The Problem of Truth - H. Wildon Carr - ebook

A problem of philosophy is completely different from a problem of science. In science we accept our subject-matter as it is presented in unanalysed experience; in philosophy we examine the first principles and ultimate questions that concern conscious experience itself. The Problem of Truth is a problem of philosophy. It is not a problem of merely historical interest, but a present problem—a living controversy, the issue of which is undecided. Its present interest may be said to centre round the doctrine of pragmatism, which some fifteen years ago began to challenge the generally accepted principles of philosophy. In expounding this problem of truth, my main purpose has been to make clear to the reader the nature of a problem of philosophy and to disclose the secret of its interest. My book presumes no previous study of philosophy nor special knowledge of its problems. The theories that I have shown in conflict on this question are, each of them, held by some of the leaders of philosophy. In presenting them, therefore, I have tried to let the full dialectical force of the argument appear. I have indicated my own view, that the direction in which the solution lies is in the new conception of life and the theory of knowledge given to us in the philosophy of Bergson. If I am right, the solution is not, like pragmatism, a doctrine of the nature of truth, but a theory of knowledge in which the dilemma in regard to truth does not arise. But, as always in philosophy, the solution of one problem is the emergence of another. There is no finality...

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The Problem of Truth

H. Wildon Carr


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Copyright © 2016 by H. Wildon Carr

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THE PROGRESS OF PHYSICAL science leads to the continual discovery of complexity in what is first apprehended as simple. The atom of hydrogen, so long accepted as the ideal limit of simplicity, is now suspected to be not the lowest unit in the scale of elements, and it is no longer conceived, as it used to be, as structureless, but as an individual system, comparable to a solar system, of electrical components preserving an equilibrium probably only temporary. The same tendency to discover complexity in what is first apprehended as simple is evident in the study of philosophy. The more our simple and ordinary notions are submitted to analysis, the more are profound problems brought to consciousness. It is impossible to think that we do not know what such an ordinary, simple notion as that of truth is; yet the attempt to give a definition of its meaning brings quite unexpected difficulties to light, and the widest divergence at the present time between rival principles of philosophical interpretation is in regard to a theory of the nature of truth. It is not a problem that is pressed on us by any felt need, nor is anyone who does not feel its interest called upon to occupy himself with it. We speak our language before we know its grammar, and we reason just as well whether we have learnt the science of logic or not.

This science of Logic, or, as it is sometimes called, of Formal Logic, was, until modern times, regarded as a quite simple account of the principles that govern the exercise of our reasoning faculty, and of the rules founded on those principles by following which truth was attained and false opinion or error avoided. It was called formal because it was supposed to have no relation to the matter of the subject reasoned about, but only to the form which the reasoning must take. A complete account of this formal science, as it was recognised and accepted for many ages, might easily have been set forth within the limits of a small volume such as this. But the development of modern philosophy has wrought an extraordinary change. Anyone now who will set himself the task of mastering all the problems that have been raised round the question of the nature of logical process, will find himself confronted with a vast library of special treatises, and involved in discussions that embrace the whole of philosophy. The special problem of truth that it is the object of this little volume to explain is a quite modern question. It has been raised within the present generation of philosophical writers, and is to-day, perhaps, the chief controversy in which philosophers are engaged. But although it is only in the last few years that controversy has been aroused on this question, the problem is not new—it is indeed as old as philosophy itself. In the fifth century before Christ, and in the generation that immediately preceded Socrates, a famous philosopher, Protagoras (481-411 B.C.) published a book with the title The Truth. He had the misfortune, common at that time, to offend the religious Athenians, for he spoke slightingly of the gods, proposing to “banish their existence or non-existence from writing and speech.” He was convicted of atheism, and his books were publicly burnt, and he himself, then seventy years of age, was either banished or at least was obliged to flee from Athens, and on his way to Sicily he lost his life in a shipwreck. Our knowledge of this book of Protagoras is due to the preservation of its argument by Plato in the dialogue “Theætetus.” Protagoras, we are there told, taught that “man is the measure of all things—of the existence of things that are, and of the non-existence of things that are not.” “You have read him?” asks Socrates, addressing Theætetus. “Oh yes, again and again,” is Theætetus’ reply. Plato was entirely opposed to the doctrine that Protagoras taught. It seemed to him to bring gods and men and tadpoles to one level as far as truth was concerned; for he drew the deduction that if man is the measure of all things, then to each man his own opinion is right. Plato opposed to it the theory that truth is the vision of a pure objective reality.

This same problem that exercised the ancient world is now again a chief centre of philosophical interest, and the aim of this little book is not to decide that question, but to serve as a guide and introduction to those who desire to know what the question is that divides philosophers to-day into the hostile camps of pragmatism and intellectualism.

The subject is not likely to interest anyone who does not care for the study of the exact definitions and abstract principles that lie at the basis of science and philosophy. There are many who are engaged in the study of the physical and natural sciences, and also many who devote themselves to the social and political sciences, who hold in profound contempt the fine distinctions and intellectual subtleties that seem to them the whole content of logic and metaphysic. The attitude of the scientific mind is not difficult to understand. It has recently been rather graphically expressed by a distinguished and popular exponent of the principles of natural science. “One may regard the utmost possibilities of the results of human knowledge as the contents of a bracket, and place outside the bracket the factor x to represent those unknown and unknowable possibilities which the imagination of man is never wearied of suggesting. This factor x is the plaything of the metaphysician.” This mathematical symbol of the bracket, multiplied by x to represent the unknown and unknowable possibilities beyond it, will serve me to indicate with some exactness the problem with which I am going to deal. The symbol is an expression of the agnostic position. The popular caricature of the metaphysician and his “plaything” we may disregard as a pure fiction. The unknowable x of the agnostic is not the “meta” or “beyond” of physics which the metaphysician vainly seeks to know. The only “beyond” of physics is consciousness or experience itself, and this is the subject-matter of metaphysics. Our present problem is that of the bracket, not that of the factor outside, if there is any such factor, nor yet the particular nature of the contents within. There are, as we shall see, three views that are possible of the nature of the bracket. In one view, it is merely the conception of the extent which knowledge has attained or can attain; it has no intimate relation to the knowledge, but marks externally its limit. This is the view of the realist. In another view, the whole of knowledge is intimately related to its particular parts; the things we know are not a mere collection or aggregate of independent facts that we have discovered; the bracket which contains our knowledge gives form to it, and relates organically the dependent parts to the whole in one comprehensive individual system. This is the view of the idealist. There is yet another view: human knowledge is relative to human activity and its needs; the bracket is the ever-changing limit of that activity—within it is all that is relevant to human purpose and personality without it is all that is irrelevant. This is the view of the pragmatist.

It is not only the scientific mind, but also the ethical and religious mind, that is likely to be at least impatient, if not contemptuous, of this inquiry. The question What is truth? will probably bring to everyone’s mind the words uttered by a Roman Procurator at the supreme moment of a great world-tragedy. Pilate’s question is usually interpreted as the cynical jest of a judge indifferent to the significance of the great cause he was trying—the expression of the belief that there is no revelation of spiritual truth of the highest importance for our human nature, or at least that there is no infallible test by which it can be known. It is not this problem of truth that we are now to discuss.

There are, on the other hand, many minds that can never rest satisfied while they have accepted only, and not examined, the assumptions of science and the values of social and political and religious ideals. Their quest of first principles may appear to more practical natures a harmless amusement or a useless waste of intellectual energy; but they are responding to a deep need of our human nature, a need that, it may be, is in its very nature insatiable—the need of intellectual satisfaction. It is the nature of this intellectual satisfaction itself that is our problem of truth.

There are therefore two attitudes towards the problem of truth and reality—that of the mind which brings a practical test to every question, and that of the mind restless to gain by insight or by speculation a clue to the mystery that enshrouds the meaning of existence. The first attitude seems peculiarly to characterise the man of science, who delights to think that the problem of reality is simple and open to the meanest understanding. Between the plain man’s view and that of the man of high attainment in scientific research there is for him only a difference of degree, and science seems almost to require an apology if it does not directly enlarge our command over nature. It would explain life and consciousness as the result of chemical combination of material elements. Philosophy, on the other hand, is the instinctive feeling that the secret of the universe is not open and revealed to the plain man guided by common-sense experience alone, even if to this experience be added the highest attainments of scientific research. Either there is far more in matter than is contained in the three-dimensional space it occupies, or else the universe must owe its development to something beyond matter. The universe must seem a poor thing indeed to a man who can think that physical science does or can lay bare its meaning. It is the intense desire to catch some glimpse of its meaning that leads the philosopher to strive to transcend the actual world by following the speculative bent of the reasoning power that his intellectual nature makes possible.


OUR CONSCIOUS LIFE IS one unceasing change. From the first awakening of consciousness to the actual present, no one moment has been the mere repetition of another, and the moments which as we look back seem to have made up our life are not separable elements of it but our own divisions of a change that has been continuous. And as it has been, so we know it will be until consciousness ceases with death. Consciousness and life are in this respect one and the same, although when we speak of our consciousness we think chiefly of a passive receptivity, and when we speak of our life we think of an activity. Consciousness as the unity of knowing and acting is a becoming. The past is not left behind, it is with us in the form of memory; the future is not a predetermined order which only a natural disability prevents us from knowing, it is yet uncreated; conscious life is the enduring present which grows with the past and makes the future.

This reality of consciousness is our continually changing experience. But there is also another reality with which it seems to be in necessary relation and also in complete contrast—this is the reality of the material or physical universe. The world of physical reality seems to be composed of a matter that cannot change in a space that is absolutely unchangeable. This physical world seems made up of solid things, formed out of matter. Change in physical science is only a rearrangement of matter or an alteration of position in space.

This physical reality is not, as psychical reality is, known to us directly; it is an interpretation of our sense experience. Immediate experience has objects, generally called sense data. These objects are what we actually see in sensations of sight, what we actually hear in sensations of sound, and so on; and they lead us to suppose or infer physical objects—that is, objects that do not depend upon our experience for their existence, but whose existence is the cause of our having the experience. The process by which we infer the nature of the external world from our felt experience is logical. It includes perceiving, conceiving, thinking or reasoning. The object of the logical process, the aim or ideal to which it seeks to attain, is truth. Knowledge of reality is truth.

There are therefore two realities, the reality of our felt experience from which all thinking sets out, and the reality which in thinking we seek to know. The one reality is immediate; it is conscious experience itself. The other reality is that which we infer from the fact of experience, that by which we seek to explain our existence. The one we feel, the other we think. If the difference between immediate knowledge and mediate knowledge or inference lay in the feeling of certainty alone or in the nature of belief, the distinction would not be the difficult one that it is. The theories of idealism and realism show how widely philosophers are divided on the subject. We are quite as certain of some of the things that we can only infer as we are of the things of which we are immediately aware. Wd cannot doubt, for instance, that there are other persons besides ourselves, yet we can have no distinct knowledge of any consciousness but one—our own. Our knowledge that there are other minds is an inference from our observation of the behaviour of some of the things we directly experience, and from the experience of our own consciousness. And even those things which seem in direct relation to us—the things we see, or hear, or touch—are immediately present in only a very small, perhaps an infinitesimal, part of what we know and think of as their full reality; all but this small part is inferred. From a momentary sensation of sight, or sound, or touch we infer reality that far exceeds anything actually given to us by the sensation.

Thinking is questioning experience. When our attention is suddenly attracted by something—a flash of light, or a sound, or a twinge of pain—consciously or unconsciously we say to ourself, What is that? The that—a simple felt experience—contains a meaning, brings a message, and we ask what