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’.