Philosophy and Ideology. Z. A. Jordan 1963

Chapter 21. ABSOLUTE AND RELATIVE TRUTH AND THE RELATIVTITY OF KNOWLEDGE

‘Absolute truth’ and ‘relative truth’ are ambiguous expressions. Furthermore, their meanings vary in different theories of truth. For the present purpose it is not necessary to distinguish all their meanings. Only those based on the correspondence conception of truth will be considered.

Adherence to this conception of truth does not commit its supporters either to the view that for every p, if ‘p’ is true, ‘p’ is absolutely true, or to its opposite, that for every p or for some p, if ‘p’ is true, ‘p’ is relatively true. Speaking freely and loosely, the first view asserts that if ‘p’ is once true it is always true, that is, that ‘true’ is a time-independent predicate. The second rejects this belief and contends that if ‘p’ is once or in some circumstances true, this does not imply that it is true at some other time or in some other circumstances, that is, that ‘true’ is a time-dependent predicate. William James contrasted them in Pragmatism as the belief in the ‘immutability’ and the ‘mutability’ of truths.

The question whether truths are or are not ‘mutable’ greatly preoccupied Polish thinkers. Twardowski study On the So-Called Relative Truths, published in 1900, has exercised a powerful influence and his views have been widely shared ever since[856].

To establish the case that ‘p’ is relatively true it must be shown that p satisfies two conditions: with changing circumstances p changes solely in respect of its truth-value and p has different truth-values at different times. Twardowski’s main argument against the relativity of truth was based on the observation that the first condition is never fulfilled and that all the sentences which might appear to be relatively true are in fact ambiguous or incomplete sentences. It is said, for instance, that the sentence ‘Edward VII is King of England’ was a true sentence in 1911 and is untrue to-day. But the sentence ‘Edward VII is King of England’ is an elliptic and ambiguous sentence. The complete sentence ‘Edward vii is King of England in 1911’ is no longer equivocal and it is true irrespective of whether it is uttered in 1911 or to-day or at any time in the future. Generally, it can be shown that all the instances of ‘mutable’ truths include, either implicitly or explicitly, egocentric particulars[857]. An essential feature of egocentric particulars is their reference to the speaker, to his experiences and his space-time position. Sentences which contain egocentric words are often equiform but not equipollent. They have a different meaning and, accordingly, might be true in some circumstances and untrue in others. This does not imperil the view that for every p, if ‘p’ is true, ‘p’ is absolutely true. For once the context in which p is stated is fully specified and, thus, the various meanings of the seemingly identical expressions are distinguished, we obtain two or more statements, no longer equiform, each of which, if true, is absolutely true[858].

There is little doubt that egocentric particulars play an important part in all arguments, based on the correspondence theory, for the relativity of truth. There is no evidence that these arguments could be produced if no such particulars were available in ordinary language. The supporters of ‘absolute truths’ get, therefore, some additional assistance from Bertrand Russell’s investigations in which he found that in principle no egocentric particulars are needed in any part of the description of the world, and their use is solely a matter of convenience[859].

The formulation of the semantical concept of truth made it possible to differentiate more precisely the two understandings of truth. In the semantical definition of a true statement, ‘true’ is a complete predicate and is synonymous with ‘absolutely true. If ‘true’ means ‘relatively true’, this is not the case, that is, ‘relatively true’ is an incomplete predicate[860]. This is the most important difference between using ‘true’ in the relative and the absolute sense.

The relativity of truth should not be confused with the relativity of knowledge. The latter is a methodological and epistemological doctrine of modem origin, initiated by Saint-Simon and closely associated with the rise of positivism. The relative modernity of this doctrine conceals no mystery. ‘The search for certainty’, observed Reichenbach, ‘had to burn itself out in the philosophical systems of the past before we were able to envisage a conception of knowledge which does away with all claims to eternal truth’ [861]. On the other hand, epistemological absolutism, which identifies truth with perfect knowledge, final and eternal, is a doctrine of long antiquity. Parmenides and Plato conceived truth in this manner and they have been followed by many thinkers up to the present time.

According to epistemological absolutism it is possible to discover some ultimate truth or truths about the Universe. These truths make it possible to establish the mathesis universalis, to encompass and to order all knowledge in a systematic, connected and demonstrative manner. Its foundations are some perfectly certain assumptions, discovered by philosophers, from which all other knowledge, imperfect and doubtful as long as it stands by itself, can be derived deductively in a manner closely modelled on Euclid Elements. The certainty of the assumptions is inherited by the inferred theorems, and, thus, perfect knowledge is fully achieved. In this conception which rather sets an ideal than formulates a method of investigation, knowledge is conceived as a system of incorrigible truths, for what is not an incorrigible truth is not knowledge at all, but a mere belief or opinion.

The doctrine of the relativity of knowledge rests upon a quite different conception. It starts from the assumption that knowledge of invariable truth in the traditional sense is unobtainable. The historical development of science makes it plain that the totality of scientific knowledge at any given time is never exhaustive and perfect. Human knowledge is a gradually expanding whole, never final and complete either in its totality or in any of its parts. Every proposition of an empirical science is corrigible, that is, only probable, every hypothesis is reversible, and, as a matter of fact, every one of them becomes sooner or later redundant, to be replaced by another. Since the truth of any empirical proposition can never be established with absolute certainty, to say that human knowledge can achieve invariable truth involves a contradiction in terms. These assumptions are codified in the methodological principle underlying scientific procedure which Felix Kaufmann called the ‘principle of permanent control’. It stipulates that the ‘system of rules of an empirical science must be so constructed that the elimination of any accepted proposition is rendered possible” [862].

It should be observed that the ideal of perfect knowledge does not necessarily imply belief in the absolute character of truth, nor is implied by the latter belief As a matter of fact, the ideal of perfect knowledge has been more often combined with the coherence theory of truth than with the correspondence theory and the coherence theory involves the relativism of truth. This applies, for instance, to the Hegelian tradition and to the British idealists, above all to Bradley. On the other hand, the belief that every true proposition is an absolutely true proposition has been upheld by sober minds, by thinkers disinclined to indulge in speculative flights, represented by G. E. Moore in England or Twardowski in Poland. They combined this belief with that in the relativity of knowledge. Contrary to what is sometimes said, the two beliefs can both be true without contradicting each other. It is one thing to know that every true proposition is absolutely true and a different one to know whether a given proposition is true or not. Only if the former logically implied the latter, the existence of corrigible statements and the fact of ‘true’ being a complete predicate could not be consistently maintained. If we cannot decide with certainty whether a given proposition is true or false, and empirical propositions are of this sort, this is no reason for us to reject the belief in the absolute character of truth. For true beliefs depend upon the mind for their existence, but their truth is not mind-dependent.

There is a closer connection between the relativity of knowledge and the relativity of truth, though the connection is not of a logical nature and concerns other forms of the relativity of truth than that previously considered. For while some philosophers argued that the time-independent character of truth entails the view that nothing changes, others recognising that change does occur concluded that truth, at least in most cases, is not a time-independent property of true statements. This was one of the reasons why William James urged the view that truths are ‘mutable’ and that the opposite view is a result of the rationalistic prejudice which conceived ‘reality complete and ready-made from all eternity.’ [863] More recently, epistemological relativism was used in support of the view that the concept of absolute truth is dispensable or even not a genuine scientific concept. In the ‘thirties a group of neo-positivists with Otto Neurath at their head suggested that the terms ‘true’ and ‘false’ should be avoided, since they cannot be predicated of any scientific statement. If we can never ?nally decide whether a statement of science is true in the absolute time-independent meaning of this term, the term ‘true’ becomes otiose and may be dispensed with. This was, as Schlick described it, a rather dogmatic formulation of positivistic principles and, though initially dominant, was later abandoned[864].

Engels was greatly impressed by the doctrine of the relativity of knowledge and strongly supported it in Anti-Dring. The anti-metaphysical orientation of epistemological relativism which became pronounced in Mach’s philosophy of science, was not yet apparent in Engels’ time. Simultaneously, Engels adhered to the concept of absolute truth. Engels felt, however, that while most or even all absolutely true propositions are either trivial or unimportant from the viewpoint of the progress of knowledge, most of the important ones, in the sense just indicated, are not absolutely true. Engels’ emphatic epistemological relativism inspired some of his followers with the idea similar to that of the neopositivists of the ‘thirties, that is, with the idea of rejecting the concept of absolute truth altogether.

Lenin combated this suggestion with his customary vigour and insisted, with much common sense, that this would be a serious error. Only insane people, Lenin argued, can doubt that some statements are absolutely true[865]. He made it quite clear, however, that what he wished to defend was the existence of absolutely true statements of a very particular kind. If the relativity of knowledge does not logically imply the denial of objective truth, it does not imply, either, that we cannot obtain true knowledge about the world. Lenin leaned more heavily upon Hegel than Engels did and upheld what Engels criticised as an inconsistency and weakness in the Hegelian philosophy. Engels considered that it was a contradiction on Hegel’s part to ‘dissolve all dogmatism’ by the repudiation of the finality to be ascribed to any actually reached stage of knowledge and to declare Hegel’s own system to be final and the absolute truth. For Lenin this was not necessarily an inconsistency, for human thought is capable of grasping ‘absolute truth..... compounded of a sum-total of relative truths’. Each step in the development of science, Lenin argued, adds something to the sum of which absolute truth is made. up and brings us closer to the Truth, that is, to the truth of materialism[866].

The relativity of knowledge, which is fully acknowledged in Marxism-Leninism, is inspired rather by the Hegelian dialectic, including the historically determined limits of knowledge, than by the logical and methodological examination of the principles of scientific procedure. In an empirical science we have to distinguish between the concept of ‘true statement’ and of ‘confirmed statement’. If ‘p’ is true, it is absolutely true, and, consequently, it is inadvisable and confusing to use ‘true synonymously with ‘confirmed’. For the concept of confirmed statement is time-dependent. To say, ‘p is confirmed to such and such a degree by observation is to make an incomplete statement, which requires a further specification ‘at such and such a time’. Moreover, the concept of confirmation presupposes the definition of the concept of truth; the rules of the confirmation procedure make use of this definition. Neither ‘true’ nor ‘confirmed’ are dispensable and it is not possible to define the one in terms of the other. The relativity of knowledge rests on the fact that empirical knowledge consists of confirmed statements. On the other hand, we would not be able to establish any con?rmed statement if we did not know in what the truth of a statement consists[867].

The relativity of knowledge in Marxism-Leninism is not supported by logical and methodological considerations of this sort. Its adherents argue sometimes very much like William James that if everything constantly changes thought must change too. On other occasions they inveigh, in the spirit of the idealist tradition from Hegel to Bradley, against the inherent artificiality of abstract thought. Bergson’s exposure of the rationalistic illusions in the last chapter of Évolution Créatrice, which consists in supposing that we can think ‘the unstable by means of the stable, the moving by means of the immobile” [868], is in essential agreement with the basic ideas of the Marxist-Leninist theory of knowledge. The negative part of Bergson’s criticism could be accepted by every Marxist-Leninist with a clear conscience. He is convinced that only a ‘moving thought’can be an adequate reflection of motion – this idea underlies the setting of ‘dialectical thinking’ against the ‘metaphysical mode of thought’ – and that if everything changes and moves, thoughts and truths must be ‘mutable’ too and relative in a certain sense. Thinking cannot be in accord with reality if it is not a process of the developing thought catching up with the developing reality[869].

To sum up the preceding discussion, it can be concluded that the materialist theory of truth rejects the relativity of truth, either in its radical or moderate form, that is, the view that either every or some true statements are relatively true. It recognises that the criticism of this doctrine, produced by non-Marxist thinkers, is valid although for some reasons it is not satisfactory[870]. It implicitly endorses the opinion that ‘true’ is a complete predicate, although it prefers a metaphoric description of this fact over the semantical definition of the concept of truth. The relativity of knowledge is an integral part of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine. But the acceptance of the relativity of knowledge in the materialist theory of truth has little, if anything, to do with the modern development in the methodology of empirical science[871]. It reveals some deep-rooted connections with the Hegelian tradition and strange similarities with anti-empirical and irrational philosophical trends, which it combats for other reasons. Over and above the idea that truth is something predicable of beliefs and sentences, there emerges the ancient conviction of the existence of one single Truth, no more a property of particular and fragmentary judgments but something inherent in and revealed by a whole coherent system of beliefs, however imperfect this system might be at a given moment. The metaphysical background and inspiration of the Marxist-Leninist view on Truth, absolute truths, and the relativity of knowledge comes out most clearly in the doctrine of partiality and concreteness of truths, which must now be considered.