what I have labeled subjectivism is much more common-sensical than its rival. I need not delve into the niceties of objectivism precisely because it is so familiar to us. It is enough to say that the ancient Greeks, specifically Plato, marked the beginning of objectivist thought in the Western world.
The so-called sophists of ancient Greece can be seen as prototypes of subjectivist thought in Western philosophy. They recognized and embellished upon a certain relativity in matters of truth. It was a sophist named Protagoras who pronounced, “Man is the measure of all things – of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not” (Reeve 30). I think this is one of the most important quotes in ancient Western philosophy. This man, Protagoras, somehow acquired insight into a fundamental psychological truth about the nature of man and his ideas. That is, man is the sole creator and destroyer of his own ideas. It would seem to me that this hitherto profound insight was as common-sensical to Protagoras as objectivism is to the masses today. This same philosopher recognized that, “There are two opposing arguments concerning everything” (Ibid). Whether he believed that both sides of an argument are equally valid is a matter of interpretation and subject to argument. However, in matters of abstract metaphysical thought, I think Protagoras would agree that both sides are equally valid.
Thrasymachus, another among the ranks of the sophists, proclaimed in Book I of Plato’s Republic that “justice is the advantage of the stronger;” that, “each [ruler] declares that what is just for its subjects is what is advantageous for itself” (Ibid., at 149). This view of Thrasymachus’ is clearly relativistic in that justice in one state would theoretically be different from justice in another state. What is not recognized, however, by Plato in his dialogue is that the argument is over the definition of a word, and not, as he would have us believe, over an abstract concept of justice-in-itself. Such a concept, as will be argued later, is non-cognitive to man, for it is an oxymoron for man, a ‘subject,’ to perceive things-in-themselves as if he were an objective observer – an ‘unknowing knower.’
The subjectivism of the sophists, and perhaps other circumstances irrelevant to this discourse, provoked the Sophos – the self-proclaimed true seekers of Truth, with Plato being the most prominent among their ranks. Plato dishonored the sophists in his dialogues and the term sophist itself remains derogatory to this day. The divine Plato introduced, in his own sophistic manner, a cunning theory that would sweep through the ages of philosophy and even seep into the core of the world’s most prominent religion. His theory of the Forms – of Ideals – that began the artificial distinction between being and becoming, between reality and appearance, was his magnum opus: Man is in a cave of ignorance, blinded by his own senses, only to be redeemed by subjection to the Forms – to Truth, to the Good, even apotheosized and anthropomorphized into God – all essentially the same thing. “The true world – attainable for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man; he lives in it, he is it” (Portable 485). Plato himself wrote it in Book VII of the Republic, “I, Plato, have had the divination to leave the confines of that gloomy cave, to escape the shadowy appearances, and have come into the light of true knowledge. If I appear completely ridiculous to you it is only because your eyes are not well adjusted to Truth.” Perhaps he was operating on the principle of omne ignotum pro magnifico est. It is interesting to review Nietzsche’s view of Plato’s theory of the Forms:
Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal. No leaf ever wholly equals another, and the concept “leaf” is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions; and now it gives rise to the idea that in nature there might be something besides the leaves which would be “leaf” – some kind of original form after which all leaves have been woven, marked, copied, colored, curled, and painted, but by unskilled hands, so that no copy turned out to be a correct, reliable, and faithful image of the original form. We call a person “honest.” Why did he act so honestly today? we ask. Our answer usually sounds like this: because of his honesty. Honesty! That is to say again: the leaf is the cause of the leaves. After all, we know nothing of an essence-like quality named “honesty”; we know only numerous individualized, and thus unequal actions, which we equate by omitting the unequal and by then calling them honest actions. In the end, we distill from them a qualitas occulta with the name of “honesty”… (Portable 46)
I think that the most important developments in this great debate consist of the expansions of subjectivist thinking in more recent times. William James, a well known American philosopher, was a prominent proponent of the pragmatic theory of truth.
William James insisted that truth happens to an idea. “So there is no such thing as disinterested truth. Pragmatic truth is human truth. ‘Purely objective truth,’ James asserts, ‘plays no role whatsoever, is nowhere to be found.’ He adds that the most absolute-seeming truths ‘also once were plastic. They were called true for human reasons. They also mediate between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations.’ Useful, human truth is alive; rationalistic, abstract, dogmatic truth is ‘the dead heart of the living tree.’ Truth grows.” (Soccio 411)
It is becoming obvious that objectivism is losing its hold on the hearts and minds of philosophers. James’ theory helped to reduce fruitless metaphysical debates by only accepting practical truths. James was by no means a radical subjectivist, but his ideas reveal that the magnificent tower that is the reign of objective truth is beginning to falter.
Kierkegaard held a more extreme view on the value of subjective truth. Indeed, he wrote that subjectivity is truth:
When the question about truth is asked objectively, truth is reflected upon objectively as an object to which the knower relates himself. What is reflected upon is not the relation but that what he relates himself to is the truth, the true. If only that to which he relates himself is the truth, the true, then the subject is in the truth. When the question about truth is asked subjectively, the individual’s relation is reflected upon subjectively. If only the how of this relation is in truth, the individual is in truth, even if he in this way were to relate himself to untruth. (Hong 206)
For Kierkegaard, it is only subjective truth that has value. He does not, however, argue against the possibility of facts-in-themselves. He only intended to devalue them and the attempt at proving or even searching for them. One of the most common objections to subjectivism is that it creates a contradiction upon itself, but Kierkegaard was quick to guard against this objection:
When subjectivity, inwardness, is truth, then truth, objectively defined, is a paradox; and that truth is objectively a paradox shows precisely that subjectivity is truth, since the objectivity does indeed thrust away, and the objectivity’s repulsion, or the expression for the objectivity’s repulsion, is the resilience and dynamometer of inwardness. The paradox is the objective uncertainty that is the expression for the passion of inwardness that is truth. So much for the Socratic. The eternal, essential truth, that is, the truth that is related essentially to the existing person by pertaining essentially to what it means to exist (viewed Socratically, all other knowledge is accidental, its degree and scope indifferent), is a paradox. Nevertheless the eternal, essential truth is itself not at all a paradox, but it is a paradox by being related to an existing person. Socratic ignorance is an expression of the objective uncertainty; the inwardness of the existing person is truth. (Ibid., at 207)
This passage clearly shows that there have developed multiple meanings for the same philosophical words, viz. truth, which has caused much confusion in philosophy. But Kierkegaard was an avid ironist and his point is not to be taken lightly: If subjectivity is truth, then, objectively defined, truth is a paradox. However, the offensiveness to us objective truth-seekers of this so-called paradox is precisely an expression of subjectivity. What marvelous word games we have come up with throughout the ages! If anything, Kierkegaard has proven that it is certainly unfounded to regard subjectivity as untruth.
If Plato marked the beginning of objectivist thought in Western philosophy, then it is the Enlightenment that lead the course to its destruction. I am not going to tell the story of modern philosophy here. I will simply assume that the reader is familiar with the drama that started with Rene Descartes’ rationalism,
There is thinking; consequently there is that which thinks’ – that is what Descartes’ argument comes to. Yet this means positing our faith in the concept of substance as ‘a priori true.’ When there is thinking, something must be there which thinks – that is merely a formulation of our grammatical habit, which posits a doer for what is done… Rational thought is interpretation according to a scheme which we cannot escape. (Portable 455)
…proceeded through Berkeley’s idealism and Hume’s empirical skepticism, to finally be “solved” by Kant’s Copernican revolution. Enter the new pandemic – the Cartesian disease! “The true world – unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it – a consolation, an obligation, an imperative” (Ibid., at 485). There is a common factor underlying the thought of all of these men and their contemporary supporters. That common factor I will call logocentrism, a will to abstract metaphysical Truth at all costs. “’Will to truth’ does not mean ‘I will not let myself be deceived’ but – there is no choice – ‘I will not deceive, not even myself’: and with this we are on the ground of morality” (Ibid., at 449).
Kierkegaard once remarked upon an absent-minded man so abstracted from his own life that he hardly knew he existed, until, one fine morning, he woke up to find himself dead. Let us call this man philosophy. Almost twenty-three hundred years after Plato the question of the value of this objective Truth-seeking was finally posed:
The will to truth which will still tempt us to may a venture, that famous truthfulness of which all philosophers so far have spoken with respect – what questions has this will to truth not laid before us! What strange, wicked, questionable questions! That is a long story even now – and yet it seems as if it had scarcely begun. Is it any wonder that we should finally become suspicious, lose patience, and turn away impatiently? That we should finally learn from this Sphinx to ask questions, too? Who is it really that puts questions to us here? What in us really wants “truth”? Indeed we came to a long halt at the question about the cause of this will – until we finally came to a complete stop before a still more basic question. We asked about the value of this will. Suppose we want truth: why not rather untruth? And uncertainty? Even ignorance? The problem of the value of truth came before us – or was it we who came before the problem? Who of us is Oedipus here? Who the Sphinx? It is a rendezvous, it seems, of questions and question marks. And though it scarcely seems credible, it finally almost seems to us as if the problem had never even been put so far – as if we were the first to see it, fix it with our eyes, and risk it. For it does involve a risk, and perhaps there is none that is greater. (Basic Writings 199)
Shall we play the blind man who speaks of colors and lives by his word? When one asks what the value is of a fact-in-itself, a plethora, indeed an onslaught, of conscientious objections arise. Have we been indoctrinated to idolize Truth? I think that, if the question is asked metaphysically, the answer is easily found in the philosophical writings of the past twenty-four hundred years. Even so, given this great quest for objective Truth succeeds – as if objective is a meaningful word! Where have we gone and where are we to go from there? Ah, so we have proven that an external world exists, and we have ascertained every principle of physics! Alas, we can all now rest in peace and cease living, for by the power of Truth we have conquered the Universe! Abstract theory, nay, the Truth – The Truth – has set us free! However, when the will to Truth is abolished the voice of King Solomon again reigns supreme, which is perhaps irrelevant to this discourse, but certainly relevant to every living individual, “O Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” But – nil desperandum– it would appear that nihilism itself was also invented by the Sophos!
Philosophy, for the past 2,400 years, has been on a search for the Truth. It is my contention that certain qualities of language itself have impeded and distorted this search, even possibly necessitated it. Language is the foundation of philosophical discourse, but language itself has limits, boundaries, ambiguities, obscurities, and preordained meanings.
When someone hides something behind a bush and looks for it again in the same place and finds it there as well, there is not much to praise in such seeking and finding. Yet this is how matters stand regarding seeking and finding “truth” within the realm of reason. If I make up the definition of a mammal, and then, after inspecting a camel, declare “look, a mammal” I have indeed brought a truth to light in this way, but it is a truth of limited value. That is to say, it is a thoroughly anthropomorphic truth which contains not a single point which would be “true in itself” or really and universally valid apart from man. At bottom, what the investigator of such truths is seeking is only the metamorphosis of the world into man. He strives to understand the world as something analogous to man, and at best he achieves by his struggles the feeling of assimilation. (“On Truth”)
Language, created by man, has been used by man to create an ordered universe. Language is confined to the system from which it originated and cannot gaze in as an objective thinker.
We have fixed up a world for ourselves in which we can live – assuming bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content: without these articles of faith, nobody now would endure life. But that does not mean that they have been proved. Life is no argument; the conditions of life could include error. (Basic Writings 171)
Every religion that has developed even a modicum of semantic sophistication recognizes to some extent the way words and reason fall short of reality when they do not actually distort it. However much the rationalist may begrudge the fact, paradox and the transrational are religion’s life blood, and that of art as well. Mystics in every faith report contacts with a world that startles and transforms them with its dazzling darkness. Zen stands squarely in this camp, its only uniqueness being that it makes breaking the language barrier its central concern. (Smith 130)
Shall we now give credence to that ancient question of Pontius Pilate? It has been said that there have developed multiple meanings for the same philosophical words. The word under the microscope at the moment is ‘truth.’ From what we have ascertained we may infer that truth is simply another creation of language; an attempt to bring order from chaos, meaning from meaninglessness.
What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms – in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are. (Portable 47)
If this much is clear, then it is also clear that we cannot communicate without these metaphors, perhaps not even live without what we have created. It is not as clear, however, that is it high time for philosophy to abandon its search for Truth. Metaphysics, epistemology, ethics: all artificial creations for the sole purposes of mankind. Even logic cannot escape the grasp of owing its life to man:
That all contradiction in concepts should be forbidden, is the result of a belief, that we are able to form concepts, that a concept not only characterises but also holds the essence of a thing. … As a matter of fact, logic (like geometry and arithmetic) only holds good ofassumed existences which we have created. Logic is the attempt on our part to understand the actual world according to a scheme of Being devised by ourselves; or, more exactly, it is our attempt at making the actual world more calculable and more susceptible to formulation, for our own purposes. (Langiulli 90)
According to Wittgenstein, words themselves are relative in their meaning with respect to the specific ‘language-game’ that is taking place at any given time. He argued that language is not an adequate expression of objective reality. In a similar line of thought, Nietzsche doubts the truth-extracting powers of language,
[W]hat about these conventions of language? Are they really the products of knowledge, of the sense of truth? Do the designations and the things coincide? Is language the adequate expression of all realities? Only through forgetfulness can man ever achieve the illusion of possessing a ‘truth’… If he does not wish to be satisfied with truth in the form of a tautology… then he will forever buy illusions for truths. What is a word? The expression of a nerve-stimulus in sounds. But to infer from the nerve stimulus, a cause outside us, that is already the result of a false and unjustified application of the principle of reason… The ‘thing in itself’ (for that is what pure truth, without consequences, would be) is quite incomprehensible to the creators of language and not at all worth aiming for. One designates only the relations of things to man, and to express them one calls on the boldest metaphors. A nerve stimulus, first transposed into an image – first metaphor. The image, in turn, imitated by a sound – second metaphor… (Portable 45)
Noscitur a sociis – ad absurdum. In similar fashion, and perhaps beyond what Wittgenstein attempted, Jacques Derrida developed the tradition of deconstruction, which attempts to discover and incorporate, to deconstruct, underlying metaphysical assumptions in the interpretation of a reading. Each of these approaches lend a hand in the recovery of philosophy from thousands of years of that deceptively naive game of language.
Let us think about this subject in a common-sensical fashion. Our modern day common sense tells us, as was noted previously, that an external world-in-itself does exist, but this can be easily explained on account of indoctrination. A question for the reader: Have you ever existed outside of yourself? In other words, have you experienced anything other than what you have experienced? A clear contradiction. When one admits that subjective experience is the beginning and end of all knowledge, then one also admits ipso facto that there is absolutely no rational ground for assuming an objective reality outside of ones own experiences.
The practice of philosophy is, and always has been, man projecting his ideals into the world, a type of creative autobiography if you will. The existence of a word does not prove the ontological existence of an object. Perhaps an analogy will suffice: Computer scientists frequently use the term ‘null pointer.’ In computer science, a pointer is essentially a data element whose value is an address. A pointer basically points to the value of a given variable and can be dereferenced in certain operations requiring said variable. A null pointer is a pointer with no address. It is a pointer that is pointing to nothing. If a program attempts to dereference a null pointer, there will result a run-time error and the program will shut down. Words used in abstract philosophy can be said to be equivalent to null pointers. They dereference nothing and are only useful on an aesthetic level.
The separate elements of philosophy have gradually become assimilated into modern science. Metaphysics and epistemology have merged into science proper: physics, biology, astronomy, etc. Morality is now under the guise of psychology. Ethics has been made the foundation of law and an instrument of control. Political theory will be the last to be taught in history classrooms alone. Aesthetics has become vanity instead of vitality. With fear and trembling, not for me, but for the world, I pronounce the death of Truth – and with it, the death of 2,400 years of Western philosophy.
History of an Error
- The real world attainable for the wise man, the pious man, the virtuous man—he lives in it, he is it.
(Most ancient form of the idea, relatively clever, simple, convincing. Paraphrase of the proposition: ‘I, Plato, am the truth.’)
- The real world unattainable for now, but promised to the wise man, the pious man, the virtuous man (‘to the sinner who repents’).
(Progress of the idea: it becomes more cunning, more insidious, more incomprehensible—it becomes a woman, it becomes Christian…)
- The real world unattainable, unprovable, unpromisable, but the mere thought of it a consolation, an obligation, an imperative.
(The old sun in the background, but seen through mist and scepticism; the idea becomes sublime, pale, Nordic, Königsbergian.)
- The real world—unattainable? At any rate unattained. And since unattained also unknown. Hence no consolation, redemption, obligation either: what could something unknown oblige us to do? …
(Break of day. First yawn of reason. Cock-crow of positivism.)
- The ‘real world’—an idea with no further use, no longer even an obligation—an idea become useless, superfluous, therefore a refuted idea: let us do away with it!
(Broad daylight; breakfast; return of bon sens and cheerfulness; Plato’s shameful blush; din from all free spirits.)
- The real world—we have done away with it: what world was left? the apparent one, perhaps? … But no! with the real world we have also done away with the apparent one!
(Noon; moment of the shortest shadow; end of the longest error; pinnacle of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.)
– Friedrich Nietzsch
What is left Nietzsche? – Phenomenology? Subjectivism? Perspectivism? Simulacrum? – No. – Be-ing-No-thing-ness. A.K.A. Pure Experience liberated from sincerely concerned metaphysical speculation. A.K.A. Life. But you knew that already.
Later, Nishitani Keiji continues alongside myself spouting nonsense in underground notes! And stay tuned for The Magnum Opiate of Malaclypse the Younger! Be ye not lost among precepts of order!