First, an introduction: Jeff Wright has asked me to contribute to the blog despite my tendencies to prefer Dante over Bunyan and NPR over AM Radio, John Milbank over John Piper and Radical Orthodoxy over Neo-Calvinism. I also get nervous when people start calling me “liberal” or “conservative” or, even worse, “moderate.” (If I see two places that don’t appeal, I don’t want to live smack dab in the middle of them.) In other words, I write as a sort of consigliere to the CRM without being a made man per se.
I always liked Robert Duvall anyway.
That aside, here goes my little exploration:
Experiments that yield the expected results are comforting for thinkers like me, and I conducted just such an experiment before I started this essay. I ran a Google search for “objective truth” and scanned the first few pages of results, and the diversity of web pages concerned with this page spanned just as wide a range as I’d anticipated. On several pages, evangelical Christians, concerned that their traditions would slip into the realm of “opinion,” insist upon Objective Truth. On others, Marxists, decrying the “agnosticism” of Kantians and Humeans, insist that materialism requires Objective Truth as one of its components. Other sites, atheist by author, rail against their “relativist” co-atheists because they’ve given up Objective Truth and “tolerate” the nonsense beliefs of their Christian and New Age neighbors. On yet others, hedonists celebrate the reign of the individual’s formally unlimited powers of choice once they’ve gotten rid of Objective Truth. Such groups obviously differ in their aims and work that they seek to do with that conceptual tool, but every one of them holds Objective Truth in high esteem. One gets the impression that as Objective Truth goes, so goes all of civilization.
The question that Jeff asked me to answer is where all this Objective Truth business came from, who claimed it first and who jumped on afterwards. My own expertise, philosophically, is Plato and Aristotle, but I will give a brief account of objects, truth, and what Objective Truth meant, means, and whatever else I can think of. Because of the character of the phrase itself, the investigation, before I can even talk about history, has to go through the realm of grammar.
Grammar, Epistemology, and the History of Philosophy
Subjects and objects are first and foremost grammatical categories. If you’ve had small Latin, or even less Greek, you know that the classical languages have anywhere from four to seven grammatical cases for nouns and adjectives. Of those, the nominative usually marks subjects; the accusative, ablative, instrumental, and dative usually mark objects; the genitive can do either but usually neither; and the vocative has its own calling. (Enjoy, folks–the jokes don’t get any better.) Old English retains five of these, Latin six, and Greek five. Modern English really only has three, and they have condensed into objective, subjective, and possessive.
Within a Modern English sentence, subjects and objects have to do with position in a sentence, an important thing to note when one considers what objective and subjective mean philosophically. For instance, in the following sentence:
The pastor’s dog sent the steak to his belly with gusto.
In modern English, the word “dog” is subjective, “pastor’s” possessive, and the rest of the nouns objective. Were one to translate that sentence into Latin or Old English (one could hardly imagine someone wanting to), one would come out with five each, but the question at hand is not dative truth but objective truth, so Modern English will suffice.
The main point of that little adventure into grammar class is that behind epistemological questions of “knowing” stand sentences such as “Socrates knows Athens.” (We philosophy teachers often use Socrates in our example sentences.) Whatever else the subjective is philosophically, it has to do with “Socrates,” the subject of that sentence. And whatever else the objective is philosophically, it has to do with “Athens,” the object of that sentence. Thus whatever else people dispute when they talk about Objective Truth, they want to know whether truth lies with Socrates, the knower, or with Athens, the known.
Starting from Plato and moving on through the Roman Empire, Augustine, and the medievals, people generally wrote of subjects and objects mainly in their treatises on grammar. On occasion Augustine especially would use the structure of Latin grammar to illustrate a point, but I sense in those places that he knew that he was being metaphorical, that “the subject” named not an ontological entity but a position in a sentence or a discussion. Most of the discussions of Objective Truth that I’ve seen that attempt to push the concept back further than the Enlightenment seem to be reading modern obsessions into largely classical systems of thought. Since this is a blog, I welcome historians of thought with views that differ from this; as I said, my own preference philosophically is to read Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and some more Plato.
With the rise of nationalistic wars (that is to say wars between gigantic sovereign kingdoms) and the horrors of early modern warfare (the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648 is the best example), philosophers in Europe began seriously to doubt that the Church, now overpowered by European kings and divided within because of the Reformation, could really speak to the realities of Cardinal Richelieu’s and King Gustavus’s horrendous wars, much less offer rational accounts of what actually happened. Because the wars were paired with unprecedented (because printed) propaganda wars, every pamphleteer could make seemingly authoritative claims about what really happened and who really was to blame.
Thus Renee Descartes, the first modern philosopher in many histories of philosophy, turned philosophy away from the debates between nominalists (who believed that the names we give things are arbitrary but assumed that they were actually things nonetheless) and realists (who believed that things’ names had eternal significance and thus believed by extension that they were actually things) and suggested instead that the things that philosophy before had taken as given were actually subject to radical doubt. All one could know for sure was that one was thinking about whether one knows for sure. Thus his famous dictum, “Cogito ergo sum,” I think, therefore I am. Since existence must be a potential thought for everyone who thinks that thought, universals exist. Since universals exist, they must have a universal source. And since logically the universe needs such a source, there must be a God. Rather than trusting in this or that tradition’s account of divine revelation, Descartes produced a system in which unmodified human cognition could lead one to all important truth and thus did not need the help of Church or prophets. The cost of such universal reason, of course, is a disconnect from all creation outside of one’s mind.
To make this account as brief as it is must do a severe injustice to the Enlightenment, a period whose thought could and should occupy entire academic research careers. Yet I must proceed. In reaction to Descartes’ turn inwards to the ego, Scottish philosophers like Locke and Hume noted the possibility that one’s inner thoughts might themselves yield falsehood and turned instead towards sensory impressions as the only real sources of knowledge. Since everyone with functional sensory organs sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels the same or roughly the same things in the world, that must be the basis for universally valid knowledge. Thus Scottish empiricism shared with Cartesian rationalism the goal of universal knowledge without the need for traditional mediation even though their methods differed greatly.
When Immanuel Kant came onto the scene in what would later become Germany, he noted the commonality between French rationalism and Scottish empiricism and realized that neither had really accounted for the complexities of sensing and thinking. Kant began constructing a critique of their accounts of reason, noting that all knowledge indeed must involve sensory stimuli but that when one apprehended something visually, one automatically sorted it with such logical categories as unity and plurality, causation, and duration. At this stage, Kant seems simply to have combined his modern predecessors. However, if he did that, he would not have been nearly as important to the history of philosophy.
Kant realized that if one had only sense impressions as the raw materials of knowledge, and if every one of those impressions refracted through the human mind before they became stored as knowledge, then human categories must necessarily differ from the objects that the senses apprehend. Thus Kant set in place what became the modern subject/object split: Whatever objects were in themselves, the senses and the mind altered them so that they became transcendental objects, real only in the subject’s mind. Kant did insist, however, that since all human minds operated using the same logical categories, knowledge did transcend the individual and existed as the same in all minds.
Friedrich Hegel took that universality and extended it to ontology. Since human minds are part of the same material universe as are its apprehended objects, there could not be any radical separation between subjective knowledge and objective entity; in fact, by means of historical and philosophical developments, human cognition could reach a point (and, in some of Hegel’s writings, seems actually to have reached a point) at which the knowledge in the mind would be entirely true to the objects of sense perception.
Thus objective truth.
Yet to Come
I wrote that painful excursus into the history of Enlightenment philosophy (too brief to do it justice, too long to endure my prose) in order that I might make these simple assertions: Christians did without Objective Truth for the sixteen hundred years before Descartes, Christians should be wary of the Enlightenment-era baggage attached to Objective Truth, and Christians never really needed Objective Truth. In coming days part 2 of this essay will explore some of the ways that the ancients talked about truth and current theological and philosophical movements that seek to appropriate them. See you then.