John D Caputo's truth problems

What is truth?

January 10, 2014
There are many different apples in the world, but that doesn't mean that it's meaningless to ask "What is an apple?" The same goes for truth.
There are many different apples in the world, but that doesn't mean that it's meaningless to ask "What is an apple?" The same goes for truth.

The best “crossover” academic books are those which allow lay readers to see daily life with a new kind of theoretical understanding—opening up hidden depths in the familiar. Writers such as Daniel Kahneman and Dan Arriely—and even much-maligned crowdpleasers like Malcolm Gladwell—have this down to an art-form. Many less good crossover books, however, swap genuine illumination for the promise of making readers feel smarter. Unfortunately, John D Caputo’s new book Truth (Penguin, £8.99)—the first in a new series of intelligent but accessible volumes of philosophy for people to read on their way to and from work—falls into the latter category.

In the standard story about academic philosophy—a story which nearly everyone acknowledges to be overly reductive, yet nearly everyone continues to repeat—there are two kinds of philosophy. On one hand there is “analytic philosophy”—according to its opponents, a kind of pedantic bean-counting that alienates philosophy from its project of understanding the deep questions of life, existence and the human condition, replacing them with self-satisfied distinctions such as that between three different uses of the word “so.” On the other hand, there is “continental philosophy”—according to its opponents, a vague and pretentious approach, expressed in unclear prose which conceals a mixture of banalities and blatant falsehoods. Think of it this way: whilst continental philosophy gets better as you get drunker, analytic philosophy gets worse.

If Truth falls into either uncharitable category, it is clearly the latter. But it departs from the stereotype in a crucial way. Unlike the often tortuous prose of “continental philosophers” such as Hegel and Heidegger, Caputo’s writing is straightforward and highly readable. Yet this surface clarity is deceptive: at its heart, Truth is a deeply unclear book, in search of a central question.

Given the title, one might think that the central question of a book like this would be “what is truth?” Ten pages in however, Caputo announces that this question has no answer, for “there is no such thing. Instead there are truths—many of them, in the plural and lower case.” Caputo sets himself the task of trying to defend this claim while, on one hand, avoiding the absolutism of “One Big Truth” and on the other hand, “not ending us all up in the Relativist ditch of ‘anything goes.’”

This middle way between absolutism and relativism about the nature of truth may at first seem intelligible, but it muddles things considerably. To see this, consider an analogy. Imagine a child asks what an apple is. If you were to respond by rejecting the question as meaningless because there is no such thing as an apple—rather, there are many apples, coming in different shapes and sizes—that would be to misunderstand the child’s question. What the child is really asking about is what makes something an apple—what the different apples have in common such that they all count as apples. That doesn’t require thinking that there is a single Thing That Is An Apple—eternal, permanent and unchanging—nor that all apples are identical. On the contrary, it just requires that we identify some commonality which groups them together as apples, but excludes other objects—like oranges, and forklift trucks—from this category.

Similarly, contrary to Caputo, those who try to answer the question “what is truth?” need not think that there is just One Big Truth. Indeed, such a position is scarcely intelligible. It’s true that the earth goes round the sun, and it’s true that I like ice-cream. Are those the same truths? Obviously not. The claim that there are many different truths, then, is a banality. But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t something that it is to be true—an answer to the question “what is truth?”

In talking of “multiple truths,” Caputo might mean something bolder: that different, inconsistent claims can each be true “from a perspective.” This means that, at least with respect to some matters, one thing might be true “for me,” and another inconsistent thing might be true “for you”—without there being any “absolute” truth of the matter. This view, however, is the relativist one which Caputo claims to avoid. Thus, his attempt to steer a path between relativism and absolutism only appears coherent because of his failure to set up the debate clearly.

Caputo’s view, on which there are individual truths but no such thing as “truth,” makes for a frustratingly disunified book. For if there is no answer to the question, “what is truth?” we are left with the question, “what is true?” But that is a pointlessly large subject for a book since the question “what is true?” encompasses just about every intellectual or scientific task ever undertaken. Given this kind of a remit, Caputo can discuss anything he likes.

And what he likes to discuss is religion. As he dubiously puts it, “every time a serious question about truth arises, the clue to seeing what is going on is to look at what is being said about religion.” Caputo declares that the problem of religious pluralism—how to deal with the challenges of a cosmopolitan society where different religions come into conflict—is “a truth problem.” No doubt it is if your understanding of a “truth problem” is “any problem about what is true.” But in that sense, what time the number 47 bus leaves Deptford Broadway is a truth problem.

This confusion recurs again and again. For example, Caputo treats the question of whether there is one god or many (or none) as a version of the question of whether there is “one truth or many.” But it is not. If there were to be two mayors of London instead of one, that would require a political rethinking but not a rethinking of the theory of truth. Likewise, if there were to be two gods instead of one, that would require a religious rethinking but not a rethinking of the theory of truth. Sometimes it feels like Truth is just Caputo’s vehicle to discuss the subject that really animates him—religion, and his own expansive, almost nontheistic account of it.

Caputo also persistently runs together the questions of truth with questions of knowledge of truth. For example, he complains that absolutism—the view that there are absolute truths—“confuses us [i.e. human beings] with God,” a being that can know every truth. Yet the claim that there is an (absolute) truth about some matter is entirely compatible with the claim that we may often be deeply ignorant about it. Presumably there is a true fact of the matter as to whether the number of blades of grass in the UK was either odd or even at the moment of New Year in 1972. But we will never know which it is. Indeed, it is precisely the areas in which it is appropriate to speak of ignorance that it is least plausible to claim that truth is relative to us or our perspective: being ignorant of a truth involves the capacity to be wrong about it, which means that there is some fact about it independently of what one thinks.

This point matters for Caputo’s broader argument. It’s a central theme of the book that the variety of beliefs and opinions—the awareness of which, Caputo is keen to stress, is characteristic of modernity—is in some way a threat or challenge to truth. But Caputo does not distinguish this from the competing—and to my mind more plausible—view that awareness of this variety is really a threat not to truth but to knowledge.

Caputo may protest that some of what I have said confines us to the truth of “propositions” or “assertions,” a subject-matter which he repeatedly says is too narrow for a theory of truth. By contrast, Caputo yearns for a return to a view of truth as “the sun, an all-encompassing horizon in which we live, something that inspires love and desire”—the kind of thing that might even be equated with God. I find some of these metaphors hard to understand. But I want to resist Caputo’s suggestion that a view of truth as a property of propositions precludes thinking of truth as something to love. A dispassionate theory of how to understand what it is for something to be true does not preclude love for truth, any more than a dispassionate theory of why the sun sets does not preclude a love for beautiful sunsets.

Caputo treats religion—and to a lesser degree, art and ethics—as a kind of window onto the subject-matter of truth in general. But it is at least an open question whether a final and full theory of truth will say the same thing about truth in every domain of human inquiry and thought, and Caputo’s choice to begin with religion no doubt plays a large role in determining his general sympathies. On this point I can’t put things better than Simon Blackburn, who, in an essay on the philosopher Richard Rorty, wrote: “You may come to rather different views about truth and objectivity if your favourite example of an inquiry is what time is it? or how do we get to Marble Arch? as opposed to is humanism a myth? or was Nietzsche a fascist?

Blackburn is worth mentioning for another reason. In one way, Caputo fulfills his brief to write an introductory book for the general reader admirably, since his prose is very engaging. But this comes at the price of a reductive approach, both analytically as well as historically in its characterizations, for example, of the Ancient Greeks and of Kant. Blackburn, by contrast, has written a number of excellent philosophy books for those outside the academic world. The most famous is his brilliant introduction to philosophy, Think—but he has also written a book on truth (Truth: A Guide). It is a beautiful, incisive book—one which shows sympathy for a range of startlingly different philosophical views—and preserves the virtues of Caputo’s book, without its vices.

One of the joys of philosophy is the way it is rooted in ordinary judgments, but illuminates them by clarifying and systematising them in order to reveal their ultimate basis. In this way we leave philosophical reflection knowing more—and knowing more about ourselves—than we did before we began. Truth, by contrast, contents itself with largely taking as given various equivocations and conflations that characterise ordinary thought about its subject, without truly seeking to get to the bottom of them.