The Truth-Value of Truth

The Truth-Value of Truth (William James and the unveiled world)

            Truth lives, in fact, for the most part on a credit system. Out thoughts and beliefs ‘pass’, so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them. But this all points to direct face-to-face verifications somewhere, without which the fabric of truth collapses like a financial system with no cash-basis whatsoever. You accept my verification of one thing, I yours of another. We trade on each other’s truth. (James 1907:207-8).

            Nietzsche was not above cheap shots. Kant and cant, the old woman as the old truth about women and whips, and a Nazi favorite, that infamous comment about Polish Jews. But it was his critique of Schleiermacher’s perception of the world, quite literally, as the ‘veil maker’, that interests us just here. For James, perhaps unknowingly, is riffing Nietzsche’s legendary 1872 essay, ‘On Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense’, wherein the author is at his youthful best, when James tells us, in his equally famous 1906 public lecture series entitled ‘Pragmatism’, that truth is, essentially, whatever currency that is in use at a particular juncture in human history. And if currency is to be considered legal tender, truth could be said to have accrued to it a ‘moral tender’, which most of us respect. There are sanctioned manners by which one can question the truth, of course, scientific experiment being the most clinical and formal of these, and also, in general, the least threatening. There are ways to question the currency of truth that are in the public interest, as do the whistleblowers calling out corporation or government, church or school. Here, certain elite interests are threatened, but for the most of us, the world looks a little clearer afterwards. We feel we have more of a handle on the truth of things, and there is a little more of that kind of money in our pockets.

            Indeed, James regularly uses the phrase ‘the cash value of truth’ in speaking of its practical effects in the world. “Grant an idea or belief to be true…what concrete difference will its being true make in any one’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?” (Ibid:200). James immediately responds to his own pragmatic interrogation of truth-value, by stating that ideas which we can assimilate, corroborate and verify are true, and those we cannot are not. This does nothing to upshift truth into a non-moral sphere, that is, an ahistorical space in which the truth rests and for all time. Instead, truth is known as and through its practical effects, nothing more but as well nothing less. He adds that ‘truth happens to an idea and it becomes true, made true by events’ (Ibid:201, emphasis the text’s). The historical happenstance of truth was one of Nietzsche’s early insights, and the pedigree of this idea can be traced back to the bare beginnings of modernity in Vico, in 1725. For James, the truth-value of truth is basically the same as its use-value. In a word, the truth of truth lies in its utility.

            Nietzsche’s actual title of another early and famous essay, much mistranslated, is ‘On the Use and Disadvantage for Life of History’. The contrast in the title is key. History too, like truth, must mean something to us not only in the present, but it also must present something useful for us. This may but mean, on the shady and impoverished of the street, a political convenience. This spin on truth, attempting to become a new truth but underhandedly, is useful for this or that political desire or institutional gambit. Or it may be a more uplifting sensibility, like the idea that art represences both its original context and the transcendental means by which we today can experience another age. This kind of truth is useful as well, giving us the sense that our ancestors lived as we do, not in their customs or druthers, but rather in their essence, mortal and unknowing of destiny. But at both ends of the use-value spectrum, we encounter what James refers to ‘purely mental ideas’, which are, in addition to those ideas that can be verified by quite specific results in the world, useful in a more abstract sense and include amongst them their own descriptors, such as ‘eternal character’ (Ibid:209-10). But for James, such ‘principles’ are only true insofar as they provide useful leading connections between practicalities. They are the invisible threads from which the tapestry of daily life is woven. Such principles ‘fit’, they have engendered themselves to the ‘whole body of other truths in our possession’, and so on. They are alike to what would later be called Gestalts, the wholes, which take on a different quality than a mere sum of the quantitative parts.

            Half anticipating De Saussure by a decade, James states that names are arbitrary, but he immediately adds that “…once understood they must be kept to.” (Ibid:214). This is so due to their entire imbrication with the context at hand. In Saussure, this mutual use, even usury, is analyzed in detail for the first time. The syntagmatic chain of signifiers, along which meanings differ and are deferred, Derrida’s proverbial ‘difference’, speaks to us of language in use, or ‘la parole’; speech or speaking. But those paradigmatic tell us that there is also a language at stake which is being used; ‘la langue’, or one’s ‘natural’ language. Jamesian truth bears a close resemblance to Saussurean language. Truth is spoken into being through its use and therefore ‘becomes true’. But there is also the entire stock of historical and cultural truths that lie at its back, as it were, ready to be of service to us when necessary. And the truth we have just used could not have been used without this wider landscape from which we had apparently excerpted it. James encapsulates the relationship between truth, history, and language neatly: “True as the present is, the past was also.” (Ibid:215, emphasis the text’s).

            Yet none of this is, to use James’ term, ‘capricious’. We must find, and thence use, truths that will work, he tells us. And part of the working consciousness, present overmuch to any innovator or revolutionary alike, is how, and by how much, does any new truth agree with all of the old ones. Nietzsche’s too-obvious metaphor of woman as truth plays this problem out, and not without resentment. For James, ‘workable’ means both ‘deranging common sense and previous truth as little as possible, and leading to some sensible terminus that can be precisely verified’. (Ibid:216). Durkheim, writing and working in the same generation, was not anywhere near as concerned about the first aspect of useful truth, blithely declaring in 1897 that ‘any time science presents a new truth, it is bound to offend common sense’, and indeed this is an arbiter of its truth-value. James does agree, after a fashion, but not without adding that ‘taste’ is also a function of even scientific truths (Ibid:217). By such devices is truth ‘made’, and through such does it ‘pay’. Once again, the comparison with wealth is front and center, perhaps appealing to the well-heeled Bostonians in his audience. Wealth is merely a name for ‘concrete processes’, and does not refer to a phantasmagorical ‘natural excellence’ (Ibid:221). Just so, truth has nothing directly of nature in it, but only gains its marque by virtue of allowing us to thread nature’s labyrinth and follow our own exiguous threads back out.

            Even so, it is clear that James places a stock in truth that Nietzsche, for one, is shy of doing. More than mere ‘metaphor and metonym’, for James, truth is something that does useful work in the world. It is replicable, verifiable, and assimilable to what has been known to work over time. It has the air of common sense while being in principle opposed to it. In this, truth takes on a kind of user-friendliness which belies its radical prospectus. It directs our view away from the personal and parochial and towards the structural and historical. Its working mechanism is derived from human experience as Humean knowledge, but it also responds to the Kantian question regarding how an experience occurs; pragmatically, experience can be had only when a useful idea is present to consciousness. Though this response begs the question of the first experience, and thus the original truth, it does make useful the enquiry into the nature of experience itself: experience is the conjunction of a new truth assimilating to what has been known as the truth.

            Suppose we take up the critic’s jaded hat and state with derision, Arvo Paart killed serious music, Mariah Carey killed pop, Garth Brooks country, and Wynton Marsalis jazz. How useful would be such a series of claims? But if we instead suggested that each of these musical genres was itself dead before these figures came along, and indeed, speaking of ‘taste’, in addition said that only because the genres had exhausted themselves were such mediocre talents able to fill these respective aesthetic vacuums, we would be closer to the pragmatic vision of the ‘how’ of truth, if only because we had shifted the frame from specific individuals, who come and go, to a more discursive, or paradigmatic sensibility. One could argue reasonably that while Marsalis and Paart are guilty of nostalgic regression and Brooks and Carey of crass commercialization, it remains the case that there was space for them to enter and thence dominate, either dialing back the clock on innovation or narrowing the use of it. However this may be, the truth of the matter is that in each genre, there was a shift towards either the commercial or the nostalgic, and this kind of observation has indeed a use to it. For James, the truth exists only after the fact, as opposed to what he himself critically views the rationalist to be peddling. In pragmatism, it is action that counts, neither habit nor act. Habit, or even habitus, is that which prevents new ideas from becoming useful in the world, and act, rather than action, presumes a history of acts which have themselves become aggrandized as being within the truth due precisely to their usefulness, mostly as either a doxa or a politics. Luke does not entitle his second book ‘Actions’, as he wishes there to be a resonance of what he witnessed in the reader; Paul suffered, both from the habits and customs of those he sought to convert, and from his own bad conscience about once being a persecutor himself. Given that each of us encounters those who resist our own ideas, including our sense of self, and as well, have ‘baggage’ sundry and divers, it is the testifying to the ‘Act’ that counts as having a truth-value, and not the mere observation of an action.

            Such is the world unveiled. Instead of the hermeneutically fraught ‘prose of the world’, as Foucault describes the premodern perception of nature and history alike, veiled over with assignations and autographs, diabolical and divine in tense tandem, we have a world wherein things either work or they do not. If the first, truth is generated, if the second, falsity. This is not to say that what is judged as ‘working’ or ‘workable’ is not shot through with both contrivance and contraption. ‘Perspectivism’, another concept worked through by Nietzsche, following Vico, has of late become the fashionable home of subaltern truths which, by association with a politics of visibility from invisibility, doubles over its assault on accepted truth. In principle, this is always a healthy thing, salutary as it is to the very being-ahead of our shared human character. But James’ disquisition must always be borne in mind; what is stopping any new truth from becoming old, wearing itself out through over-use and customary assumption, and thereby losing its once freshly-minted edges, the everyday pocket tools from which the visionary sword is crafted?

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, ad well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Do You Want to Know a Secret?

Do You Want to Know a Secret? (when the individual ‘trumps’ society).

            At the beginning of his lectures on Pragmatism, William James states, rather coquettishly, that the one thing we are truly interested in with regard to another fellow human is his view of the universe; in a word, her philosophy. The outlook of institutions is, when placed beside this, a trifling matter. This is so because everyone supposedly knows where such edifices stand. Not only does their physical location attest to this position, but also do its policies, its indictments, its edicts, and its collective actions. Similarly, our cultural products and creations. A book may be read, one might say, but not so much a person. And hence the enduring interest in what the other person actually thinks about things, ideally everything. Now this does assume that the other does in fact think at all, or at least a little, from time to time. And not only does she exercise her human intellect which is our shared and universal birthright, but that they do so specifically regarding matters cosmic and profound. If it is up to the philosopher to question after the meaning of life in general, surely it is yet up to each of us to examine one’s own life for any possible or potential purpose.

            But in 1907, when James first published these legendary lectures, there was no internet, a space in which private and public are blurred to the point of being indistinguishable, there were not technologies that could, in a matter of a scant few hours, obliterate all life on earth, and there was not in existence a pressing populist sense that only the few both knew the truth, were hiding it from the rest of us, and more than either of these, were conspiring to use it for nefarious ends. Around the same time as ‘Pragmatism’, however, the very first contemporary contempt of the intellect and of that wider truth would appear in print, the so-called ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, a Czarist political tract, the contents of which were entirely fraudulent, meant to stir up Anti-Semitism in Russia, and so James’ popular lecture series at once became all the more relevant to any thinking person.

            Its relevance has not waned over the decades. When it was discovered that former president Trump had been storing a multitude of classified documents at his resort, there was an atmosphere of conspiracy in the rarified air of high office. The deeper question is of course, ‘why do such documents even exist in a democracy?’ but one searches in vain for anyone asking after this and speaking of its implications. Instead, we have a political falderal that seeks to hobble a rival’s bid of re-election, nothing more. If many fans see Trump as the fullest expression of their own angst and discontent regarding politics in particular but also authority in general, in projecting in this manner, they have perhaps unwittingly given an individual a larger-than-life persona; in another word, they have made the one into the many.

            Storing what are already institutional secrets secretly, the one has presumed to speak for the many, to safeguard their interests, to vouchsafe their collective trust. But at the same time, we may duly and reasonably inquire, are any of the contents of these myriad if secular missals truly so breathtakingly revelatory that it really matters where they are stored, and by extension, who among us happens to see them? I, for one, seriously doubt both counts. Simmel, writing at the same time as James, famously characterizes the secret as a manner in which to seal a bond between two people. It is a different thing, at least in practice, to use secrets to make intimate the trust between institutions and persons. More realistically, such a device enforces a bond that we might otherwise not ourselves have chosen. I find it almost laughably unlikely that Trump himself actually sat around and read any of these documents, filling to the brim banker’s boxes piled high in bathrooms and home theatres and the like. Aside from sheer boredom, many of these kinds of texts would be written in a highly technical manner, for ‘State secrets’ emanate from a wide variety of specialized bureaus, each with their own attendant bureaucracies in place. One would quickly tire of skimming through them, and their oh-so-important contents, presumably saving some and damning others, at least in the eyes of unelected public servants, would begin to go in one proverbial ear and out the other.

            If one protests at this juncture that all of this is beside the point, I would agree, but only if the point in question centers around the very idea of the secret in the first place. In all serious social contexts secrecy is inadmissible. It has no place in the marriage conversation, it sabotages friendship and love alike, it undermines the social contract, it sullies one’s spiritual beliefs and within such promotes the illusion of solipsism. We are quite aware that the secret should be left to childhood intrigues, where bonds which may be sealed will nonetheless be temporary and contain nothing so inflammatory that empires shall fall and Man alike. Why else would we imagine a Godhead from which one can keep no secrets at all?

            Since our ideal relationship, the one sensed as most noble and honorable the both, is one of perfect transparency – the origin of this idea in Western mythological narrative may be found in the character of the language by which the Gods themselves communicated to one another; Hermes, their messenger, spoke the Logos in such a way that no interpretation was ever required, something we humans manifestly cannot achieve – why then deliberately further depart from this condition in our merely human affairs? Trump is neither hermetic nor a hermeneut. He possesses no arcane alchemy nor does he engage in exegesis. Neither sorcerer nor philosopher, the former president is thus condemned to be a warehouse manager, not even an archivist. Beyond any of this, surely in our digital age all of these secret contents can be found any number of other places, in virtual form. Even the idea of carrying and hoarding actual paper documents seems outlandishly backdated. If there is any scandal to Trump’s actions, it is the sense that he is implying that as an individual, he may himself take on the public trust and make it private.

            But our modern State, as an institution born of, and borne on, that selfsame public trust, has, in its human minions, already committed to doing just that. Trump is a mere extension of the logic of governance and the provenience of government. And the philosophy underlying both is a narrow expression of Pragmatism. Neither idealist nor empiricist – the very use of secrecy departs from our ‘ideal’ social relations, as we have just seen, as well as obscuring a clear or ‘empirical’ view of the facts at hand, if any – a politicized pragmatism bends its sails to what the few imagine the many are feeling. If Pragmatism itself is taken to mean what C.S. Pierce, who introduced the term in 1878, meant by it; that, in a word, only our conduct matters; that the outcomes, the facts, the realities of our ideas count and the origins of such figure much less so, then we can only indict ourselves for being far too generous in our trust of the State itself.

            For the present reality we, in our shared but flawed apprenticeship of sorcery and the relative absence of any interpretive analysis of which that would elevate us beyond being mere inept pupils, have conjured, is one of faux secrets embedded in a true culture of secrecy. The latter constitutes a far more serious threat to general human freedom as well as to our imaginations – distracted and decoyed as they can be by amorphous conspiracy ‘theories’ – and to our intellects than ever does the former. Hitler was elected, Trump was elected, Putin was elected, and so on. If you want to know the secret of our political discontents, look no further than our juvenile tendency to fetishize possession and thus our desire to be the one who possesses. Trump boasted of having secrets, not keeping them. For him, and for ourselves, the secret is simply another commodity, replete with the marque of mysterious status.

            Speaking of alchemical conspiracies, the most interesting thing about the supposed ‘interviews’ of extraterrestrials to be found on the internet is their classification as secrets. There is one recorded as ‘Department of Naval Intelligence 47’; that is, a full forty-seven levels above ‘top’ secret’! We may take this more as a mark of the childhood game of secrecy, of cliques, and of the sealing of bonds amongst juvenile bands of brothers and sisters both. To any mature mind, such things are foolish at best. Pragmatically, however, they create both a sense of expectation and alienation in the outsider, a sense of propriety and entitlement amongst insiders. If the apparent content of such top of the tops secrets wasn’t itself so vacuous and irrelevant, there would be yet more serious social problems afoot. Even so, the decoy effect of such actions of our latter-day ‘Elders of Zion’ is such that it ironically, but perhaps quite purposively, makes the most glaring inequities and indeed iniquities of our contemporary social relations both at home and abroad less ideal and empirical at the same time. That which should never be secret is made more difficult to know due to the fetish of secrecy. Insofar as any of us participate in this pragmatically defined outcome, we should all be, and quite publicly so, behind bars.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over 55 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over twenty years.