Showing posts with label coherent truth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label coherent truth. Show all posts

Tuesday 16 October 2018

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty." What's Not to Understand?

Writers and Company

Listening to Anne Carson and Eleanor Wachtel on Writers & Company discussing Keats's famous aphorism, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," I was taken aback to hear both women reveal how little they appreciated what it might mean.

Wachtel: And you quote a passage from Keats before each tango or section, and it was Keats of course who wrote famously, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” How does beauty speak of truth?

Carson: I don’t think it does. I think that’s all a big mistake, but there’s so much power in believing it, and so many of the decisions of life, especially early life—with the adolescent emotions—identify those two, and think that the person who’s beautiful is also true and the feelings that come from beauty lead you to truth. I don’t believe it works out usually.

What's not to understand?

Wachtel and Carson are, of course, two of the most well-read, articulate people on the planet.  Nonetheless, this was an expression I typically taught to first-year undergrads in "Introduction to Literature"  and I struggled to understand how Carson/Wachtel's exchange could go so far astray from Keats's meaning.

Opposition to "beauty is truth"

As I re-researched the expression, I came across quite a phalanx of opposition to Keats, including T.S Eliot's claim that the lines were "meaningless" and "a serious blemish on a beautiful poem." (This from the poet who left us wondering what tahell does "Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow" mean?)

What does "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" mean?

So, what does "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" mean? Beneath this aphorism is the unspoken, sub-textual question, "What is truth?" The search for an answer has gone on for as long as Sapiens have had the wherewithal to ask questions and no agreed-upon, final answer has ever been reached. The knee-jerk response to the question is the "correspondence theory." Something is true if it corresponds to reality. The problem is that there is no agreement on what constitutes "reality." We are left with the coherence theory. Something is true because it is coherent with what we already know. (For further elaboration see Does Knowledge Require Truth?) Descriptions of this theory tend to reduce it to statements which are coherent in relation to other statements; however, I adhere to an expanded notion of coherence which subsumes correspondence. For example: "John loves Mary." This statement is true if it is coherent with other statements (like John saying so) but also if it is coherent with how John behaves (he sacrifices himself for Mary's benefit, etc).

The Truth about truth

What is coherent today isn't necessarily coherent tomorrow. Truth, like beauty, is temporal, temporary, even ephemeral. We only judge as true (or false) those things that have meaning. We judge as true whatever fits with what we know. Our knowledge of truth is always limited and fragile. When we see something that has a meaning, and that meaning connects coherently with other meanings, we see it as true. We will also see it as beautiful. In this moment, beauty and truth are one, just as Keats concluded.

"Ode on a Grecian Urn"

The line is a conclusion in Keat's poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn. (Once upon a time, every junior high-school student was expected to know this poem.  Hence, the pubescent joke/pun:  Q: "What's a Greek urn?"  A: "About a buck, fifty an hour.")  

If you read the poem, about the urn's telling of an ancient story of love, faith, and art, against the idea of coherent truth, you will discover the logic of Keats's claim that, given our limitations, beauty is a good--maybe even the best--way to judge truth.


If you've read this far and are still not getting it.  Here's the argument in the form of a straightforward syllogism.  Bearing in mind that we are talking about things that have meaning:

1. We judge as beautiful those things that fit together.

2. We judge as true those things that fit together.

3. What is beautiful is true, and vice versa.


Among the opponents of "beauty is truth" we must now include the theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder.  See, for example, "Physics Isn't Pretty."

Saturday 5 November 2016

Does Knowledge Require Truth?

The absolute truth

I spent a career telling university students that if they encountered someone who claimed to know “The Truth,” they should run in the opposite direction because what would follow was bound to be religious dogma or a schizophrenic rant based on an encounter with God—the kind of truth that could not be checked or verified or even questioned. The notion of absolute truth disappeared after Nietzsche announced that “God is dead” in 1882 and Einstein followed up with a “theory of relativity” in 1905.  Marx’s claim that “religion was the opiate of the people” made it plain, at least for we egg heads who occupied the universities, that the Twentieth Century was going to have to get by without “The Truth.”

The tree of knowledge

The problem I faced as a professor was that my job was to be the serpent in the garden, encouraging young people to take a bite out of the apple from the tree of knowledge (no, not that kind of Biblical, carnal knowledge, just ordinary knowing things).  How could I claim to be passing on knowledge without at the same time claiming that what I was teaching was true?  Luckily, for me, I taught literature which had already been described as “The lies which tell the truth.”  This paradox allowed me to evade the issue of “The Truth” and even “the truth,” but the question still dogged me.

The correspondence theory of truth

Every five-year-old knows the difference between the truth and a lie, but once you’ve got a university degree under your belt, chances are you’re not so sure anymore.  The five-year-old knows that if Mom asks “did you eat the cookie?” and you’ve still got crumbs falling from your lips, the truth is “yes, I did” and the lie is everything else . . . Martians, the imaginary friend, the dog and plain old “nope.”  This is known as the correspondence theory of truth, and it is the default theory, which means if you have never thought of this question before this is what you think.  A statement is true if it corresponds to “reality.”  Did I mention that right after Nietzsche killed God, Einstein killed reality? 

Relativity, skepticism and the absence of truth

The reason the correspondence theory of truth doesn’t really work is that for the last hundred years or so, since Einstein said “E=Mc2,” and physicists admitted they really don’t know what “matter” is, we’ve all been pretty uncertain about what is and isn’t reality.   Actually, for as long as human beings have been able to record their thoughts on the question, we have been uncertain about the nature of reality.  The Greek philosopher Pyrrho took his skepticism and disbelief in reality so far that, we are told, his disciples had to go before him moving objects out of his way so that he wouldn’t walk into them. Nowadays our disbelief in reality isn’t so much of the walking-into-walls variety, but our certainty that we are uncertain has become widespread.  The problem is that this uncertainty gets translated into a vague belief that there is no truth or the idea that truth really doesn’t matter anymore.  Truth, in the postmodern era, is the baby that has gotten thrown out with the bathwater.

Coherent truth

However, in the absence of absolute, God’s honest truth, and corresponds-to-reality truth, what is left to us is an imperfect form of truth known as “coherent truth.”  Something is true because it is coherent in relation to something else that is true because it is coherent in relation to something else that is true and so on.  Truth prevails as long as there is no break in the chain, no spot where something believed true upon which other truths depend is proven false, then the chain of truth must be reconstructed.  More frequently, as we follow the trail of coherent truths we arrive at a moment where we have to shrug and admit that we just don’t know.  This moment and gesture (the shrug) are known in rhetoric as “an aporia.” 

Truth only applies when there is meaning

Why would I accept such a seemingly weak form of truth?  In the first place, there is a limited category of things which we can call true or false.  Wandering in the forest, you would never stop before a tree and declare “this tree is true!”  Entering a room you would never find yourself saying “this chair is true.”  We only apply the question of truth to things which have a meaning.  Only when there is a meaning can we say that something is true or false.  It is impossible to say that something is incoherent yet true.  

Heuristic truth

In fact, there is a form of truth, that some people would consider an even weaker form of truth, which I accept.  I accept it as the only kind of truth that is available to us. It is called “heuristic truth.”  “Heuristic” is a tricky, and even dangerous, word.  It derives from the Greek for “find” or “discover.”  Heuristic truth is the kind of truth we discover through trial and error, though dialogue, though logic, through deductive and inductive reasoning, from experience and evidence and examples, because, in the simplest of terms, it makes sense; it is coherent.
If you google the word “heuristic” you will find definitions like “temporary” or “a short cut” to the truth.  Maybe, but human life and the history of our species are temporary relative to the time frame of our universe.  “Short cuts” are all we have time for.

Heuristic pedagogy

Heuristics is also a form of pedagogy.  It is how we learn, not just in the classroom but in life.  We keep adding new information, and adjusting what we believe to be true.  The only test available to us is that we keep trying to put it all together and if the result is coherent, it is the truth so far.

The Acropolis: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato and Aristotle

This is a picture of me standing on the Acropolis,  a few weeks ago, looking down on the theatre where the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were first presented.  Here in Athens, this is where truth was first invented by Socrates and Plato and Aristotle.

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