Glossing Heidegger on the Essence of Truth

The Questionworthiness of Our ‘Self-Evident’ Preconceptions Concerning ‘Essence’ and ‘Truth’

When we ask the question ‘what is that?’ we are asking after the essence of the thing. But do we not already know the ‘that’? ‘Indeed, must we not know them in order afterward to ask, and even to give an answer, about what they are?’ Must we not be able to use the word ‘table’ in order to even point to the object, and in so using the word be able to call to mind functional characteristics of the object at the very least? Questions so phrased seem to push us toward an a priori understanding of essence. But what is it about essence itself that makes a thing what it is? The essence is the universal, the common feature, the something in general. And yet, it is precisely in our grasp of the particular that we are able to formulate generalisations. By observing what all particular objects hold in common, we are able to extrapolate and pronounce the class of objects as universals. ‘Thus too,’ Heidegger says, ‘in the case of our question “what is truth?”’

So we unpack our question ‘what is truth’ by asking ‘what is the essence of truth?’ We are already familiar with particular truths – from the mathematical to the observational – but what is the essence of these particular truths? They contain ‘something true’. And wherein is that truth contained? It is in the propositions themselves, such as ‘2+2=4’ or ‘it is cold outside’. Thus, truth consists in the content of propositions corresponding with the facts about which they are saying something. We can verify that 2+2 does equal 4 through a simple calculation, and that it is cold outside by opening a window. And we can generalise these particulars through the maxim: being-true consists in correspondence. ‘So truth is correspondence, grounding in correctness, between proposition and thing’.

This is a quite peculiar situation. For not only do we know particular truths, but it would seem that the question we asked previously on the essence of truth is also answered! Not only do we know the essence of truth, we must necessarily know it for how could we otherwise name truths? ‘We could not otherwise bring forward what is stated and claim it as truth’. Not only do we know the essence of truth (correspondence), we also know the meaning of essence itself (universal) and in what essence consists (essence-hood). So why do we still inquire into the essence of truth? What is intelligible is what is understood by us, through our ability to measure, survey and comprehend a thing’s basic structure. What is intelligible is thus self-evident. But is the maxim ‘truth as correspondence’ really intelligible?

Correspondence is a being-toward the thing; the measure for the proposition consists in the correspondence between it and the thing. So do we not know what and how the thing is about which we speak? ‘Such knowing can only arise from knowledge, and knowledge grasps the true, for false knowledge is no knowledge at all’. What is the true? True is what is known, that which corresponds with the facts. The proposition corresponds with what is known and thus with what is true. So are we then left with the definition: true is correspondence with something corresponding?! And so to leave ourselves open to correspondence ad infinitum? What was the first correspondence? Is it not itself a ‘resemblance’, correspondence under another name? ‘Since everything is discussed in a groundless and formal way, we obtain nothing at all intelligible with the concept of truth as correspondence. What presents itself as self-evident is utterly obscure’.

We began by defining true in terms of propositions. But we also call things and beings true. ‘What does true gold correspond with, if being-true means correspondence?’ True is – in truth! – more ambiguous than we first thought. Are we to conclude that truth means something different in different cases? What then is its proper meaning? Does one usage have priority over another? If neither has priority, must we conclude instead that the common derivation consists in something expressed other than correspondence? ‘Truth as correspondence (characteristic of the proposition) is thus ambiguous, insufficiently delimited in itself or determined in its origins. It is therefore not intelligible, its self-evidence is illusory’.

Before, we defined essence as that which determines particularities in general, ‘in respect of what they are’. Essence is the universal, the what-being. And we applied this definition through the example of things – tables, chairs – quite different indeed from truth. Does it follow that the essence-hood of essence is also quite different in both cases? More pertinently, were we justified in ‘transposing’ our conception of essence-hood in things to truth? Even if we grant that essence-hood is the same in both cases, do we really understand the what-being – the definition of being that is at stake in the case of things and truth? The answer is we don’t understand it, we cannot clarify it, and yet we speak of it in such assured self-evident terms. ‘At bottom, what we are asking about remains unintelligible’.

We have said that we have knowledge of particulars, and that through our knowledge of these particulars as such, we already know the particulars in their essence. Indeed, we held that it is necessary to know the essence of the particulars otherwise we would not be able to recognise particulars at all from within their universal class. But why is it necessary? ‘Is it an accident, simply a fact that we register and submit to? Do we understand the essence-hood of essence if we stand helplessly before this peculiarity? Not at all. Essence and essence-hood are also in this respect unintelligible’.

Even assuming that the essence of truth is as we originally claimed, correspondence between proposition as fact and concerning universals governing particulars, are we really able to take this self-evidence as the ‘foundation for our investigation, as vouching for itself and as something secure and true?’ On what have we secured this understanding, how is self-evidence a guarantee for truth in and of itself? ‘How much has been self-evident and obvious to us humans and yet later turned out to be illusory, the opposite of truth and sound knowledge! Thus our appeal to self-evidence as the guarantee of truth is ungrounded and unintelligible’.

That which is self-evident enters into us without us having to do anything, without us having to actively perceive or take anything on. We find it so. But, and this is the devastating question in the whole piece, who are we then? And why is it that we are the ‘court of appeal’? Is what is self-evident to us really to be taken as the ‘ultimate and primary criterion? We don’t even properly understand what is at stake, let alone why it must be us to arbitrate the debate. ‘Do we know whether in general, within which limits, and with which deficiencies, the self-evident can and may be a standard for human beings? Who tells us who the human being is? Is this not all completely unintelligible?’

And so Heidegger has unraveled what at first seemed unshakeable. I will quote his concluding paragraph in full:

‘We began by defining the essence of truth as correspondence and correctness. This seemed self-evident, and therefore binding. Now, already after a few crude steps, this self-evidence has emerged as thoroughly incomprehensible; the concept of the essence of truth in two respects, the concept of the essence-hood of essence in two respects, the appeal to self-evidence as the measure and guarantee of secure knowledge again in two respects. The seemingly self-evident has become incomprehensible. But this means, in so far as we want to linger over and further examine this incomprehensibility, that is has become worthy of questioning. We must first of all ask how it comes about that we quite naturally move and feel comfortable within such self-evidences. How is it that the apparently self-evident turns out, upon closer examination, to be understood least? Answer: because it is too close to us and because we proceed in this way with everything close. We take care, for example, that this and that is in order, that we come here with pen and exercise book, and that our propositions, if possible, correspond with what we intend and talk about. We know that truth belongs in a certain way to our daily affairs, and we know quite naturally what this means. It lies so close to us that we have no distance from it, and therefore no possibility of having an overall view of it and comprehending it’.

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The Pragmatic Conception of Knowledge

Pragmatic conception of knowledge
Pragmatist deflation of Kantian transcendental analysis shows how the background structures of our lifeworld are embodied in our practices and activities and emphasises the participant perspective Participants presuppose the existence of a single objective world that is the same for everyone. This is how we are able to refer to objects in the world, and so underlies the representational function of language
A strictly causal theory of reference is unacceptable to Habermas This representational function of language nevertheless remains tied to contexts of experience, action and discursive justification
Empirical knowledge of the world and our linguistic knowledge are interdependent Language makes possible our access to reality, but our engaged coping with the world has the power to lead us to revise our linguistic practices
The world-disclosing power of language is “weakly transcendental” Language does not fully determine what we can know of the world or what the world is for us.
Objectivity is crucial for learning. Problem solving is the key activity underlying knowledge acquisition The resistance that we encounter when coping with the world demonstrates that reality

constrains our thinking, which provides the foothold for a robust notion of objectivity

Ontological implications: weak naturalism complements Habermas’s epistemological realism Nature and culture are viewed as continuous with one another, but Habermas refrains from making any sort of reductionist claims about social practices since these are to be analysed from the participant perspective as norm-governed

The question of truth for [Habermas] is a question of objective validity (Wahrheitsgeltung). (xv)

Objective validity has to do with what one ought to believe, so in this sense it is okay to speak of truth as a normative concept.

However, truth, for Habermas, must not be assimilated to (merely) holding true. Ultimately, objective validity is a matter of what is, in fact, true, not of what we take to be true (despite the fact that we can confidently say that some of our truths have replaced earlier beliefs that we now know were false, and the fallibilist insight that, for all we know, our own beliefs may be similarly replaced in the future). Truth, in contrast to normative rightness, in other words, is not an epistemic notion. (xv)

Since writing “Wahrheistheorien” Habermas has generally confined himself to the view that in raising a truth claim, a speaker claims that some state of affairs or facts obtains. (xv)

Rejection of traditional theories of truth:           

Correspondence Theory Coherence Theory
Assumes the possibility of direct access to “brute” or “naked” reality: too strong a notion of truth Fails to capture important aspects of our concept of truth for beliefs/statements can only be corroborated by other beliefs: too weak a notion of truth
Statements are not true because they cohere with other statements that we accept, but because the states of affairs they describe actually obtain, even though they can only be established by means of other statements.
Consensus Theory of Truth
Started life as a “discursive” conception of truth (until mid to late-90s) Truth is ideal warranted assertability (see Putnam etc)
Abandoned epistemic conception of truth in response to criticism of the above We agree that a proposition is true because it is true, not because it can be agreed to by all concerned
The problem: validity of moral judgements and norms has been over-generalised The validity of a moral claim is exhausted by ideal warranted assertability since there are no facts independent of the ideal community of those affected to which normative rightness claims purport to refer
In contrast: talk of truth has specific ontological implications It presupposes reference to a single objective world that exists independently of our descriptions and is the same for everyone (Putnam’s direct theory of reference)

Truth on the level of a theory of meaning

Although truth, as one of the three validity claims, is indispensable to the theory of communicative action, Habermas has argued against taking truth as a semantic primitive. Rather, it is but one dimension of validity. (xvii)

Communication, action, and representation are equiprimordial…In performing a speech act, a speaker represents a state of affairs, establishes an intersubjective relation with a hearer, and expresses her intention. In other words, she raises three validity claims: a claim to truth, to normative rightness, and to sincerity. (xvii)

The insistence on these three mutually irreducible validity claims underpins Habermas’s critique of e.g. Davidson, Quine, Brandom and Putnam, for all are seeking to find a common denominator or to level the conceptual landscape in ways that Habermas rejects. (xvii)

  • Quine and Davidson: turn the communicative actions of others into mere observable behaviour
  • Brandom: assimilates norms of rationality to norms of action
  • Putnam: levels the fact-value distinction by associating value judgements with “ought-implying facts”

Truth on the level of metaphysics and ontology

How should truth be defined? This question is, for pragmatists, ill put:

Indeed, one might argue that a major advantage of Habermas’s present account over that he offered in “Wahrheitstheorien” is that he no longer provides a definition of truth or equates it with anything. (xviii)

A better question: how does truth function?

In everyday coping: the unconditionality of truth is most evident in this practical context since we presuppose certain truths as unconditionally valid.

This unconditional acceptance is the pragmatic corollary of a realist conception of truth. (xviii)

In discourse: we are aware of the “cautionary” uses of the truth predicate and the fallibility of our claims.

Habermas as an epistemological realist:

The objects we can refer to may fail to meet the descriptions we associate with them (fallibilism and theory of reference). (xviii)

In defence of his version of a pragmatic conception of truth, he argues that the connection between truth and justification is epistemically, but not conceptually necessary. In other words, truth may always “outrun” justified belief, even under (approximately) ideal conditions, but he nevertheless insists on the fact that from the agent’s perspective, practical certainties are and must be taken to be true absolutely at the risk of incapacitation. It is only in discourse that such practical convictions come under a fallibility proviso. (xviii)

Habermas as a conceptual nominalist:

1) Commitment to the revisability of language by experience

2) The world does not consist of facts but of things: facts are not things (cf Davidson)

3) Facts are what make sentences true

4) There is both a mind- and language-independent objective world

5) Antireductionist in the sense that he defends the mutual irreducibility and equiprimordiality of subjectivity, objectivity and intersubjectivity